During a two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ended Wednesday, authors of four rabbinic opinions on the status of homosexuality in the movement â€” two on each side of the issue â€” were asked to make revisions to their opinions ahead of a vote on the issue in December. The decision reaffirms the status quo, at least for the time being, and means that the movement’s 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages will remain in place.
I remember being on the plane, on the way back from last year’s Jewlicious at the Beach conference, and writing this article. And I was seated, as usual, next to a lovey-dovey couple. A gay couple, not that there’s anything wrong with that. And the guy next to me started reading over my shoulder as I wrote, which led to a very interesting discussion about gay rights within the different denominations of Judaism. While he and I spoke, his partner sat there in his seat, staring straight ahead, not interacting with either of us.
Among other things, my seat companion told me that he had applied for a job at a Jewish outreach organization and had been turned down, ostensibly because he himself was not Jewish. But, he pointed out, he was involved in an interfaith relationship with his partner, which qualified him to tackle the subject. There’s no proof that he wasn’t hired because he wasn’t Jewish, but he felt a sincere prejudice that I couldn’t allay. And the prejudice wasn’t against his being gay, it was against his being not Jewish.
In the manner of people who talk on airplanes, we traded business cards, and I wrote my blog URLs on the back, urging him to check all of them out. I don’t know that he ever did, but I never heard from him again. And in some ways, I’m glad. I really would not have known how to take the conversation to the next level. Once it gets beyond “Trembling Before G-d,” I’m not sure how to address the issue.
There are two potential approaches…the strictly literal approach (“it’s forbidden by the Torah”), or the compassionate approach (“if gays want to be actively, passionately involved in Jewish life, gam zeh meshubach [this too, is worthy of praise]”). And I’m not sure either of them is one I can embrace wholeheartedly without also embracing my own hypocrisy. If I accept the Torah as binding in other ways–kashrut or Shabbat, or making myself crazy cleaning my apartment for Pesach–then do I necessarily have to embrace everything else in there as well? Like Sotah? Or niddah? Or the constant building of fences around the Torah in order to prevent us from breaching the vague perimeter of the obscurely disallowed?
And how does any of this, if at all, impact my own position on Jewish marriage, either mine or someone else’s? I always said that although I’d never ostracize people who married out, I’d never attend an intermarriage. But recently I did. And I had my justifications, but it was a supremely weird experience for me that I’m not sure I was comfortable with. But while I was there, I spoke to a lot of rarely-seen relatives about how important the issues of Jewish dating and marriage were to me, both personally and professionally. And if by exposing them to my views, any of those secular cousins will think twice before marrying out, isn’t that a good thing? And if I believe that interfaith relationships are not the ideal, how does that alter the way I treat people who have made that choice in their own lives? This is a personal analog to what the Conservative Movement is dealing with on the issue of intermarriage: it’s not an ideal, but it’s a fact…and isn’t it better to forge a relationship with both partners within a mixed marriage than it is to alienate them and their children? The men I met on the airplane were also trying to adopt, and maybe have by now. Are they affiliated with a Jewish community? Or is the combination of a gay, interfaith couple just one taboo too many for organized institutional Judaism?
In the last week, there’s also been another development that I’ve not seen discussed at length in the blogosphere, but that resonated with me. My camp alma mater, Ramah, has decided to allow campers who are Jewish by patrilineal descent. The liberal in me celebrated that connected children with one Jewish parent will be allowed to further explore their Jewish identities at summer camp. Of course, this decision may not represent as radical a change as an initial read might convey, because all Ramah campers are required to be attending an approved Hebrew and Jewish educational program, and most Orthodox or Conservative programs probably still require matrilineal descent as a minimum for enrollment.
Still, the “me” in me had a very different, more emotional reaction…what if I had gone to summer camp, and met a boy who was connected to Jewish life, and we fell in love, only to discover, SURPRISE! It’s his father who is the Jewish parent, and no Conservative rabbi (let alone an Orthodox one) would marry us unless he converted. How would I ask someone who’s already more Jewish in practice than most of his “full-blooded” counterparts to undergo conversion?
In all of these cases, the textual solution is the easier one, but is considerably less compassionate and relatively un-nuanced. And the more compassionate one precludes the possibility of seeing the text as conclusively sacred and creates innumerable grey areas. But once you’re beyond the literal text, there are no easy answers.