A committee of Conservative rabbis, grappling with an issue as old as Sodom and Gomorrah, yesterday issued a long-awaited decision on homosexuality, adopting three different and sometimes contradictory opinions.
One of the opinions, backed by 13 of the 25 rabbis on the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, would for the first time permit the ordination of openly lesbian rabbis and allow for the ordination of openly gay rabbis, although it maintains the movement's ban on anal sex. It also permits Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies. Four law committee members who opposed ordaining homosexuals and performing commitment ceremonies resigned following the vote.
A second opinion, also backed by 13 of the rabbis, reaffirmed the movement's policy of denying ordination to active homosexuals. A third opinion, backed by six of the rabbis, encourages "reparative therapy" to help gays and lesbians live as heterosexuals when possible.
Conservative Jewish leaders stressed that their centrist denomination allows for a diversity of opinions, and that law committee decisions are designed to help guide movement clergy, congregations, and institutions not to dictate their policies. The executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, said the umbrella group for some 750 North American Congregations has retained an organizational change consultant to help the movement stay united amid its differences.
Two more liberal proposals that would have normalized homosexual relationships and behaviors did not pass during a two-day law committee meeting, held at Park Avenue Synagogue on East 87th Street. These proposals, deemed more radical, required 13 votes instead of six votes to pass. Each garnered only seven votes.
Members of Keshet, a Jewish Theological Seminary-based student and faculty group that favors homosexual ordination, characterized the outcome of the law committee meeting as a qualified victory and said that their activism would continue. About two dozen members gathered in front of Park Avenue Synagogue yesterday many donning rainbow ribbons and buttons to symbolize their solidarity with the gay community, or neon stickers with slogans such as "Ordination Regardless of Orientation."
Yet traditional movement members such as Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, said the decision to ordain gays and lesbians was "outside the parameter of halachic" Jewish legal "legitimacy." Rabbi Roth resigned from the committee along with Rabbi Leonard Levy, the author of the paper on "reparative therapy," and the leader of the Jewish Center of Forest Hills in Queens, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, a JTS Talmud professor, and Rabbi Joseph Prouser of the Little Neck Jewish Center on Long Island. At press time, Rabbi Roth was said to be reconsidering his decision.
Members are appointed to the law committee from the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents more than 1,500 Conservative rabbis; from Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative's Judaism's flagship rabbinic school, and from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
While many in the more left-leaning Reform and Reconstructionist movements applauded the decision to lift the ban on homosexual ordination, Orthodox Jewish leaders lamented the same ruling.
"From an Orthodox perspective, we have compassion and concern for those with homosexual tendencies," the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said. "Nevertheless, homosexual behavior is against the Talmud, the bible, and the Codes. We cannot see ordaining as a rabbi anyone who flaunts well-established Jewish tradition."
Meanwhile, leaders of a fervently Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, issued a statement calling the decision in favor of homosexual ordination "tragic."
"It will no doubt cheer those who place contemporary mores above the Jewish mandate, but in the end, it seals the fate of a movement long mired in muddle and malaise," the statement read.
The chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, has said he personally supports ordaining gays and lesbians but vowed to consult with JTS faculty, students, and trustees, in addition to Conservative clergy and laypeople outside the seminary community before making a decision about its admissions policy. Yesterday, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, and the law committee chairman, Rabbi Kassel Abelson debriefed JTS students on the committee's decisions.
An author of the paper that permits homosexual ordination, Elliott Dorff, the rector at the University of Judaism, predicted that the Los Angeles school where he works one of five Conservative seminaries worldwide would announce within the next several weeks its decision to welcome gay and lesbian applicants into its rabbinic and programs.
A 21-year-old gay man who is a Conservative Jew, Aaron Weininger, yesterday said he would apply to Conservative rabbinical seminaries if the schools indeed change their admissions policies to allow for homosexual students. Mr. Weininger said that regardless of the seminaries' decisions, he would continue to advocate for the "full inclusion of gays and lesbians" in the Conservative movement.
Conservative Jews accounts for about one-third of affiliated American Jews down from about 43% as recently as 15 years ago. Increased inclusiveness towards gays and lesbians could attract more homosexuals to the movement and help with its "demographic problem," Rabbi Dorff said. He said it was his hope that through adoption, surrogacy, and artificial insemination homosexual couples would bring children into the world and raise them as Jews.