Gay Rabbis: A Conservative Decision

For the first time gay and lesbian rabbinical students will be ordained as Conservative rabbis in Israel. The Board of Trustees of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary voted on April 19 to accept gay and lesbian students for ordination beginning with the 2012-13 academic year. Out of the 18 rabbis that attended, all voted to admit homosexual students, with one rabbi abstaining.

“The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halacha,” or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in seminary’s statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halacha in a pluralist and changing world.”

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, President of the Israeli Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly expressed his support of the move. “I see it as a very important development in Jewish law,” Rabbi Balter told Haaretz, adding: “It is the right thing to do. We were all made in the image of god, and as such we are all made equal. For me this is a very important value. I always said we should admit gay and lesbians into our ranks.”

“I’m glad we had the vote and that it went the way it did,” Rabbi Balter continued. “The decision to hold a vote was correct as can be seen by the fact that there wasn’t a single dissenting vote,” he said.

Shmuel Rosner interviewed Professor Hanan Alexander, chair of the board of trustees of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, on the vote.

Shmuel Rosner: You told the Associated Press that the decision to ordain gay rabbis will allow Conservatives “to uphold Jewish religious law in a pluralist and changing world.” Can you briefly explain the halakhic considerations that make such decision compatible with “religious Jewish law”?

Hanan Alexander: Jewish law has always allowed for the possibility that more than one interpretation is correct. It has similarly adapted over time to changing circumstances and social concerns. In response to changing social mores around the year 1000, for example, Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz decreed that a Jewish man is forbidden to marry more than one woman, a practice that is permitted by the Torah. Although binding on Ashkenazi Jews, it was not accepted by Sephardim until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

This idea of halakhic pluralism in response to changing historical and social circumstances is especially important to Masorti/Conservative jurisprudence. When leading opinion makers and researchers in the field of human sexuality subjected traditional beliefs about homosexuality to hard criticism, a number of rabbis and laypeople within the Masorti/Conservative movement became uncomfortable with the exclusion of gays and lesbians from all levels of participation in Jewish life. A lengthy discussion ensued over a number of years within the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards concerning the permissibility of ordaining openly gay and lesbian individuals as rabbis.

Following the pluralistic principle, in 2006 two decisions among a number of others were approved by the committee. Rabbi Joel Roth took the view that gays and lesbians should not be ordained based on a traditional reading of the prohibition for a man to lie with a man as if with a woman found in Leviticus 20.  Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avraham Reisner, on the other hand, offered an alternative interpretation of that verse as referring only to male-male anal intercourse, thereby permitting other forms of monogamous homosexual intimacy. They further argued that respect for human dignity requires admitting openly gay and lesbian students to the rabbinate.”

Read the rest of this fascinating interview.

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