A New Consensus For Gays?
12/27/02
Staff Writer
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The job looked like a perfect fit. A Solomon Schechter day school had offered a Judaic studies teaching job to an experienced Conservative rabbi, and had wrapped up negotiations over salary and benefits. Signing the contract was all that was left. But just before signing, the rabbi wanted to make sure the principal knew she was a lesbian. The next day the school's rabbinic authority informed the rabbi that the job offer was being revoked on the basis of that information. The official said he was relying on a policy adopted a decade earlier by the Conservative movement that bars gays and lesbians from leadership positions. Now the lesbian Conservative rabbi and educator is teaching in public school. At the Conservative movement's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, another woman, who was earning her doctorate there, was being courted to join the faculty. That is, until administrators became aware that she was a lesbian. "The minute she came out, that was the end of our romance with her," said a senior member of the JTS faculty. Now she teaches at the Reform movement's seminary. These are two examples of how the policy prohibiting gay rabbinic and other leadership has had a chilling effect even outside the JTS walls in the decade since it was adopted as what was intended to be a temporary measure. But a new wave of grassroots and rabbinic opposition to the anti-gay policy, which is based on a document known as "the consensus statement," is forcing the issue back onto the Conservative movement's agenda. The desire to change the policy is so widespread that it may even potentially overcome efforts by key denominational leaders to keep the ban in place. A handful of the movement's most influential rabbis have recently expressed their desire to maintain current policy. The group includes, most importantly, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chair of the law committee, which decides matters of halacha for the movement. Though Rabbi Schorsch declined repeated requests for an interview, a source close to him says that one of his chief objections to changing the policy is that it would "break down the last wall of being able to say that the Conservative movement operates within a halachic framework," which has been the substance of Orthodox criticism against the denomination. Rabbi Schorsch also is concerned, sources say, that it would lead some congregations and rabbis to consider leaving the movement, as a few did after the movement allowed the ordination of women in 1983. On the gay issue, Rabbi Abelson said in an interview: "As of now, we are content with the position that was passed 10 years ago." When the issue was raised again in the late 1990s, he exercised discretion as committee chair and declined to open up discussion. Rabbi Joel Roth, the law committee's chair in 1992 and regarded as one of the movement's foremost interpreters of Jewish law, says he does not see any justifiable reason for changing the policy. He is still a member of the law committee and head of the Conservative movement's yeshiva in Israel. Revisiting the issue now, Rabbi Roth said in an interview, "will be extremely divisive, will create tremendous tension and it seems that I cannot predict what the conclusion would be, but I would just as soon at the moment prefer it not to be brought up." But two top voices within the movement intend to make sure it is. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the respected rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and incoming chairman of the law committee, was a moderating voice on the issue of gay leadership during the debates a decade ago. Rabbi Dorff said his perspective has changed in the last 10 years (see sidebar), and that he intends to put it at the top of the agenda when he moves up from vice-chair next spring. The chief representative of the movement's approximately 1.5 million congregants, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism president Judy Yudof, says she plans to write a letter soon to the law committee's chair urging that the gay issue be revisited. United Synagogue sources say she has the backing of the body's executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who sits on the law committee, and who through a spokesman declined comment. Yudof plans to urge a shift in policy on all aspects of the gay issue, like commitment ceremonies and homosexuals as teachers and youth leaders, but not rabbinic ordination. On the latter issue, Yudof said in an interview, she is not qualified to weigh in because she is a layperson. The ban on gay religious leadership has had a chilling effect on how homosexuals are welcomed in many Conservative synagogues, Yudof said. "If you say that gays' sexual preferences are not considered halachic behavior, that has a negative connotation that is stronger than one would have toward someone who doesn't observe the halacha [laws] of Shabbat or kashrut," Yudof said. "A stigma becomes attached to that," she said. "I've heard enough from laypeople about marginalization of gay members of their congregations that it's time for me to request that the law committee re-examine its current teshuvah," or religious opinion. The consensus statement was adopted after a fractious, painful debate in the early 1990s in the law committee. During that contentious period, an openly lesbian student was expelled from the rabbinical school on the basis of her sexual orientation, and a rabbi was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly after he came out as gay, effectively ending his career as a Conservative clergyman. The consensus statement prohibits rabbis from performing commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples; bars admission of "avowed homosexuals" to the rabbinical and cantorial schools, and the rabbis' and cantors' professional associations; and leaves decisions about gays as teachers, youth leaders and synagogue lay leaders to the rabbi of each Conservative institution. The statement also says there are to be "no witch hunts," and that homosexuals are to be welcomed in Conservative congregations, youth groups, camps and schools. But a growing number of Conservative movement members and leaders say that that isn't enough. Student groups at the two North American Conservative rabbinical seminaries (JTS and the University of Judaism) have recently held events in support of overturning the ban. At a JTS event earlier this month, some 120 students, along with members of the faculty and administration, attended a discussion of the relevant halachic and sociological issues. Speakers included a Reform rabbi who was told not to apply to JTS because he is openly gay, the president of a mainstream Conservative synagogue who is openly gay, a JTS faculty member whose son is gay, and Edward Feld, rabbi-in-residence at JTS, who offered halachic justification for changing the policy. Everyone on the dais and attendees exchanging views during break-out discussions strongly favored overturning the current stance. The event "showed that there are a lot of people concerned that the stand of the Conservative movement incorporates a broader sense of what the halacha can legitimately bring us to," said Rabbi Mychal Springer, associate dean of the JTS rabbinical school, who attended. The JTS gathering was organized by a student advocacy group called Keshet (Rainbow). Last April Keshet conducted a survey in the JTS cafeteria that garnered 236 responses. Nearly 80 percent said gays and lesbians should be admitted to the rabbinical and cantorial schools and 15 percent said no, according to Keshet leader Jeremy Gordon, a fourth-year rabbinical student. Those in favor of equality for gays say the time is right to revisit the issue because of fundamental changes, in the Conservative movement and in general, in the last decade. Since the consensus statement's adoption, several Conservative rabbis have come out as gay and lesbian after being ordained. At least one straight Conservative rabbi has taken a job in a gay and lesbian congregation. Current Rabbinical Assembly policy prohibits officiating at same-sex marriages, or commitment ceremonies, though no one has been kicked out for doing one. A growing number of rabbis (between 20 and 30) are willing to perform them, said Rabbi Dorff. "The last time the movement looked at this issue thoroughly, it was the beginning of the Clinton administration. At that time there was a lot of uncertainty in America broadly about social policies," said Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia and an active Rabbinical Assembly member who is trying to move the movement toward reconsidering its policy. "Over the past 10 years we've seen a serious increase in the number of committed gays and lesbians who are taking active roles in Conservative communities," he said, "people who are bringing in questions about raising children, supporting families with same-sex parents, about weddings. This was not the case a decade ago." JTS sources say that Rabbi Schorsch's perspective is a major obstacle on the gay issue, though it is theoretically possible for the law committee to adopt a position on aspects of gay leadership within Conservative Judaism without the seminary agreeing to change its admission policy. "The gay and lesbian issue is stuck on the chancellor, and he's not going to move," said a JTS source. "His worldview is keeping him from being amenable to seeing any possibility of a halachic shift. He seems intransigent on this issue." "I don't see the seminary moving on this while he's chancellor," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the UJ's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. A decade ago there was only one Conservative rabbinical school in North America. But since the Ziegler school became independent of JTS in 1996, now there are two, and Rabbi Artson says he will gladly admit openly homosexual students when the law committee position changes. "We've lost many good applicants because they're openly gay or lesbian," said Rabbi Artson. JTS rabbinical school dean Rabbi William Lebeau has also had to cope with the policy. "I have had to ask people about their sexual orientation," he said in an interview. "It's not an easy position ever to be in, to say to anyone that it's not possible for them to come to rabbinical school if that's their desire." Rabbi Lebeau declined to say how many people he has had to ask to leave the rabbinical school or tell not to apply on the basis of their sexual orientation. Rabbi Lebeau said that it is his "personal hope" that the law committee will take the issue up once again.

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