I grew up a Conservative Jew. I earned a Bachelor of Hebrew Literature degree from the movement’s New York seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary. I contemplated becoming a rabbi at the school. But I didn’t.
And today’s decisions on whether to ordain gay rabbis, allow blessings of same-sex unions, and gay sex, pretty much encapsulate my ambivalence about the Conservative movement. I note that my family currently belongs to Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle. So, like Jacob, I’m still wrestling with the movement.
The truth of the matter is if there was a fully-functioning Reconstructionist shul here I’d belong (there IS a group that recently affiliated but I believe it does not yet have a full time rabbi). I’m not trying to be snarky towards the Conservative movement. Reconstructionism for me embraces Judaism in the way that Conservativism does, but it does not give short shrift to progressive social values (as Conservative Judaism, I often feel, does). And it is precisely on the issue of homosexuality you can see the divergence. The Reconstructionist movement accepts gay rabbis and gay congregants and was the first Jewish religious movement to do so.
You have to scratch your head when you try to parse the meaning of the three contradictory teshuvot (“rabbinic responsa”) which were approved by the 24 member rabbinic panel. The teshuva I found the most appealing (though I found it lacking in one significant regard, but more later) was written by Elliot Dorff, Rector of the University of Judaism. It continues the ban on gay sex (hence my disagreement), but approves ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same sex unions.
I might add that knowing Elliot as I do, his teshuva did not include an endorsement of gay sex because politically he knew it would be considered a takana (“major revision in Jewish law), rather than teshuva, and hence would require more votes. Being a shrewd vote counter in addition to a wonderful mensch, Elliot wanted to win, rather than propose an entirely correct position that might lose. And he couldn’t win by including approval of gay sex. I understand his thinking. In a few years, he can write another teshuva that changes the ruling on gay sex; and undoubtedly it will win when societal (and pulpit and pew) attitudes change enough to sanction it.
But the headscratching comes from the other two winning opinions. One ‘continues a ban on gay rabbis.’ The second suggests that gays can be ‘cured’ of their sexual orientation by psychological counseling. It’s this one that galls particularly. You have the welcoming, embracing proposal of Rabbi Dorff alongside the entirely censorial proposal by Rabbi Leonard Levy. What a strange world the Conservative movement promises to be with these three divergent concepts spinning through its Judaic universe.
So let’s plumb this odd thing further. The University of Judaism has already announced that it will immediately begin accepting gay rabbinic students to its program. The JTS faculty, however, has never voted on the issue and no one knows what the result might be. Suffice to say, many of the conservatives on this issue either teach at the Seminary (like Joel Roth) or work in east coast pulpits where sentiments seem to lean away from embracing homosexuality.
So let us say the UJ accepts gay students and JTS doesn’t. Then a gay rabbinic student could study at the UJ. But what if they lived in the east and didn’t want to move west for rabbinical school. Ah, then you’d have a strange and delicious possibility. If JTS turns away gay rabbinic students, there are still faculty there who embrace the concept of gay rabbis. So all the potential rabbinic student would need to do would be to find three rabbis or faculty members to train them. They would do so, of course, without the JTS official imprimatur, but the students would still end up being bona fide Conservative rabbis. Unless of course the Rabbinic Assembly refused to permit gay rabbis to join their ranks (which would seem unthinkable but stranger things have happened).
In addition to Elliot Dorff and Brad Artson, dean of the UJ rabbinical school who first proposed a teshuva in 1992 that removed the ban on gay sex AND approved gay rabbis, you also have Judith Hauptman, a professor of rabbinics at JTS. The positions of each of them on this subject have been exemplary. Hauptman’s is quite remarkable considering that she is a fairly lonely progressive female faculty member in a conservative, hide-bound, largely male institution:
Hauptman also said that many members of the faculty had not publicly disclosed their views on gay ordination, making it anyone’s guess what the final outcome would be. As for her own views, Hauptman expressed unflagging support for accepting gay students. “As soon as it is possible to ordain gay rabbis,” she said, “it becomes morally imperative on us to accept gay candidates for ordination.”
For the life of me I cannot understand how a religious movement can have such completely contradictory halachic positions that are each entirely valid. It seems a recipe for utter fragmentation and chaos. You may have one rabbinic seminary ordaining gays and one not. You would definitely have some synagogues hiring gay rabbis and some not. You may also have some synagogues accepting gay members and some not. What kind of a movement is that? Who speaks for it? What does it represent?
This is why the NY Times in its coverage of the story wrote:
Conservative leaders are facing the issue as they struggle to hold the shrinking middle ground of American Judaism, losing members to both the liberal Reform and the traditional Orthodox branches.
The movement’s motto should be: decide what you are before others decide for themselves that they prefer a movement that knows what it represents.
For a broader discussion of the halachic/theological issues which underpin this debate see, Judaism and Homosexuality: Conservative Rabbis Clash.
Leila A. says
What is Reconstructionist? Is that the same as Jewish Renewal? Here in the bay area we have Bayt Tikkun (Michael Lerner), Kehila, and Chochmat Halev – there may be others. I thought these were all Jewish Renewal. I went to the Aquarian Minyan a couple of times with my husband – Wavy Gravy was a celebrant, and that says it all. Aquarian Minyan appeals to me because it’s oriented to many other traditions of mysticism, especially female-centered and earth-centered ones. But my hubby didn’t like it.
Anyway, I’m just trying to place “Reconstructionist”. Thank you.
Stephen Frug says
Hi, Leila. I may not be the best person to answer your question, but as the beginning of an answer:
I don’t know as much about Jewish Renewal as I should, but it’s not the same thing as Reconstructionists. Recunstructionism is a movement deriving from the theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who taught at JTS (the main Conservative movement seminary) in the mid-20th century. Kaplan had a naturalistic Jewish theology — something which, having read (in) it, *I* would call atheist in the traditional sense, although he (and Reconstructionists generally) would I believe strongly deny the charge. It is in turn influenced by John Dewey and other American pragmatist philosophers. Reconstructionism is now its own movement, although much smaller than the Reform, Conservative & Orthodox movements; it is generally held to be to the left of Reform. Since it’s small, Reconstructionist synagogues aren’t nearly as common; I’ve never actually been in one, only read about them.
Richard Silverstein says
It’s a bit hard to describe but the best way to explain it is that Reconstructionism is very close to Conservative in that it uses a traditional liturgy in Hebrew and adheres to religious-theological tradition. The difference between the two is that Reconstructionism eliminates all references to the supernatural from prayers. So the afterlife is out, visions of the Almighty having human dimensions are also verboten. It’s a rationalist version of Conservative Judaism.
But in practice the main way the two movements are different is that Reconstructionism fully embraces social justice, egalitarianism and progressive values, while this gets short shrift in many Conservative synagogues. Having belonged to & worshipped at many Conservative & Reconstructionist synagogues, I find worship & worshippers at the latter to be more interesting, creative & thoughtful. Just a hipper crowd.
Jewish Renewal is quite different. It has a more mystical, hippieish mystique. You won’t find meditation or women dancing in trance while tapping on tambourines at a Reconstructionist synagogue as you would at a Renewal synagogue.
I believe Burt Jacobsen was or is the rabbi at Kehilla. I used to be friends with him back when I lived in the Bay Area. I never belonged there but always liked what they did.
Speaking of mysticism, if you ever have a chance to meet an old friend & teacher of mine, Danny Matt, you should. He lives in Berkeley & used to teach Jewish mysticism at GTS. Then he wrote a monster translation of the Zohar & still does nothing but this (it’s a BIG book). Doesn’t even teach anymore. But he gives paid lectures & that must be how he supports himself (though the book prob. brings in income as well). He is a great lover of Jewish mysticism & a splendid person.
James R. Becraft says
Your links e-mail still give me a different article than the e-mail notes. For instance, IDF gores to the Conservative/Reconstructionist/Progressive article.