By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
After years of debate, the Conservative Jewish movement is on the verge of redefining its approach to homosexuality, a pivotal decision for a movement that occupies a shrinking middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
A panel of 25 eminent Conservative rabbis will meet in New York next week to consider five proposed teshuvot, or answers, to the question of whether homosexual sex is permitted under Jewish law.
Although the answers have not been made public, Conservative leaders said that two defend the traditional position that Leviticus 18:22 -- "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination" -- prohibits homosexuality between men and, by extension, between women.
The other three proposals offer various arguments for reinterpreting that prohibition. On a practical level, they could open the way for Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies and for Conservative seminaries to ordain openly gay rabbis.
"I think the committee is deeply divided -- like the rest of society is divided, like our movement is divided," said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the main association of Conservative rabbis. "But the tension has grown to the point that the committee is hard-pressed to give some clear guidance to the movement."
Clarity, however, may not be forthcoming. Rabbi Avis D. Miller of Washington's Congregation Adas Israel said the "rabbinical scuttlebutt" is that the panel -- the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards -- will approve two conflicting answers, one upholding the status quo and one calling for change.
That is possible because it takes the votes of just six of the panel's 25 members to declare an answer to be valid -- meaning that it is a well-founded interpretation of Jewish law, not that it is the only legitimate interpretation. It would be possible to approve all the answers, or none of them.
If two or more contradictory answers are accepted, "that will be the strongest statement for America, because everything in America spiritually and religiously seems to have become political, and the way you know it's political is that it's either 'yes' or 'no,' " said Irwin Kula, a Conservative rabbi who heads the New York-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
"In a genuine spiritual tradition, 'yes' and 'no' are both living options. . . . Both sides are right, and we're not used to that, because in a political reality, only one side can be right," he said.
Moreover, whatever decision the committee reaches will be advisory. Miller noted that in the Conservative movement, each rabbi is the ultimate arbiter of Jewish law in his or her synagogue, and each "will be able to choose the opinion of the law committee that he or she agrees with." She predicted that some will perform same-sex ceremonies, allow same-sex couples to hold family memberships, and give same-sex couples the honor of an aliyah, or call to the altar, -- and some will not.
Still, the decision is important for the future of Conservative Judaism, because it could return the movement "to an older, 'big tent' model," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
"What I think is likely to happen is, there will be multiple options, rather than a single option," he said. "Both sides will be unsatisfied. One will say, 'You didn't give full acceptance.' The other will say, 'You accepted something that violates the Torah.' "
But, Sarna continued, the Conservative "movement as a whole will be able to say that it is in the center and, more important, that there is more than one way to be a Jew, more than one way to interpret Jewish law. . . . The Democratic Party did pretty well with that big-tent strategy in this past election, and my sense is there is a lesson there for a centrist movement that is struggling to appeal to younger people."
Pamela S. Nadell, director of Jewish Studies at American University and author of "Conservative Judaism in America," said the Conservative movement, which has about 2 million members worldwide, was the largest branch of Judaism in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. It shrank dramatically from 1990 to 2001 as its membership fell from 47 percent of Jewish adults who belong to synagogues to 33 percent.
Nadell blamed the shrinkage partly on defections to the Orthodox and Reform branches of Judaism. In addition, she said, the Conservative membership is aging, the Orthodox have a much higher birthrate, and the Reform movement's more welcoming approach to intermarriage has appealed to young families.
Nadell predicted that if the movement liberalizes its position on homosexuality, a few rabbis and congregations will leave, just as some did when Conservative seminaries began ordaining women in 1985. But she said she doubts that the changes will either fracture the movement or, as some hope, reenergize it.
"I just don't think the movement's problems, truthfully, are related to homosexuality," she said.