Vote on gays makes waves

Vote on gays makes waves

Jane Calem Rosen and Lois Goldrich

Reaction was swift in the wake of Wednesday’s historic vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that opened the door to gay and lesbian ordination and the sanction of commitment ceremonies by Conservative clergy. The landmark decision, which required just six votes for passage by the ‘5-member body, upheld the ban on male sodomy, while legalizing ordination and sanctifying committed same-sex unions of two Jews.

From left, Rabbis Kassel Abelson, Elliot Dorff, Joel Meyers, and Alvin Berkun announce the Conservative movement’s decision at a press conference Wednesday in New York. David Karp/JTA

Two other teshuvot, affirming the status quo that prohibits gay ordination and commitment ceremonies, were also passed. Two positions under consideration that would have overturned any prohibitions on homosexual behavior did not receive the necessary number of votes, having been labeled takanot, radical reinterpretations of Jewish law that require a 13-vote majority to be accepted. The outcome, not uncommon in Conservative halachic process, leaves the final determination of acceptable practice up to rabbis within their communities.

As officials of other movements weighed in (see next page), four veteran members of the law committee announced their resignations. Other movement professionals, including local rabbis, offered comments on how the acceptance of the teshuvah coauthored by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins, and Avram Reisner could affect movement politics and practice.

Following the vote, four members of the CJLS — Rabbis Mayer Rabinowitz, Joel Roth, Leonard Levy, and Joseph Prouser — resigned from the committee. Rabinowitz, associate professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said he had known before the vote that this was a decision he might have to make.

"It was a difficult decision," said Rabinowitz, a Teaneck resident. "I’ve been associated with the committee for over 30 years but I can’t be part of a committee where decisions are made that are outside the bounds of halacha."

The mood surrounding the resignations was "tearful, funereal," said Shira Dicker, a spokesperson for the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. "A number of rabbis turned to [the four] and said, ‘Please don’t leave us,’ [calling them] ‘my teachers.’ It was not a contentious moment. It was a decision that many may respect, but regret," she said, adding, "they are not leaving the R.A., resigning their teaching positions at the Jewish Theological Seminary, or leaving the movement." Rabinowitz confirmed this, pointing out, "I’m still chair of the joint bet din."

Roth, who lives in Englewood and is Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at JTS, said, "I was indeed touched and moved by the outpouring of sentiment by many members of the committee and student body at JTS and colleagues and friends who have called and begged me to reconsider."

Nevertheless, like Rabinowitz, he said he was unable to accept a decision that "appears to be outside the halachic system." Roth noted that there are at least a half-dozen traditionalists on the committee who chose not to resign.

He hopes that people will ask what caused him to resign over this issue, when he had not resigned over other decisions with which he disagreed. "I’m hopeful that people will say, ‘What prompted people like Roth and Rabinowitz to resign now?’"

He believes Wednesday’s decision will put tremendous pressure on rabbis — some of whom may not be comfortable with it — to perform commitment ceremonies. He also expects that the Ziegler school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles will soon begin to ordain gay rabbis.

Roth said it was significant that Dorff’s paper got 13 favorable votes. "I thought it would only get seven or eight," he said. He noted that the higher number will have an impact on the faculty of JTS, which will now begin to consider whether to grant ordination to gay rabbinical candidates.

"Its legitimacy in the eyes of the movement will be enhanced," he said. "It gives it more of a halachic imprimatur."

Some expressed hope that the four would reconsider their decision. "I hope the resignations are not final. I’ve encouraged them, as have others, to reconsider," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and a voting member of the CJLS. "They have made important contributions to the law committee and it’s important to have their voices. In fact, we had their voices with this decision," Epstein noted. Two of those who resigned, Roth and Rabbi Leonard Levy, wrote the teshuvot upholding the status quo.

Roth, for one, may change his mind. "I promised to think about it," he said.

Others were baffled by the resignations. "I’m sorry they felt they had to do that, and I have a complete lack of understanding of why," said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel Center of White Plains. "Rabbi Roth’s paper passed, and I’ve never heard of someone whose position was accepted feeling the need to resign."

Tucker, the author of one of the two liberal papers denied acceptance, still considered this week’s news "an important step forward. There is now authority in hand for those who would like to extend opportunities to gays and lesbians for inclusion in Jewish life, to form committed Jewish relationships and establish stable Jewish households and families."

Rabinowitz, who called the issue of homosexuality "difficult" and acknowledged that members were divided over it, said he couldn’t say how today’s decision will play out in the movement as a whole or in individual congregations. "I just can’t predict how it will be received," he said.

Rabinowitz pointed out that law committee members are appointed by one of three movement organizations: JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the United Synagogue. These organizations will now be responsible for appointing replacements for those who resigned.

Of the remaining committee members, Rabinowitz said he believes that they are all committed to halacha, though they differ in their interpretations and approaches. "I think that here they went too far," he said.

An informal survey of local pulpit rabbis reached as The Jewish Standard was going to press reflected conflicting viewpoints.

Rabbi Arthur Weiner, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, while not surprised by the decision, agreed with Prouser, one of those who resigned this week, that the approval of divergent responsa could "lead to doctrinal anarchy." As far as the anticipated effect on his own congregation, Weiner said JCCP would continue "to welcome and include all Jews to participate and maintain our own policy and understanding of Jewish law, which will not include the performance of commitment ceremonies." Weiner noted that "there is nothing in the new decision that mandates any change," but worried that "you can bet this will increase pressure on those who feel differently," referring to those like himself who don’t wish to officiate at ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Other local pulpit rabbis welcomed the support the decision would give their desired practice. "I’m happy about it," said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Temple Israel in Ridgewood.

Rabbi Geoffrey Haber of Temple Emanu-El in Closter lauded the proceedings as a "testament to the plurality of the movement that positions were accepted representing opposing poles." His own position, Haber said, had evolved. "Halacha is determined not only in a formal way by examining the sources, but also by responding to the legitimate needs of and information available in the historic era in which it exists."

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