Local rabbis react cautiously to moves

Local rabbis react cautiously to moves


Local Conservative rabbis say they are impressed with the approach taken by the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards in their recent opinions regarding the status of gays and lesbians but no firm decisions have been made at local congregations as the rabbis begin to review the documents.

The rabbis said that the three conflicting opinions highlight the complexities and nuances of the movement. The lengthy process has been closely watched and debated for a long time. Local Conservative rabbis said they were impressed with the way the subject was undertaken and are beginning to read and process the documents to understand the background which supports each decision.

“In my opinion it’s impressive in the careful way they are trying to go through the subject,” Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel’s Rabbi Mordecai Miller said. “They account for not only traditional sources and materials, but they also take into account contemporary sources both Jewish and general and also make reference to modern Orthodox books on the subject. It is clear it was done with a real sense of reverence, clarity and scholarship.”

Opinions like the teshuvot issued last week are advisory not mandatory. They provide guidelines for Conservative rabbis who are free to accept or reject the decisions as they determine for themselves how to address an issue. This ability for each rabbi and congregation to act individually could be a blessing and a curse in the same way as the decisions the movement made regarding the role of women’s participation years ago.

“Conservative Jewish women realize that even today, they may not be allowed to participate in services in exactly the same way depending on the congregation,” Shaare Zedek’s Rabbi Mark Fasman said. “In some Conservative congregations they will not be allowed to be counted as part of the minyan, lead services or read from Torah. In the same way, gays and lesbians will find that what is accepted at one congregation may not be accepted at another congregation.”

Yet it is the very nature of its pluralism which provides great pride within the Conservative movement, some rabbis say. The conflicting nature of the three opinions reflects the struggle within the movement to wrestle with the opposing positions.

“It is wonderful the movement has room to support such diverse opinions,” the Jewish Community Center’s Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Community Life director Rabbi Brad Horwitz said.

Others felt similarly.

“The Conservative movement is a really big tent with the possibility for multiple realities simultaneously,” B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose said. “One of the truths of Conservative Judaism is: it is and always been a very complex and nuanced system. Only a complex, nuanced system could maintain in heart and mind simultaneously two realities: one that is both permissible under a certain set of circumstances and one that is not permissible.”

The more liberal opinion was written by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner. It allows for commitment ceremonies and ordination of gay rabbis. Many local Conservative rabbis appreciated this more welcoming stance from the movement and the opportunity for gays and lesbians to more fully participate in congregational and Jewish communal life.

“The decisions will have little effect on our congregation,” Rabbi Fasman said. “We have been operating under the premise that homosexuality is not an impediment to anyone who wants to participate fully in the life of our congregation.”

“Judaism teaches us that humans are created in God’s image and to love your neighbor as yourself,” Rabbi Horwitz said. “I welcome the opinion which welcomes gays and lesbians to be able to have commitment ceremonies and be ordained.”

“I am generally pleased with the outcome,” the Central Agency of Jewish Education’s Jewish Teen Program director Rabbi Ari Vernon said. “I know of many committed, practicing Conservative Jews who had to leave the movement in order to become rabbis. That door had been shut for reasons I don’t really understand.”

Rabbi Amy Feder, a rabbi in the Reform movement, said she thought the move was a beginning.

“I definitely think it is a step in the right direction,” said Feder, assistant rabbi at Temple Israel. “I have classmates from the Jewish Theological Seminary who have been working very hard towards these decisions. But I think there is still a long way to go.”

Several Orthodox rabbis reached for comment said they felt they did not know enough about the teshuvot in question to give a statement regarding those decisions. One rabbi also felt the comments should come from the Conservative rabbis and their congregations since they are who is affected by the decisions.

It is important to note that the same opinion which welcomes commitment ceremonies and ordination, continues the prohibition against homosexual intercourse from the Book of Leviticus which says, “Do not lie with a male as one lie with a woman; it is an abomination.”

“Clearly the position paper passed by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, is not offering carte blanche,” Rabbi Rose said. “There are conditions. First you must be talking about two Jews; two Jews who are in a monogamous relationship; two Jews who are willing to live by the standards of the teshuva itself which does not permit homosexual intercourse. Like most things in Jewish life, it is about permissibility under certain circumstances.”

Each rabbi said they will be carefully reviewing the process involved in the opinions. In general, they said they are initially very pleased with the way the research was applied and decisions made. Rabbi Miller will said he will propose reading the teshuva with his class which meets regularly every Wednesday. Other rabbis have already made preliminary remarks from the pulpit as part of their sermons.

“The process that the Law Committee used was very much in line with the way in which halacha has always functioned,” Rabbi Rose said. “All of the papers started with the default that the tradition and the status quo actually have the most weight.”

“The movement is constantly struggling with boundaries between inherited traditions and the new realities in which we live,” Rabbi Fasman said. “It doesn’t say yes to everything and it doesn’t say no to everything. The movement historically has taken much longer to make decisions because of serious questions about any changes in Jewish law.”

Rose said that the blending of tradition and modernity is key.

“The Torah has once again opened itself up to us and this generation to share with us its deepest truths,” Rabbi Rose said. “Some will say it is an abbregation of halacha, it’s an abbregation of the Torah. It isn’t. It is what halacha has always done and what the tradition has always tried to achieve: to find a way to be responsive to the needs of people in contemporary times.”