B’ruchim haBa’im to the Conservative Movement, finally

A little history:

The USCJ (the synagogue part of the Conservative Movement) has affirmed the civil rights of lesbians and gay men since 1991, condemned violence against us, and welcomed us as members of their congregations; the RA (the rabbinic association of the Conservative Movement) affirmed the welcome in 1992, and at the same time made it clear that there was no place for G/L rabbis in the Conservative Movement (except completely hidden in the closet) or any kind of G/L commitment ceremony. The Conservative Movement has been at least since the early 90s to figure out the place of gay and lesbian Jews in the Conservative Movment. And today is a Shehechayanu day! Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, she-heh-cheh-yanu v’kiy-manu v’higi-anu la-z’man ha-zeh!

Shehechaynanu in Hebrew and English from Jewish Virtual Library

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the halakhic (Jewish law) decision-making body for the Conservative movment. Five possible teshuvot — rabbinic responses to a rabbinic question — were debated and voted upon Dec. 5-6. Three different ones were accepted as valid guides and limits for the movement. Two of those were accepted with clear majorities (14 votes out of 25); the third is a 6-vote minority position, which means that the movement officially accepts it as valid even though not very many members voted for it. Four members of the committee resigned, though they’ve been asked to reconsider.

The way that halakhah in the Conservative Movement works, two or more conflicting teshuvot can be accepted at the same time. That widens the range of acceptable practice within the movement and requires that the “local rabbi” (mara d’atra) make the decision about what is acceptable practice within each congregation. That’s what happened here:

At the CJLS meetings, five specific teshuvot were extensively discussed in a spirit of collegiality and open-mindedness. Two teshuvot — one authored by Rabbi Joel Roth and the other authored by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner — obtained clear majority support. Rabbi Roth’s responsum “Homosexuality Revisited” reaffirmed the prior position, which denied ordination as clergy to active homosexuals and also prohibited same sex commitment ceremonies or marriage. In contrast, Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, while retaining the Torah’s explicit prohibition, as understood by the rabbis banning male homosexual intercourse, argued in “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah” for the full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews. Under this ruling, gay and lesbian Jews may be ordained as clergy and their committed relationships may be recognized, although not as sanctified marriage. (from the USCJ press release)

So in essence, the Conservative Movement has ended up at much the same place that the Reform Movement did several years ago, at least on the issue of rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies: It’s ok if you officiate, it’s ok if you don’t officiate. The Reform rabbis took three years to study and debate. Not surprisingly, the Conservative Movement took 15 or so. I think that’s good. (Look at this history.)

A third teshuva accepted by the CJLS, written by Rabbi Leonard Levy, which upheld the traditional prohibitions, argued that homosexuality is not a unitary condition and urged the development of educational programs within the community to achieve understanding, compassion and dignity for gays and lesbians. (Also from the USCJ press release)

“Not a unitary condition” — anybody out there know what that means? You have to look at other documents, like this AP story, to find out:

The third policy supports the ban on gay sex in Jewish law and notes that some gays have successfully undergone therapy that changes their sexual orientation.

If you don’t know anything about this, let me tell you that such “therapy” is rarely successful and usually hurts more than it helps. (Here’s what the American Psychological Association has to say about it.)

The official USCJ response to that third teshuvah (which, remember, got only 6 out of 25 total votes) seems to have taken two different paths. The version posted on the USCJ website — the lasting, public response — says:

Although there is always a tendency to focus on those points upon which we disagree, I call upon all of us to place our emphasis on the points that bind us together.

But the version that went out by email this morning (less public) is a little more blunt about that third teshuvah:

Although we have the greatest respect for the Law Committee’s decisions, we do not agree with the recommendations of the third paper it accepted, which said that gay men and lesbians are best advised to find “restorative therapy” to change their sexual orientation.

CAVEAT: I haven’t seen any of these teshuvot yet because they haven’t yet been posted.
You should also know that:

There was also some support on the committee for a more comprehensive repeal of the prior ban against homosexual relationships. All authors of teshuvot shared a universal appreciation for the principle of kvod habriot and the welfare of gays and lesbians in our community. (Also from the USCJ press release)

So the Conservative Movement has now made a place for gay and lesbian Jews to be full members of their communities, including leaders at all levels. That’s what I think, anyway. Some folks will probably disagree with me and say that there are still a few steps left to go to full equality: Not singling out male anal intercourse — oi vey, what “web crawlers” will find that phrase and link to this post??! — as prohibited, and finding a way to call same-sex relationships kiddushin (“sanctified marriage,” per the press release). Not leaving open the option for congregations to refuse to hire queer rabbis, which this multiplicity of teshuvot did. Sure, I’d like to see all that too. But knowing what I know about the halakhah and the process of communal change, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’ll get there any time soon. This was already a pretty big step.

(By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pro-GL-rabbis-and-commitment-ceremony teshuvah also acknowledges that few gay Jewish men will observe the anal sex prohibition, and I hope it points out that one transgression is not weighed more heavily than another — in other words, this shouldn’t be any bigger of a deal than cooking on Shabbat or eating shrimp, both of which are prohibited by halachah as the Conservative Movement understands it).

I’m delighted. This is such a HUGE STEP for this movement. Mazel Tov on the process, and Mazel Tov on the result!