The Conservative Movement Punts on Gay Rabbis

Ismail Haniyeh grooms himself after hearing the Conservative movement’s ruling on accepting homosexual rabbis

Leadership is hard. Decisions have to be made and consequences, good or bad, will follow. The decision-maker is therefore responsible for the outcome of his/her decisions.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, JTS, is the place where the leadership of the Conservative Judaism movement finds its leaders because it is the primary training school for Conservative rabbis. The Rabbinical Assembly is a body directly linked to the JTS because its rulings affect the training and eventual careers of the rabbis trained by the JTS. The Rabbinical Assembly continues to influence rabbis after they leave the JTS, and in fact wields a great deal of influence upon the laws and philosophy of the Conservative movement.

Here is a concise synopsis of Conservative philosophy written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and quoted by the Rabbinic Assembly. In part, he writes:

It is precisely this traditional approach – which combines fidelity to inherited tradition and the courage to integrate necessary change – which motivates Conservative Judaism today.

In other words, Conservatives believe in preserving tradition and its essence or reasoning, but within the context of this tradition, are willing, when necessary, to effect changes. (More info about Conservative philosophy can be found on this, our old post).

Apparently, after years of watching Christian denominations tear themselves apart over the issue of acceptance of homosexuals in their ranks and the ranks of their clergy, the Conservative Movement – which is quite large at a million and a half members and 750 congregations across North America, but has been shrinking over the past two decades as people migrate to Reform or Orthodox – thought it would be wise to follow suit.

I know, I know, they were more concerned about the perceived injustice of treating homosexual members of the movement as non-equals to the heterosexual members. What pushed this matter to the forefront has been a vocal group of homosexual movement members, their supporters and some rabbinical students who pushed hard to have the movement recognize this as an area of deficiency and essentially forced the movement to confront the fact that a decision about homosexual rabbis had to be made.

The issue was studiously delayed and ignored for years, in large part because of its divisiveness. You see, no Jew who reads the Torah can escape the plain language of the verse that forbids a man to lie with another man as if he were a woman because it is an abomination to God. Needless to say, when this topic was off the table, one didn’t have to put much thought or – heaven forbid – actually visualize the meaning of this Torah verse. On the other hand, once it’s a topic to be discussed, not only does one have to take a, uh, penetrating look at anal sex, but of course also begin to assess other forms of homosexual sex. And then compare them to heterosexual sex. And then all of a sudden all one can think about is people sweating and moaning and grunting in various states of ecstasy, except that, hold on, it’s TWO MEN! AAARRGGGGGHHHH!!

Now, we automatically know that even if those two men are having, you know, fun, they really shouldn’t be cuz the Torah says they shouldn’t be having fun. It’s an abomination after all. The SOME Orthodox of all streams know this well because they actually read the Torah and halacha (Jewish law) regularly and study it and when they visualize two men engaging in…you know…they immediately start thinking about stone sizes and the different impact of such objects against the tender, pink, perky and moist flesh of homosexuals when hurled at different velocities. After all, it is unequivocally forbidden for men to lie with each other as if one were a woman. That’s right, the Orthodox reject homosexuality, refuse to address it, pretend that it is virually non-existent among their members and will never, ever, ever, consider accepting homosexuals in their communities or as rabbis. EDIT: …except for some Orthodox who will feel deeply sorry for homosexuals and consider their sexual activity an abomination but will consider them deserving and worthy of assistance to help them refrain from said abomination so they can live otherwise normative Jewish lives. Of course, they do accept lesbians since they, by definition, cannot be men who lie with other men like women. On the other hand, Orthodox lesbians get, um, screwed, anyway because as women they cannot become scholars of Torah or rabbis. They are supposed to be hidden, along with the other women, behind the walls or barriers lest the God-fearing men who would never consider accepting homosexual rabbis get all hot and heavy and distracted from their discussions with each other prayers in synagogue.

The Conservatives don’t have this problem. They refrain from visualizing stones and their impact on flesh and are open instead to visualizing lesb…uh, never mind. They are open to reinterpreting halacha and tradition when necessary. So what if the movement is suffering, has lost momentum and watches its less devout members go to Reform or Reconstructionist and its more observant members leave for Orthodox? So what indeed? It’s an obvious time to cause schisms and sow confusion in the movement. The leadership at the JTS and the RA decided that it was time to evaluate whether the movement should accept homosexual rabbis. As Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the JTS stated in a press release,

Let me note that this critical phase of the discussion, and the very debate itself, is a hallmark of JTS — and Conservative Judaism more generally — of which we can be proud. We have the burden and privilege of this debate not because we are in the middle, but because of our commitment to halakhah on the one hand and full immersion in the culture and society of the present on the other hand. We are dedicated to thoughtful change as an essential element of tradition — which is not to say that the change proposed to us now is right or necessary, but that the process of considering it thoughtfully, whatever we eventually decide, is to us inescapable and welcome. One could say that such debate defines us — and that, well-conducted, it strengthens us. Of course debate on this and similar matters has the potential to wound us as an institution and a movement. It also, however, has the power to remind us of what we stand for, and why despite our differences — or even because of them — we choose to stand together.

That’s right, it’s a tough subject and they have decided to tackle it regardless of the challenge it poses to Jewish tradition. You’ll notice, dear reader, that while he acknowedges the challenge, he believes it actually strengthens the movement. Of course, he is ignoring the fact that four members of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) which is the RA body that tackled this subject and gave its psak (ruling) resigned immediately after the vote.

That’s right, they resigned from the most important halachic body in the Conservative movement. Why did they leave after the vote? Because they believe that accepting homosexuality as equivalent to heterosexuality in the Jewish religion is clearly and obviously against not only halacha, but also Judaism’s core source, the Torah, not to mention millenia of tradition.

But wait, it gets more interesting. You see, the four resigned after their own proposed ruling was accepted! That’s right, in perfect talmudic logic, their 1. opposition to homosexual rabbis was noted and accepted. Also accepted was 2. the right of homosexuals to become rabbis. And also accepted was 3. a ruling that suggests that homosexuality is not a natural trait and that therapy could change homosexual sexual behavior.

Did you see that? 1 and 2 and 3. If you read Eisen’s press release, he describes how he will now proceed to go out into other parts of the scholarly Conservative commmunity to discuss the rulings before deciding whether to allow the ordination of gay rabbis at the JTS (something he has said he personally favors). Why does Eisen have to go out to research further? Because the CJLS PUNTED and refused to make the kind of decision leaders make.

The members of the committee were not unhappy with the outcome since most of the positions held by its members received favorable votes. Even the four members who resigned got their way. In fact, in many ways this is the perfect solution and conclusion because they leave the entire issue open-ended and in theory can continue to delay the day of reckoning when many members of the movement have to decide whether this is a big enough issue for them to consider leaving to other pastures.

One member of the CJLS spoke to the press and said:

“Most of our congregations will not be of one mind, the same way that we were not of one mind,” said Rabbi Epstein, also a law committee member. “Our mandate is to help congregations deal with this pluralism.”

In case you’re not clear, what he’s saying is, “We punted, and now our members and their synagogues can decide for themselves.”

Maybe he thinks it’s a good idea. I think it’s a bad idea. I’ll quote myself from an email that I wrote earlier today:

I do think this will be very difficult for the movement in the long run. It won’t kill the movement but will weaken it considerably. The irony is that they didn’t decide anything, they simply disagreed among themselves and handed the problem over to individual congregations. That’s where divisions will appear in time since most congregations don’t have the ability to contend with such a divisive issue without alienating many people on whichever side loses. In my congregation, I know we would probably prefer to tackle boring topics like updating the sanctuary, getting new young families, improving the school, etc. instead of arguing over how we should or shouldn’t deal with the homosexual community. I mean, running a congregation in an assimilating world is hard enough without having families and committees discussing the permissibility of anal sex.

A vacuum exists in leadership and authority within the Conservative movment which has allowed this situation to happen. The division we are seeing at the top is emblematic of a state of confusion about what the movement believes and what it stands for. This is natural because as a movement in some decline and watching the spectre of assimilation rear its ugly head, it is natural for it to become a scared movement that is afraid to lose even more members.

Fear is sowing confusion and weakening convictions. This is a recipe for disaster, especially in this movement where the layperson doesn’t possess the same depth of knowledge of Jewish sources as the typical Orthodox layperson. This is a movement where the leadership at the top is important in establishing parameters for members. Will 750 congregations now have to go through the same impossible series of decisions that the RA couldn’t decide upon? How exactly do the leaders of the movement expect this to happen when they, among the most knowledgeable authorities in the movement, couldn’t come to a single conclusion? Do they not understand the politics and pressures that congregations and their rabbis already face? Do they not see the imminent fights and splits that will occur in some congregations? It won’t happen right away because congregations don’t replace rabbis every year. But it will become an issue at large and will fester for years to come.


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