Virtual Talmud

When thinking about the recent decision on the part of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to allow gay ordination and marriage, I try to remind myself that I really don’t like criticizing people and institutions when I don’t have better answers than the ones they’re proposing. It’s not like Orthodoxy or other forms of rabbinic Judaism have had anything more productive to offer in the ongoing discussion about the incredibly complex subject of homosexuality in religious life. Kudos should be given to the Conservative movement for attempting to take a moral stand on this issue. Still, I think the Conservative movement took a very bold step–one that I understand and I am sympathetic to, but one that I am not sure was necessary or ultimately productive.

No, I am not really bothered by Rabbi Waxman’s age-old sigh that the Conservative Movement is wishy-washy. They are trying to create a big tent, and sometimes that means being wishy-washy. We all are wishy-washy; it just depends on the issue.

My problems with the Conservative movement’s decision to permit the ordination of gay rabbis and to allow rabbis to officiate at gay weddings are threefold: (1) Contra Arnold Eisen’s elite sociological surveys, Conservative laity itself does not really care much about the issue (perhaps I am mistaken, but there is less than a handful of women rabbis working at major (over 500 families) Conservative congregations… if it’s been that hard for women to get positions, I can’t imagine it will be any easier for homosexuals); (2) yet again, the Conservative movement–a movement that prides itself on stressing the social and communal dimensions of halakhah (Jewish law)–created a law that no one can follow; and (3) perhaps ironically, the Conservative movement is caught, to use Heschel’s term, in a “pan-halakhic” game, continuing to think that every issue is one to be decided by halakha.

In some ways, to allow homosexuals to participate in homosexual relationships but not engage in anal sex is like the Conservative movement’s 1950 decision to allow Jews to drive to and from synagogue on Shabbat but not allow them to take a detour to the mall on their way home. To be put it bluntly, ain’t nobody gonna follow that. While the law makes sense in theory, it is totally socially disingenuous. It is astounding how a movement built around a concept of “Catholic Israel” could so miserably fail to take into account the way people behave.

Why did the Conservative movement feel the need to halakhically justify itself? Why, for example, did it have to make the ordination issue into a halakhic one? Could they not have said that this is a matter of public policy? No one at JTS gets the halakhically orientated “smicha” degree when they become a rabbi. Rather, the actual degree is just a professional degree of “ordination,” which does not necessarily have to have any halakhic implications. So why make the gay ordination issue a halakhic matter? Likewise, on the issue of marriage, why couldn’t the movement have created a different Jewish marriage ceremony, one that recognizes the uniqueness of the commitment being made?

Not everything has to have a halakhic answer–why the Conservative movement thinks it has to, I have no idea.

— Posted by Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

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