A Thorny Future for Gay and Lesbian Conservative Rabbis
Gay and lesbian rabbis. Same-sex unions. These issues have been hotly debated in Jewish life for decades and perhaps more divisively within the Conservative movement. But yesterday marked a historical shift in the Conservative movement's position. Leaders of the movement's Committee on Law and Standards approved a rabbinic opinion permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and sanctioning same-sex unions. The committee also validated two other opinions that deeply oppose gay/lesbian religious leadership, characterize homosexuality as a treatable "disease," and explicitly prohibit anal sex. (The fact that sexual activity has been so obsessively and scrutinizingly discussed among the committee members is blatantly hypocritical given the Conservative movement's respect for modesty and privacy. Are straight rabbis instructed on how they should or should not have sex?! I don't believe so…)
Contrary to the Reform and Reconstructionist movements that have maintained inclusive policies for both women and gays & lesbians for a long time, the Conservative movement has historically struggled to define itself as inherently halachic (in accordance with Jewish law) while meeting the ethical challenges of modernity. With a seemingly perpetual identity-crisis and wishy-washy stances on social, political, and religious issues, the movement has lost membership to both Orthodox and Reform constituencies. But in the aftermath of the Committee on Law and Standards' conclusion that gay and lesbian rabbis can be tolerated and that same-sex unions are permissible (though clearly not of equal status to heterosexual marriages), perhaps the movement will begin drawing more energy and momentum from those who've been estranged, believing Conservative Judaism to be a "cop-out" or just plain stale.
Yesterday's event is not unlike the movement's decision to ordain women in 1983. The inability of the Conservative movement to find a way to accommodate female rabbinical students in the 1970s and 1980s and gays and lesbians in the '90s and early 2000s proved a huge stumbling block for a movement that wants to be at the center of American Judaism. These exclusions affected more than the women or gays and lesbians who were kept from contributing to the movement in the way they would have liked; they also alienated many other creative, energetic potential rabbinical candidates who did not want to be part of a system that discriminated against their friends and colleagues.
For the last 30 years, the role of the rabbi has been undergoing multiple transformations as the denominations deal with the different realities faced by women rabbis. As with women before them, Conservative gay and lesbian rabbinical students will have to find their way in a movement that may be ready to allow them to join the rabbinate, but is clearly not ready to deal with the implications of what it will mean for them to be rabbis. Women who became rabbis did not turn out to be men just as gay rabbis will not turn out to be straight. They will bring different perspectives and may bring different needs to the role of rabbi. Is there any reason to think that gay rabbis will be satisfied with definitions of gay status that are clearly inferior to the status that will be granted to their straight colleagues? And have they even considered the implications of trying to explain the acceptable and forbidden categories of sexual activity delineated in these rulings in their religious schools?!
If the Jewish Theological Seminary ultimately welcomes gay and lesbian applicants, it will be interesting to see just how many actually apply. On the one hand, it would be a shame if gays and lesbians do not seize the opportunity. Without a gay and lesbian presence to affirm the shift in Conservative thinking, what will have been accomplished? And at the same time, is it enough to just be tolerated? Is the sense of alienation created by the Conservative movement's disdain for and dehumanization of gay sex still too difficult for gay and lesbian Jews and their allies to combat?
(co-authored by KG)