We have already written extensively about the Conservative decision regarding homosexuality. While there is still room to discuss the halakhic issues – including analyzing the other teshuvot, today’s focus will be on some of the Orthodox reactions to the teshuva. Nothing here should be terribly surprising, especially considering the knee-jerk reactions, but we find the reactions to be enlightening and revealing nonetheless.
First up, we have this disclaimer from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA):
This decision represents yet another significant step in the further estrangement of the Conservative movement from Jewish law (halachah) and tradition. Homosexual behavior is a clear and unambiguous biblical prohibition. The attempts to formulate halachic license or creative interpretation to permit prohibited behavior should not mislead anyone committed to traditional Judaism, into thinking that there can be any permissibility to homosexual activity, whether by rabbis or laypersons. And thus, to permit those who openly proclaim their non-adherence to Torah law, to assume positions of rabbinic leadership, is an entirely regrettable step.
This quote was probably rushed out in the need to say something quickly. Note that they have to speak in generalities of “prohibited behavior” and “homosexual activity” and assume that the teshuva overrode the biblical prohibition. As we demonstrated in the review, the teshuva did no such thing, and in fact was explicitly to the contrary. Still, their arguments are consistent with the old Orthodox party line criticisms against Conservative, that their innovations and changes are a threat to traditional Judaism, while the innovations of their own (or earlier rabbis) remain ostensibly remain legitimate.
Secondly we have my personal favorite from Union of Traditional Judaism:
The Conservative Movement’s decision to issue contradictory opinions on homosexual behavior should confuse no one. The only opinion that really matters is the one that endorses gay commitment ceremonies and the ordination of professing homosexuals as rabbis.
In keeping with a decades-old pattern on a host of issues, the Conservative view which breaks ranks with Jewish law and tradition is the one which ultimately sweeps the movement. Given this reality, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards would have been more forthright had it acknowledged a blanket reversal of the biblical prohibition on homosexuality. Its endorsement of same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of homosexuals while ostensibly maintaining the traditional ban on anal sex is not only disingenuous. It is ludicrous.
Our hearts go out to the dwindling corps of traditionalists who until now have remained within the Conservative Movement. Any fig leaf of commitment to Jewish law within their institutions has now been utterly stripped away…
This response also came out fairly quickly and is just as incorrect as the RCA’s statement. The teshuva still banned homosexual rabbinical students from violating the biblical commandment. However, in the other comments, UTJ reminds us of why they split off from the Conservative movement. It has been their experience – repeated time and again – that ultimately only the most liberal opinions will be accepted as normative. Egalitarianism, for example, is no longer an option but an expectation. Knowing how Conservative Judaism works from the inside, UTJ has little faith that Conservativism will sustain the limitations defined in the teshuva.
And of course, then end with a nice appeal to siphon off some traditionalist members. Nicely done.
Finally, we get to Agguda in the statements of R. Avi Shafran. Some of you may remember his controversial 2001 article “The Conservative Lie” in which, as you may expect, he was somewhat critical of the movement. The recent teshuva is for R. Shafran reason to gloat and tout the superiority of Orthodox Judaism. Not surprisingly, his comments are more ad hominem which leads him to make some careless statements of his own.
First, his comments from JPost:
And while the Conservative decision may technically claim to preserve the biblical prohibition on sodomy, it flouts clear halachic prohibitions on other forms of homosexual activity and de facto condones a homosexual lifestyle – imagine limiting a heterosexual couple to only certain expressions of affection.
Yes, imagine where heterosexual couples have limits on their expressions of affection. Perhaps we can have husbands and wives not touch each other for roughly 2 weeks out of every month. Or perhaps R. Shafran should just read Shulhan Aruch Even HaEzer Siman 25. In either case, I am pleasantly surprised to hear that hareidi Judaism had such progressively liberating views on married life.
Second, we have this official press release:
The entire corpus of halacha, or Jewish religious law,” he said, “makes abundantly clear that homosexual behavior is sinful. That a movement claiming to uphold the Jewish religious tradition can arrogate to stand halachic Judaism on its head is tragic.
By itself, this statement is fairly innocuous, but compare his vitriol for the Conservative teshuva with his ambivalence for a haredi rabbinic sexual predator:
Why would we have comment about the arrest of an individual? Because he was an employee, more than 30 years ago, of one of the camps we run (that have had thousands of employees over the years)? I don’t think that requires comment on our part.
We are not even a party anymore to any lawsuit filed against the accused, as I understand it. The suit of the accuser who included Camp Agudah in his action (John Doe #1) has been dismissed (without prejudice, I believe, so it can still be refiled, but hasn’t been).
In other words, Conservatives permitting rabbinic prohibitions represent a deviation from Judaism, but homosexual assault from a former employee is not worth a comment. These statements lead me to conclude that R. Shafran is more interested in the cultural perception of Aggudah than in morality or halakha.
We may see more responses in the near future, but the immediate reactions of the RCA, UTJ, and Aggudah reveal just as much about their organizations as it does about the teshuva itself.
I was just informed of a Masorati response by R. Barry Schlessinger who writes that despite the changes in the halakhic system, there must be limits:
As Jews we are obligated and commanded, and as Jews we have always asked questions in reference to the commandments. I hope we continue to ask questions and that rabbis continue to teach and guide. However, one should not always expect an answer to be positive; at times we must be forthright and respond with a “no.”
As I referenced in my response to the teshuva, Conservative Judaism has usually been loathe to accept such an answer. Furthermore, R. Schlessinger himself does not address the halakhic decisions of the teshuva itself, or why it is worse than when other rabbinic laws are similarly disregarded. Case in point:
I recognize and support the ordination of women. I count women for a minyan and will pray in a minyan led by a woman shlihat tzibur.
While the halakhic reasoning for a minyan excluding women may be questionable,1 the result is that the Talmud clearly understands a minyan to be comprised exclusively of men over the age of thirteen. The question for R. Schlessinger is what makes some rabbinic laws normative and others expendable.
Another reader e-mails me this Jewish Week letter in which Rabbi Adam Kligfeld does his best John Kerry impersonation (4th letter down):
I’d like to complete the comment on which Stewart Ain quoted me regarding the recent Committee on Jewish Law and Standards vote on homosexuality. (“Testing The Waters,” Dec. 8) I did indeed vote for both the Roth and Dorff/Nevins/Reisner papers, which do indeed contradict one another, because ?it was important for me that change happen as a result of a majority of the committee.”
Deeper than that, my double vote reflected not only the robust pluralism of the Conservative movement and the Law Committee itself, but also the very real pluralism of my own neshama. I take very seriously the Talmudic idea that two conflicting opinions can, simultaneously, have halachic legitimacy. I can see the truth even in a position I don’t follow. I honor the complexity of this topic, from both a halachic and sociological perspective, and I honor the halachic rigor and honest religious struggling that were present in both teshuvot. I voted not as a policy maker, but as an evaluator of halachic arguments. Each teshuvah made strong arguments.
In other words, R. Kligfeld voted for the teshuva before he voted against it. How we take R. Kligfeld’s position depends on the true role of the CJLS. If the CJLS is primarily a think-thank, then of course multiple opinions can be plausible. But if the role is for pesak in terms of what practical halakha ought to be then R. Kligfeld simply failed. Saying, something could be assur or mutar is not pesak but as R. Moshe Tendler pointed out, is the avoidance of pesak. If someone is unconvinced of an opinion, then perhaps he should abstain until resolves the issue for himself.
1. B. Megillah 23b cites Num 14:27 to define an “edah” as ten, but does not elaborate as to why men are included in this number to the exclusion of women.
this may be obvious, but i thin what shafran was trying to say was “imagine allowing heterosexual people to be intimate but not have intercourse.” he phrased it carelessly, yes, but i think its interesting more because it shows how deeply the all-or-nothing mentality of “harchakot” (especially with their medieval and acharonish accoutrements) is ingrained – if intercourse isn’t allowed, neither are board games! this is such a deep intuition for a chareidi person that they think it makes sense as a reductio ad absurdum in quasi-secular context (appealing to people’s guts…)
Miriam – Even granting what he “really” meant, the argument is that it is unreasonable to assume or perhaps expect that homosexuals would be able to control themselves from one particular action. The problem is that in additions to the halakhic limitations of niddah, in which we do expect heterosexual couples to restrict themselves, there are also other halakhic opinions such as the Shulhan Aruch which place limitations on such intimacy.
If we mandate that heterosexuals can express themselves in certain ways and trust them not to do so in others, why is this expectation so unreasonable for homosexuals?
i think my point about halakhic norms ingraining assumptions about sexuality is still true, though you’re right i didn’t adress the issue of restrictions on the types of intimacy that are ever permitted.
this is not an easy point to make without being un-family- friendly, but you asked, and i’ll try…
i think the basic assumption is that in the heterosexual context, the permitted practices are perceived as the “default” or “normal” way that people would want to be intimate. the others are naturally secondary, so elimintating them isn’t ahuge deal. in contrast, the thinking goes, the “normal” form of heterosexual relationships (to the extent avi shafran thinks there is such a thing) is itself outlawed, so the fact that some areas are permitted is little consolation and likely to lead to a lot of frustration.
the idea that the practices recommended/ruled out by the SA correlate to “normal”/not is, of course, somewhat circular, but that’s my point: these assumptions about sexuality become ingrained to the point where the restrictions don’t seem like real restrictions, but just common sense.
of course, some of these assumptions are not just in jewish circles. a lot of cultures also “rank” sexual activities from “standard” to “peripheral” to “deviant.” cf all the surveys that ask high school students what they think “abstinent behavior” is (somewht related: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3229800.html) for a start…
this ranking overlaps a lot, not surprisingly, with the SA-style ideas, and probably also contributes to the assumptions of aggudah-types who try their hardest not to think “critically” about sexuality in the contemporary sense.
on second thought, the point of the rhetorical question in the article seems to be* “imagine telling peple they cold have some but not other forms of intimacy – how likley would that be to hold up? (nudge, nudge)” , in which case the issue of (allegedly) impermissible forms of heterosexual intimacy is a good counter-raayah.
that said, i think shafran probably intuits something like what i said which would make him dispute the comparison, though he didn’t phrase it at all right…
*actually, the point is unclear, it seems really to be a nonsequitor and i’m trying to make the most sense of it i can…
Re: “By itself, this statement is fairly innocuous, but compare his vitriol for the Conservative teshuva with his ambivalence for a haredi rabbinic sexual predator.”
Agudah employed Kolko at their summer camp in the past. My hunch is that their lawyer wisely instructed them to say nothing on Kolko’s recent arrest, to prevent a potential liability concern should the Agudah find itself sued in a Kolko-related lawsuit.
Miriam – I think you’re putting more thought into R. Shafran’s comments than R. Shafran himself.
Meredith – According to his quote, Agguda isn’t being sued, but we’ll see regarding the criminal investigations. While I could understand his reluctance in wanting to discuss the matter regardless, it certainly is inconsistent to aggressively criticize the Conservative teshuva for actions which were de facto sanctioned by his own community. (Ignoring for the moment the difference between consensual acts and abuse).
To all readers – I had initially written in this post that the teshuva did not endorse commitment ceremonies. Several readers have pointed out that while the teshuva did not formally recognize kiddushin, there is some indication that there could a form of a ceremony. Regardless of the intent, I have since corrected the text of this post.
I don’t agree with you on the “de facto” sanction. CJLS authorized a respona which positively embraces an activity disapproved by classic Jewish texts. In contrast, Agudah and Torah Temimah covered up alleged sexual abuses.
I don’t think that Agudah and Torah Temimah “de facto” sanctioned sexual abuse; rather, I think they refused to believe that it could happen in their organizations, with one of their Rebbeim. There is a difference between actively encouraging an eirvah relationship, and actively denying that such a relationship existed in the first place. While they are both objectionable on halakhic and simple moral grounds, they aren’t one in the same.
“Miriam – I think you’re putting more thought into R. Shafran’s comments than R. Shafran himself.”
1 – i think its interesting what people think when they’re not thinking
2- (more importantly) i have finals i don’t want to study for…
While it’s wise not to comment on the actual case, it never hurts to take the general stance that it’s wrong to abuse children. Even a statement along the lines of “such abuse will not be tolerated” wouldn’t have ruffled too many feathers. I hope.