Halacha demands a 'no'

An Israeli Conservative rabbi reacts to the vote by the movement's US-based Rabbinical Assembly to permit the 'full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews.'

The Torah portion of Vayishlah includes the verse: "And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day" (Genesis 32:25). Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, references this phrase in his book Wrestling with God and Men - Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. For our part, the Conservative movement has also been wrestling with this important issue and reached a decision. The Rabbinical Assembly-Committee on Jewish Law and Standards addressed two questions connected with homosexuality and Halacha. 1. Are the rabbinical schools affiliated with the Conservative movement permitted to ordain gay rabbis? 2. Are Conservative rabbis permitted to perform commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples? The proper approach to relating to homosexuals was not at issue. Conservative Jews have been guided by the stance articulated in the Etz Hayim humashin a reference note (page 691) to Leviticus 18:22 - "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination." The note reads: "Conservative movement resolutions call on congregations to welcome gay and lesbian congregants in all congregational activities." That means gays and lesbians are invited to take active part in every aspect of our communal lives - Torah learning, prayer and in the performance of charitable acts (hessed). From my point of view, addressing the issue of homosexuality and Halacha is perfectly kosher. The questions addressed by the Rabbinical Assembly warranted scholarly research and a proper rabbinic response. OUR REFORM brethren don't view themselves as bound by Halacha. They sanctify the autonomy of the individual and do not need to engage in the halachic debate; they are guided by their consciences. Regarding the Orthodox rabbinic community, you do hear some discussion of the issue. Last year The Jerusalem Reportfeatured book reviews which dealt with gay issues. One book was written by an Orthodox rabbi who came out as gay, and another by a British Orthodox rabbi who wanted to encourage Jewish communities to reach out to gays and lesbians. There was also an article on homosexuality this year in the academic journal Akdamot published by Beit Morasha of Jerusalem-Academic Center for Leadership and Jewish Studies. So, at least some Orthodox scholars are speaking and writing about this issue. However, a halachic debate parallel to ours has not taken place. CONSERVATIVE RABBIS want to continue the Talmudic tradition. Our rabbis studied, researched the texts, argued and debated. They conducted themselves in a respectful manner, in the spirit of the disputes between Hillel and Shamai, Abayei and Rava. So, the process is kosher. I can't say, however, the same for the outcome. Until now, I could say with great confidence that there is halachic pluralism within our movement, and eilu ve'eilu- "These words and those words are the words of the living God." However after last week's decision, even if there is halachic pluralism, I'm not really sure about the eilu v'eilu. AS JEWS we are obligated and commanded, and as Jews we have always asked questions in reference to the commandments. I hope we continue to ask questions and that rabbis continue to teach and guide. However, one should not always expect an answer to be positive; at times we must be forthright and respond with a "no." Rabbi David Hartman once compared a Jew's obligation to Halacha to the commitment between spouses. When you marry you accept limitations as well as obligations. Marriage fills a person with joy, love and partnership, while at the same time it limits his or her mobility and excludes intimate relationships with others. The marriage relationship is terminated only by death or by a get. Just as a married person is obligated to be faithful to their spouse, a Jew is obligated to live a life according to Halacha, and this obligation is also restrictive. At the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Roth reaffirmed the prior Conservative position which denied ordination as clergy to active homosexuals and also prohibited same-sex commitment ceremonies. He explained that while the secular legal world focuses on a system of rights guaranteed to all (almost without restriction so long as the rights of others aren't infringed), the Jewish legal system focuses on obligations and mitzvot. These mitzvot sanctify our lives, refine our behavior, create a rhythm to our days and help us make order out of chaos. SOME HAVE mistakenly compared the gay issue to the question of ordaining women, which Conservative Jewry addressed some 20 years ago. In fact, the only thing the two controversies share is that both evoked emotional debate. Then, as now, the threat of a split in the Conservative movement is in the air. However, the major difference between these issues relates to the Torah's explicit prohibition of sexual activity between homosexuals, while to my understanding, with regard to ordaining women, the rabbis didn't have to wrestle with halachot of the magnitude of Leviticus 18:22. I recognize and support the ordination of women. I count women for a minyan and will pray in a minyan led by a woman shlihat tzibur. However, even with an egalitarian approach, not everything is acceptable. For instance, I am not able to permit two women - even if they were distinguished former chief justices of the Israeli Supreme Court - to sign as witnesses in a marriage ceremony. This is explicitly barred in Maimonides's Yad Hahazaka Hilchot Edut 9:2, where he states: "The Torah disqualifies women from testifying as witnesses as it is written 'according to two witnesses…' which is written in the masculine form and not in the feminine." On a personal level, this prohibition is difficult for me to accept. However, when rendering halachic decisions we may sometimes have to answer in the negative. "No" may be the answer I'd rather not have to give and my questioner would rather not hear, but it is certainly a legitimate reply. Take any of the following situations. I would love to perform a marriage ceremony between the son of a Reform convert and a sabra Jewish woman. However, after determining that the groom's mother never finished her conversion process by going to a mikve, I have had to decline. I want to perform a wedding for a man divorced in a civil procedure who fell passionately in love again - but I cannot perform the ceremony if he hasn't granted a getto his first wife. I want to conduct a bar-mitzva ceremony for a wonderful young man whose father is Jewish, but his mother is gentile, but I am unable. I want to see X in shul every Shabbat, but if he would ask me the question: Is it halachically permissible to drive to synagogue on Shabbat? I would answer no. There is a braitawhich appears a number of times in the Talmud: "Our rabbis taught us - always one's left hand rejects and one's right hand reaches out and brings near." We have two hands. At times we may use one hand to reject, but thank God we have another hand with which to reach out and bring closer. Meaning we Conservative Jews embrace any person - straight or gay - who wants to become part of our religious community. I saw the controversial film Trembling Before God-three times. It's a movie that deals with the tribulations of observant homosexuals and lesbians. It affected me deeply. And I stand arm in arm with homosexuals and lesbians, for we are all"trembling before God." Therefore, although we are all obligated to halachic rulings, we are nonetheless also obligated to respect and embrace all those Jews who are created in the image of God. That's the bottom line. The above is excerpted from a sermon delivered by Rabbi Barry Schlesinger in his capacity as spiritual leader of Congregation Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem on December 9. He is also president of the Masorti movement's Rabbinic Assembly in Israel, which will address the issue in an independent process set to begin in early January.