October 17, 2019

The Conservative gay marriage debate

On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

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