25 rabbis walk
into a room

25 rabbis walk
            into a room

Last winter 25 rabbis shut themselves in a room at the Park
Avenue Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side
and emerged 48 hours later with a remarkable
pronouncement: Gay and lesbian Jews may be ordained as
rabbis, and they may formally celebrate their
“committed and loving relationships.”

Today, the impact of this decision is still playing itself
out.

The rabbis were members of the Conservative
movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and
Standards. Appointed by various top brass in the
movement, the committee's members interpret and distill
Jewish history and sacred texts into rules, laws, and
guidelines on how to live a Jewish life. Homosexuality
was something they had grappled with before: In 1992
they voted to forbid ordination of gays and same-sex
marriage. And the committee's December 6 ruling was
still a mixed one. The rabbis voted simultaneously to
uphold the long-standing ban and to reverse it. “We
as a movement see the advantages of pluralism, and we
know that people come to different conclusions,
drawing from the same basic resources of our
tradition,” says Rabbi Kassel Abelson, who heads the
committee. Three members who supported the status quo
resigned in protest.

“They missed an opportunity to take moral
leadership,” says Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of New
York City’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, one of
the oldest and largest LGBT synagogues in the world.
“The law committee presented treating gay
people as equals as an option, and not treating gay
people as equals as an equally valid option.”

It’s now up to individual institutions to decide
which decision to abide by.

Immediately following the decision, officials at Los
Angeles’s University of Judaism, one of two
Conservative rabbinic seminaries in the United States,
announced that they would begin accepting applications from
gay and lesbian students. Last spring, two
applicants--one man and one woman--were accepted into
this fall’s incoming class, though UJ officials
declined to name them, citing federal privacy laws. The
admission of these students demonstrates that
“the policy change didn’t just happen in
a dark committee room. It actually had an impact within
weeks at the UJ,” said Rachel Kobrin, a
fourth-year rabbinic student who heads the campus
pro-equality group, Dror Yikra (Hebrew for “proclaim
freedom”).

Eventually, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary
followed suit, but there were a few months where the
outcome at the movement’s flagship seminary was
anyone’s guess. Before the decision came down at the
end of March, many suspected the seminary was
stalling. At the time, J.B. Sacks, a now-openly gay
conservative rabbi who was ordained at JTS in 1986 and
remained mostly closeted throughout his education and early
career, predicted, “At a certain point
they’ll make the announcement. And at that
point the deadline will be past for submission for an
application for the fall.” As it happened,
immediately following the CJLS decision, JTS
commissioned a survey of rabbis, cantors, Jewish
professionals, and lay leaders to “take the
pulse of the movement,” as incoming chancellor
Arnold Eisen described it in a statement, before making a
decision. The survey, released in January, found that
a large majority of respondents (65% of rabbis, 58% of
rabbinic students, and 76% of professionals) favored
admitting gay students. The seminary extended its January
deadline to June to allow for gay and lesbian students to
apply.

Conservative Judaism is one of three mainstream Jewish
movements; historically, it has sought a middle ground
on the spectrum of religious observance, between the
more secular Reform movement on one side and the more
strictly observant Orthodox on the other side. Orthodoxy
still condemns homosexuality; Reform Judaism allowed
for ordination of gays and lesbians in 1990 and
same-sex marriage in 2000.

Even at the UJ, none of the campus’s closeted gay or
lesbian students have come out, nor were any willing
to speak to the press--even when offered the use of a
pseudonym--despite the official policy change.

Rabbi Sacks recalls that when he was in seminary, one
beloved teacher, upon finding out that Sacks was gay,
told him, “you’re very lucky that I
probably need to keep teacher-student privilege, because
[otherwise] I’d have you thrown out of here in
a minute.” Sacks speculates that gay and
lesbian students, wary because of this kind of
treatment in the past, may still be concerned that,
upon coming out, “their private behavior may
come under more scrutiny.” Also, because individual
congregations are free to decide which of the
committee’s decisions to abide by, Sacks says
gay and lesbian students may have a realistic fear
that coming out will hamper their job prospects once they
are ordained.

At a December teach-in at JTS, led by the student group
Keshet (Hebrew for "rainbow"), fluorescent stickers
reading “Ordination Regardless of
Orientation” and, a quote from Deuteronomy,
“Justice Justice You Shall Pursue,” were
stuck to hats and shirts all over the room. A rabbinic
student pulled a reporter quietly into a hallway. He was
very sorry he couldn’t speak on the record, he said,
but after hiding for so long, he wasn’t ready
to say out loud what most of his close friends already
knew: that he was gay, that he’d had to be silent for
the years he’d been at JTS in order to follow
his heart into the rabbinate.

Whereas ordination of gays and lesbians is playing out on
two large stages--the UJ and JTS--hundreds of
individual rabbis and congregations are grappling with
the other issue addressed by the committee’s
decision: commitment ceremonies between same-sex
partners.

The issue is at the forefront of many congregational
discussions. “I have a friend who just came
back from [job] interviews” at several
congregations, said Kobrin of Dror Yikra. “He went on
10 interviews, and every one of them asked if he would
do commitment ceremonies.”

There were a handful of Conservative rabbis--Sacks and Rabbi
Cohen of Beth Simchat Torah among them--who, without
the movement’s approval, performed same-sex
commitment ceremonies before the committee’s
decision. Indeed, most gay and lesbian Jews who wanted
a Conservative wedding ceremony weren’t waiting
for the law committee’s approval—they simply
sought out rabbis who weren’t waiting either.
However, many rabbis committed to equality were
nevertheless holding out for the nod. “I may be
progressive in my thinking, but I’m also a company
man,” says Rabbi Jack Moline of Congregation
Agudis Achim in Alexandria, Va. “I feel bound
by Jewish law. As long as halacha
[Jewish law] says
something is impermissible, I have to set aside my own
preferences in favor of the greater wisdom of the
tradition.”

The Conservative movement in North America has over 1.5
million members, according to the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism. Of these, only 1%--1,500--are
rabbis; it’s likely that a similarly small percentage
are gays and lesbians who seek commitment ceremonies.
However, the decision’s symbolic import will
affect Jews--and gays and lesbians--far outside this
slim minority.

“In the Jewish world, everybody knows that if
you’re really religious, you’re
Orthodox, if you’re not religious, you’re
Reform, and if you’re somewhere in the middle,
you’re Conservative. All the movements hate
that, of course, but that’s the conventional
wisdom,” says Jay Michaelson, a gay observant
Jew whose most recent book, God in Your Body: Kabbalah,
Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice,

explores the intersection of sexuality and religion.
“The idea that the ‘somewhat religious’
people now say it’s OK to be gay, and that God
doesn’t hate fags after all,” he says, sends a
powerful message to all faith communities.

What’s more, “it puts [the issue] on the
map,” says Kobrin. “It’s been all
over the news. If something is all over the news, you have
to talk about it.”

Ultimately, many think the ban on gay and lesbian ordination
and commitment ceremonies will fall out of favor, and
time will bring only greater inclusion. Eventually,
says Sacks, “the Conservative movement will
slowly be dragged into following through on its commitment
to pluralism, accepting the fruits of scientific
research, social justice, and human dignity. A change
will come, because such principles are too great not
to overtake all people who are open to creating a holy
community and a better world.”

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