December 5, 2006
Conservative rabbis open doors to gays, sort of
With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or halachic responsa, by the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards -- two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies -- it's likely that other rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement's highest legal body.
With advocates on both sides of the issue warning that it could irreparably fracture the movement, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a leading advocate of gay ordination, told a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Tuesday to remember that Conservative Judaism is a large enough tent to accommodate differing opinions.
"I have congregants who call me rabbi who disagree very strongly with me," Creditor said. "They still call me rabbi and I still call them friend. There's something really important about that."
Momentum has been building for years for a more permissive Conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Despite the 1992 decision of the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which upheld the ban on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, a number of Conservative rabbis do perform such ceremonies.
That number is expected to grow.
"I think there will be a significant change," said Ayelet Cohen, a JTS graduate and rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue for gays and lesbians.
An outspoken proponent of changing the traditional prohibition on homosexuality, Cohen performed commitment ceremonies for gay couples prior to this week's decision by the committee. She said opponents of change no longer will be able to use the law committee's 1992 statement on homosexuality as an excuse to continue excluding gays from the movement.
"According to the current position of the movement, gay men and women are lesser human beings than heterosexuals.," Cohen said. "Gay people can be kept out of every level of lay leadership in our movement. Until now, rabbis have been able to say, 'There's nothing I can do. My hands are tied.' "
But by deciding that continuing the ban on homosexuality also is a legitimate position, the committee has ensured that local rabbis who oppose a change in policy will have a halachic authority to cite in making their case. There is considerably less ambiguity at the movement's seminaries, where much of the agitation to change policy has originated.
At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee issued a permissive ruling.
In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary has been less forthcoming. Though he has said publicly that he supports gay ordination, incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen has outlined a process of consultation with students and faculty that he intends to follow in deciding whether to ordain gays.
KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group, says a survey shows that eight out of 10 members of the JTS community would support such a move.
"I think that congregants are ahead of their rabbis on many issues, and this is one of them," said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi and senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "I can tell you that there are people who have wanted to go to the seminary to become a rabbi and have chosen to go elsewhere, and will be thrilled that that option will now be open to them."
One such person is Aaron Weininger, an openly gay senior at Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong member of the Conservative movement. His decision on where to apply to rabbinical school hinged on the law committee's decision.
"I would like to be able to apply to a Conservative seminary, and for both ethical and personal reasons right now that's not an option," Weininger told JTA before the vote.
Weininger said he would apply to the University of Judaism, but would also consider JTS if that became an option.
Like other advocates of liberalization, Weininger said what's at stake is not just the status of gays in Conservative Judaism but the movement's entire approach to interpreting halacha.
He hopes the decision will lead to greater clarity in the way movement authorities negotiate the line between fidelity to tradition and the demands of contemporary life.
"Morality is at the very core of law, and that law really drives us toward our aspiration of holiness and justice," Weininger said. "And so if we in turn interpret law to exclude people, we really violate the intent of the law."
Given the multiple opinions allowed by the law committee, neither advocates nor opponents of change will feel compelled to adjust their positions.
Still, many observers are hopeful that the decision will open a vital discussion within a movement that once was America's largest Jewish denomination.
Creditor said Eisen's use of the committee debate as an opportunity for discussion is a step in the right direction.
"That's a revolution," Creditor said. "It might be quiet, but I think it's going to change things on the ground because rabbis can't ignore the inclusion of whichever teshuvot will be accepted. We can't ignore it. There's no hiding it. It's transparent.''