Notes from Limmud 2004
Can Conservative Judaism survive the oncoming debate on homosexuality?
[It's faintly possible this has been overtaken by events since the talk was given, but here it is anyway.]
First, is it the case that the ordination of gays and lesbians is necessarily going to be an issue at all, given that it is not on the movement's agenda? JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary) says it is not on the agenda. In the Rabbinical Assembly it is very much a matter of discussion—but is is not on the formal agenda. The third major pillar of the Conservative movement is the USCJ, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. This has put the issue on the agenda, and is pro-ordination of gays and lesbians.
Now the only ordaining institution at the time of the last crisis (that of the ordination of women) was JTS. So as long as JTS said no things weren't going to move forward with this. (Though the RA made changes for the rabbis in the field, that did not affect ordination.)
Now the decision could be made by the RA's law committee, or the University of Judaism, or JTS after its head retires in a few years. Or the decision could be made to address the issue of [gay] marriage first. Now the Conservative movement does not have a history of raising a point like this which it does not decide to make a change on.
But why does this have to be a case of yes or no? Especially given that the issue is a complex one? Also as a movement trying to mix modernity and tradition, where the איסור [prohibition] in Torah could not be more clear, one could, for example, have halfway house solutions [not sure of my transcription here]. Or set some time aside to removing the stigma from [gay] people before making a decision. Except that the movement doesn't have a history of doing this, either.
So, what should the movement do? Talking just about ordination (not marriage), poeple who are gay or lesbian are going to do what they do anyway, regardless of whatever is officially permissible or not. They want to be part of a movement committed to halacha but also want validation of what they are—this is a core part of their personality. They won't want to go to the Reform because it is not their movement. Now the Conservative movement has already chosen to pasken in favour of things that are clearly אסור מדאורייתא [forbidden in the Torah]. So when it comes to the vote it will have to be yes because they already voted in favour of driving on Shabbos [under certain circumstances]. For consistency's sake, if you voted no on this you would have to go back on driving, on cohanim marrying forbidden people, etc.
But what this issue will force the movement to confront is the issue of whether it can call itself a halachic movement. It is at present a left-leaning halachic movement. Can it survive in this form? Answer: no. (Note: things have changed since the driving issue; nowadays if a decision is taken it will be in everyone's inbox the next day; in the 1950s lay people would not have even seen the relevant responsum.) Between the 1990 and 2000 censuses Reform had outstripped Conservative as the dominant denomination in the US. The movement is already under threat. Children come home from camp and want observant places and end up in left-leaning Orthodox kehillos; similarly there are also right-leaning people in the Reform movement.
The speaker thinks the ordination of gays and lesbians is going to force the issue of the future of the movement, and when it comes to the fore something dramatic is going to change.
[Which raises the question of what's going to happen when the issue arises in the UK, whose Masorti movement has typically been about thirty years behind the US in terms of innovation (and is currently still grappling with the issue of women).]