The Energies of Conservation

In a statement released yesterday, the Jewish Theological Seminary has officially changed its policy and will admit gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial school. We have previously covered this issue with our initial reaction when the news broke, a detailed response to the Dorff teshuva which provided the halakhic basis for the policy change, and a brief survey of the reactions from other denominations.

For most observers the official decision to admit homosexual students was a forgone conclusion and largely anti-climatic. Given the history and hermeneutics of Conservative Judaism, it would of little suprise that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) would eventually rationalize a dispensation, and once articulated the dispensation would likely be implemented.

However, this controversy is particularly interesting as not only exemplary of how Conservative Judaism functions organically, but also of its most recent trends and implementations. In our previous discussions, one of our recurring themes was that despite the specific innovation of ordaining homosexuals, the decision and process followed well established ideological, halakhic, and social patterns of Conservative Judaism. In his explanation of the decision, JTS Chancellor-Elect Arnold Eisen continues in the Conservative tradition through the lens of his own personal interpretations.


Since its inception, the primary goal of Conservative Judaism has been to apply and adapt traditional halakha to the new challenges of modernity and the question of ordaining homosexuals represented such a tension:

Many participants in this process whether rabbis on the Law Committee, faculty and students at JTS, members of the Board of Trustees, or leaders of the Conservative Movement have experienced and explained it as a tug of war between two goods: fidelity to Jewish law and tradition and our sense of conscience as contemporary American Jews. How does one remain true to the dictates of tradition and yet adapt that tradition in ways compatible with changing realities and convictions? Both imperatives compel us. Both are precious to us.

There have been many debates on how this functions in theory or practice, but there is one underlying and recurring motif: in rhetoric there is an irrevocable commitment to halakha, but the definition of halakha is permanently malleable.
As Eisen elaborates:

The Conservative Movement has from the outset defined itself as bound by halakhah. This aspect of our tradition is precious to me, and it has always been determinative for JTS. It is one of the major ways the Conservative Movement navigates the complex path of change inside inherited tradition. Part of being a halakhic movement is debate over what that means: how halakhah relates to aggadah; how the authority of the rabbis relates to that of the communities they lead and serve; how change can be both adequate and authentic.[Emphasis added]

This strategy allows for the superficial commitment to Jewish Law, by allowing the flexibility to constantly redefine Jewish Law as necessary. As such, it provides conceptual consistency even while employing drastic changes based on perceived communal needs.
But while previous leaders of Conservative Judaism focused on the community or civilization, Eisen directs his attention to the individuals. Throughout his letter Eisen recounts his consultations with various segments of Conservative Judaism including the CJLS’s ruling, the students of JTS, the faculty of JTS, and even some of the members themselves (budget and time constraints precluded a complete study). Of particular significance is that despite roughly two-thirds of each segment favoring admitting homosexual students the communal input was considered “as one factor among many,” seemingly having a vote, but not a veto.

The ultimate decision to admit homosexuals to JTS was the responsibility of Eisen (and perhaps board members) and seems to have been based on the personal beliefs of the decisors. In his introduction, Eisen claims:

Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. [Emphasis added]

While it would be ironic that the leaders of a rabbinic institution do not act as halakhic authorities themselves , Eisen himself does in fact issue such a sweeping ruling:

We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society’s changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God’s image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances. [Emphasis added]

Note that Eisen does not advocate modifying the admissions “policy” limited to JTS, but the “law” as applied to the entire Jewish community. Beyond merely agreeing with or relying on the CJLS responsa, Eisen acknowledges that he is “alter[ing] established belief” and actively doing so in the spirit of maintaining the principles of Conservative Judaism as he sees them.1

Furthermore, Eisen’s final statement demonstrates the conflict of different traditional ethics in Judaism even with the Conservative system. There are traditions of text and legal authority and there are traditions of established communal practice. But for Eisen the overriding ethic is the tradition of personal freedom to interpret Judaism on an individual level. This is apparent in his suggestions for future discussion:

The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should cherish. They feel responsible for all these, commanded to do them, drawn to the discipline of which they are a part, privileged to perform them. They take on these tasks, in many cases, not only out of obligation but out of love.

Viewing religion from the perspective of the individual is not a new development. In his essential 1955 study on Conservative Judaism Marshall Sklare recognized the dissonance between official Conservative policy and, to borrow Thomas Luckmann’s idiom, the “invisible religion” of the individual members.

My sense is that Eisen is advocating previously “invisible religion” as the new paradigm for Conservative Judaism. This would be consistent with his previous writings promoting the significance of the individual and would represent a shift from communal reconstructionism to individual reconstructionism.

Whether or not this shift is significant or meaningful will tautologically depend on your perspective. Ideological change was “built in” to the Conservative system so in this respect any change reaffirms the core principles. Of course, it will take several years to sort out the ramifications of both the decision to ordain homosexuals and the general paradigm shift towards the individual.
In the meantime, we are left with the ironic observation that the only constant in Conservative Judaism is the inevitability of change.

1. As I mentioned in my response, the Doff teshuva still forbids the biblical prohibition and, though buried in a footnote, expects homosexual rabbinical students to refrain from this prohibition. While the teshuva adopts a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” the real test of the CJLS’s authority will be if a student does in fact flaunt non-observance to Conservative law.

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