By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006; A17
NEW YORK, Dec. 6 -- A panel of rabbis gave permission Wednesday for same-sex commitment ceremonies and ordination of gays within Conservative Judaism, a wrenching change for a movement that occupies the middle ground between orthodoxy and liberalism in Judaism.
The complicated decision by the Conservatives Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards leaves it up to individual seminaries whether to ordain gay rabbis and gives individual rabbis the option of sanctioning same-sex unions. Reform Judaism, the largest branch of the faith in the United States, has ordained openly gay men and lesbians since 1990 and has allowed its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies since 2000. Orthodox Judaism does not countenance same-sex relationships or the ordination of gay rabbis.
Like many Protestant denominations, Conservative Jews are divided over homosexuality: torn between the Hebrew scriptures' condemnation of it as an "abomination" and a desire to encourage same-sex couples to form long-lasting, monogamous relationships.
Though stopping short of endorsing same-sex marriage, the rabbis wanted to allow commitment ceremonies "because in Jewish sexual ethics, promiscuity is not acceptable either by heterosexuals or by homosexuals, and we do in fact have both a Jewish and a social and a medical need to try to confirm those unions," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff of Los Angeles, one of the authors of the change.
After years of discussion and two days of intense debate behind closed doors at a synagogue on Park Avenue, the law committee accepted three teshuvot, or answers, to the question of whether Jewish law allows homosexual sex. Two answers uphold the status quo, forbidding homosexuality.
But a third answer allows same-sex ceremonies and ordination of gay men and lesbians, while maintaining a ban on anal sex. It argues that the verse in Leviticus saying "a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman" is unclear, but traditionally was understood to bar only one kind of sex between men. All other prohibitions were "added later on by the rabbis," Dorff told reporters.
Four of the law committee's 25 members resigned in protest of the decision.
It takes the votes of just six panel 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 position. Thirteen members voted in favor of allowing gay ordination and same-sex ceremonies, and 13 voted against -- meaning that at least one rabbi voted for both positions.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of 1,600 Conservative rabbis, predicted that some rabbis will choose not to preside at same-sex ceremonies, and he said no rabbi would be required to perform them.
There are five seminaries that ordain Conservative rabbis. One of them, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is expected to begin ordaining gays in the near future. The movement's flagship seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, is likely to take more time. Its new chancellor, Arnold Eisen, has said he favors the change but will allow the faculty to debate the question, starting as soon as Thursday.
The other seminaries -- in Israel, Argentina and the Czech Republic -- are more traditional and may adopt the change slowly, if at all.
The issue has been particularly difficult for the Conservative movement, which claims about 2 million members worldwide, because it does not lightly depart from traditional Jewish law, or halakha. Conservative Jews generally keep the kosher dietary rules and observe the Sabbath, though perhaps not as strictly as Orthodox Jews do.
Since the mid-1980s, however, the Conservative movement has departed from traditional law in several ways, including ordaining women, permitting Jews to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, and eliminating special treatment of "illegitimate" children.
Some Conservative Jews argue that the reconsideration of homosexuality is no more significant, in terms of Jewish law, than these other changes. But Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who was among those who resigned from the law committee, said he considers the change to be "outside the pale of acceptable halakhic reasoning."
Rabbi Jerry Epstein, chief executive of the association of 700 Conservative synagogues in North America, said he did not know whether any of them would leave the movement in protest. He said he believes that they are about evenly divided for and against allowing same-sex ceremonies.
As the Conservative rabbis met in New York this week, they were conscious that they were not only deciding an important matter for their constituency but were also contributing to a national debate on the status of same-sex couples. Dorff said he hoped that the adoption of two optional, conflicting positions would serve as a model for other religious groups of how to handle deep disagreements, "so movements don't have to split up over these kinds of things."