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Conservative Judaism and homosexuality

Committee on Jewish Law and Standards:
Ruling, decision, study, and initial vote

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Committee ruling, 1992:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued a ruling on homosexuality titled: "CJLS Consensus Statement of Policy Regarding Homosexual Jews in the Conservative Movement." It was approved on 1992-MAR-25, nd stated:

bullet (A) We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.
bullet (B) We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical and cantorial schools, or the Rabbinical Assembly or Cantors' Assembly. At the same time, we will not instigate witch hunts against those who are already members or students.
bullet (C) Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the Rabbi authorized to make halakhic decisions for a given institution in the Conservative movement. Presumably, in this as in all other matters, the rabbi will make such decisions taking into account the sensitivities of the people of his or her congregation or school. The rabbi's own reading of Jewish law on these issues, informed by the responses written for the CJLS to date, will also be a determinative factor in these decisions.
bullet (D) Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and lay leadership positions.
bullet (E) In any case, in accordance with the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue Resolutions we are hereby affirming gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools. 1

Rabbi Joel Roth authored the 1992 decision. It was passed by a margin of 14 to 7 with three abstentions. The committee thus settled on an Jewish version of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule for students seeking admission to seminary.

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Committee decision to revisit homosexuality, 2003:

They decided to revisit the homosexual issue. Committee vice-chairman Rabbi Elliott Dorff wrote:

"Discussion about this issue, and open disagreement about this issue, is frankly called for. To pretend this is a slam-dunk I just think is dishonest in either direction. If we ultimately agree to disagree, that would be fine....More and more gays and lesbians have come out of the closet. More and more people now know gays, in some cases friends and in some cases members of their own family. [They] are no longer the strange or threatening 'other.'  They are, rather, people you know and love and whom you see as being equally moral as the straight people who are in your life." Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue said: "I've just felt there is some concern out there, in the lay world at least, about the status of homosexuals within our movement." 2,3

Whereas most Christian denominations fix their policies by majority vote, the Jewish tradition is different. The committee may issue a majority and several conflicting minority reports.

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Indications of change:

Rabbi Gershon Caudill wrote:

"In the San Francisco area, and, I suppose, other areas of intellectual progressive thinking, some Rabbis belonging to the Conservative movement have begun performing same-sex marriages. Rabbis of the Renewal and Flexodox areas of Jewish thought are also performing same-sex unions." 4

Student Elianna Yolkut started rabbinical studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, CA, during 2002. In 2003, she said that students of all sexual orientations will be closely following developments in the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. She and 11 other rabbinical students formed a group called D'ror Yikra, ("Call to Freedom.") She said:

"We get to see the pain and the suffering of the students that have to be closeted when they come here, who both believe in the legal, binding nature and the divinity of the Torah, while at the same time fall in love with people of the same sex and don't feel that should be a determining factor of whether or not they're permitted to be rabbis."

She said rabbis in the Talmudic tradition have always had the responsibility of interpreting the law so it remains vital. She said, "If it's a tree of life, we must, as a community of rabbis and leaders, address the issue so the tradition continues to be living." 3

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Committee decision to discuss homosexuality:

This committee consists of 25 U.S. rabbis and lay leaders from the Conservative tradition of Judaism. They have been under pressure from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, from some rabbis, and from some rabbinical students to revisit their 1992 anti-homosexual decision, discussed above. During the spring of 2005, the committee received nine separate suggestions on a new position on homosexuality. These were whittled down to four options:

bullet Two options continue the status quo -- prohibiting homosexual sex, same-sex relationships, and ordination of gays and lesbians.
bullet One reinterprets Leviticus 18:22 narrowly as a prohibition only of gay anal sex. Homosexual affections, same-sex relationships in general, same-sex unions and ordinations of gays and lesbians would be permitted.
bullet The final decision would follow the lead of the Jewish Reform tradition, by overturning all historical prohibitions related to homosexual orientation.

A minimum of six votes from the 25 committee membership is required to implement a teshuvah (legal opinion). It is thus theoretically possible, although most improbable, that all four options could be simultaneously approved.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of Los Angeles's University of Judaism co-authored the option which would narrow the interpretation of Leviticus 18. He said:

"The thing that still is gnawing at me is the notion of the degree to which you hold the tradition sacred. I want to find some legal way for them to have sexual expression and sexual love, but try as much as I can to maintain the tradition."

Judith Hauptman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, supports the most liberal option. She criticized Rabbi Dorff's position, saying: "It's like saying to a heterosexual married couple, 'No missionary position, only sodomize each other'."

Elizabeth Richman, a co-chair of Keshet -- the the Jewish Theological Seminary's student organization -- is also promoting the liberal option. She said that her group would hail any pro-gay change but wants the movement to eventually speak with a clear voice.

Rabbi Dorff admits the possibility of multiple options being approved. He said:

"I prefer that we describe ourselves as we indeed are...and if that means that we don't agree on something, so we don't agree on something."

Multiple affirmations would probably trigger debates within individual seminaries about which option to follow.

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Committee initially reaches no decision:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards convened in Maryland during the week of 2006-MAR-05. 5 They did agree that the most liberal proposal, which would see barriers against gays and lesbians fall completely, was "so "revolutionary" that it was a "takanah" -- a fix of an existing Jewish law.) They decided on a new rule that takanahs can only be approved by a positive vote of at least 20 of the committee's 25 members. Some liberal rabbis suggested that the process had been intentionally rigged to make change more difficult.

By MAR-08, they were unable to reach any kind of consensus on the four proposals. They decided to agree to disagree, and to meet again in the 2006-DEC for another try. Members said that the decision to accept persons of all sexual orientations equally would be a momentous one. The four proposals submitted to the Committee were sent back to their authors for "extension revisions."

Comments by Conservative rabbis:

bullet Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, said,

"I understand the need for the law committee to go through a serious halachic process, but this affects the real lives of real people, and for the people in our community there is real urgency."

bullet Rabbi Cohen, a member of Keshet Rabbis, a group of more than 200 Conservative rabbis who support equality for gay men and lesbians, said:

"There are gay people who grew up in the synagogues and day schools and summer camps of the Conservative movement who feel the movement has turned its back on them. There are people who want to become rabbis who can't, couples who want the rabbis of their childhood synagogues to marry them, and they won't."

bullet Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the law committee, said,

"I'm saddened by the fact that there are people who are hurt by it, but I think we have to take seriously our process and follow it."

There has been some speculation that the committee may be delaying a decision until a new chancellor is appointed at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. According to an article in the New York Times, previous chancellors have often "...set direction for the Conservative movement." 6

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Jewish views of homosexuality," Wikipedia, at:
  2. "Conservative Jews reopen debate on gay clergy," The Age, Australia, 2003-MAR-17, at:
  3. "Conservative Jews to Revisit Gay Issues," Keshet, at:
  4. Rabbi Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the (Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at:
  5. Jennifer Siegel, "Conservative Rabbis To Vote On Gay Issues," The Forward weekly publication, 2006-MAR-03, at:
  6. Laurie Goodstein, "Jewish Panel Delays a Vote on Gay Issues" New York Times, 2006-MAR-09.

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Copyright 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-OCT-25
Latest update: 2007-FEB-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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