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Conservative Judaism Makes Historic Decision: Sodomy Still a Sin! (But Ordination of Gay Rabbis and Commitment Ceremonies are Kosher)

Guest Bwog reporter Bari Weiss analyzes what the Jews are talking about now.


The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the rabbinical committee of the Conservative movement, made international news today when it decided to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained as rabbis and rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies.  The Conservative Movement is sandwiched in between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.  200+ students, professors, and rabbis (with rabbinical students in Israel piped in over speaker phone) packed the synagogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship of the Conservative movement at 122nd and Broadway this afternoon in order to discuss the three tshuvot, or rabbinic responses, passed today in regards to the status of gays and lesbians in the movement. 

Operating on Jewish time, the community-wide meeting was called for 3:30, but was postponed for an hour until key members of the CJLS made it back from their East Side press conference. Sara Horowitz, Dean of Student Life, used the dead airtime to make this announcement: “As long as we’re here, let me make an announcement about community: Shabbat dinner! Friday night!” 

Once Rabbi Joel Meyers (Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly) and Rabbi Kass Abelson (the Chair of the CJLS) arrived, things got down to business.  Here’s the breakdown, crypto-Jewish style, of the big news:

The CJLS, which is made up of 25 rabbis, five laypeople, and one cantor (only the 25 rabbis get to vote), voted to pass three tshvuot, or rabbinic legal decisions.  It’s important to understand that these rabbinic legal decisions are totally separate from the secular sphere.  They operate exclusively within the complex Jewish legal system of halacha.  Because a tshuva only requires six votes in order to pass, the committee is able to pass contradictory tshuvot.  In this case, the CJLS passed three tshuvot: two upholding the status quo and one for greater inclusion of gays in the rabbinate and the movement at large. 

They started off with five papers for potential review.  Over the past two days, two of the papers—the two most in favor of total inclusion and rights for gays in the movement—were dismissed as takanot: radical breaks from Jewish law and tradition. 

Rabbi Joel Roth’s tshuva reaffirms the prior halachic prohibition against everything: ordination, anal sex, and commitment ceremonies.  Rabbi Leonard Levy’s also upholds the traditional prohibitions, and urges “reparative therapy” to help gays and lesbians live hetereosexual lifestyles.  The third tshuva, put forward by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner, allows for ordination of gay and lesbians as rabbis, and for commitment ceremonies, while retaining the explicit Biblical injunction (those interested should consult Leviticus 18:22) against anal sex. 

The Dorff/Nevins/Reisner tshuva prompted four of the CJLS members, Roth and Levy among them, to resign.

Rabbi Roth, one of the major halachic authorities in the conservative movement spoke at JTS this afternoon about his decision to resign:

“The conservative movement has affirmed forever and ever that it is committed to halachic pluralism.  But is it the case that any position that is validated by the CJLS, by virtue of the fact that it is validated by the CJLS, necessarily keeping with the halachic system?  We, the four who resigned, all felt the Dorff paper was outside the halachic process/system.”  Later he continued: “The Dorff paper is predicated on three pillars.  Each pillar is halachically wrong, or at least debatable.” 

Roth wasn’t the only disappointed one. Ira Stup, GS/JTS’09, is the founder of JTS Students for Change, a group, he says, “started because we wanted to rally the undergrads at JTS… to express themselves in an activist, grassroots way.”  While Keshet, a long-standing group, has focused on gay/lesbian ordination, JTS Students for Change is more interested in changing the culture and attitudes towards gays within the movement at large. “We are interested in changing the culture. We want to see a welcoming, an affirmation, and a celebration of gay Jewish life.” 

While Stup said he was gratified by the Dorff/Nivens/Riesner decision for greater inclusion, he was “deeply hurt and ashamed” by the movement for “passing a position that is hateful and outrageous and shameful” referring to Levy’s tshuva urging reparative therapy.  “I’m ashamed as a member of this community to have Levy’s tshuva on the books.” 

Stup managed to zing Abelson, Roth, and Meyers during the Q and A section when he asked whether or not the Conservative movement would encourage gay and lesbian campers at Ramah, the movement’s summer camp, to seek therapy to make them straight. 

Still, like almost all of those present at JTS today, Stup sees the Dorff paper as a step in the right direction. “We’re really looking down to getting down and dirty and making change at JTS, working together with Keshet.” 

There are a few in the movement who have pre-empted the Dorff et al. decision.  Rabbi David Lazar, an Israeli Rabbi, has been performing commitment ceremonies for the past six years.


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  • that picture says:

    @that picture is so unbelievably freaking rad.

  • whoa says:

    @whoa really thorough post, but my head is exploding from having to keep all that vocab straight.

  • me too says:

    @me too And I actually know what most of that vocab means.

  • thank you says:

    @thank you particularly for reporting on the nuances of the situation (which spec chose to completely ignore / not research in its opinion pieces).

    It’s important for all of us to realize that the Rabbis involved are passionate, intelligent, well-respected people. The situation is far more complex than “hurr, we hate gays.”

  • but says:

    @but i’m not sure you can characterize the majority of jts students as seeing the dorff tshuva as a step forward.

  • gay power says:

    @gay power its rather impressive that the fate of Judaism, Christianity, civilization, morality, and everything else in the world hinges on whether or not i get married or have sex

    for some reason I imagine being gay isn’t going to destroy Judaism, and by Judaism, I mean the pillar upon which the world rests

  • most jews says:

    @most jews who ever accomplished anything were gay and/or communist and/or secular

    1. you says:

      @you clearly only define “accomplish[ing] anything” as contributing to the secular sphere. many jews who fit within the normative jewish community (over the course of jewish history) have contributed to the corpus of jewish law, philosophy, etc.

  • most jews says:

    @most jews would probably fit into one or more of the categories of gay and/or communist and/or secular.

  • Anna says:

    @Anna Stop making generalizations. It’s silly. Clearly there are a lot of jews, so they aren’t all gay, and there are a lot of jewish people in real estate and financial services, so they aren’t all communist. And there are a lot of jews who care about religious guidance such as that outlined in this article, so they aren’t all secular. Most of the jews I know are none of the three.

    1. most of the jews says:

      @most of the jews i know have a sense of humor, or at least irony

  • assapopoulos says:

    @assapopoulos it’s great to know that i will get to choose between attending christian sexual reparative therapy camps and jewish reparative therapy camps in the future.

    i may be stepping out of line here, but i think islam would do well to follow this noble example and start their own sexual reassignment programs.

    after all, this diversity in choice and interfaith understanding is what makes the world great!

  • is there says:

    @is there anyone who has actually been to this sort of “therapy”? What is it like?
    “Are you straight”
    “Yes you are”

  • so... says:

    @so... Ira’s ’09 (not ’06). Also, I take issue with the idea that the two left-leaning tshuvot were ‘dismissed’ as takkanot – they were, rather, recognized as such given their more radical reimagining of the Jewish legal process, and were given a higher threshold of passage as a result.

  • Sprinkles says:

    @Sprinkles I’m glad that the Conservative movement has continued the longstanding tradition of tolerance and acceptance among American Jews. Reform Judaism has long been accepting of gays and lesbians and hopefully this trend will continue.

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