Based on the scholarship of noted historians, Rabbi Josh Yuter offers a unique narrative for the origins of Conservative Judaism.
Tag: Conservative Judaism
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.
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.
Update: Readers of this post may also be interested in my master’s thesis
When I made my preliminary comments on the Conservative movement’s recent decisions regarding homosexuality, the best source available at the time were press releases and either superficial or inaccurate coverage in the mainstream media. Fortunately, Steven I. Weiss has graciously posted the text of the actual teshuva. At 55 pages including footnotes, it is not exactly a light read but it is an important read nonetheless, given the serious nature of the topic discussed, and when others comment without having read the actual text. If you are new to this site, you may find my post “Lonely Men of Faith” a helpful context. This post will focus specifically on the Conservative teshuva itself.
Advisory: Normally YUTOPIA is a family blog, but given the topic of the post, some readers may feel uncomfortable with this discussion.
Conservative Judaism recently made headlines with their reevaluation of homosexuality in Jewish law. Although Conservative Judaism rejected homosexuality in 1992 (PDF), there was a request to reconsider the issue. When we covered homosexuality from an Orthodox perspective in “Lonely Men of Faith“1 we referenced the debate between Rabbi Elliot Dorf and Rabbi Joel Roth, but there has obviously been significantly more discussion on the matter culminating in yesterday’s decision. From what limited information we have at this time, this new decision is hardly as groundbreaking as people might think.