Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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CJLS Statements on Gay and Lesbian Rabbis and Same-Sex Couples: Life Goes On

BEKI Bulletin January 2007
A Message from Rabbi Tilsen

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards endorsed two papers in December (2006), one of which finds that Gay and Lesbian Jews may celebrate civil unions with the blessing of Jewish law and may serve as rabbis in the Conservative Movement. The other paper affirms the Biblical ban on homosexual acts, provides a basis for excluding “avowed” homosexuals from the rabbinate, and does not allow for any ceremonial or legal recognition of same-sex couples under Jewish law.

The CJLS discussed a set of issues relating to the treatment of Gay and Lesbian Jews and endorsed multiple positions, which are mutually inconsistent, indeed contradictory. For the most part, the papers addressed different questions. As a matter of process, the Committee was acting in an advisory, and not judicial, capacity.

Nothing was “decided” for the movement. The various institutions, such as the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Cantors Assembly, Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, Jewish Theological Seminary, Zeigler School, and the rest, may individually or collectively address the issues of how we deal with Gay and Lesbian Jews. The papers endorsed by the Committee give some food for thought, but there is no force-feeding. There is not a satisfying meal, either. So nothing really was decided at this point.

Although it is disconcerting to many people, it is normal for the CJLS to approve inconsistent or contradictory positions from time to time. The Committee aims to develop positions on issues or practices that a significant body of our scholars and posqim (decisors or judges) view as valid, even when they are a minority. The Conservative Movement has tried to value “broadness” and inclusivity above doctrinal purity or uniformity. Masorti is supposed to be an affiliation of rabbis, cantors and congregations that are community-based, not a hierarchy that imposes its agenda or viewpoint. Minority positions are validated on many issues. Indeed, some individual Committee members have voted for multiple and contradictory positions in the name of diversity, saying that all are “valid.”

However, it is one thing to live with differences in kashrut or Shabbat standards, and another to reconcile contradictory practices on family status and rabbinic ordination. Each Jew is supposed to live according to a consistent approach and the rulings of one rabbi or school of thought, and may not select opinions or rules made for other communities. You can have the meatloaf and potatoes, or the bagel and cream cheese, but you can’t have the meatloaf and cream cheese. If you incorporate a company in one state, you have to follow that state’s rules; you can’t pick the most favorable rules for each state. But a company in one state does not follow the rules of a company in another state. The diversity is necessary in part because conditions and values, which are often part of the halakhic formula, vary from place to place; and in part because different posqim see things differently. Mutually exclusive options are the price we pay for this democracy and diversity.

With respect to the question of accepting Gay & Lesbian rabbis, there are three decision points: the rabbinical schools, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and the shuls and schools that hire rabbis. In the past, many quietly Gay and Lesbian rabbis have been ordained and found productive rabbinic careers (which is true in all of the non-Conservative movements as well). The Ziegler school has said that it intends to welcome openly Gay and Lesbian rabbinical students; JTS is in the process of reconsidering its policy,and is widely expected to eventually accept openly Gay and Lesbian students to the Rabbinical School. Openly Gay and Lesbian students have been welcome in the undergraduate and graduate programs of those institutions all along (at least, in recent years); the question now is one of the rabbinate and cantorate.

Some synagogues have been perfectly open to hiring Gay and Lesbian Conservative rabbis. Our president, Donna Levine, explicitly said to me, “Jon-Jay, you are free to change your sexual orientation.” It is commonly believed that Beth El or Keser Israel has engaged quietly gay rabbis in the past. Our congregation, like many, simply accepts Gay and Lesbian individuals and families on the same basis as we accept everyone else. If you’re Jewish, and your check clears the bank, you can be a member. There are no ritual debilities and no institutional discrimination. We try to actively welcome Gay and Lesbian people, particularly in light of the unhappy experiences many Gay and Lesbian Jews have had in their interactions with communal institutions and fellow Jews. Doing so is a specific mitzva called qeruv.

The papers themselves are all very thought-provoking and engaging. They are worth reading. However, had I been on the Committee, I would have voted against all of them. The papers do not, for the most part, focus on specific questions of law and often suffer from a lack of precision in conceptualization and argumentation. Each author made up his own question and then answered it. All we needed, to answer the Rabbinical Assembly’s request for guidance, was the answer to a specific, narrow question.

The question, “May the Rabbinical Assembly accept Gay and Lesbian members” is really a simple question of law that does not need hundreds of pages of analysis. The halakhic answer is, “The RA may admit anyone it wants to.” This is not unlike the question, “May the RA admit rabbis who do not follow the rules of family purity (nida) (for which the restriction and punishment is on the same level as male homosexual acts), or who drive on Shabbat, are married to gentiles, wear a mixture of wool and linen, struggle academically, are jerks, speak Hebrew poorly, are theatre stars, are unmarried, avoid military service, smoke marijuana, smoke cigarettes, play poker, chant Buddhist mantras, studied at Orthodox yeshivot?” It is the same answer: The RA can if it wants to. For some of those questions, the RA says yes, for others, no.

The more serious question, though, is “should the RA admit openly Gay and Lesbian people?” That is a matter of policy, a political question, more than a halakhic or legal question. My answer to that is, Yes, the RA should continue its historic policy of admitting Gay and (more recently) Lesbian rabbis, acknowledging the fact that people now normally live openly Gay and Lesbian lives. All that changes is that whereas in the past we quietly overlooked what was considered a technical (but significant) Biblical violation, today we are publicly overlooking (or disregarding) a Biblical rule that has become untenable. Perhaps in the next few years we will see a better way to reconcile an ancient rule with a radically changed world, but in the meantime, life goes on. After all, we don’t want to take Biblical rules lightly; but in this case, there is not much else we can do but treat it the same way we treat some other technical violations.

Unfortunately, most of the CJLS papers promote sweeping and far-reaching approaches where a simple answer to a narrow question would have worked better. The approaches described in the papers are not really practical for us, do not represent solid halakhic positions, and do not satisfactorily address the tension between the radical change in our understanding of same-sex relationships in our social context, and the need for coherence, if not continuity, in our legal framework. The former is now an issue because it is no longer “normal” for Gay and Lesbian people to hide the fact of their orientation and relationships, and is often quite harmful for them and society in general to do so. This means that the system that worked in the past (and still works in some non-Conservative communities) — where Gay rabbis “hide” — no longer works in our Conservative world.

This question, which is somewhat trivial if we are considering only rabbis or cantors, is very significant once we look at the same issue in other areas of communal Jewish life. What are we supposed to do with our devoted Jews who are openly Gay and Lesbian, where most of us don’t see any moral or other debility in homosexuality, and where we affirm a legal tradition that does not have much precedent for acceptance? It is clear to me that the broader issues require far-reaching development of Jewish law, and I hope that it will happen. The current papers of the CJLS each — including Rabbi Joel Roth’s essay — suggest paths that could be explored. In the meantime, Gay and Lesbian people and their families directly suffer, and our community is weakened, from the fact that their relationships are not normalized in Jewish law. And the Conservative rabbinate loses great talent, which often just accrues to the benefit of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements. (The latter happens because some people from Orthodox backgrounds would join our Rabbinical Assembly if they could live their observant lives while being openly Gay or Lesbian.) But at BEKI, life will continue as usual – we will continue to treat Gay and Lesbian Jews the same as everyone else.