Conservative Judaism and homosexuality
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards:
Ruling, decision, study, and initial vote
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:
||(A) We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.
||(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.
||(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.
||(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.
||(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
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.
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.
Indications of change:
Rabbi Gershon Caudill wrote:
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."
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.")
"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."
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:
||Two options continue the status quo --
prohibiting homosexual sex, same-sex relationships, and ordination of
gays and lesbians.
||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.
||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
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
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
Comments by Conservative rabbis:
||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
||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."
||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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Jewish views of homosexuality," Wikipedia, at:
"Conservative Jews reopen debate on gay clergy," The Age,
Australia, 2003-MAR-17, at:
"Conservative Jews to Revisit Gay Issues," Keshet, at:
Rabbi Gershon Caudill, "A Heterosexual Jewish Rebbe's View on the
(Supposedly) Homosexual Texts in the Hebrew Bible," at:
- Jennifer Siegel, "Conservative
Rabbis To Vote On Gay Issues," The Forward weekly publication,
- Laurie Goodstein, "Jewish
Panel Delays a Vote on Gay Issues" New York Times, 2006-MAR-09.
Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-OCT-25
Latest update: 2007-FEB-03
Author: B.A. Robinson