Conservative Judaism and the Ordination of Gays and Lesbians
I begin by directly confronting the two major obstacles standing in the way of a credible stance allowing for gay and lesbian ordination. The first is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22. "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is abomination ( to'eva)." Is the text not crystal clear? Is it not God's word? Why, then, were learned rabbis (and the rest of us) even debating the acceptability of homosexuality? The question has been posed to me many times. It cannot be avoided by any Jew who takes the Torah seriously. No matter how complicated our relationship to the Torah, how much we move away from obedience to its rules, or whatever our views on the divine or human nature of its authorship — one cannot cavalierly dismiss Leviticus and then claim faithfulness to the larger tradition of Torah of which the Five Books of Moses are the core. Integrity and authenticity require more than this.
Moreover, if one claims to be a halakhic Jew, the Oral Torah (as we call Jewish law and teaching over the centuries) also weighs in with serious objection to ordaining gays and lesbians. There is precious little legal precedent that can be invoked in favor of such ordination in the entire 2,000-year history of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. One finds instead either reaffirmation of previous opinion or utter silence on the matter — though there are legal opinions urging welcome of and compassion toward homosexuals. To Conservative Jews, the weight of Rabbinic opinion is no less decisive than the words of the Torah, and it is arguably more so. As Solomon Schechter explained a century ago, "It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by tradition." That is why the fact of Leviticus 18:22 in and of itself did not free the CJLS or any other Conservative Jew from the need to debate the matter of gay and lesbian ordination.
Our sages found ways two millennia ago to limit the applicability of biblical statutes, one famous example being Deuteronomy's injunction to put the rebellious son to death. The Rabbis effectively rendered that injunction unenforceable. They have defined and limited the applicability of numerous other biblical ordinances, including some set forth in Leviticus. I am among the faculty members (including many rabbis and experts in Talmud) who are persuaded by the argument that established procedures of halakhah allow for and mandate revision of the legal limitations placed upon homosexual activity; or perhaps one should say that these procedures allow for and mandate expansion of the welcome and acceptance accorded homosexuals under previous Law Committee rulings.
We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society's changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God's image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.
For we are Conservative Jews. The question facing us now, as always, is what the tradition as a whole commands us to do. Members of our community disagree about the correct answer to that question and about the proper method of answering it but not, I think, about the nature or urgency of the question itself. As Conservative Jews, we know that halakhah has a history. The fact of its development and change over time, partly in response to altered circumstances, ways of thinking, and moral convictions, was proclaimed by Zacharias Frankel at the very outset of the movement. It is a given in scholarship on Jewish law as well. The CJLS debate and the discussion in its wake follow from these principles of Conservative Judaism.