Playing (For Time)


As I read about the latest decision by Conservatism to kick the can down the road regarding homosexual ordination, “marriage,” etc., and the ensuing donnybrook of recrimination and response unfolding within the movement, several things just don’t compute. Let me list the ways:

The Forward reports that

On the eve of their annual convention, Conservative rabbis are locked in a fierce debate over whether movement leaders have employed improper tactics to preserve the ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. . . .

At issue is a procedural rule, quietly adopted last June by the assembly’s executive council, that allows the movement’s top lawmaking body to raise the threshold of votes needed to approve certain major positions. Under previous rules, the movement’s 30-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had required only six votes to give legitimacy to a minority opinion. The new rule raises the bar to 20 votes when dealing with selected “momentous” decisions. Many movement rabbis say that they were unaware of the rule change until last week, when the law committee decided to apply the 20-vote threshold to a sweeping opinion that seeks to overturn the movement’s ban on homosexual sex. . . .

[Rabbi Perry] Rank, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the assembly’s executive council wanted to ensure that the law committee achieves some measure of consensus on momentous changes. Also, he said, the executive committee was spurred by the existing rule requiring 20 votes to overturn a decision of the law committee. Acccording to Rank, the logic was: “Well, if it takes 20 votes to overturn a decision of the law committee, it should take at least 20 votes to overturn a rule of the Torah.”

Now, what a strange thing for Rank to say. What could possibly have led him to believe that his colleagues would accord the same weightiness to “a rule of the Torah” as they would a decision of the law committee? That committee is, after all, composed of individuals possessing not only great expertise in Jewish law, but also in-depth knowledge of all truly relevant discplines, a partial list of which includes anthropology, psychology, history, archaeology and sociology, and surely at least a few of them speak a good (or can at least say “pass the relish” in) Ugaritic or read Syriac (airport signs) as well.

But even more importantly, these committee members are all people of exquisite ethical sensitivity, infinitely more so than the authors of Torah who (if only we could identify them precisely by name, place and era, rather than have to maddeningly refer to them as the [Ghostly] Interpolater or, worse, by those silly little letters E and D and . . . oh, you get my drift) would be shown to be not only shamelessly duplicitous fabricators of a monstrous fraud on the Jewish people, but also legislated countless laws of gross moral turpitude, which it has fallen to Conservatism to expunge, such as the ban on kohein – divorcee and mamzer – non- mamzer marriage. Don’t even mention pidyon peter chamor and Amaleik. And given that the whole homosexual issue is being presented as, first and foremost, the defining moral issue of our time, the undisputed moral superiority of contemporary Conservative clergypeople makes their decisions entirely more worthy of the twenty-vote rule than is a “rule of the Torah,” and a deeply homophobic one at that.

Besides, doesn’t Rank read his own people’s press releases? Nobody’s overturning a rule of the Torah; they’re just “reinterpreting” it, because, don’t ya see, the Torah didn’t know of monogamous homosexual relationships, didn’t know of condoms, didn’t know what a lovely city San Francisco is, didn’t know of our contemporary hateful, homophobic masses who must be silenced, didn’t know that reinterpretation was so easy I mean, so ethically imperative, didn’t know . . . whatever. That’s not at all the same as overturning a decision of the RA Law Committee, because when those folks speak there’s no ambiguity at all, being that they’re all modern and sophisticated and open-minded and stuff. Come to think of it, the Almighty could do worse than to sit in on a session of theirs (Heaven knows He hasn’t yet); he might learn a thing or two about how to speak so people can understand you and not reinterpret what you’re trying to say even after you’ve taken pains to be crystal-clear by using scary words like to’eivah and s’kilah.

The report continues:

When the law committee convened in Maryland last week, it considered four separate legal opinions on homosexual sex, and the possibility of sanctioning gay clergy and same-sex relationships. The most liberal opinion — a wholesale rejection of the ban on homosexuality co-authored by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a rumored candidate for the JTS post — was classified as a takanah, through the vote of a modest majority, and over the objections of its authors. . . .

A “rumored candidate for the JTS [chancellor’s] post,” eh? The very same contest from which candidates have been dropping like flies? Never mind. Truth to tell, Tucker’s no Gordy-come-lately when it comes to pro-homosexual agitation. Indeed, as far back as 1993, he wrote the following interesting line in a piece favoring legitimacy for homosexuals (emphasis mine): “… I must acnowledge at the outset that in my movement (and, I believe, in classical rabbinic Judaism generally) we have never taken ‘the Torah says so clearly’ as a final, decisive and unchallengeable argument.” Methinks that to say stuff like that, you really, truly have to believe it (or have recently smoked a fair amount of a controlled substance).

More from the Forward piece:

In the days after the law committee meeting, rabbis across the movement reacted with a mixture of befuddlement, anger and frustration. Some rabbis have said that their ignorance about the new takanah provision is emblematic of what they described as the overall secrecy surrounding the law committee’s deliberations on homosexuality. Law committee meetings generally are open to the movement’s rabbis, but not the sessions on homosexuality.

“Emblematic . . . of the overall secrecy sorrounding the law committee’s deliberations on homosexuality”? These rabbis know better than most that the secrecy isn’t limited to this issue. Non-RA rabbis, let alone laypeople, can’t even get copies of Law Committee responsa. The secrecy extends far beyond the realm of law, of course, to things like this report from the Forward in February 2005:

The departure of CFO Richard Bengloff marks the second resignation in four months of a top seminary financial officer. Longtime seminary controller S. David Shapiro abruptly resigned his post November 9, 2004, only weeks before news stories disclosed that JTS was struggling to cover tens of millions of dollars in debt borrowed from undisclosed sources. . . .

The seminary’s director of communications, Elise Dowell, declined to discuss the institution’s financial situation, or to provide the Forward with a copy of the seminary’s annual report or with any investment policy statements. She declined to discuss how the endowment is invested or whether it had grown or shrunk in recent years.

Dowell declined to address the significance of the departure of two top financial officers in such a short time frame. But a veteran faculty member, who requested anonymity, said: “There seems to be some sort of hidden smelly mess in there that is not being publicized, and the people who get too close to it don’t want to get mixed up [with it].”

This past December, Dowell confirmed that Shapiro abruptly resigned as controller November 9 to become executive director of a day school in New Jersey. She would not discuss whether Shapiro’s departure was related to the seminary’s financial crisis. . . .

JTS officials said in December that major borrowing was necessary to offset declining income from investments and donations that did not meet projections. But Schorsch, stated in his December e-mail that the school is in fine fiscal health and that a business plan was being developed to reduce the debt. “JTS is exceedingly strong financially. Our assets far exceed liabilities by many times,” wrote Schorsch. . . .

On Tuesday Dowell declined to answer questions about the seminary’s debt or its debt-reduction plan. “We have a plan in place and we are moving forward,” she said. “We are not going to go into specifics.”

Asked about JTS’s unwillingness to provide basic information, an expert on the financial practices of nonprofit institutions said, “We think a public institution owes it to its donors, the public and the press to be transparent and accountable.”

How’s that for secrecy?

Once more from the Forward‘s report:

Other rabbis have questioned whether the rule change — which was adopted after the law committee had already reopened active consideration of homosexuality — was designed to stack the deck against reform, even at the expense of undermining the movement’s historical tolerance for a diversity of opinions. . . .

Dorff said he is concerned not only about the high threshold for approving a takanah, but also by the committee’s vote to table a ruling on the homosexual opinions until December, a move he said demonstrates “more than a little political maneuvering.”

Last week’s meeting was the last one of the law committee in its current configuration because each spring five out of the 25 voting law committee members finish their terms. This year, the committee will be losing four members known for their liberal views on homosexuality, including Rabbis Ben Zion Bergman and Robert Fine, co-authors of the Tucker opinion. . . .

Some critics have asserted that several recent appointees to the committee have been particularly conservative, including Rabbi Leonard Levy, who authored one of the four decisions last week. Levy argued that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured through therapy, according to movement insiders.

This truly takes the cake. Here we have Conservative clergyfolks who are just shocked by the “political maneuvering” and “stack[ing] the deck” taking place with respect to what presumably should be decisionmaking based purely on “halakha.”

But surely they jest. Forget about the fact that the legitimization of homosexuality they seek is the most 100% pure example of intellectually disingenuous and political agenda-driven halakhic change imaginable. Forget as well that this is the case with all halakhic change occurring within the movement, since, as Daniel Gordis, speaking for so many others, put it “both the halakhic agenda and the outcomes of halakhic discussions are now set by [the Conservative] laity.”

Yet, to all this, the aforementioned shocked clergy might respond: True it’s all a charade, but even charades have a protocol, which shouldn’t include political maneuvering and strong-arm tactics.

But then we recall that which is written in the Sefer Hazichronos about the movement’s 1983 vote to allow women’s ordination. According to JTS’ own official history, then-Chancellor Cohen was initially opposed by the Seminary’s entire Talmud faculty, but pressed forward because a Seminary-commissioned survey found the laity supported ordination; and thus he created an independent commission on the issue, half of whose members were laypeople and only one of whom was on the Talmud faculty, the better to “ram the commission’s report down the faculty’s throats.”

It is further recorded there that Joel Roth, who authored the pivotal paper supporting ordination, wrote later that “most of JTS’ world-recognized luminaries” were opposed, but that “there were strong efforts to make them kiss the papal ring and accept the decision as infallible.”

So, is it that only the liberalizers get to use strong-arm tactics, and not the traditionalists?

As for that Levy fellow, agree with him or disagree, you’ve just got to admire his guts. But what’s a “conservative” guy like him doing in this movement, anyway?

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58 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    In Hebrew, I’m Yitzchak Avraham. Our family took the name Miller somewhere around 1800 (this was an older brother of the B’nai Yissaschar)

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “So I was wondering if he had heard “Larry, see here” from people talking to him.”

    ah! now I get it! no, I am an Aaron. So Bob, what is your charedi name?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    JO said:

    “‘Larry, see here…’ I haven’t heard this expression in years”

    So I was wondering if he had heard “Larry, see here” from people talking to him.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    Bob said: “JO, are you a Larry, too?”

    I don’t understand the question

  5. David N. Friedman says:

    Regarding the point made by Rabbi Menken to Larry concerning the question of the comparable viciousness of the non-Orthodox towards the Orthodox vs. the animus of the Orthodox towards the rest of Judaism–I must agree with Rabbi Menken and I am not in the Orthodox world.

    The point needs to be made that simply because some other group or person is more negative–this is no opportunity to respond in kind. I would like to see all Jews to act in lovingkindness towards each other. It is truly disheartening to hear some Reform and Conservative Jews speak with such vitriol. When I call them down for such sentiments, the response is often 1) apology followed by 2) more vitriol. Then, when I complain that the apology appears to be half-hearted, sometimes there is no acknowledgement,sometimes there is denial and sometimes the person can be reached.

  6. HILLEL says:

    Here is a perfect illustration of the kind of Modern Orthodoxy that I, and every other G-D-fearing Jew, can endorse:,2506,L-3231460,00.html

  7. Bob Miller says:

    JO, are you a Larry, too?

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “Larry, see here…”

    I haven’t heard this expression in years