Rabbi Waxman is correct that the recent decision by the Conservative movement to pass two diametrically opposite positions, one permitting and one prohibiting same sex relations, does in fact leave the decision to local rabbis and their congregations. This is a good thing.
I understand and sympathize with Rabbi Waxman and all those who may feel this was a failure of will or moral rectitude. On the other hand, Orthodox critics charge that the Conservative movement has abandoned our commitment to Jewish law (halakhah) in supporting any position permitting gay ordination and commitment ceremonies. Neither charge is true.
What is true is that, as with the law of the land today, there is a great divide about how to apply and interpret law: Rabbi Joel Roth and his supporters are strict constuctionalists: they do not go beyond the predominant position or the plain meaning of the Biblical text or rabbinic record. Rabbi Waxman and I would probably agree that morality is not relative: that each individual is equally precious and deserving of equal treatment. Having been privileged to participate in these discussions on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and as a matter of record, I personally did not vote for or support Rabbi Roth’s position. However, even the decision by Rabbi Roth, which prohibits same sex relations and the ordination of rabbis who engage in such, distinguishes between accepting an individual whose orientation is gay and banning a prohibited behavior, namely same sex relations.
Rabbis Elliott Dorff, Avram Reisner, and Daniel Nevins, whose position permits gay ordination and commitment ceremonies, are loose constructionalists. They use traditional rabbinic methods to interpret and apply Torah in a very narrow sense (that the only thing the Torah prohibits is anal same sex relations, based on the exact words of the verse that prohibits a man lying “with a man as with a woman”), thereby allowing them to apply meta-halakhic Torah values, the dignity of each individual, also ensconced in rabbinic legal precedent.
What is also true of both positions is that they deal with the same basic question: Are there behaviors Jews should not do? Both answer yes. As Conservative Jews we hold that there is a body of law we are bound to that begins in Torah and continues through the record of Jewish precedent law in the Talmud and Codes. There are things we can eat and cannot eat, individuals with whom we can have sexual relations and those with whom we cannot, ways to conduct business and ways not to. Every act in our lives is an opportunity to connect to our tradition and serve God. As Jews we do that through the observance of law as understood and applied in our community.
The historic challenge facing our movement has been that too few lay people have been caught up in this process of seeking to discern God’s will as understood throughout our precedent law and apply it to their personal observance. The homosexual ity issue though has provided an opportunity to begin to change that.
In response to media coverage on this issue, my congregants requested a full year of study in our Adult Education program on how Jewish law informs our decisions on a number of ethical issues. For the first time they wanted to study various teshuvot (positions) our movement has passed. The classes were well attended. I know similar programs are happening in congregations around the country, and not just on the issue of homosexuality in Jewish law.
The passing of two positions is important for another reason as well. Far from making the decision irrelevant to the average Conservative Jew, as Rabbi Waxman argues, the very dualism of positions makes the halakhic process extremely relevant by empowering each rabbi and congregational community to study and determine where they stand on the continuum of Jewish interpretation and practice. At the heart of this entire dialogue is a commitment to make a thoughtful and knowledgeable decision based on Jewish law on the congregational level in response to the particular needs and conditions of that community. Jewish law has always been local. As such, these decisions return us to the purpose and mission of the Conservative movement, to walk in God’s ways through our historic and communal living of Jewish law.
– By Rabbi Susan Grossman