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Area Rabbis Deconstruct Rulings Affecting Gays

December 14, 2006 By:
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While the Conservative movement's law committee may have confounded some by accepting what seem to be diametrically opposed positions regarding the status of gays and lesbians, a number of Philadelphia-area rabbis said the decisions did not come as a surprise to them, and that the rulings were in keeping with the denomination's tradition of tackling controversial issues within the framework of Jewish law.

The committee passed three teshuvot, or "responses" -- two that upheld prohibitions against homosexual behavior, and one that sanctions gay-commitment ceremonies and allows for the ordination of gay rabbis, but still labeled sex between two men as unacceptable.

"It's not the first time that the law committee has passed teshuvot that are opposed to each other," stated Rabbi Steven Wernick, religious leader of Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation in Merion Station.

He pointed out that several decades ago, the movement took a similar approach to whether or not women counted as part of a minyan, a move that ultimately left the decision up to individual congregations.

"On the surface, it looks like they are saying 'yes' and 'no.' Perhaps they are, but the movement that occupies the center occupies a very nuanced position," said Wernick, who added that he would take some time to study the three teshuvot before deciding whether or not he would feel comfortable officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony.

"Part of the story that's getting lost is that this is the only movement that has dealt with the challenge of a major modern issue within the context of the Jewish legal tradition," he said.

Rabbi Jay Stein of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, said that he, too, would take some time to study the rulings, and consult with congregants and religious leaders before declaring a position on commitment ceremonies.

"I have a problem with the promiscuity that exist in our society in general, and I would always be in favor of committed monogamous relationships," he said. "That doesn't mean I believe that homosexual unions are on par with heterosexual marriage."

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, religious leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, was less equivocal: "I believe that gays and lesbians should be eligible to be ordained as rabbis and cantors, and that Conservative rabbis should be entitled to officiate at ceremonies that consecrate same-sex unions."

He added that the seemingly contradictory portion of the most liberal ruling upholding the prohibition on homosexual sex between men was included because to upend it would have required the overwhelming support of the committee, as it would be seen as overturning Jewish legal precedent. It matters little in practice, said the rabbi, because no one would ask a seminary applicant about his bedroom behavior.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon, religious leader of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, said that he was pleased with how the committee handled the issue. In fact, his biggest disappointment was that four committee members resigned in protest over the decisions.

"I think this was a real affirmation of the movement's commitment to the halachic process," said Gordon, whose congregation voted two years ago in favor of hosting same-sex ceremonies.

By resigning, he added, the rabbis were attacking the legitimacy of the process.

Rabbi Rachel Brown of Congregation B'nai Jacob in Phoenixville said that the competing decisions were reminiscent of the debates depicted in the Talmud, where dissenting opinions were recorded for posterity and considered valid interpretations.

"I'm actually pretty happy with the decision. I think it's about time that people who are gay and lesbian are recognized as valid members of our community," said Brown, a graduate of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which has said it plans to admit gay and lesbian students once it got the okay from the law committee.

It remains less clear what path the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York will take.

Said Brown: "This is on par with with whether or not to ordain women -- this is big." 

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