There’s been a great deal of discussion in the mainstream and Jewish press about the recent rulings by Conservative Judaism’s Committee of Law and Standards on the status of gay and lesbian Jews. (You can click here for a complete news report on the decision. If you’d like to wade through the various Rabbinical rulings in question, they are available on the Rabbinical Assembly’s website.)
The truly historic aspect of these rulings are represented by the following words, which come from the decision by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reiser:
This ruling effectively normalizes the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Jewish community. Extending the 1992 CJLS consensus statement, gay and lesbian Jews are to be welcomed into our synagogues and other institutions as full members with no restrictions. Furthermore, gay or lesbian Jews who demonstrate the depth of Jewish commitment, knowledge, faith and desire to serve as rabbis, cantors and educators shall be welcomed to apply to our professional schools and associations.
In short, this means that three out of the four American Jewish denominations (Reform, Reconstructionist and now Conservative) now sanction the ordination of gay or lesbian rabbis as well as commitment cememonies between gay/lesbian partners. Those of us who have worked for GLBT inclusion and affirmation in Jewish life are profoundly gratified by this important new step. My own denomination, the Reconstructionist movement, has long led the charge in this regard (read here) and it is gratifying to see other movements now following suit. We can only hope these breakthroughs will have an impact upon American religious life beyond the Jewish community.
However, there is one other aspect of the Dorff/Nevins/Reiser opinion that has attracted some attention (or possibly caused some jaws to drop onto the floor):
The explicit Biblical ban on anal sex between men remains in effect. Gay men are instructed to refrain from anal sex.
In other words, the Conservative movement has voted to ordain gay rabbis and sanction gay commitment ceremonies, as long as gays (or at least gay men) refrain from having gay sex. (I know, I know, it must have been as strange for you to read these words as it felt for me to write them…)
Without going too far into the legal complexities of this issue, this prohibition comes from the verse in Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman: it is an abhorrence.” For a movement that views itself bound by halacha, or Jewish law, this particular Biblical prohibition presents a formidable challenge. The Dorff/Nevins/Reiser ruling thus represents a kind of legal middle ground. While the logic of this ruling might seem mystifying or even hypocritical to some, it is nevertheless an important step forward for a movement that views itself as bound by Jewish law and yet desires to be responsive to 21st century American life.
My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Amy Small (who serves Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Chatham, NJ) put it well recently on our Recon rabbinical listserve:
The decision is not what we’d want, but it is also not what many in the Conservative movement want. Given their internal struggles to both hold the movement together in a time of much internal division and their hope of remaining engaged in a halachic process, they may have moved as far as they could for the moment. That movement on this issue, however, is a significant directional shift. I applaud them for that and lend my support to those who will continue to work for change.
Another Recon colleague, Rabbi Mychal Copeland (who serves Stanford Hillel and belongs to a Conservative congregation) described the ruling as part of “the growing pains all denominations deal with at different moments in their evolution.” Mychal shared that she used to serve a congregation that struggled with her being a lesbian rabbi. She added, however:
The relationship progressed so well that when they decided to affiliate with the Conservative moment years later after I’d moved on, it was only under the condition that they could hire a GLBT rabbi if they so desired. That kind of change is how I see the recent ruling working on the ground. Gay rabbis have to be visible in order to change minds.
And at the end of the day, this is what the Conservative movement ruling will help to accomplish: the increasing visibility of gay rabbis and the increasing affirmation of gay Jews. Yes, perhaps it is only one small step. But for all the GLBT Jews who are currently wondering if there could ever be a place for them in the Jewish community, this small step might well make a world of difference.
Where do we go from here? Let’s dream a little. I’ll give the final word to my Recon colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer (Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA):
I personally am looking forward to the time when all of this bizarre negative obsession with homosexuality by the hetero mainstream will be behind us and we can move on to solving problems like world hunger and war, instead of having to defend our basic humanity…