Conservatives ponder policy on gay rabbis

A large majority of Conservative rabbis, cantors, other professionals and lay leaders favors allowing gays and lesbians to become rabbis.

gay couple 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gay couple 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A large majority of Conservative rabbis, cantors, other professionals and lay leaders favors allowing gays and lesbians to become rabbis, according to a study released this week. The Israeli respondents were less enthusiastic than the Americans. The study, conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary, was intended to provide a wide-ranging response to the recent decision by the Conservative movement to accept three teshuvot - halachic opinions - on the issue. Two of the rulings maintained the movement's previous stance against the ordination of homosexual rabbis, while one ruled that gay and lesbians can be ordained. Conservative rabbinical seminaries are free to follow any of the teshuvot. "The survey gives us data on this score, not in order to have polling dictate policy, but as one factor among many to bear in mind as we consider a complex and controversial decision that will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future direction of JTS and the Conservative movement," JTS chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen said in a statement. The survey of 5,000 Jewish leaders reports that "clear majorities" support the admission of gays and lesbians students to rabbinical and cantoral programs at JTS. About two-thirds of rabbis, cantors and JTS students support admission for gay and lesbian students, while one-third oppose it. Support for admitting openly homosexual students is higher among Americans than among Israelis and Canadians. It is also higher among women, younger people and the less observant. American rabbis and cantors favor accepting gay and lesbian students by a 69 to 25 margin. Israelis are evenly divided. Canadians, in contrast, heavily oppose the proposed policy change, with 18 percent for and 82% against. There is a similar divide on rabbis performing same-sex commitment ceremonies, with 63% in favor and 28% opposed. While a majority accepts same-sex commitment ceremonies, they reject same-sex Jewish marriage ceremonies, with 30% in favor and 52% opposed. The survey also looked at what the rulings mean for the future of the movement as a whole. The vast majority of conservative leaders believe the recent decisions "widen the gap between Conservatism and Orthodoxy." The study concludes that "the decisions clearly raise the possibility among many that the Conservative movement has taken a move to the theological Left, further parting company from the Orthodox, and further approaching the Reform movement." Rabbi Carie Carter of the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, who attended JTS, said the study was "a happy affirmation" of something she expected, but wasn't entirely confident about. "I had a feeling for a long time that members of the community would support this," she said. Israelis and Americans were in "different places" with respect to the issue, Carter said. "It will be a challenge for the Conservative movement to balance those needs... This teshuva is opening up the door to conversation in the movement, and where it is challenging in America, it is even more challenging in Israel." This week, JTS hired Rabbi Daniel Nevins, one of the authors of the teshuva favoring the ordination of gays and lesbians and same-sex commitment ceremonies, as the new dean of its rabbinical school, effective July 1. The school has not decided if it will admit openly homosexual students. "When I was in school at JTS, and even until this year, the seminary set up a miserable experience and a horrible choice for gays and lesbians," Carter said. "People had to choose between their identities as committed conservative Jews who wish to serve their community, and their identity as gay or lesbian men and women. You had to hide parts of yourself from the people you most want to serve, and it's my hope that the seminary will open its doors so that people won't have to make that choice."