Conservative Movement Seen Ending Ban on Gays

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Nah, no one saw this coming:

In what will be a watershed moment for the Conservative movement — akin to admitting women into the rabbinate a generation ago — the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and the sanctioning of same-sex unions are likely to be approved by the denomination’s legal scholars, according to movement leaders.

Upon the founding of JTS in 1898, Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein, an Orthodox scholar, objected as follows: “in my opinion, the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals [Reform -YM] lead to the same path, the only difference between them is time.” Eyzehu Chacham? HaRo’eh Es HaNolad. Who is wise? He who foresees the results. Rav Eisenstein was a chacham.

In discussion of previous posts about Kehillat Orach Eliezer, the “Orthodox” synagogue that appointed a woman as spiritual leader, the affiliation of its past Rabbi was part of the discussion. David Weiss HaLivni was a scholar at the right wing of JTS, who left the Conservative movement in the aftermath of the JTS decision to ordain women in 1983. He was instrumental in the formation of the Union for Traditional Judaism.

The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Law and Standards did not approve the ordination of women — JTS took the unprecedented step of putting the matter to a vote before the entire faculty, equating the vote of Rabbi HaLivni with that of a secular Israeli Hebrew instructor. Once that passed, the Rabbinical Assembly then changed its rules: recognizing that traditionalists might block the admission of a woman as a member (which required a two-thirds vote), they instead changed the rules to automatically admit any new graduate of JTS (which required only a majority vote).

Some commenters to earlier posts discussed why UTJ might or might not merge with the left wing of Orthodoxy, found in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah / Edah — since, after all, the UTJ departed to move to the right. In my opinion, that is very much mistaken: HaLivni did not move to the right at all; he was marginalized as the Conservative movement slid to the left. If a merger is conceivable, it only demonstrates how far YCT and Edah have departed from normative Orthodoxy. The UTJ remains where the Conservative movement was 25 years ago, and says this on their own web site:

WHAT DISTINGUISHES THE UTJ FROM THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT?

The UTJ is committed to the primacy of Halakhah in the formulation of all religious policy decisions. Historically, Conservative Judaism affirmed a similar commitment. Sadly, many policy decisions of recent decades indicate that today’s Conservative Movement is, at best, selectively loyal to Halakhah in general and the halakhic process in particular.

Examples of the Conservative Movement’s new attitude include prayer book revision, egalitarianism, redefining halakhic boundaries of sexual relationships, and advocacy of Israel accepting conversions that are non-halakhic even by Conservative standards. Moreover, these changes often proceeded without prior review by the Conservative Movement’s own halakhic authorities. The Conservative Movement thus appears to endorse the notion that changing societal norms can supersede the proper application of halakhic sources.

The following needs no comment:

But in a step unique to the Conservative movement, a contradictory religious opinion that would continue the prohibition against gay ordination and same-sex unions will also come up for a vote. Each view only has to receive a minimum of six votes from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which has 25 voting members, to be accepted. That means both opinions, for and against, could pass…

In the meantime, movement leaders are working fast to lay the groundwork for dealing with the law committee’s final decision as well as any confusion likely to result if both positions are approved.

Predicting confusion when the same body issues two contradictory decisions… well, that doesn’t take a chacham.

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6 Responses

  1. Dan says:

    The situation with today’s Conservative–and how it got where it is today–is much more complex than many people want to recognize.

    In the early 20th century, the Conservative movement was very close to Modern Orthodoxy. Women receiving aliyot, men and women sitting together, driving to shul on Shabbat, ordaining women as rabbis, and same-sex marriage were all unthinkable at the time. Yes, there were a few Conservative congregations in the early 20th century that had organ music and were just a bit to the right of Reform, but I think its safe to say that for the most part, early Conservative wasn’t much different from Modern Orthodoxy.

    So what happened? There were a number of factors. One was Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. Although he served as a Young Israel rabbi for a short time, he moved to the left and exerted a lot of influence at JTS for many years.

    Another factor was the working world of the first half of the 20th century. Many Jews, my father among them, were forced to work on Saturdays. They didn’t have a choice. They had to pay bills and put food on the table. Synagogues were forced to make compromises (I remember being told about early Saturday morning “businessmen” services). Saturday work had a profound effect on American Jewish life, and although many of us no longer have to work on Saturdays, we are still feeling these effects today.

    Still another factor was mandatory military service. Vast numbers of Jewish men were inducted into the military from the 1940s through the 1970s. Can you imagine the challenges most of these men must have felt, coming from close-knit observant Jewish families and going into environments where it was a real challenge to find food that was close to being Kosher? (Yes, I know food is either kosher or not-kosher, but I think you know what I mean!) Some of these men, I’m sure, returned to their former levels of observance upon leaving the military, but I think it’s safe to say that for most of them, life had changed too much. I know that there are Jews in the U.S. military today, and some are observant, but I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of young Jewish men today in the U.S. do not do military service.

    In the late 1940s and the 1950s, Jewish residential patterns began to change. New suburban neighborhoods were built, and Jews, wanting a better life for their families, moved into these new neighborhoods. This presented quite a challenge because the “old” synagogues often weren’t in walking distance. The Conservative leadership was faced with a difficult choice. I don’t believe for one minute that they wanted to sanction driving on Shabbat. The whole thing made them very uncomfortable. Yet, they saw that driving was the norm for Reform Jews. They saw that many people would never come to shul if they couldn’t drive. Many members demanded the right to drive. The rabbis made the decision to permit driving, not happily, and under very restricted conditions. Did they do the right thing? Many would say no, but the Conservative rabbis did what they thought was right. What if these rabbis had held firm and not permitted any driving? I’m sure that many would have driven anyway, and others would have left for Reform temples.

    Whether we like to admit it or not, we are influenced by the society in which we live. I remember the 1960s well, and it was a time of turmoil in America. A large number of women began to demand equality in American society, and this “spilled over” into the Jewish world. It was bound to happen whether rabbinical leadership wanted it to happen or not. The result: The Reform movement ordained a woman rabbi in the early 1970s. The Conservative movement began counting women in minyanim and giving them aliyot, but held off on women rabbis for several years. The Orthodox movement held firm; no woman rabbis, no aliyot for women, no women in a minyan. Please understand–I am not being critical of this position at all! However, it is a well-known fact that some Orthodox women were not happy with their perceived lack of equality and left Orthodoxy. I personally know many who are part of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements for this reason. As a man, I can’t see the world from a woman’s point of view. Some might condemn these women, but I honestly can’t.

    I know that much of the Conservative rabbinical establishment was not eager for women in minyanim, leading davening, receiving aliyot, or becoming rabbis. Many of the members of these shuls weren’t happy about these changes either, and there many loud disagreements. But again we must remember–the women (and some men) began to push for these changes, and they pushed hard! The rabbis didn’t initiate them! The leadership was faced with two choices: include women, or face a mass exodus to Reform. Many women left for Reform anyway. These decisions were made, not always happily, but because the leadership didn’t feel that they had any choice.

    The same holds true in the debate about gay rabbis and gay unions. There is a loud vocal faction that is pushing for these changes. How things end up, nobody knows.

    Many in the Orthodox community turn up their noses at the Conservatives. There seems to be the attitude, “None of this is going to happen to us. We’re going to hold firm to our ideals.” Well, I hate to say it, but there are small cracks in the wall. Some vocal Orthodox women, seeing what their fellow Reform and Conservative women are doing, are beginning to demand small changes. There are women-only minyanim. In a very few left-leaning Orthodox shuls, women are called up to do gelilah, and there are perhaps one or two that are calling women up for aliyot. A few Orthodox women are asking for women rabbis, and I read a report (I’m not sure if it’s true) about an Orthodox woman who recently was secretly ordained as a rabbi.

    On the gay issue, again the Orthodox community is not immune. There are organizations of gay Orthodox Jews, and some of their members are quietly asking for more permissive attitudes. I’m sure that many in the Orthodox community would like to pretend that Rabbi Steven Greenberg doesn’t exist. I recall reading about a year ago about a rabbi who was head of a high school who “came out.”

    Our modern secular world presents quite a challenge to all Jews. Some of us might not agree with the responses of other Jewish movements to these challenges. That’s fine! However, let’s try to understand why these responses or changes were made, and let’s not be quick to condemn everything.

  2. Manny says:

    Re Conservative movement’s newest upcoming position, I saw a note in the Forward about some Canadian concervative shuls likely forming a “breakaway coalition” i.e. another “movement: “…in Canada, where Conservative synagogues tend to be more traditional than their American counterparts, the talk of a more liberal policy is emboldening those who advocate for abandoning the movement’s North American congregational arm altogether.” Do you think this will have a parallel split in tjhe USA?

  3. Reb Yid says:

    Yaakov:

    I believe the situation is more nuanced than what you indicate. In my view, it’s “elu v’elu”–yes, the C movement moved to the left, but over time the UTCJ gradually shifted to the right as well.

    One interesting example of this is to compare the responsa written by the Union’s Panel of Halakhic Inquiry, headed by DWH.

    In its first (1986) volume of responsa, the UTCJ Panel grudgingly noted that there was nothing unhalakhic about women’s prayer groups, a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat or a Bat Mitzvah girl having the maftir aliyah although in all three cases it discouraged such practices in ordinary circumstances.

    By the time the second volume of responsa was published (1994), the organization had already changed its name to UTJ. Staffers were hesitant to distribute the earlier volume,stressing that it was no longer being handed out or referred to anymore. Preprinted slips of paper noted in part that the first volume was published by the UTCJ to address questions asked by Conservative congregants and that “it does not reflect the current philosophy of the Union for Traditional Judaism.”

  4. DMZ says:

    “Predicting confusion when the same body issues two contradictory decisions… well, that doesn’t take a chacham.”

    They’ve been doing this for basically forever, and it’s one of the primary reasons that the Conservative movement couldn’t, even if they wanted to, enforce more halachic standards. Unless the “vote” can be won by absolutely overwhelming standards, the situation becomes “do what you want”, because of the whole minority opinion thing. This is obviously appealing to the vast majority of Conservative Jews, but it’s been leading them down the road of the “do as you see fit” Judaism that the Reform movement has been preaching.

    If there’s a “minority opinion” that openly homosexual (I think “practicing” might be a better word) clergy should be admitted, then it’s going to happen, I would imagine.

    -DMZ

  1. September 4, 2006

    […] He then goes on to address the decision of the Conservative movement to allow its members to drive on Shabbos, implying that this has been the single greatest contributor to the movement’s decline. This is especially interesting for the following reason. If you would ask most Orthodox Jews what decision of the Reform movement has created the greatest fissure between the two, the Orthodox will most likely respond with patrilineal descent. Thanks to patrilineal descent, there are now thousands (if not tens of thousands) of Reform Jews who are not Jewish by traditional standards. If you ask the same question about the Conservative movement, the Orthodox would likely refer to driving on Shabbos. This is the decision that told us that, once and for all, the Conservatives are not interested in following traditional Jewish law, more than mixed seating and long before the decision to ordain women. [Rabbi Joel Roth, whose defense of the current policy on homosexuality is one of two opinions up for debate before the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, also called the driving decision “untenable sub specie halachah.”] […]