interpret religious law for Conservative Judaism might soon
ease their ban on ordaining gays, testing not only the unity
of their movement but also their relations with the
wider Jewish community. The Committee on Jewish Law
and Standards was scheduled to vote on the issue in a
closed-door session Wednesday. Under the panel's complex
voting system, more than one policy could be adopted,
leaving seminaries and synagogues to decide on their
own which approach to follow.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, a committee member and
head of the synagogue arm of the movement, has been
traveling the country for months, telling
congregations to prepare for that outcome. He predicted the
panel would approve one policy liberalizing the ban
and another affirming it.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser, leader of the Little Neck
Jewish Center in New York, has warned that adopting
conflicting policies would create ''doctrinal
anarchy.'' But advocates for gay ordination say Conservative
synagogues must make some move toward becoming more welcoming.
''Our movement will be strengthened by the
complete inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews,'' said
Sarah Freidson, a rabbinical student at the Jewish
Theological Seminary (the flagship school of Conservative
Judaism) who is a leader of the Jewish gay
advocacy group Keshet.
The vote comes as Conservative Jews struggle to
hold the shrinking middle ground of American Judaism,
losing members to both the liberal Reform and the
traditional Orthodox branches. Conservative Judaism permits
limited updating of religious law, and Wednesday's
vote will send a strong message about how far leaders
will go in reinterpreting tradition.
Reform Jews, as well as the smaller
Reconstructionist branch, settled the question years
ago, allowing partnered gays to become rabbis; the
Orthodox bar gays and women from ordination.
The last major Law Committee vote on gay
relationships came in 1992, when the panel voted
19-3, with one abstention, that Jewish law barred
openly gay students from seminaries and prohibited the
more than 1,000 rabbis in the movement from
officiating at gay union ceremonies.
In the latest discussion, the 25-member
committee is considering five legal papers, called
''teshuvot,'' for and against change. One of the
papers, billed as a compromise, would permit gay ordination
while maintaining a ban on anal intercourse between
Since each legal paper needs just six votes to
be accepted by the committee, more than one can be
approved. The debate focuses on the significance of
such biblical verses as Leviticus 18:22, which states,
''Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman," echoing
the battles within mainline Protestant denominations
about the Bible and sexuality.
It's unclear whether any of the estimated 750
North American synagogues in the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism would break from the movement. A
handful of Canadian congregations, which tend to be more
traditional than their U.S. counterparts, have said they
would consider the idea. However, leaders believe it's
more likely that individuals who object to the change
will leave to worship in Orthodox synagogues.
Arnold Eisen, incoming chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, personally supports ordaining
gays. But he said in a November 22 e-mail to the
seminary community that faculty will vote on how the school
should respond to the committee vote.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the panel
and a supporter of gay ordination, is rector of The
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles,
which also trains Conservative rabbis. The school is
expected to admit gays if the committee allows it.
(Rachel Zoll, AP)