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Conservative Judaism and homosexuality

Committee on Jewish Law and Standards:
Second vote and responses

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Sponsored link.

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Another vote:

The Associated Press reported on 2006-SEP-07 that Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, expected that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards would split their vote concerning the ordination of homosexual rabbis in 2006-DEC. He expected a type of local option in which individual seminaries and synagogues would be able to select one of two contradictory policies. He said:

"The committee might accept - will accept, I think - two or more [policies]. ... One that actually reaffirms the current position and at least one that will liberalize it.  It could cause confusion, it could cause tremendous angst, it could cause tremendous tension, it could cause tremendous disagreement."
Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading religious scholar and a member of the Conservative Law Committee, was "demonized" for his position that same-sex relationships should be barred in Judaism. He said:

"I know the law as it stands causes pain. But pain is not to be equated with immorality."

The Conservative tradition of U.S. Judaism is caught in a squeeze somewhat similar to that experienced among mainline Christian denominations.

bulletSome members find some of its policies excessively rigid and have switched to a Reform synagogue which accepts homosexual behavior and relationships. The Reform Tradition has recently become that largest group in American Judaism.
bulletOther conservative Jews have joined the Orthodox branch because they feel that the Conservative tradition is too liberal. 10
Rabbi Elliot Dorff is the vice chairman of the Law Committee and a respected scholar. He supports the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, stating that:

"It is simply not natural..." to require that they remain celibate. ...We have to interpret God’s will in our time. ... The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, is debating the future of the entire movement. Nothing less."

Rabbis Dorff, Epstein and Roth jointly spoke in Toronto, Canada during 2006-AUG and later traveled together to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. 1

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Ordination of homosexual rabbis and recognition of relationships approved, sort of:

On 2006-DEC-06 the 25-member Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards  issued a series of advisory reports. 5 Committee spokesperson Rabbi Kassel Abelson said:

"We as a movement see the advocacy of pluralism and we know that people come to different conclusions. These [reports] ... are accepted as guides so that the gays and lesbians can be welcomed into our congregation and communities and made to feel accepted."

The committee:

bulletRecommended that homosexuals be accepted as rabbis.
bulletRecommended that "committed gay relationships" should be recognized, but not blessed.
bulletDid not reject the prohibition against anal intercourse found in Leviticus 18:22.
bulletUpheld the 1992 statement that discouraged homosexual rabbis and prohibited commitment ceremonies that blessed gay and lesbian relationships.

Their reports will allow both the more liberal and more orthodox leaders in the movement to pursue different paths.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles said each of the rabbinical schools would hold separate discussions on the reports. He said:

"I imagine each of the seminaries will handle it differently. My guess is that within the next several weeks we will be announcing that our rabbinical school will be open to gays and lesbians because we have already had this discussion."

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said rabbis who so desire could start performing commitment ceremonies recognizing gay relationships immediately.

Four members of the committee resigned after the reports were issued. They opposed the methods used to reach the conclusions in the reports. 2

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Reactions to the decision:

According to the Virtual Talmud on Beliefnet, some leaders of the conservative movement felt that the decision of the committee to approve two opposing positions -- one allowing and one prohibiting same-sex sexual activity -- "was a failure of will or moral rectitude."

Many Orthodox critics suggest that the Conservative movement has abandoned its committment to halakhah (Jewish law).

The Virtual Talmud notes there is a gulf between strict and loose constructionalists:

bulletRabbi Roth and his supporters are strict constructionalists. They accept the plain meaning of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinical record. While they accept people with a homosexual orientation, they condemn all same-sex sexual activity.
bulletRabbi Elliot Dorff and his supporters are loose constructionists. They interpret the Torah as banning only anal sex.

The author of the Virtual Talmud considers the lack of consensus by the committee as a positive outcome. He notes that the dual decisions of the committee have left the ultimate decisions up to each locality. Many rabbis, congregations, and individuals will now study, dialogue, debate and finally reach conclusions on their "stand on the continuum of Jewish interpretation and practice" regarding homosexuality. 4

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Jewish opinion survey:

Arnold Eisen, a professor at Stanford University and the incoming chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), commissioned a study of Conservative Jewish leaders. Steven Cohen, a sociologist at the Hebrew Union College volunteered to conduct the survey. It was mailed to 18,676 Conservative rabbis, cantors, seminary students, and lay and professional leadership. 4,861 responded. An additional 722 responded via a web site.

The survey showed that about two-thirds of Conservative rabbis and cantors believe that the JTS should admit gay and lesbian students for rabbinical study. Results were slightly higher among lay and professional leadership, and slightly lower among student rabbis and cantors. Similar results were obtained on the question of rabbis officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California commented:

"Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue association, said that he has enlisted a consultant to help his staff cope with synagogues that may choose to hire a gay rabbi. 'We don’t see our role as promoting change,' Epstein said. 'We see our role as promoting pluralism'." ...

"Support for a more permissive approach is also far more prevalent among those who are less religiously observant, describe themselves as 'liberal' and who have friends or family that are gay. Among those who call themselves theologically liberal, 91 percent support gay ordination; among the theologically conservative, 57 percent oppose it."

"In one particularly striking finding, 35 percent of the rabbis, cantors and JTS students surveyed agreed that the liberal teshuvah was 'outside the pale of acceptability of halachic reasoning,' while only half rejected the proposition."

"Sixty-seven percent of Conservative clergy reported that they were 'somewhat embarrassed' by the committee’s decision." 3

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U.S. Conservative seminary open to gay students; Israeli seminary remains closed:

In late 2007-MAR, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City -- described as "the flagship seminary of Conservative Judaism," announced that it would accept openly gay and lesbian students. A vote by the JTS faculty produced results similar to the opinion survey mentioned above: most professors favored an inclusive admissions policy.

Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the JTS commented:

"I’m hoping that the whole process that surrounded the decision will revitalize the sense that Conservative Judaism is a living organism."

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the main west coast seminary, recently announced that it had accepted its first two openly gay students.

Rabbi Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem announced on MAR-27 that her seminary would remain closed to gay and lesbian students. She said:

"This is a final decision. In Israel, the [Conservative] movement has to be consistently halachic [true to rabbinic and biblical law] otherwise it will unite with the Reform Movement."

She stated that she believes that homosexuality is a chosen behavior, not a fixed sexual orientation.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Israeli branch of the Rabbinical Assembly expects that the seminary ruling will be a temporary one. He said:

"We live in a global society, and it is difficult for me to imagine that what occurs in the United States will not have an impact or influence here in Israel. ... A decision that is more inclusive seems to me to be inevitable." 6

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Schism by Canadian Conservative Judaism may result:

Forward, a Jewish daily, reported:

"... those who oppose Conservative Judaism’s slide to the left, including the past chancellor of JTS, Ismar Schorsch, have warned that the acceptance of gays could ultimately divide the movement. Thus far, those predictions have not been borne out in the United States."

"In Canada, though, Conservative Jews tend to be more traditional than in America and movement leaders are mulling whether to split off from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the stream’s congregational arm in North America. Rabbis there describe the newly liberal approach to homosexuality as just one issue among a host of other problems — including whether the movement’s Canadian branch is getting its fair share of the financial pie — that are driving the discussions of a break-away."

"Referring to the decision by JTS, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, one of two Canadian members of the law committee, said, 'I would imagine that the decision today will go into the hopper, but it will not be the determining decision in terms of whether the Canadian Conservative synagogues will remain formally connected with the United Synagogue'." 6

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References:

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

  1. "Conservative Jewish leader expects ban on gay rabbis to be lifted," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-07, at: http://news.bostonherald.com/
  2. Michelle Nichols, "Conservative Jews ok gay rabbis," Reuters, 2006-DEC-06, at: http://today.reuters.com/
  3. Ben Harris, "Most survey respondents vote in favor of gay Conservative rabbis," Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, 2007-FEB-2, at: http://www.jewishsf.com/
  4. "Homosexuality and the Halakhic Debate," Virtual Talmud, 2007-FEB-13, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  5. "Teshuvot," The Rabbinical Assembly, at: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-OCT-25
Latest update: 2007-FEB-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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