Background: Interesting times ahead for the Conservatives

Doomsayers will argue that Wednesday's Committee of Jewish Law and Standard's decision is the beginning of the end for the Conservatives.

rainbow flag 88 (photo credit: )
rainbow flag 88
(photo credit: )
Doomsayers will argue that Wednesday's Committee of Jewish Law and Standard's decision is the beginning of the end for the Conservative Movement. They predict that the Dorff, Nevins Reisner decision, a legal motion which gave full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews - which means they can be ordained as clergy and their committed relationships may be recognized, although not as sanctified marriage - will split the movement into two distinct groups consisting of liberals and conservatives. The liberals will eventually join the Reform Movement, while the conservative arm will band together with modern Orthodoxy. However, this pessimistic prediction ignores basic theological differences among the three streams of Judaism. Fundamental issues such as patrilineal descent (accepted by Reform Judaism) and a radically different understanding of the role of halacha (Jewish law) in Jewish life create distance between the Reform and Conservative movements. A great divide also separates modern Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism. Except for Orthodox thinkers such as Rabbi David Hartman, the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis view halacha in a radically different way than do their Conservative counterparts. In fact, the same sort of doomsday conjecturing, which never materialized, went on during the debate over the ordination of women two decades ago. Then too conservative elements argued that the ordination of women would be the demise of the Conservative movement. In contrast, more liberal elements within Conservative Judaism argue the exact opposite. They say the CJLS decision to recognize the Dorff, Nevins Reisner opinion is Conservative Judaism's saving grace. It brings the movement up to date with developments in the secular world. Over the past several years, there has been - as a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed put it - a "global warming" to gay commitment ceremonies. South Africa recently joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain in opening civil marriage to same-sex couples, allowing them equal economic benefits, legal rights and social status as families. In Israel, the Supreme Court recently recognized same-sex civil marriages performed abroad. Within the Conservative movement, there are strong forces advocating change. Large numbers of Conservative Jews, especially among the younger generations, want a more progressive approach to homosexuality. The popularity of Keshet, a pro-gay rights movement within Conservative Judaism, is a sign of this sea change in the movement. Wednesday's verdict will have ramifications on different levels. The decision regarding ordination relates to the institutional level. Each of the Conservative movement's rabbinical schools will have to decide admission policy. Will "out" gays and lesbians be accepted to their schools? These institutions have the option, in accordance with Conservative practice, of choosing one of the two more conservative opinions that reject the ordination of homosexuals or opting for the more liberal opinion. One of these rabbinical schools, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, has already announced that if the CJLS approves the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner opinion, it would immediately open its doors to homosexuals. In contrast, the Jewish Theological Seminary will take a more cautious approach. It said it would begin a decision-making process to determine admission policy. Meanwhile, on the community level, each Conservative rabbi will have the freedom to decide whether or not to conduct same-sex commitment ceremonies. For Israel, the CJLS's decision has set the ball rolling. Leading members of the Masorti Movement have already announced that they would not be bound by the CJLS's decision. "The US has completed a process and we are just beginning ours," said Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, president of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement's Rabbinic Assembly Wednesday evening. "We cannot simply accept the US decision. Everybody here wants a separate, transparent and serious halachic effort here in Israel. We have to be honest with our constituency." Nevertheless, the fact that the CJLS approved a more progressive opinion has put more pressure on Israel. If the CJLS had simply upheld the status-quo, Israel, which is perceived as more conservative than the US, would probably not have been expected to be on the cutting edge of change. But now Israel will be forced to formulate an opinion. Most of the leading figures in the Masorti movement oppose change. People like Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute, and Rabbi Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical School, are strongly opposed to change. Schlesinger is also for maintaining the status-quo, as is Moshe Cohen, head of the Masorti movement. In theory, Israel could decide to reject the normalization of homosexuality like it rejected the US Conservative practice of driving on Shabbat. But no one knows yet how many of the members of the Israeli Rabbinical Assembly are for change. Only a few, like Rabbi Andy Sachs, director of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi David Lazar, who heads the Tiferet Shalom congregation in Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv, are outspokenly in favor of change. Lazar has been conducting same-sex commitment ceremonies for over six years. In the coming months, both the Rabbinical Assembly and Schechter are planning conferences that will focus on the issue of homosexuality as preparation for a final decision-making process. In the meantime, a heated debate will be launched in Israel the outcome of which is still unknown. But it is safe to say that interesting times await the Masorti Movement.