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Notes from Limmud 2004

Can Conservative Judaism survive the oncoming debate on homosexuality?

Daniel Gordis

[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).]

Gay Shul

Date: 2006-04-27 02:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I think it will even take longer until Masorti accept gays and lesbian. As you said they are much nearer to Orthodoxy then anywhere else.
In the UK we don't have even a Liberal Shul for gays and Lesbians. There is only a Jewish Gay/Lesbian group who meet occacionally. In the USA (maybe New York) they have an official Shul for those people. I don't think they are conservative. I think it will happen earlier in the USA then anywhere else. Holland and I think Denmark allows Gay/Lesbian marriages. There is not much of a Jewish community. So even there nothing will really happen in the Jewish community.

Re: Gay Shul

Date: 2006-04-27 07:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I think it will even take longer until Masorti accept gays and lesbian. As you said they are much nearer to Orthodoxy then anywhere else.

I have heard it say that there are Masorti shuls which will leave the Masorti movement if another Masorti shul were to appoint a woman rabbi—which isn't something that's going to happen in the next while, but is going to happen in the longer run—you and I both know several British Masorti women currently training for the Rabbinate.

Originally I was saddened when I heard this. In retrospect, however, I don't think it is so bad as I had first thought: it means those shuls which leave can bring back to Orthodoxy when they do some of the open-mindedness they had picked up during their period of time as part of Masorti Judaism, and those that remain can now move on without being held back by their more conservative peers.

As a result, by the time the issue of gay ordination arises in the UK, British Masorti Judaism will I suspect be a considerable more left-leaning movement than it is as a whole today.

In the UK we don't have even a Liberal Shul for gays and Lesbians.

Hardly surprising, when you consider the size of the Jewish community here —and specifically those who are both LGBT and Masorti* and committed enough to their Judaism for it to be an issue—compared to the States.

* Reform Judaism has already dealt with the issue; there is at present an openly gay Reform rabbi in the UK.

In the USA (maybe New York) they have an official Shul for those people.

<googles on the name of their emeritus rabbi, whom I heard speak at Limmud 2004> Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (http://www.cbst.org/).

I think it will happen earlier in the USA then anywhere else.

Of course; there are more Jews in the USA than anywhere else.

Re: Gay Shul

Date: 2006-05-09 03:37 pm (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
In fact, there is a Liberal (ish, they're not terribly denominational) shul in the UK for gays and lesbians: Beit Klal Yisrael. Has been around for 15 years or so. And there are several, not just one as [livejournal.com profile] lethargic_man points out, openly gay rabbis in the Progressive movements. But within the Masorti movement specifically, I'm not sure there is much. As Michael says, that's cos the Masorti movement is really rather small so just statistically, a lot of issues take a while to come up.

Re: Gay Shul

Date: 2006-05-09 09:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
That is interesting. Two years ago I was just told there is only a group with gays and lesbian Jews who are meeting once a month. I looked on the webpage you gave here. They have regular services like every Shul. Masorti is just starting to develope. Egalitarian services are still not the main minyan of most of the Masorti Shuls in the UK. They have still a women issue. Until they are that far accepting everybody that takes time.

Re: Gay Shul

Date: 2006-05-09 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I guess the older generation must die out before there will be a complete renewal with real tolerance. I know some women went to America to study in a Rabbinical School. I am not sure if they will come back. There are much more Jews in the USA and lots of choices much more than here. Maybe they change their mind and prefer the life there rather than here.


Date: 2006-05-09 09:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Look at Jeremy Rosen. He is hardly in the UK and supports Yakar. He is most of the time in New York where he has more offers and earns more.

Re: Rabbis

Date: 2006-05-09 09:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
That's different. His wife lives there!

Re: Rabbis

Date: 2006-05-10 10:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Lindsey said he was often thinking about staying there. He works for another community in New York as well. They give him more than Yakar. I hope not to loose him as he is for an Orthodox Rabbi very open-minded.
From: (Anonymous)
Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is very literally the word of G-d, and must be observed to the finest detail. Reform Jews believe that it was “man looking for G-d,” and is thus subject to error and omission!

Conservative Judaism takes a “middle ground.” Well, on this question, the concept of a “middle ground” is nonsensical on its face! A prime example is how most of the Conservative Rabbinate historically emphasized the importance of the dietary laws, but most of the Conservative laity did not keep kosher! This inconsistency could be buried under the rug with dietary laws, but it’s not going to work for harder questions such as GLBT issues.
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
You can't blame the Conservative rabbinate for the fact its laity is not observant (though I have heard Conservative Judaism described, somewhat snarkily, though not, I understand, without at least a grain of truth, as Orthodox rabbis pandering to a Reform laity). That has more to do with the fact it's a large movement to whom most of the traditional but non-observant Jews in the States belong. In the UK, that role is filled instead by Orthodoxy, and most of the Orthodox laity here do not keep fully kosher.


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