Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2007
Conservative Judaism: Good for the Gays?
By Jay Michaelson
IN THE GAY JEWISH COMMUNITY few people are breaking out the champagne over the Conservative movement's long-expected split decision on homosexuality this past December. It was, the conventional wisdom goes, a positive step—nothing more. Unlike most activists, though, I'd go so far as to say that it's better than an all-out "victory" would've been.
To review the facts: the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is a twenty-five-member body that decides halacha (Jewish law) for the movement. In most cases they issue one opinion that is, theoretically, binding upon the movement's adherents. However, in controversial cases, it's not uncommon for multiple opinions to be issued, leaving it to rabbis and institutional leaders to choose which they will adopt for their community. In this case, six opinions were issued, three of which received enough votes to pass: a compromise by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins (recently named as the new dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school), and Avram Reisner; a restatement by Rabbi Joel Roth of his earlier view that all same-sex activity is forbidden by halacha; and a somewhat perplexing opinion by Rabbi Leonard Levy urging the social acceptance of gay people, while arguing that some of them could change their sexuality if they wanted to.
Rabbi Dorff's opinion received the most attention, and justifiably so, as it is the first opinion in the Conservative movement to hold that some same-sex activity is permissible. It argues that while Leviticus 18:22 does indeed prohibit anal sex between men, that the Biblical prohibition extends no further, and that later, rabbinic extensions of the law may be changed in the name of human dignity. Moreover, just as we don't ask when women are menstruating (during which sex is forbidden under the Jewish "family purity laws" contained in the same portion of Leviticus), we don't ask exactly what gay men are doing behind closed doors. Thus, since we presume they are following halacha (and leave it to God to decide if they aren't), acceptance of gays, ordination of gays and lesbians, and even celebration of same-sex relationships are all permissible.
What gay activists really wanted was a ratification of Rabbi Gordon Tucker's opinion, which basically holds that when we apply our moral conscience to the sacred text, we find that it can't possibly mean to bar people from being who they are. Nowhere in Jewish law is such a repressive regime advocated, Tucker argued, and so we must be reading the verse incorrectly here. We may not know what the verse means, the reasoning goes, but we know it can't mean this. (Another, more permissive opinion by Rabbis Myron Geller, Robert Fine, and David Fine, would also empty Leviticus 18:22 of meaning on the grounds that the Biblical prohibition only applied when same-sex relationships could not be sanctified by matrimony.)
Some have argued that Dorff's "don't ask, don't tell" interpretation of the law is insufficient: after all, it still leaves a constituent element of gay relationships taboo, and requires potential rabbis to be less than fully truthful about their lives. But in the context of Conservative Judaism, I actually prefer the Dorff compromise tactically, if not personally or spiritually, for at least three reasons.
First, for those with a stake in the Conservative Judaism being a halachic movement, Tucker's reasoning could be very troubling. Yes, there is the occasional precedent, as Judith Hauptman has argued persuasively, for rabbis uprooting a rule of Torah, or effectively reading it out of existence, but not since the Talmudic period. To do so now would change the meaning of halacha within the Conservative movement; we in the gay community would be open to the charge that homosexuality and halacha, as traditionally conceived, don't go together.
Second, in explaining the current ruling to the press, I've often explained it as saying "the verse means one thing, instead of a lot of things." That's very different, and I think much more moderate, than "the verse is basically meaningless." It means we didn't have to make a massive change, and it leaves the verse with its plain meaning intact. It's also much more Jewish; we're using a textual strategy to get to where our conscience needs to go. It maintains the divinity of the Torah, and says that, all along, it's not God who hated fags--it's (straight, male) rabbis interpreting the text who didn't know any better.
Finally, the fact that this is a compromise means that every "side" comes away with something. Mine got a ruling that will let gays into rabbinical school, and theirs got a ban on at least some (male) homosexual activity. Usually, when no one's completely happy, it means that an effective compromise has been reached, and while I know that many in the anti-gay camp—including the four rabbis who resigned from the committee in the wake of the decisions—view this as a radical departure from halacha, the fact that it's a compromise is vital for building consensus.
To be sure, there are many things I wish had gone differently. I wish that lesbianism and male homosexuality had been treated halachically (where they are totally separate issues) rather than in contemporary terms (where they are lumped together). I wish that Rabbi Roth and his colleagues had followed their own advice from twenty years ago, when they excoriated those who left the Conservative movement over the ordination of women. And, while Roth's opinion in 2006 is far more nuanced and carefully argued than his earlier one, I wish he would have allowed the real-world consequences of this debate to influence his legal methodology, which is much more conservative-with-a-small-c here than in many of his other rulings.
Truthfully, not many Conservative Jews, gay or straight, really care what the CJLS says, and as even the "anti-gay" opinions recognized, homophobia far outweighs halacha in terms of why prejudice endures in the Jewish community today. But there is real significance to the Dorff opinion, because it says something very simple, but very important: that being gay is okay with God. Perhaps that's not earth shattering to most Tikkun readers, but to some religious kid out there, it just might be.
Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net) and the director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews. His latest book is God in Your Body, published in November, 2006.
Michaelson, Jay. 2007. Conservative Judaism: Good for the Gays? Tikkun 22(2): 57.