Exactly what is the halacha governing gay men and lesbians in the Conservative world?
Right now, the answer is fairly clear; it’s basically a variant of "love the sinner, hate the sin." The movement welcomes gay and lesbian Jews as errant Jews, viewing what it sees as their breach of Leviticus 18:” as no more or less reprehensible than breaking the Sabbath or committing adultery. Their lapses are deplored but do not place them outside the community.
After early December, when the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards votes on four teshuvot, or responses, to the question, the answer is likely to be less straightforward. According to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s congregations, the committee is likely to accept at least two of the four teshuvot they are considering. One of them is likely to be in favor of change, the other against it.
Epstein is one of the committee’s ‘5 voting members. He stresses that he cannot know how the vote will go; he bases his prediction on his long history with the movement and the committee. Each teshuvah must receive at least six votes to be accepted, and each voter may vote for or against each teshuvah, based on its own internal halachic logic.
If Epstein’s prediction proves to be right, then it will be up to each synagogue’s rabbi, as mara d’atra, or community decisor, to decide the policy in his or her shul.
Last Thursday, almost ’00 people jammed into the sanctuary of Cong. Shaare Zedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to hear a panel discuss the issue. Rabbi Joel Roth of Teaneck, Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, argued passionately against change, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, spoke with equal passion in its favor. Epstein moderated the panel.
The issue has been a perennial in the Conservative movement; in 199′ a consensus decision ruled against commitment ceremonies and accepting openly gay or lesbian rabbinical students but urged that gays and lesbians be accepted as fellow Conservative Jews. It is those two issues that the law committee will address, although its members know that broader questions underlie them. In the past few years the issue often was on the law committee’s agenda but always was deferred; now the committee promises that it will come to a vote.
Roth warned the audience that if the halacha were to be changed, so too would the movement change, and the change would be irrevocable. "The Conservative movement is a halachic movement, and halacha is binding both individually and collectively, irrespective of the degree to which we obey it," he said. "If it ceases to be a halachic movement, we might as well close up shop. Just because something is politically correct, that doesn’t make it ipso facto halachically correct." He did not reprise his tightly argued halachic argument; in its 199′ version it’s available on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Website. But "the two verses in the Book of Leviticus really are quite clear, despite the efforts of some to call their clarity into question," he said. Still, it is also true that the prohibition is against actions, not thoughts or fantasies. And it’s particularly harsh because, he acknowledged, "homosexuals do not choose to be homosexuals."
Halachic prohibition should not spill over into civil law, Roth warned; gay men and lesbians should have full civil rights. "Unlike secular law, halacha reflects the will of God," he said. "God can legitimately command private and personal behavior." The state cannot.
Because of the prohibitions unavoidably demanded by halacha, gay men and lesbians "are called upon to make the most difficult and onerous sacrifice" demanded of any Jew. "They must be celibate. They can have attractions, but they must not act on them.
"I do not pretend that it is easy to comply" with this demand, he added.
He knows that his position is stark, Roth said. "If I could have found a way to say yes, so that people who are gay need not suffer as a result of my decision, I would have been glad to do that." But he could not, and because the halacha reflects God’s will, by definition "it is not immoral."
His differences with Roth "stem from our understanding of halacha," countered Dorff. "Roth’s is reductive," straining out all outside influences. But "I view Jewish law as a living organism that is constantly changing."
Dorff’s 199′ opinion is also on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Website. Unlike Roth, Dorff has changed his mind on the issue, largely as a result of hearing the stories of the many gay men and lesbians he’s known. His paper now before the law committee, to oversimplify greatly, says that the biblical verse can be read literally, to prohibit anal sex between men, and so only that act should be prohibited. What’s more, he suggested, the meaning of the verse itself is not so clear. How does a man lie with a man as he does with a woman? What, in fact, does that really mean?
Dorff, like Roth, chose not to use his time on the panel to explain his halachic reasoning; it is too complex and would have taken too much time. (The teshuvot themselves, which are now undergoing revision as a result of the first round before the law committee, are not available to the public until after they are accepted by the committee, and not necessarily even then.) Instead, he talked about how advances in knowledge not only may but must affect halacha. "Moral, social, and scientific concerns are not outside the law," Dorff said. "The rabbis knew that from the beginning.
Over the past few decades we have learned more about the etiology of homosexuality, he continued; that knowledge must affect our decisions. And "celibacy is not something we should recommend. It is Christian, not Jewish, and it is cruel. We believe that God is good," Dorff said. "’Tov adonai l’kol, v’rachamav al kol ma’asav.’" That’s from Psalm 145 and translates as "The Lord is good to all; His compassion embraces all."
"We believe in kavod habrit," or human dignity, Dorff continued. "And we know that it is not good to live alone." Given all that, he concluded, we must allow gay men and lesbian commitment ceremonies and we must allow them to enter rabbinical school.
Throughout his talk, Dorff quoted a line generally attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Certainty is generally illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man." Neither, he suggested, is repose the fate either of halacha or of halachist. Change is inevitable and it is good, as long it is done properly and within the parameters of halacha.
A video of the talk, including the question and answer period that followed the main talks, soon will be available on United Synagogue’s Website, www.uscj.org.Joanne Palmer, a former managing editor of this newspaper, is director of communications for The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.