Conservative Jewish leader is organizing talks nationwide to
tell synagogues that the movement will likely roll
back its ban on ordaining openly gay rabbis by year's
end. He and two religious law experts joining him at
the meetings are trying to help congregations prepare for
the confusion and discomfort to follow.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president
of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in New
York City, says a committee of scholars who interpret
Jewish law for the movement will likely loosen the
prohibition when they vote in December. At the same
time, Epstein expects the scholars will endorse a
policy aiming to keep more traditional congregations
within the fold. Synagogues that believe Jewish law bans
same-sex relationships still will be able to hire rabbis who
share their view.
The vote by the Committee on Jewish Law and
Standards will test what Conservative leaders call
their "big umbrella" allowing diverse practices within
one movement. It will also signal to the wider community
how far the Conservative branch will go to reinterpret
"The committee might accept--will accept,
I think--two or more" policies, Epstein said at
an August 24 meeting of New York Conservative Jewish
leaders. "One that actually reaffirms the current position
and at least one that will liberalize it."
The effect of the contradictory actions will be
that local Jewish communities have more freedom.
Conservative seminaries, along with the movement's
estimated 750 synagogues and more than 1,000 North American
rabbis, will get to decide which policy to follow.
"It could cause confusion, it could cause
tremendous angst, it could cause tremendous tension,
it could cause tremendous disagreement," Epstein said.
The vote comes as the movement is trying to hold
on to a shrinking middle ground between innovation and
strict tradition in American Judaism. The Conservative
branch follows Jewish law, while allowing limited change for
It's been a hard road to follow. Many
Conservative Jews have joined the more liberal Reform
stream, which has recently surpassed the Conservative
branch as the largest in America. The Reform movement
ordains gays and is more accepting of interfaith couples.
For Conservative Jews seeking more rigorous
observance, the Orthodox branch has become a popular
choice. Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to traditional
interpretations of Jewish law, prohibiting women and gays
from becoming rabbis.
Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading religious scholar and
a member of the Conservative Law Committee, questioned
whether people with traditional Jewish views on
sexuality will stay, even if the panel allows synagogues
leeway to accept or reject gay relationships. Roth said he
has been "demonized" for saying that he interprets
religious law as barring same-gender sex.
"I know the law as it stands causes pain," he
said. "But pain is not to be equated with immorality."
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the Law
Committee and also a respected scholar, supports
ordaining gays, saying "it is simply not natural" to
demand that they remain celibate.
"We have to interpret God's will in our time,"
Dorff and Roth are traveling with Epstein, with
more stops scheduled for Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los
Angeles, and Washington, D.C. The trio also spoke last
month in Toronto.
The debate focuses on the significance of
Leviticus 18:22, which states "Do not lie with a male
as one lies with a woman," and 20:13, which says such
an act is punishable by death. The last major Law
Committee vote on gay relationships came in 1992, when the
panel decided overwhelmingly to maintain the ban on
openly gay rabbis.
In the latest discussion, the 25-member
committee is considering legal opinions, called
teshuvot, for and against change. A policy needs
six votes to be accepted. Although it occurs rarely, more
than one opinion can be endorsed, leaving local
leaders to decide which to follow. That is the result
Arnold Eisen, incoming chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship school
for Conservative Judaism, personally supports
ordaining gays. But he plans to discuss the issue with
faculty and students before any admissions rules are changed.
Officials at the University of Judaism in Los
Angeles, which also trains Conservative rabbis, say
only that they will follow whatever policy the
committee adopts. However, Dorff is the school's rector and
many expect the seminary, if permitted, will admit
openly gay students.
The conflict over homosexuality mirrors the
battles over the issue in mainline Protestant groups
including the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian
Church (USA). Dozens of individual churches are leaving the
Christian denominations because of the disputes.
Roth says many Conservative Jewish synagogues
already know their position on the issue, but others
will be conflicted after the committee votes. "The
Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards," he says, "is
debating the future of the entire movement. Nothing less."
(Rachel Zoll, AP)