December 14, 2000
The Next Battle
The time has come to ordain openly gay Conservative rabbis.
The next chapter in the struggle for normality in Judaism on the part of gay men and lesbians will take place within Conservative Judaism over admission to rabbinical school.
Conservative Judaism defines the final battlefield for full equality because it forms the vital center of American Judaism, between Orthodoxy's aspirations for Torah authenticity and Reform's commitment to acute contemporaneity. And out of the Jewish Theological Seminary beats the lifeblood of Conservative Judaism through its rabbinical school.
Why the urgency? Because the sides are hardening, the issues passing from chronic to acute day by day. On the left, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and their far-out competition ("New Age Judaism") have ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis for years. On the right, integrationist Orthodoxy finds ample halachic reason to reject the proposition, and self-segregationist Orthodoxy stonewalls the issue altogether. The University of Judaism, through its dean, spelled out the present policy of Conservative Judaism: "One who says he/she refrains from gay or lesbian sex for halachic reasons would be considered for admission to rabbinical school (just as would the Orthodox rabbinical schools)."
That policy -- the theological counterpart to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" -- hardly promises a long-term, stable response to what is, in Judaism, an unprecedented aspiration. It is, quite simply, the demand to serve like anyone else on the part of practicing gay young men and women.
I see three reasons why "don't ask, don't tell" will not provide a long-term solution to the question of homosexuality in the Conservative rabbinate. First, because the centrist position is unstable. Second, because the political realities in this country have shifted, and liberal and left positions have redefined sexual attitudes and policies. Conservative Judaism's position on homosexuality is inconsistent with its political liberalism.
Third, and most important, the human realities have changed. A generation has come along that will not stand still, that insists upon admission, and that will not be denied.
A colleague told me of a student on campus who wears a kipah, keeps kosher, davens every day, and is pursuing a degree in advanced Jewish studies. He is a campus leader, smart, kind and humble. In conversation, the young man mentioned that he would be in Israel in the summer to help plan a gay pride event in Jerusalem.
My colleague said he had never before met such an impressive, spiritual and pious person who spoke openly and unashamedly of being gay. The young man said he wants to become a Conservative rabbi. To be admitted, though, he would have to pledge celibacy. And he was not willing to accept those terms. He insisted on complete equality.
Such a story indicates that Conservative Judaism is turning its back on a self-defined minority of its own faithful who seek acceptance in terms of respect and dignity.
Don't get me wrong. This is not a halachic issue. After all, the vast majority of Conservative Jews are not halachic to begin with. At stake is religious public policy: the formation of a consensus that, in due course, will percolate upward into halachic formulation in the Conservative context (whatever that formulation yields).
I am nearly 70, so I well remember, three decades ago, when it was a sensation for a woman to be accepted into Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. The second woman to go there was a student of mine at Brown University. She came for advice and asked if I thought she would make a good rabbi. I told her she would be spectacular. And she was, and is.
Over the next decade I was able to help at least one woman a year realize her aspirations to become a rabbi. By 1980 we stopped counting, as it was no longer noteworthy. So Conservative Judaism followed in the path of HUC, but only after a battle that ripped open the fabric of the movement and cost the seminary some of its best faculty.
This is going to happen again. But the coming battle for Conservative Judaism will certainly end with doors open to professing gay and lesbian young people to enter the rabbinate. Notice I don't say, "to gays and lesbians." They have been there all along. The only question is, will gays and lesbians enter openly and proudly, or surreptitiously and on sufferance?
Will the Jewish Theological Seminary put gays and lesbians through the crucible of self-denial that Jews in the Ivy League went through two generations ago, or will they come along normally and routinely and make the enormous human contributions that are theirs, perhaps uniquely, to make? The clock is ticking.
Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and a 1960 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.