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Virtual Talmud

On December 6, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards–known in short as the Law Committee–passed a number of contradictory teshuvot (legal opinions) that variously allow and disallow same-sex commitment ceremonies, participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life, and the ordination of homosexuals as Conservative rabbis. In practice, the Law Committee punted–allowing Conservative institutions (synagogues, schools, camps) to pick and choose which opinions to follow and, by extension, taking no real position at all.

Oh, I know some people will argue that the decisions are a step forward for gay and lesbian Jews–and they are, since the movement’s more liberal American seminary, the University of the Judaism, has indicated its intent to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. But there’s something that sits badly with me about a decision that essentially institutionalizes the right to discriminate, that says that individual Conservative congregations can explicitly refuse to hire gay rabbis if they prefer, or that a Conservative day school may refuse to hire a teacher because she is a lesbian. A document put out by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly argues that this split decision is actually a triumph of pluralism, but enshrining the right to discriminate isn’t pluralism–it’s as though the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Ed had said that they’d prefer that schools not be segregated but, in order to be pluralistic, if you really wanted to keep the black kids out then it was OK.

So yes, there’s progress. But personally, I find it disheartening that the Conservative Movement was unwilling to take a strong position on either side–either to say that Conservative values demand full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all facets of Jewish life as a matter of moral principle or, on the contrary, to say that Conservative Judaism’s commitment to halachah (Jewish law) and Jewish tradition forbids extending equal status to homosexuals in ritual matters. With their conflicting decisions, the Law Committee said neither. In essence then, it actually said that individual institutions are free to do whatever they want–meaning that it is actually providing no moral guidance at all and is effectively acknowledging its irrelevance to how any individual Conservative Jew or institution would come to make a decision on this important issue.

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