The first case testing a decade-old policy permitting Conservative rabbis to serve gay and lesbian congregations has illuminated the movement's many struggles and inconsistencies in connection with homosexuality-related issues.
A day before her ordination this spring at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ayelet Cohen informed the Rabbinical Assembly that she had been offered a job at New York's gay and lesbian synagogue. She had served at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah as a rabbinic intern--placed there by the seminary--for the past two years.
Since CBST is not a member of the movement's congregational arm--gay and lesbian synagogues are banned from membership on halachic grounds--Rabbi Cohen knew she needed a waiver to accept the post.
Rabbi Cohen, who is straight, was warned by the RA that accepting the job without its approval could result in sanctions, even expulsion. That would have nearly ended her career within the movement almost before it began.
After taking two months and calling Rabbi Cohen, 28, to appear before the placement commission, the RA gave her the green light just days before her job was slated to begin next week.
As the Conservative movement continues in its effort to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, the case raises questions about its stand on same-sex commitment ceremonies and the right of a rabbi to serve a gay and lesbian congregation, which in theory is permitted by an RA policy but in reality is not clear.
RA officials say they routinely consider applications for waivers, sometimes granting them and other times not.
"We had concerns that there were issues that went beyond strictly placement issues," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at CBST, the world's largest gay and lesbian synagogue.
The West Village congregation, which has 800 members, is closer liturgically and ritually to the Conservative movement than any other, Rabbi Kleinbaum said. CBST follows Conservative practice, observes kashrut, both of its rabbis were educated in several Conservative institutions and they do not officiate at interfaith marriages.
"It's hard for me to believe that the fact that CBST is a large and active gay and lesbian synagogue, committed to the equality of gays in the Jewish world, did not inform their concern about placing Rabbi Cohen here," said Rabbi Kleinbaum, who is a member of the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical organizations.
According to a source familiar with the proceedings, who asked not to be named, RA officials "were flipping out" over Rabbi Cohen's application for a waiver and purposely "dawdled" in dealing with it.
Rabbi Cohen was finally brought before a panel of 10 men and one woman on the placement commission and was questioned in a way "which bordered on sexual discrimination," said the source.
Asked by the panel if she intended to officiate at commitment ceremonies, Rabbi Cohen said she would do so in whatever synagogue she worked.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the RA, said the primary obstacle for Rabbi Cohen "was that the synagogue was not eligible for placement under our system."
"But the fact that it's a gay and lesbian synagogue presents certain issues, obviously," he said. "The secondary issue was that the rabbi would be immediately put into a position of halachic compromise" by being expected to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies, which is prohibited by RA policy.
"Therefore, that would not be something we would generally go for," Rabbi Meyers said. "There are many congregations over the years that ask us to have rabbis come and serve them which are not United Synagogue members. Many are rejected precisely because they don't meet our general halachic parameters."
Before the decision was made final, however, other conditions were discussed and negotiated among Rabbis Kleinbaum and Cohen and RA officials.
The difficulties of this particular case "point to the confusion and the struggle within the Conservative movement that is as yet unresolved about homosexual issues," said Rabbi Kleinbaum in an interview in her synagogue study with Rabbi Cohen.