Scroll To Top

25 rabbis walk
into a room

25 rabbis walk
into a room

The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards queers the synagogue by giving nod to gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies

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."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Beth Schwartzapfel