Because I haven’t generated any controversy in a while, I’d like to call your attention to this story about everyone’s favorite polarizing issue (that is, after â€œwho is a jew,â€ the issue of premarital sex of any sort, the role of women in contemporary Jewish life, whether or not Israel should withdraw from Gaza, whose Judaism is authentic, whether the Pope was good or evil, etc): that is, the Conservative Movement’s position on the role of gays in the rabbinate and whether or not rabbis will be permitted to sanction gay marriages with religious ceremonies:
Experts in religious law for Conservative Jews gathered last week in Baltimore, where they reconsidered their 1992 decision opposing ordination for homosexuals and commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples.
The vote of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was not taken at this conference, but would not have been binding, nor would it have resolved disagreements over homosexuality among Conservative Jews. But it would have sent a strong message to the wider community about how far the Conservative branch will go in re-interpreting traditional understanding of Jewish law.
Conservative Jews adhere to tradition but allow some re-evaluation of Jewish law for modern circumstances. The movement occupies a middle ground between the liberal Reform branch, which ordains gays and blesses same-sex couples, and the stricter Orthodox Judaism, which bars gays from becoming rabbis and condemns homosexuality.
I’m no rabbi. I don’t have any particular expertise on this subject. So consider this whole discussion IMHO and FD (in my humble opinion and for discussion…)
Conservative Judaism often suffers from this definition: instead of being its own movement with identifiable positions, CJ is most often defined by the average layperson as â€œneither Orthodox nor Reform, somewhere in the middle.â€ People who observe what they consider a little too much to be Reform, opt for the Conservative label. Or you get people like me, with an Orthodox day school education and Ramah during the summers, who might be Modern Orthodox in some circles but Conservadox or Egalitarian Traditional Conservative in others, and who determine that a Conservative synagogue is the best synagogue choice available. But the reality is, the labels (as I’ve said before) are nearing irrelevance at this point, where everyone observes a Judaism that is a little more a la carte and a little less prix fixe.
But the issue of labels aside, the decision to either allow or not allow increased recognition of and participation for gays in Conservative Judaism is going to be a watershed moment. More conservative (small c intentional) leaders within the movement adhere to the more Orthodox position, that homosexuality is prohibited by the Torah and therefore is not sanctionable, not matter what the political correctness of the climate or our own sense of morality might dictate. More liberal leaders embrace all Jews regardless of sexual preference (or any other criterion). If CJ chooses to become more liberal, then the movement’s essential character may require a marketing makeover to better distinguish it from Reform Judaism. If CJ chooses a more exclusionary position than the one adopted thirteen years ago (happy Bar Mitzvah, anti-gay decision!), it runs the danger of losing people to the Reform movement. (Mr. Rock? I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Hardplace.)
Anyone who’s seen â€œTrembling Before G-Dâ€ has a glimpse of what it’s like for gay Orthodox Jews to struggle within a religious context that out and out rejects their sexual preference, in a contemporary analog to the excommunication foisted on heretics in the Middle Ages (disclaimer: I’m no historian, so for the purposes of this entry, consider â€œMiddle Agesâ€ to mean some time between the post-Second Temple period and the American Revolutionary War in 1776). I emerged from that movie uncomprehending, how could parents reject their children in favor of tradition/community, and more puzzlingly, why would gay Jews want to be part of a group that didn’t want them? (Although this is admittedly a weak example) if a stream of Judaism decided that being a singles columnist or a blogger was prohibited by the Torah, would I still want to be part of the system that rejected me? Is the pull of tradition, the desire to belong to a community (even one that rejects you), that strong?
The tension between faith in a set, standing tradition and compassion for the emotional well-being of others on this big blue marble is substantial, and in this case, not likely to be resolved in a single day’s ruling (or in this case, non-ruling) by one stream of Judaism. It’s times like these when I’m glad I’m not a pulpit rabbi, or a halakhic decisor, or on the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement. Here, on the ground and somewhat between movements, I have the luxury of operating by my own understanding of how you should treat people who live differently but still wish to embrace a committed Jewish life. I don’t represent a movement, only myself. But sometimes that’s hard enough.