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Difficult Decision on Gays Shows Conservative Diversity

December 14, 2006 By:
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein
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 Conservative Judaism has taken a historic step by opening a door to the ordination of gay men and women, and same-sex commitment ceremonies. In line with Conservative Judaism's most cherished values, this decision reflects both a reasoned approach toward halachah and respect for ever-evolving Conservative beliefs and practices.

It is important to understand that the responsa, or decisions, of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards -- of which I am a voting member -- force nothing on Conservative Jews. Instead, they provide options to them based on the Conservative understanding of Jewish law.

Conservative Judaism has always viewed change as an organic process. As Conservative Jews, we are equal partners in the process of creating an authentic and resonant Judaism that gives full recognition to the claims of the past while considering the realities of the present.

Those Conservative communities and institutions prepared to move forward in accordance with the Law Committee's decision now are free to engage openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, and to host same-sex commitment ceremonies. Those that opt for the status quo are equally free to do so. The communities, under the direction of their rabbis, are the final authorities; change is a process generated from within.

There is no judgment in the committee's decisions about which is the correct course of action. Both positions now are considered valid.

This, too, is in keeping with the Conservative way: Diversity has long been a basic truth of our movement. We draw strength from these differences as they help us to recognize the dignity in all Jews, in all people, and in competing views.

A basic tenet of the movement is that each congregational rabbi is the mara d'atra -- the final arbiter of Jewish law, within his or her congregation. As executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, I act as the organization's mara d'atra.

In that capacity, I have decided that United Synagogue hiring policy may be changed. I will recommend to the United Synagogue leadership that we modify our practice and consider applicants for United Synagogue jobs regardless of their sexual orientation. No longer does Conservative halachah stand in the way of fully engaging gay men and lesbians in United Synagogue's work environment or elsewhere in Conservative institutional and synagogue life.

The point about halachah is an important one. Conservative Judaism remains a halachah-based movement. Scholarship in the nuances of halachah is a hallmark of Conservative Judaism, and serious scholarship was applied in the course of the deliberations that led to the Law Committee's decision.

Whenever halachah can be interpreted to include gay men and lesbians, we have done so; when it cannot be so interpreted, we say so honestly.

Even the wisest of human decisions involves trade-offs.

Still, this can be painful. I fully recognize that some Conservative Jews will find the committee's decision difficult to reconcile with their personal views. I urge them to accept the pluralism that's been a hallmark of our movement, and to focus on the values, ideology and practices that unite us.

It's up to each congregation -- and each Conservative Jew -- to grapple with this decision as best he or she can. Conservative Judaism's great strength is its commitment to sustained and deep engagement with the great issues of the day as a community of believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. At this emotional turning point, it is incumbent upon us to remember that what binds us together is of far greater importance than what separates us.

It is perhaps no accident that the same week the Law Committee held its debate, the Torah portion speaks of Jacob wrestling with God. As a result of this encounter, Jacob evolves into a stronger and wiser person, and is renamed Israel.

As we struggle forward, it is my prayer that as a result of our wrestling, we, too, will become stronger as individuals, and in our commitment to Jewish living and to our fellow Jews.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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