A conversation with Professor Hanan Alexander, chair of the board of trustees of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, which voted earlier this month to accept openly gay and lesbian candidates for rabbinical ordination.
You told the Associated Press that the decision to ordinate gay rabbis will allow Conservatives “to uphold Jewish religious law in a pluralist and changing world”: Can you briefly explain the halakhic considerations that make such decision compatible with “religious Jewish law”?
Jewish law has always allowed for the possibility that more than one interpretation is correct. It has similarly adapted over time to changing circumstances and social concerns. In response to changing social mores around the year 1000, for example, Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz decreed that a Jewish man is forbidden to marry more than one woman, a practice that is permitted by the Torah. Although binding on Ashkenazi Jews, it was not accepted by Sephardim until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
This idea of halakhic pluralism in response to changing historical and social circumstances is especially important to Masorti/Conservative jurisprudence. When leading opinion makers and researchers in the field of human sexuality subjected traditional beliefs about homosexuality to hard criticism, a number of rabbis and laypeople within the Masorti/Conservative movement became uncomfortable with the exclusion of gays and lesbians from all levels of participation in Jewish life.
A lengthy discussion ensued over a number of years within the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards concerning the permissibility of ordaining openly gay and lesbian individuals as rabbis. Following the pluralistic principle, in 2006 two decisions among a number of others were approved by the committee. Rabbi Joel Roth took the view that gays and lesbians should not be ordained based on a traditional reading of the prohibition for a man to lie with a man as if with a woman found in Leviticus 20. Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avraham Reisner, on the other hand, offered an alternative interpretation of that verse as referring only to male-male anal intercourse, thereby permitting other forms of monogamous homosexual intimacy. They further argued that respect for human dignity requires admitting openly gay and lesbian students to the rabbinate.
Some Israeli critics say that Israeli Conservatives just didn’t have the stomach to withstand American pressure. Was this decision a sign that Conservative Judaism’s center is still the US movement, to which the Israeli movement is just a secondary branch?
This action reflects the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s long standing commitment to halakhic pluralism, not pressure in favor of one view or another. When the decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was first published the Schechter Seminary chose to uphold pluralism. While the two US Masorti/Conservative rabbinical schools, The Jewish Theological Seminary of American in New York and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, followed Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner to ordain homosexuals, the schools outside of the US, the Schechter Seminary in Jerusalem and the Seminario Rabinico Latinamericano in Buenos Aries, followed Rabbi Roth in refraining from doing so.
However, it became increasingly clear that a number of qualified homosexual students would like to pursue their rabbinic studies in Israel without having to travel abroad to be ordained. When the Board empanelled a committee to consider a number of pressing policy matters earlier this year, it asked the committee to revisit the issue of homosexual ordination to see if another solution could be found that would maintain the pluralistic principle. After consulting widely, the committee recommended that the process of studying for the rabbinate be separated from the process of ordination.
Upon completing their studies at the Schechter Seminary, students would be examined for ordination by a court of three rabbis drawn from an advisory council consisting of Masorti/Conservative rabbis who follow both positions. They could then be ordained by a rabbinic court that adheres to either of the permitted views. This recommendation was approved by the Board, which opens the door for qualified applicants who are openly gay and lesbian to be admitted to the school.
Do you think this decision will make the Masorti movement more acceptable the Israeli society, or has the potential to push people away from it?
The decision was taken on principle, without regard to whether it would attract Israelis or to push them away. Most Israelis are so put off by much of what passes for religion in this country that they do not need us to push them away.
The only question before our Board in this matter was how the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary can best serve the Jewish people in Israel and abroad as God has given us to understand our obligations as Torah observant Jews? The action is part of a long standing commitment to offer a serious religious alternative in Israel that places respect for difference at the heart of historical Judaism.
Israel is in desperate need of a rabbinate and a Jewish religious movement that is bound by tradition on the one hand yet tolerant and pluralistic on the other. For too long Israeli society has allowed various forms of intolerant extremism to masquerade as Jewish authenticity while delegitimizing anyone who presumes to have an original point of view. This has led to the marginalizing and maligning of women on the streets of Jerusalem and the buses of Beit Shemesh and to the throwing of rocks and human excrement on those who adhere to a liberal point of view, whether Religious Zionist, Masorti/Conservative, Reform, or secular. The people of Israel deserve a better Jewish religion than this. It is time to stand together in favor of a traditional Judaism that is inclusive, pluralistic, and tolerant.
With this decision, it seems that differences between Conservative and Reform Israelis are getting smaller. Are you not in danger of losing Conservative unique identity?
This decision celebrates one of the core values of Masorti/Conservative Judaism, halakhic pluralism in response to a changing world. We have a profound respect for the Reform movement which has made and will continue to make important contributions to Jewish religious life in Israel and around the world.
But Masorti/Conservative Judaism differs from Reform in important ways. Reform Judaism grants ultimate authority to the individual to choose how he or she wishes to observe Jewish life. Masorti/Conservative Judaism on the other hand requires a proper interpretation of Jewish law in order to sanction one form of observance or another. Both positions on the ordination of gays and lesbians approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards reaffirmed that all candidates for rabbinic ordination must be committed to an observant Jewish lifestyle that includes daily prayer, Sabbath observance, and Jewish dietary practice. These are not requirements of Reform rabbis or candidates for ordination in the Reform Movement.
In your estimation, how long will it take for an Israeli congregation to be led by an openly gay Conservative rabbi?
It’s hard to say. A number of Masorti congregations in Israel have taken a strong stand in favor of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians. They might welcome an openly gay or lesbian rabbi sooner rather than later. There are also many congregations who follow Rabbi Roth in opposing homosexual rabbis or for whom this is all very new. They will very likely choose to follow a more traditional path.
But the more than 70 rabbis who have graduated the Schechter Seminary over the years serve as Jewish leaders in variety of capacities outside of congregations as well, both in Israel and abroad. We assume that this will continue to be the case for our alumni in the years ahead.