The Seattle Jewish Transcript reports in Conservative Rabbis Clash on Homosexuality that the Conservative movement held its biennial conference last week in Dallas. One of the most provocative topics up for discussion was the movement’s perspective on homosexuality. This would include such issues as: Gay marriage; Should gays be fully accepted religiously within synagogue life? Can a ‘practicing’ homosexual receive ordination and minister to a congregation?
I grew up as a member of a Conservative synagogue. I attended the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. I even contemplated studying for the rabbinate. But I have grown somewhat distant from synagogue life especially since Seattle has no congregation that appeals to me. I would really prefer to belong to a Reconstructionist congregation, but there is none here.
Because of my alienation, I am somewhat impatient with the slow pace of acceptance of homosexuals within the Conservative movement. Similarly, I have always been impatient with the relative conservatism of the movement on social and religious issues. While my view is that Conservative Judaism’s attitude toward homosexuality should have been settled a long time ago, I appreciate the gravity and significance of this debate.
At the conference, two rabbis I’ve known and respected represented opposite sides in the debate. I was very proud that Elliot Dorff called for full acceptance of homosexuals into Conservative life. As an aside, I was deeply grateful to Rabbi Dorff for reading my essay on Judaism and Child Abuse and commenting favorably on it. This unfortunately did not help it get published in the Jewish world, where it was rejected by every major Jewish magazine including those of the Conservative and Reform movements. My take on the rejection is that the organized Jewish community is as frightened and uninformed about child abuse as it is about homosexuality. I highly recommend Dorff’s new book on Judaism, ethics and social values:
Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics . Among the issues he takes up there is homosexuality and domestic abuse.
I was saddened that my former teacher and student advisor, Joel Roth, represented the retrograde position that homosexuals must not be fully accepted and integrated into the movement and the rabbinate. While Rabbi Roth is a kind and sympathetic person, it appears that our halachic and social views strongly diverge. The Transcript article (which originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post) explains their respective approaches to homosexuality:
Rabbi Joel Roth told delegates he wants to preserve the current interpretation of halachic laws that “demand that gay Jews be celibate” and that they refrain from commitment ceremonies and ordination as rabbis.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff said he wants Conservative Judaism to reinterpret the laws “based on moral and medical considerations” in order to sanction monogamous homosexual relationships by offering Jewish commitment ceremonies and to encourage committed, same-sex couples to consider adoption, the use of surrogates and artificial insemination to replenish the dwindling Jewish population.
Rabbi Dorff challenged absolute interpretations of the verse in Leviticus 18:22, which calls homosexual acts an “abomination.” He said the Bible uses the same word to describe idolatry, eating non-kosher food and dishonesty in business. While not condoning those three acts, he said, they are not among the worst offenses. Dorff serves as vice chairman of the standards committee and is a philosophy professor of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
“I would affirm Leviticus but apply it only to cultic sex, promiscuous sex and to aggressive sex,” he said. “I think those three are indeed abominations whether they are performed by homosexuals or by heterosexuals.”
“In some ways, it’s a generational issue,” Rabbi Dorff added. “My children had a very different experience with it…. [in their view] Some people are gay or lesbian the way some people have brown eyes and some people have blue eyes.” He said that perception was “not true for everyone in their generation.”
“We have a very clear interest in trying to get gays and lesbians within our community to be monogamous,” he said. “How do you do that? One of the ways that you do that, is surely not to tell them to have no sex whatsoever because that’s just going to be seen as impossible, as with asking heterosexuals to abstain. If we say ‘don’t do anything’ we become irrelevant.”
“In monogamy, we get people who take responsibility for each other,” Rabbi Dorff continued. “Marriage is not just a license for sex but an announcement before family and friends that you are going to take responsibility for each other.”
Rabbi Roth, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the Halachic system is “binding and authoritative upon us” as Conservatives. “If we are not that, we should close up shop and admit that our movement has no claim to normative Jewish authenticity and, therefore, no good reason to exist….We recognize the legitimacy of innovation and change only when and if our decisions can be justified and defended from within the parameters of the Halachic system itself.”
In Leviticus 18:22, he said, “the prohibition [against homosexual activity] is clear and total.” Yet those who practice homosexuality “are no more wicked or evil than our Sabbath desecrators,” he added. “Homosexuals do not make a conscious and knowing choice to be homosexuals,” and they deserve the community’s compassion.
He interpreted the law to “demand that gay Jews be celibate.” While the law can’t prevent attractions, “it does insist that they not act on those attractions.” He suggested that gays “give therapy a try” to alter their behavior since “some claim success” with treatment. “Acupuncture and herbal remedies once were rejected by the Western world, but that has changed.”
Rabbi Roth issued a plea to gay Jews “to recognize that an inability to legitimate homosexuality Halachically makes no negative claim whatsoever about the humanity, sanctity, worth and dignity of homosexuals.” In addition, he asked heterosexual Jews “to exhibit much greater understanding of the personal plight, especially the personal Halachic plight, of gay Jews” and to avoid prejudging their “humanity, sanctity, worth and dignity.”
While Roth’s views may reflect the attitude of some (or perhaps a majority) in the Conservative rabbinate and laity, his beliefs are tremendously out of touch with both modern reality and social norms.
Like it or not, (and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling requiring Massachusetts to offer same sex marriage affirms this trend) our society is gradually embracing the full participation of homosexuals in every aspect of life. While many religious groups including the Catholic Church have been slow to accept this social trend, several Protestant groups have managed to fully incorporate homosexuals into their religious communities. It would be a sad day when Conservative Judaism would join the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists and Orthodox Judaism as the major demominations prohibiting homosexual marriage and the full ordination of homosexual religious leaders. If I were a Conservative Jew, I would be deeply embarrassed that Conservative Judaism remained on the wayside of American religious and social thought.
Does Roth not recognize how ludicrous it is to tell a homosexual that he may feel attraction to someone of the same sex, but he/she must not act on this attraction? To quote our tradition: “can the leopard change its spots?”
As for suggesting that gays “try therapy,” this is beyond ludicrous. It is offensive. Only right wing preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson maintain that therapy can “heal” homosexual impulses. No upstanding professional therapist and no religious leader with any experience ministering to homosexuals would maintain that therapy can make someone who is gay, straight.
Roth concludes with the sincere, but ineffectual wish that straight Jews “exhibit much greater understanding of the personal plight, especially the personal Halachic plight, of gay Jews.” Why should Conservative Jews feel any empathy at all with gay Jews given Roth’s own consignment of the latter to a halachic ghetto? To me, this is precisely equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1895 Plessy v. Ferguson ‘separate but equal’ decision. Gays are not separate or different from straight Jews. They should be fully empowered within Conservative Judaism. Anything less, will make them outcasts and lepers or at the least place them on the margins of the movement. What gay person would embrace a movement which could not fully embrace him or her?
Actually, that last sentence is imprecise. There are of course thousands of gays in the Conservative movement. They are congregants, rabbis, teachers. All of this makes Roth’s tepid embrace of gay Jews rather pathetic. Think of the contributions they could make if they could fully express themselves within the context of their Jewishness. They certainly are not welcome to do this now (unless they ‘closet’ a critical part of their being–their sexual orientation).
To address the question in theological terms: if our God is an omnipotent God, then when He created gays were they not part of his Plan? In creating gays, could we dare to say that God deviated from His plan and that He did not intend to create them? Of course not. Can we say that God would create a creature but not want it to fulfill its destiny? Could God create a creature and deny it sexual fulfillment? I think a God who creates a person and denies it the ability to fully express itself is less than fully God, which of course is not possible. God, if He is a good God, wants his human creations to be fully, not partially human. Likewise, if our rabbis try to tell homosexuals to ‘tamp down’ their sexuality it would be like telling a volcano it can be a volcano as long as it never erupts. This contradicts the laws of nature as does Rabbi Roth’s view of homosexuality.
Rabbi Roth presents another rather tendentious argument in claiming that the Biblical injunction against homosexuality is “binding and authoritative upon us” and that if we ignore it “we should close up shop and admit that our movement has no claim to normative Jewish authenticity and, therefore, no good reason to exist.” Does he forget that the rabbis have amended explicit Scriptural injuctions a number of times to adjust Jewish practice to societal norms. Polygamy was practiced by Biblical Jews, yet Rabbenu Gershon (circa 1100) decreed monogamy the norm for Jews. Why didn’t the good rabbi just close up shop and admit Judaism was irrelevant? I hope one sees the rather thin nature of this argument.
Judaism will not die or decay or close up shop if we fully embrace homosexuals in our midst. It will merely adjust as it has successfully many times through the ages.
I would extend one of Dorff’s interesting arguments regarding the Biblical injunction against homosexuality. My understanding of the Leviticus verse is that it (specifically the Hebrew toeyva or ‘abomination’) referred to cultic sex performed in pagan fertility rites. Would it not be possible to say that the Bible wished specifically outlaw such cultic homosexual acts? And can we not further argue that sexually active homosexuals today are not engaging in such cultic acts? Their sexuality is as loving, as committed and as meaningful as the sexuality of heterosexuals and therefore such homosexuality should be seen in an entirely different light than cultic sex.
Dorff says that the Bible also uses toeyva to describe idolatry, eating non-kosher food and dishonesty in business. Another significant distinction between homosexuality and these acts is that idolatory, eating treif and dishonesty in business are volitional acts. Those who commit them are not compelled to do them by their very nature. Homosexuality is fundamentally different and therefore should not be viewed in the same way. Homosexuals cannot choose whether or not to be homosexuals. It is encoded in their DNA. So to lump homosexuality together with volitional acts seems unfair and wrongheaded.
Finally, I raise an argument that Rabbi Dorff did not mention in his defense of his position. The Conservative movement, as with much of organized Jewry, is aging. No doubt, many older Conservative Jews fully endorse Rabbi Roth’s position and find the full acceptance and integration of homosexuals to be repugnant. But as Dorff accurately states, our young people, whether gay or straight, fully endorse the proposition that gays and straights should not be treated differently in any social, legal or religious context. So if we continue to ghettoize gays in our community, what message are we giving to the myriad of young Jews who reject this viewpoint? Do we really expect that they will feel attracted to a religious belief system that turns its back on modernity in such a fundamental way? Can we expect these young people to become the Conservative Jews of the future? I think not.