February 20, 2003

(RNS)--In a move that will likely have a rippling effect throughoutConservative Judaism, the movement is preparing to consider whetherhomosexuality is permissible according to Jewish law.

Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,plans to submit a letter "in the near future" to the Committee on Jewish Lawand Standards asking that the group revisit the issue of homosexuality anddiscern whether the movement's official teaching on the subject shouldchange.

The committee is scheduled to meet March 5.

Yudof, whose organization is a lay arm of the 1.5 million-membermovement, working with synagogues and lay leaders, emphasized she is notspecifically asking the law committee to address same-sex commitmentceremonies or the ordination of gays and lesbians as rabbis.

"The issue is not within our purview," she said. "I am writing to askthe committee to revisit the policy on gays, to research to determinewhether it is or is not halachic (legal according to Jewish law) behavior."

But Yudof, who has not revealed her own views, acknowledges that the lawcommittee's ruling will likely have an impact on those two key issues. "I know that other things can flow from a scholarly answer to thisquestion," she said.

The Conservative movement is viewed as a middle ground for many Jews,between the traditional Orthodox movement and the more theologically liberalReform movement.

Many Jews shy away from Orthodoxy over issues like the separation of menand women during worship, and they find a religiously traditional but moresocially open environment in the Conservative movement.

Both the Reform and Orthodox movements have set policies onhomosexuality -- the Reform movement ordains gays and lesbians and allowscommitment ceremonies, the Orthodox movement does not.

The last time the Conservative movement addressed homosexuality was in1992, when the law committee issued the current policy, which states thatwhile gays and lesbians are to be welcomed as members of Conservativecongregations, schools and camps, they cannot be admitted to rabbinical orcantorial school.

Further, rabbis are barred from performing same-sex commitmentceremonies. Schools and synagogues are allowed to hire gays and lesbians fortheir staffs if they choose.

Since that ruling, which was published as a "teshuva," or religiousopinion, the movement has wrestled with how to enforce and implement thepolicy.

According to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, USCJ executive vice president, acongregation must pass through an application process to become an officialConservative synagogue, meeting standards like a kosher facility, observingShabbat, not performing intermarriages, and not performing commitmentceremonies.

But some congregations have hired Conservative rabbis, considerthemselves theologically in line with the movement but are not members ofUSCJ.

In 1995, Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley,Calif., performed a "covenant of love," or "rit re'yut," for a lesbiancouple in his congregation.

Netivot Shalom is not a member of the USCJ, and Kelman, a member in goodstanding of the movement's Rabbinical Association, says he actedindependently, without the backing of the movement. "I obviously went out on a limb as an independent rabbi, not with the backing of the Conservative movement, not with the backing of the law committee," said Kelman.

Kelman says he now hopes that the law committee will "sanction a publicreligious ceremony of commitment between gays and lesbians," though he isnot comfortable calling it a wedding.

Some members of the law committee have voiced their views on what theybelieve Jewish tradition will have to say about the issue when it isofficially raised.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the vice chair of the law committee who is expectedby some to become the chair sometime in the next several months, has workedwith the AIDS community and has a lesbian daughter. He said theseexperiences lead him to the view that gays and lesbians should be ordainedas rabbis and should be allowed to have commitment ceremonies.

Dorff, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University ofJudaism in Los Angeles, interprets the controversial verse in the biblicalbook of Leviticus chapter 18 that seems to refer to homosexuality as "anabomination" in what he calls "a narrow way," arguing that promiscuous sex,oppressive sex or rape is indeed an abomination, but "loving, monogamous sexbetween gays ought to be sanctified in a similar way, or a parallel way, tomarriage."

Rabbi Joel Roth, a law committee member for 30 years and a professor ofTalmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, stronglydisagrees, and says his opinion has not changed since the issue was raisedin 1992. "I cannot think of any argument that would persuade me that Jewish lawallows now what it didn't allow 10 years ago," he said.

Roth believes the debate could be fractious to the movement. "How can it not be? It's divisive in American society. The Conservative movement is part of American society -- it will be divisive in the Conservative movement," he said.