Jewish Panel Delays a Vote on Gay Issues
A committee of legal experts who set policy for Conservative Judaism decided yesterday at a closed-door meeting in Baltimore to wait until December to vote on whether to lift the movement's ban on gay rabbis and same-sex union ceremonies.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been considering the issue for three years, and many Jewish leaders had anticipated that the two-day meeting that ended yesterday would produce a change.
But members of the committee said in interviews that the decision is a momentous one, and that they are still divided on whether acceptance of homosexuality is permissible under Jewish law, known as halacha.
The four legal proposals on the table were sent back to their authors for "extensive revisions," said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, a nonvoting member of the law committee and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the movement's 1,600 rabbis.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a predominantly gay synagogue in Manhattan that is not part of the Conservative movement, said, "I understand the need for the law committee to go through a serious halachic process, but this affects the real lives of real people, and for the people in our community there is real urgency.
"There are gay people who grew up in the synagogues and day schools and summer camps of the Conservative movement who feel the movement has turned its back on them," said Rabbi Cohen, a member of Keshet Rabbis, a group of more than 200 Conservative rabbis who support full inclusion of gay men and lesbians. "There are people who want to become rabbis who can't, couples who want the rabbis of their childhood synagogues to marry them, and they won't."
Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the law committee, said, "I'm saddened by the fact that there are people who are hurt by it, but I think we have to take seriously our process and follow it."
Some rabbis said in interviews that the committee might be stalling until the appointment of a new chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a position that has traditionally set direction for the Conservative movement.
Of the four proposals the committee is considering, two essentially oppose any change to the current law, and one advocates a substantial change of the law. One tries to find a middle ground by permitting gay rabbis and same-sex ceremonies, but prohibiting anal sex, an effort to stay consistent with a Bible passage that says, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."
Rabbi Abelson said the proposal that advocates a substantial change in the law was so "revolutionary" that the committee voted to put it in a category that will ultimately make it even harder to pass. The committee declared this proposal a "takanah" — a Hebrew word denoting a "fix" of existing Jewish law.
A takanah can only be approved with a vote of at least 20 of the committee's 25 members — a new rule, advocated by the Conservative movement's executive committee. Until last year, a simple majority of 13 members could approve a takanah.
The change prompted some more liberal rabbis who learned of it to suggest that the process had been rigged in anticipation of the vote on gay men and lesbians. Rabbi Abelson said the law committee had not approved a takanah in the 20 years he had served on it.
The other three proposals would require only six votes for passage, raising the possibility that conflicting rulings could be approved simultaneously.
Rabbis who are disappointed by the committee's inaction say they plan to take the issue to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Mexico City this month.