May 14, 2012
Gay rabbis, God’s will, and Conservative Judaism
But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it.
Ye shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
The recent decision by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem to admit gay and lesbian students is about the best example of Mormon/Jewish divergence that can be found in contemporary Judaism. The Conservative seminary’s statement affirmed that it is “bound by Halacha [Jewish law], whose inclusive approach allows for a variety of halachic opinions.” In other words, Schechter considers itself bound by Jewish law, which for millennia has condemned homosexual behavior, while also considering itself free to invent new Jewish law to which it will be bound. Mormonism and contemporary Conservative Judaism diverge widely on this issue, which highlights the role of continuing revelation (or the lack thereof) in the development of a religion’s theology.
To begin with, let us state the obvious: Schechter is free to make whatever admissions and ordination decisions it wants. It’s not for me to say whether the seminary should admit gay Jews, pork-eating Jews, or atheist Jews. Some of the most energetic and passionate rabbis whom I have met are gay, and I have no doubt that they will make significant contributions to Jewish life wherever they serve. I write a blog about religion, and am primarily concerned about the theological justifications used to back the change. In this case, I was very disappointed.
A recent interview conducted by Jewish Journal writer Shmuel Rosner with Professor Hanan Alexander, the chair of Schechter’s board of trustees, is very revealing. When asked how exactly the seminary’s decision is compatible with “religious Jewish law,” the professor inexplicably (and inaccurately) states that “Jewish law has always allowed for the possibility that more than one interpretation is correct.” Alas, this principle is completely absent from the Hebrew Bible, where prophets were the only ones authorized to declare God’s word. No authoritative dissenting interpretations of Jewish law are recorded from Genesis to Malachi. From the time of Moses (~1400 BCE) until at least the time of the Mishnah (200 CE), halachic pluralism did not exist. By way of example, the Pharisees and Sadducees may have promoted contradictory halachic interpretations, but they viewed the other movement’s views as erroneous and even heretical. It is correct to say that Rabbinic Judaism has always allowed for halachic pluralism, but it is erroneous to assert that Jewish law has always done so.
For Mormons, the question for Conservative rabbis who support the liberal shift on issues related to homosexual conduct is whether they claim that God has inspired the movement to do this. Is it God’s will that Conservative rabbinical courts approve gays and lesbians for ordination? If the answer is yes, then there’s nothing more to say. However, to my knowledge no Conservative rabbi has made this claim. Unlike Mormons, Jews don’t believe in continuing revelation – for them direct revelation from God to prophets stopped over two thousand years ago. While I understand this, it’s still hard to understand why a Conservative seminary professing fealty to Jewish law would claim the right to override a biblical prohibition on conduct that Leviticus called an “abomination” that defiled nations and the land itself. Many years later rabbis would put homosexual conduct in the category of “gilui arayot,” sexual acts that are forbidden to both Jews and Gentiles.
The Conservative movement has adopted two responsa, or rabbinic onions, on homosexual conduct: one upholds the traditional ban in Jewish law, while another overrides it by claiming that all male homosexual conduct except for a specific sexual act were not prohibited by the Bible but by rabbis. The responsum goes on to argue that a rabbinic, though not a biblical, ban can be trumped by consideration for “human dignity” and “respect for others.” This mirrors the evolution on gay issues in the Reform movement, whose leading rabbis wrote opinions opposing gay marriage until the 1990s, when they stopped citing Jewish law and began appealing to justice and equality (please see this useful database on the website of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation if you doubt this). The difference is that Reform Judaism does not regard Jewish law as binding; Conservative Judaism does.
Of the three major Jewish movements, the Conservative position on homosexual conduct is the hardest one to respect. Orthodoxy retains the ancient halachic prohibition, and Reform Judaism says it doesn’t care what halacha says about it. Conservative Judaism tries to have it both ways, and the halachic contortions it engages in to justify acceptance of this conduct results in a confusing, schizophrenic policy. When Conservative leaders make a sincere effort to find out what God wants Conservative Jews to do in this regard, I’m sure they will adopt a policy worthy of the movement that produces the most erudite, impressive rabbis in the country.