Conservative Movement reacts to gay rights

Rabbinical Assembly reaches conclusions on issue of homosexuality and halacha.

Gay Jerusalem (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Gay Jerusalem
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The reaction in Jerusalem to last week's decision on the issue of homosexuality and Halacha by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has been both supportive and critical of its overall ambiguity. On December 6, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly concluded its two-day meeting on the subject of homosexuality and Halacha. Two specific responsa obtained clear majority support. Rabbi Joel Roth's responsum "Homosexuality Revisited" denied ordination as clergy to active homosexuals and also prohibited same-sex commitment ceremonies or marriage. Rabbis Dorf, Nevins and Reisner, while retaining the Torah's prohibition on male homosexual intercourse, argued in "Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakha" for the full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews. Under this ruling, gay and lesbian Jews may be ordained as clergy and their committed relationships may be recognized, although not as sanctified marriage. Four committee members, Rabbi Levy, Rabbi Roth, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz and Rabbi Joseph Prouser, resigned from the law committee in protest against the liberal decision, Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. A third responsum written by Rabbi Leonard Levy, which upheld traditional prohibitions that forbade the ordination of gays and recognition of commitment ceremonies, urged the development of education programs within the community to achieve understanding, compassion and dignity for gays. Though the three rulings appear contradictory, Conservative Jews now have the option to follow the groundbreaking Dorf, Nevins and Reisner ruling, giving communities more leeway in how they approach the issue of homosexuality. The decision appears to reflect the pluralistic nature of the community's members. The Rabbinical Assembly is the international professional association of Conservative Rabbis. The CJLS is the central halachic authority for the Conservative movement, which represents more than two million Jews worldwide. The Israeli Masorti Movement, although associated with the Conservative Movement, is a separate body and not bound by the rulings of the CJLS. This all occurred against the backdrop of the November 21 Israeli Supreme Court ruling ordering the Interior Ministry to allow same-sex couples legally married abroad to be registered as such in Israel. Subsequently, a bill sponsored by MK Michael Eitan of the Likud that would make it illegal for the state to recognize same-sex unions, passed its first reading. Noa Sattath, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, a gay, lesbian and transgendered community center, was not entirely impressed by the Conservative decision. "We work closely with the Conservative movement and are a little disappointed by the indecisiveness. The decision lacks a firm commitment to equality and dignity for our people as a Jewish principle. We've waited for years for this discussion and its ambiguity is a letdown. But this is a step forward and the first in what we are sure is going to be a long process," Sattath says. While members of the gay community were discouraged by the indecisiveness, young students in the Conservative movement's Nativ Program, a post-high school, pre-college year-long program that educates young students and trains them to become Conservative Jewish leaders, saw it as an opportunity for discovery within the movement. The issue was prevalent in the students' discussions both before and after the decision was released, according to Julie Berger, who works at the program, which houses students at the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism while they are in Jerusalem. "We talked about it a lot in group discussions and felt that the decision was trying to please everyone," she explains. "For students discovering Conservative Judaism, this has definitely been a development, not in a negative way, for their search for answers." There was also dissenting opinion from perspectives within the rabbinical school arm of the movement as well. "The biggest disappointment is that we had four rabbis who left the committee before the decision. And that is a high price to pay. They are great teachers and some of the greatest minds within the movement," says a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary studying at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, one of the Conservative movement's institutions of higher learning, who wished to remain anonymous. Amid criticism of the decision, many community members see the issue in a positive light and feel endeared to their movement by the CJLS finally acknowledging a long-shunned issue. A native New Yorker and current resident of Katamon, Bonnie Rose Schulman identifies herself as part of the Conservative Jewish Community. "As I understand it, because the Law Committee passed three distinct teshuvot [responsa], the responsibility for enacting these laws now lies with the individual synagogues, so I am curious to see how these decisions will affect my synagogue," she says. Schulman is looking forward to the practical implementation of the law and more specifically, what her rabbi is going to do. "I truly feel that this is a fascinating time to be connected to the Conservative movement, in the wake of the contentious decision to ordain female rabbis and now in light of the recent decision to ordain gay rabbis," she continues. "I am deeply proud of the Conservative movement's insistence to address difficult but necessary issues in a halachic framework. These issues affect so many individuals on a real, basic level, and our movement doesn't shy away from approaching these difficult discussions." Concludes Golan Canaan, a resident of Nahlaot and a graduate student at the Hebrew University, "They [gays] deserve to be represented in religion just as much as anyone else. I don't think it's fair to exclude them, it's an important issue and a move in the right direction. They believe in Torah and should be able to honor it on the same high spiritual level as others. It's been a long time coming." Simon Williams contributed to this report.