Are We Still Conservative Jews?
CJLS and Homosexuality
Parshat Vayishlach 5767
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, New York
As I am sure many of you are aware the Conservative Movement made the news this week with its controversial decision regarding homosexuality. Too say the least, many in our movement found themselves wondering what it means to be a Conservative Jew, what our movement stands for, and what the most recent decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will mean for congregations like ours. Like many congregations in the Conservative Movement we are divided on this issue. While some are celebrating the courageous and innovative move of the Law Committee, others are bemoaning the demise of the Conservative Judaism. So who’s right?
Before we can answer that question, I think we need to go back to the beginnings of our movement and ask what it means to be a Conservative Jew.
If I had to describe Conservative Judaism in two or three words, I would have to rely on the title of Rabbi Mordechai Waxman’s classic work, Tradition and Change. That, in a nut shell, is who we are and what we stand for. On the one hand Conservative Judaism is committed to Halacha, to the traditions and practices of Jewish law as they are defined by the Torah and the sages throughout the ages. We believe that on some level, however we may define ‘revelation’ (that God revealed His will to us at Sinai) we are commanded to live a certain type of life and that there are certain acts are considered sins because they defy the will of God as defined in the Torah and the Jewish Tradition. As a Conservative Jew then, my choices are not mine alone – they are shaped by the way the sages defined the will of God. I am commanded to act a certain way, and when I fail to do so I have committed a sin.
On the other hand we also believe that there is room for change and innovation within our tradition. We believe, as scripture tells us, lo bashamayim hee, that “the Torah is not in heaven;” that the Torah and our tradition have been given to us to interpret and apply in light of our changing knowledge of the world and the needs of the society in which we live. The teachings of the Torah are not ossified in some bygone age but they are dynamic, alive and relevant to the world in which we are living right now. What’s more we believe that within the tradition of Judaism are the means of making changes.
As a result, we live in a state of constant tension as Conservative Jews. The world is not black and white for us but shades of gray. For the Orthodox Jew when faced with a choice of modernity and tradition, tradition always trumps the modern world. For the Reform Jew, on the other hand, when faced with this same set of conflicting values, modernity almost always trumps tradition. But for Conservative Jews, we are faced with an almost insurmountable conflict. We believe in embracing both tradition and modernity. We know how to observe the Sabbath but we also know the rules for playing basketball. We search for ways of applying the teachings of Torah so that they address the modern world but we try to be authentic and faithful to our tradition. This is no easy task. I once heard my teacher Rabbi Joel Roth say that Conservative Jews don’t believe in modernizing tradition; they believe that we must Judaize modernity. What that means is that we look within the traditions of the Torah and Rabbinic Judaism for ways to address the conflicts and challenges of the modern world and not the other way around….. which brings me to the issue of homosexuality. This week the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, after months and even years of deliberation, issued a series of statements on the status of homosexuality in Judaism. Some members of our congregation were distressed to find these statements on the front page of the newspaper and on the nightly news. The truth is the deliberations of the Law Committee have been going on for quite some time and it was a well known fact that the committee would render its decision this week. There really was no way for the members of the committee to avoid the limelight of such a contentious and controversial decision.
Many in our congregation were both confused and distressed by what they heard and read. How could commitment ceremonies for homosexuals be justified in light of the prohibition against homosexual behavior in Leviticus? How could such ceremonies be both permitted and forbidden as the conflicting decisions of the law committee suggested? Needless to say, more than a few of members of our congregation came to me with questions, and in some cases, with anger. What does this mean they wanted to know; does the decision of the law committee mean that we no longer feel bound by the Torah and that anything goes; that we can change Judaism as we see fit? We even had members who threatened to resign from our congregation…which seems a bit odd in a community such as ours that has so few truly observant and practicing Jews!
In just a few moments that I have this morning I cannot possibly answer all these questions, so let me offer a brief summary of the Law Committees decision, what it means for our congregation, and what my concerns and reservations are. I believe that this is an issue that deserves our attention and in coming months I promise to spend some time studying the law committee statements with you in adult education both to understand what they mean for us and also to understand how Halacha works in the Conservative Movement.
So what did the law committee say? First you need to understand that the Law Committee does not offer binding decisions for the Conservative Movement. It is an advisory body which studies issues, renders papers on questions of Halacha and then shares its findings with rabbi s so that they can render decisions for their own communities. As Conservative Jews we recognize, that like the Jewish community as a whole we are a diverse group of people. There are a wide set of parameters in which we function as a community but there are also clear boundaries beyond which we cannot go as individuals or as congregations if we wish to be known as Conservative Jews. Rabbi Rafi Rank of Midway Jewish Center, past President of the Rabbinical Assembly, has suggested that we ought to call ourselves the Conservative Confederation instead of the Conservative Movement. Never in our entire history have we all been on the same page with regard to a whole variety of halachic opinions – and that’s OK. It’s what we refer to as Pluralism. Of course not all opinions fit within the broad parameters of Conservative Judaism – but many do. When the law committee issues its statements, then, it often suggests that there is more than one way of reading the Torah. As long as a decision receives at least six votes (out of twenty five) it is considered an alternative halachic interpretation that rabbi s can adopt for their congregation.
And so there were three Teshuvot or Responsa statements that were adopted and issued this week by the law committee: two of them were affirmed by a majority of the law committee (13 votes). There was a third statement that was adopted by a small but sufficient minority. I am going to leave the third paper aside for the time being since it is not directly relevant to the issues being discussed right now. By the way, there were three other papers that were not adopted at all by the Law Committee.
The first Teshuvah contains the opinion of Rabbi Joel Roth who re-affirmed the status quo and traditional opinion adopted by the Law committee in 1992: homosexuals cannot be admitted to rabbinical or cantorial school. Furthermore he argued that it is not halachically defensible for rabbi s to perform commitment ceremonies of homosexual couples. For those who feel that change is needed, you should understand that Rabbi Roth is a man of great integrity and scholarship who came to this issue with an open mind and a desire to remain faithful to the Torah. Of course he is a traditionalist but he is also a Conservative Jew who believes in the principles of “Tradition and Change.” If there had been a way to legislate a change in Halacha in this area he would have accepted it. But Rabbi Roth believes that as a divine document we cannot change what the Torah says – and there was no way to justify such a radical change in Torah law. Remember – he is the man who wrote the Teshuvah which opened the doors of the Seminary for women in Rabbinical School . He is not a man who is necessarily against change in Halacha. For him Halacha defines morality and not the other way around.
The second option adopted by the Law Committee is that of Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Avi Reisner, and Daniel Nevins. These men are also men of great integrity and deep commitments to Halacha and the Jewish tradition. But they were able to find a means of changing the standards of Judaism by reading the Torah differently from Rabbi Roth. They argued that the definition of homosexual behavior as defined in the Torah is to be understood narrowly as prohibiting certain acts, but that other intimate relations between homosexual couples are permissible and that rabbi s may perform commitment ceremonies for such couples. Further, they argued that there is no reason that homosexuals cannot be ordained as clergy as long as they live with the parameters of Halacha as defined by the committee. Dorff, Reisner and Nevins’ opinion was clearly influenced by our changing understanding of homosexuality – society has come to understand homosexuality not as a sickness or a sin but as something that is inherent in the biological make up of certain human beings. In other words, if someone is born as a homosexual then we can hardly view such a person as bound by a prohibition which is not a choice that he or she can make. Kashrut is a choice -I can choose to eat kosher or non-kosher food. Shabbat is a choice - I can choose to observe Shabbat or not. But if homosexuality is written into a person’s DNA, then to tell that person that the only permitted relationship that he or she can have is a heterosexual one is to condemn that person to a life of solitude, celibacy and loneliness.
For many homosexuals this is a subject of anguish and pain. I don’t believe that anyone chooses to become a homosexual. It is simply who they are. But that does not mean that they do not need the strength and meaning that is provided by Jewish life and tradition. To treat someone as a sinner for what one is biologically or genetically conditioned to be is cruel and unfair. These rabbi s argued, then, that we must reach out to those who are different from us by acknowledging the dignity of all human beings by affirming their lifestyle.
One of the questions I was asked this week was why it was even necessary for rabbis to concern themselves with what goes on in the bed room behind close doors. Isn’t that a personal matter? Of course it is – I don’t ask anyone about their personal, intimate lives before we call them up for an aliyah! But the truth is God does care about what goes on in the bedroom. As an observant Jew and a heterosexual man I know that there are times when I am permitted to engage in intimate relations each month and there are times when I am not permitted to do so according to the Torah. Judaism affects the most intimate moments of my life. And the same must be true for a homosexual. While we can argue with Rabbis Dorff, Reisner and Nevins what they are suggesting is that there is a proper “Torah” way to engage in intimate relations whether you are a heterosexual or a homosexual, and if you are serious about Halacha then you will think about these issues. In other words, these rabbi s did not dismiss the Leviticus prohibition; they simply redefined it in light of our changing understand of the world. And I would suggest that this is completely within the framework of what we call, “Tradition and Change.”
Now there are some serious problems with Dorff/Reisner/Nevin responsa. And to be honest with you I don’t know whether or not I completely agree with it yet. Now that it has been voted on by the Law Committee I have a responsibility to sit down and study it and then make a decision for myself on where I stand. As a congregation we must also decide where we stand on this issue – we can remain where we are as a congregation reaffirming the decision of Rabbi Roth or we can choose to accept the rulings of the Dorff/Reisner/Nevin statement. Nothing has changed. The one thing we must do – which ever way we choose to go is to be a congregation that is open, embracing and welcoming to all Jews whatever their lifestyle might be.
So what are my reservations about this whole discussion? To be honest with you, as important as this decision is, I suspect that it is not the burning issue affecting the lives of most Conservative Jews. The truth of the matter is, we have too few true Conservative Jews in our midst. Too many of us use Conservative Judaism as license for not practicing Judaism and we treat our tradition as if it were a grocery store in which we can pick and choose what we do. That is not Conservative Judaism. The decisions of the law committee only make sense in the context of a fully observant and committed Jewish life. And that is something we have not succeeded in creating within the Conservative Movement. How many Conservative Jews really practice Conservative Judaism? For those of us committed to our tradition and to the practice of Judaism, this is intolerable, because it means that we do not have a shared community committed to true Conservative Jewish practice. And then we wonder why our more observant members pick up and go to Orthodox synagogues – it because no matter how reasonable Conservative Judaism is as a philosophy and approach to Jewish living – what they see in synagogues like ours is not really Conservative Judaism at all.
So homosexuality is a hot issue right now – but it will not save or revitalize Jewish living in Conservative congregations like ours. In fact, I fear that it will have the opposite affect. Our more traditional congregations will move away from the movement as will people who are grappling with more serious Jewish observance and we will become even more fractured than we already are.
When I was a student at the Seminary professor David Weiss Halivni used to bemoan the fact that he felt alone and isolated at the Seminary. He would say that he couldn’t talk to the people he felt comfortable praying with, and he couldn’t pray with the people he felt comfortable talking to. And that is often how I feel. Within the context of my traditional and observant life style and as a knowledgeable Jew who cares about and is committed to the study of Jewish texts, I understand and appreciate the decision of the law committee, but I have few people who share those commitments and that knowledge right here in our midst. I suspect it will be perceived as simply another permissive act rather than an authentic attempt to grapple with our tradition, so that in the end we will have accomplished nothing because we will have not strengthened Jewish life.
The truth is, there are many wonderful and deeply committed homosexuals who would make wonderful rabbi s who have been barred from the seminary and serving the Jewish community up until now. And there are many Jewish couples looking for a Jewish way to sanctify their relationship with a loved one in the eyes of the Torah and to deepen their connection to our tradition. It is a pity not to find a way to fully welcome them. Unless we are prepared to call a homosexuality “ a sin” then we must find ways of opening the doors to them and making them feel more at home in our congregation.
Our moral insights have changed and grown through the ages. There was a time when slavery was completely permissible from the perspective of the Torah, or when a man could be married to more than one woman, or when parents could have their son stoned for being rebellious. But moral perceptions change not only in society but in the way we understand the Torah. We alone are responsible for the way we choose to interpret and read the Torah. I cannot know how life will change in the future and how that will affect the Jewish tradition. But I do have enough faith in the divine element in the Torah to believe that the integrity of Torah will not change because God is present in these words and in how we choose to read them.
My comments this morning are the beginning and not the end of our
discussion of this topic. But let’s face it. We must begin by
being honest with ourselves. If we really care about the Jewish tradition
then the question is not where we stand on homosexuality. It is how
we choose to live our daily lives as Jews.
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