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December 06, 2006

The 612 Club

I was brought up in a Conservative shul and, while I would fit in fairly well in one today given my practice and observance, there are very few Conservative shuls where I wouldn't be driven stark raving mad. So I've ended up in a Modern Orthodox shul instead.

I've always felt that religion should act as a brake and not as an accelerator. It's not the job of religion to keep up with the society at large. Religion exercises a restraining effect on society, and specifically on its adherents, and that's as it should be. Ismar Schorsch, who was Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (the main rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism) until earlier this year, created a commotion when he said that the Conservative movement's decision several decades ago to allow people to drive to shul on shabbat had been a mistake. Schorsch's critics argued that allowing people to drive had ensured there was a large enough membership, because many shul members didn't live close enough and had to drive. But why shouldn't Conservative Judaism, both through its adherence to tradition and through its congregational rabbis' efforts to persuade, have encouraged those people to move closer in, so they wouldn't have had to drive? When shul members have to live within walking distance, this creates a community that helps Jewish practice survive and flourish.

Well, now Schorsch is gone, and his successor Arnold Eisen has unleashed the pent up urge to deal with a major social issue, the issue of gay rabbis. The Conservative movement's Committee on Law and Standards has now issued three separate, conflicting opinions (link goes to, in case you care):

Conservative Judaism has decided to permit the ordination of openly gay rabbis and allow congregations to hold commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, but at the same time upheld the traditional belief that homosexuality is wrong.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets religious law for Conservative Judaism made the divided ruling at a meeting Wednesday in New York City.

The committee was considering five separate proposals on how the Conservative movement should deal with gay issues.

Two opinions upheld earlier prohibitions on homosexual activity, but the third endorsed commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gay rabbis, while retaining the biblical ban on male sodomy.

Two other opinions that were under consideration, which would have removed all restrictions on gay activity, were declared "takanot", or substantial breaks from tradition that would require an absolute majority of the committee members for adoption.
If you want some serious links on the halachic analysis, check out these sites. But if you just want to revel in the Conservative movement's tendency to engage in self-parody, consider what came before this decision (link goes to, in case you care):
The last major Conservative vote on the issue came in 1992, when the panel voted 19-3, with one abstention, that Jewish law barred openly gay students from enrolling in seminaries and prohibited rabbis from officiating at homosexual commitment ceremonies.

Four new legal opinions have been presented to the committee. Two essentially oppose any policy change, one would overturn the ban, and another, which was presented as a compromise, contends that Jewish law explicitly bars only anal sex, but includes no such prohibition on gay relationships, ordination and unions.
The reason for this multiplicity of opinions is this:
The committee's complex balloting system allows a proposal to be accepted with the support of just six of the 25 voting members of the panel -- which means more than one legal opinion can be approved. If conflicting proposals are adopted, individual rabbis and presidents of the movement's five seminaries worldwide will decide which to follow.
Gays who want to be observant Jews are in a real predicament, and, knowing some people in this situation, I have a lot of sympathy. But this decision of the Conservative movement is going to be far more divisive than the people who supported it realize.

Few congregants are as preoccupied about homosexuality as are their leaders, said Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, a professor of Talmud and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who spends weekends at synagogues around the country as a visiting scholar.

"There are so many laws in the Torah about sexual behavior that we choose to ignore, so when we zero in on this one, I have to wonder what's really behind it," Rabbi Visotzky said.
Then again, maybe they think it's so important, they don't care how divisive it is.

As I said, I have sympathy for gays who want affirmation from their religion. We all make compromises with our observance, but it seems that for some this homosexual activity is simply too much a part of who they are to accept that it is contrary to our tradition.

Years ago, I read an article that I could swear was in the New York Times, though I haven't been able to track it down since. The article interviewed Orthodox homosexuals in New York, and one of them made a very reasonable statement about his life. He said, and of course I'm paraphrasing, that God gave us 613 commandments, and He can't be too upset if I observe 612 of them. What I liked about his statement is that he accepted the halacha as it is and recognized that his behavior was inconsistent with it; yet he tried to be as faithful as possible to the halacha in other respects.

After reading that article, I began referring Orthodox gay men as the "612 Club." It's an approach I actually admire. It's very easy, especially for something as basic as sexual orientation, for people to rationalize and to demand acceptance by the law. But it's far more honorable, I think, for people to accept that what they're doing is not permitted and to try to follow the halacha in other areas. But no one in the Conservative movement has asked me for my opinion. There are already far too many opinions as it is.

Epilogue: I received a mass email today from Arnold Eisen -- I'm on the Jewish Theological Seminary mailing list -- which contains the following (with my emphases):
First, let me emphasize that the halakhic authority for the Conservative Movement and the institutions associated with it rests with the CJLS. The Law Committee has split on the status of homosexual behavior according to Jewish law; its rules and those of the Rabbinical Assembly regard each of the opinions authorized as equally legitimate. The ball is thus in our court with regard to the question of ordination of gays and lesbians at JTS — a decision regarding admission and graduation requirements that we will treat as such and not as the matter of law that stood before the Law Committee. We at JTS are not poskim. We will not be adjudicating matters of halakhah. However, we are going to consider what we think best serves the Conservative Movement and larger American Jewish community. We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense. We fully recognize what is at stake. This is why we are determined to conduct a thoroughgoing discussion of which we can all be proud no matter what outcome is eventually reached.
Eisen's email goes on to say this, without really saying anything:
We are dedicated to thoughtful change as an essential element of tradition — which is not to say that the change proposed to us now is right or necessary, but that the process of considering it thoughtfully, whatever we eventually decide, is to us inescapable and welcome. One could say that such debate defines us — and that, well-conducted, it strengthens us. Of course debate on this and similar matters has the potential to wound us as an institution and a movement. It also, however, has the power to remind us of what we stand for, and why despite our differences — or even because of them — we choose to stand together.
All I can say about that last segment is "Oy!" And good luck, because you'll need it.