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)

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Thanks for pointing out the hypocrisy and wishy-washiness of this decision. Though I think many people are tempted to celebrate this decision as at least a step in the right direction, I have to wonder how leaving individual congregations with the right to remain homophobic and exclusionary and banning a specific type of gay sex are improvements. Yes, GLBT Jews can now become Conservative rabbis and may have a commitment ceremony officiated by a Conservative rabbi, but their equality and dignity is yet to be fully acknowledged.

I also agree that the comparison with the decision 23 years ago to ordain women is apt -- and it's instructive to realize that even now, there are many non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, as well as Conservative rabbinical students who won't count their fellow female rabbinical students in a minyan. To me, this demonstrates that the victory is still incomplete. When it comes to matters of equality and human dignity, we need to aim higher, rather than accepting compromises.

I totally appreciate your refreshing and nuanced piece. I especially appreciate your remarks about women's experiences since gays and lesbians are likely to have similar problems in the Conservative rabbiniate. Terrific reminder!

The UJ has already begun to accept gay and lesbian students. As Rabbi Artson promised when he took the position of dean there: "As soon as the movement permits, I will begin the next day." And so he has. Although calling the UJ more left-leaning, is misleading in general.

I believe that this post brings up many important points regarding the identity of the Conservative movement, and how its identity crisis has affected and will continue to impact halachic suggestions by the Committee on Law and Standards.

The point that I find most interesting is the de facto effect that the passage of this one lenient opinion will have on Conservative Congregations, JTS, and G/L/B/T Conservative Jews. I wonder, on the congregational level, when there are still so many communities that openly or unconsciously reject the possiblity of hiring female rabbis, how many congregations would hire and embrace gay rabbis? There are indeed still Conservative congregations, especially in Canada, that are not egalitarian.

On the level of the seminaries, I expect that the UJ, generally on the more left-leaning side of the movement will accept g/l/b/t students within the year. JTS, even though its new chancellor is on the record as being in favor of ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis, will probably take a few more years. The Chancellor will have to convince many other individuals before a new policy is adopted. The Masorti movement in Israel will probably outright reject the possibility of accepting g/l/b/t people as well as performing commitment ceremonies for a very long time. However, it should be noted that there are Masorti rabbis here (generally in the Tel Aviv area) that are already officiating at the ceremonies.

Finally, I wonder how many Gays and Lesbians actually identify as Shomrei Mitzvot Jews who want to become Conservative rabbis. I assume there won't be a deluge of applicants now that institutions like Hebrew College and RRC exist. I know of as many 6-7 unhappy, Conservative gay students at HUC, (which isn't always so tolerant of traditional students) who are contemplating transferring. That said, I wonder how many of them would be willing to take the time to transfer and reject an institution, that for all its faults, is so supportive of g/l/b/t equality. Finally, the Conservative movement is still reeling from the effects of women's ordination. Many professors left the institution, and many rabbis went to get smicha from Yeshiva University in reaction to the decision. I know of at least one Talmud teacher at the Seminary that refuses to teach directly to women. How much more so will gay and lesbian students suffer? Is it worth it? How much dedication do they and will they feel to the Seminary considering the unfriendly environment there?

Prohibition on homosexuality has nothing to do with Talmudic rabbis; it's the Torah. Criticism addressed to the USCJ is not so much about its attempt to re-write Torah, but their decision to allow minor congregational rabbis to do so at will. USCJ did not establish a new rule, but left it to the congregations which are in no way qualified to handle theological discussion.

How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "A Thorny Future for Gay and Lesbian Conservative Rabbis." 7 December 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 13, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/glbtrabbis>.

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