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A key Conservative Jewish leader is traveling the country to prepare synagogues for a potentially divisive change: The movement will roll back its ban on ordaining openly gay rabbis by year's end, he predicts, with confusion and discomfort to follow.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says a committee of scholars who interpret Jewish law for the movement will likely loosen the prohibition when they vote in December.
At the same time, Epstein expects the scholars will endorse a policy aiming to keep more traditional congregations within the fold. The panel will effectively allow synagogues that believe that Jewish law bars same-sex relationships to hire only heterosexual rabbis.
The vote by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will test what Conservative leaders call their "big umbrella" - allowing diverse practices within one movement. It will also signal to the wider community how far the Conservative branch will go to reinterpret Jewish law.
"The committee might accept - will accept, I think - two or more" policies, Epstein said at an August 24 meeting of New York Conservative Jewish rabbis and synagogue leaders. "One that actually reaffirms the current position and at least one that will liberalize it."
The effect of the contradictory actions will be that local Jewish communities have more freedom. Conservative seminaries, along with the movement's estimated 750 synagogues and more than a thousand rabbis in the United States and Canada, will get to decide on their own which policy to follow.
"It could cause confusion, it could cause tremendous angst, it could cause tremendous tension, it could cause tremendous disagreement," Epstein said.
Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading religious scholar and a member of the Conservative Law Committee, questioned whether people with traditional Jewish views on sexuality will stay, even if the panel allows synagogues leeway to accept or reject gay relationships. Roth said he has been "demonized" for saying that he interprets religious law as barring same-gender sex.
Roth contends the verses in Leviticus considered to ban gay relationships "are really quite clear, despite the efforts by some to call their clarity into question."
"I know the law as it stands causes pain," he said. "But pain is not to be equated with immorality."
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the Law Committee and a widely respected scholar, supports ordaining gays, saying "it is simply not natural" to demand that gays and lesbians remain celibate.
"We have to interpret God's will in our time," Dorff said. He's confident that synagogues will realize that they share too much to let disputes over homosexuality divide them.
Dorff and Roth are traveling with Epstein to explain their differing interpretations of Jewish law. Along with presentations in Toronto and New York last month, the trio plan to speak in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C..