Why the Conservative movement endorsed gays

Last week, the Conservative movement paved the way for ordination of gay rabbis and the performance of commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But the decisions that came out of the two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee — the advisory body for the movement — were much more nuanced than headlines suggested.

After the 25-member committee heard five responsa (halachic papers ruling on the subject), the group voted to ratified three, allowing Conservative seminaries and rabbis various options from which to choose:

  • Rabbi Joel Roth presented an opinion upholding the movement’s earlier position barring gay clergy and commitment ceremonies. It received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Elliot Dorff presented an opinion that would allow commitment ceremonies and gay clergy while retaining the biblical prohibition on anal sex. It also received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Leonard Levy’s opinion called for reparative therapy for gays. It received six votes — the minimum for adoption.
  • Two other responsa, both of which called for the full ordination of gays with no prohibitions on sexual activity, were voted into “takanot” — like constitutional amendments — and needed a majority of 13 votes to be adopted. They did not receive the votes.

Shortly after the decisions, Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism and author of the most liberal opinion ratified, spoke to The Journal.

Jewish Journal: What does the ratification of your responsa this mean for you?

Rabbi Elliot Dorff: It takes a major burden off my shoulders. I’ve been involved in this since 1991, when the law committee first met on this. And then again when we started in January 2004, for the last three years. I’m really glad that we came to a conclusion and the conclusion was favorable.

JJ: Why go so far as to allow for gay commitment ceremonies and ordination but come out against anal sex?

ED: The strategy that we used was to uphold the prohibition in the Torah, at least how that prohibition has been understood by the rabbis, while revoking the prohibitions that the rabbis of old have added.

It’s a compromise position. The verse itself [Leviticus 18:22] is not clear. There are a number of biblical scholars that have different understanding to what that means. The mishnah and the Talmud prohibited anal sex. Then they added to it; the rabbis also prohibited male-male forms of sex, oral sex or mutual masturbation or hugging and kissing.

In our case, the Torah is like the constitution, and the rabbinic rulings are a secondary authority. It’s more justifiable to change what the rabbis added than to change the Torah itself. It’s somewhat akin to Congress changing previous legislation than Congress changing a constitutional amendment.

JJ: What will the prohibition mean, in practical terms? Will you become the bedroom police?

ED: Neither for heterosexuals or for homosexuals; it’s simply not my business what either do in bed. It’s just as much against Jewish law for heterosexuals to have sex during nidda, the menstrual period, as for homosexual couples to have anal sex…. When we do weddings, very rarely do Conservative rabbis talk to couples about abstaining from sex during the menstruation period. It’s simply counterproductive if the rabbis don’t think the couple will uphold it. In the same instance we would not talk about it to heterosexual couples, we wouldn’t talk about it with homosexual couples unless they ask. If you know someone’s not going to obey a particular law, better that they do it not knowing it’s a violation than do it intentionally. Rabbis should not say things that are not going to be heard.

Jewish law sets up ideals, and in every aspect of our lives we do not fulfill those ideals. So three times a day we ask God for forgiveness. Even if a gay couple were to engage in anal sex, that doesn’t mean that they are any worse than the rest of us.

They are sinning, but no different than the rest of us. The point is that — none of us is perfect. None of us fulfills every letter of the law.

JJ: Some people have hailed this decision as paving the way for gay rights in the Conservative movement. But others find it hypocritical to call gay intercourse a sin.

ED: It’s a violation of Jewish law. That’s what it is. The word “sin” carries all kinds of Christian connotations. It carries with it Calvinistic and Puritan understandings, especially the connotations of the word sin as in Jonathan Edwards quote, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” — that you’re going to be banned to hell. This is not the case. This is not at all the understanding of violating God’s will. I hesitate to call it a sin. It’s a violation. We all make violations. We have to be very careful about mounting a high horse and making a campaign against sinners and look at ourselves first.

JJ: At the same time, while your teshuvah was approved, so was Rabbi Levy’s, which seemed to espouse homosexual reeducation, taking the earlier position backward. What was the place for this responsa in the law committee?

ED: I voted against his teshuvah. Our teshuvah includes a summary of the best research available for sexual orientation and origins of sexual orientation and children of homosexuals. Our teshuvah has 30 to 40 different studies in regards to statements, and the overwhelming majority of people agree that homosexuality is not changeable, and by the time you’re 6 or 7 your sexual orientation is a part of you and cannot be changed. That’s the research that we quote and that’s the overwhelming research of the psychological community. Our teshuvah is based on the best research available. Rabbi Levy found one [person] who says [sexual orientation] can be changed.

It’s a minority opinion. It got six votes — barely enough. Ours got 13 votes.

JJ: There were two minority opinions that went farther than yours in giving full acceptance to gays. Why weren’t they endorsed?

ED: The two responsa — that we should simply change the law altogether, that gay sex would not be any more prohibited than straight sex in a marital relationship – each got seven votes, which would normally make them valid options as well. But there’s another procedure in the law committee that says if a majority of committee votes that it is really a takana [an amendment] then it needs thirteen votes to pass, an absolute majority. They were voted takanot, so they were not considered validated opinions.

The writers will submit [their responsa] as a concurring opinions to ours, which means they’re not official positions, but they will be published. People will be able to read them, and they can follow them. Rabbis will take more seriously those teshuvot that will be validated by the committee. But rabbis on their own authority can make their own decisions.

JJ: The 25 members of the law committee vote on all the responsa. One rabbi voted twice — for opposing opinions, upholding the ban and permitting it. What does that mean?

ED: That is an option. At least one person thought that both teshuvot presented reasonable interpretations of Jewish law. That’s the nature of law. It’s not a zero-sum game.

JJ: The UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies has already announced it will begin ordination of gay rabbis. What do you think will happen at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the other seminaries in Budapest and South America? Will they choose to ordain gay rabbis?

ED: Given the fact that both teshuvot got 13 votes, individual seminaries will have to decide if they will adapt one teshuvah or another. We [at the UJ] met with the board and administration in advance of the meeting and decided if they endorsed [my teshuvah] we’d follow that opinion.

It means that there’s room in our Conservative community for those who think that Gays and Lesbians should not be ordained and those who think they should be. Some congregations will choose to interview them, and some will not.

We’re much better off now than we were in 1985, when the first women rabbi was ordained in the Conservative movement, and there are some congregations that still will not accept a woman rabbi. It’s not a happy fact of life. Gays and lesbians understand that our society still has a lot of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that’s true in the Jewish community as well. Some congregations will choose not to interview people who are gay and lesbian. That seems to me like a very bad thing to do.

JJ: Ziegler became its own school in 1994. Do you think that your teshuvah’s being approved is a symbol of West Coast’s more liberal Jewish values’ influence on the East Coast?

ED: I hesitate to say that because this is not just a West Coast phenomenon.

JJ: People have said that ordaining gays would split the Conservative movement apart. Four rabbis resigned in protest from the law committee. How do you think this multioption answer will affect the Conservative movement as a whole?

ED: The Conservative movement went through the ordination of women a generation ago. We lost far more people on the left in 1968, when the Reconstructionist movement was founded, because we were not moving fast enough to equalize the place of Jewish women. We lost a few people in 1983 [when they voted to ordain women rabbis], and women are 50 percent of the Jewish population. Now we’re talking about gays and lesbians, which are 3 percent to 7 percent of the population. These decisions will not affect most Conservative Jews.

I hope it will attract a number of people to the Conservative movement who have been repelled by our stand on this issue until now, who have gone to more liberal movements.

JJ: Now that the Conservative movement will be ordaining gays, how do you see the Conservative movement differing from the Reform movement, which has become more traditional than it was in the past?

ED: The Reform movement still endorses individual autonomy. Like the Orthodox, we see halacha as being binding. But unlike the Orthodox movement, we understand it as changing and evolving, a legal living system. The fact that we view halacha as binding and the Reform does not translate into practical issues. Ninety-five percent of our services will be in Hebrew. Conservative synagogues will have kosher kitchens. The vast majority of Reform synagogues do not. The majority of Reform children do not go to day schools. Half the Conservative movement’s children go to day school or Hebrew school. It doesn’t seem to me the differences between the two movements are at all immaterial. They’re very material. And I think that’s a good thing. One of the best assets of American Judaism is it has multiple ways to enter Jewish life.

JJ: Anything else you want to add?

ED: What has happened this week is not a sign of a splintered movement, it’s the mark of a movement that cherishes pluralism. Aristotle said that it is unwise to pretend that things are clearer than they are. And I think that is indeed what happened here. We did not pretend the entire movement is behind one opinion or another. We said quite loudly that we have three opinions on the issue. I think the real strength of the Conservative movement is to state that clearly and to live with each other quite nicely. Thank you.