The Conservative Truth

Posted by:  Rabbi Jay Spero

Posted 1/9/03




Rabbi Avi Shafran 

Recent weeks have brought media reports that the Conservative movement is
facing a new and vocal grassroots and rabbinic opposition to its current
policy barring open homosexuals from rabbinic and other leadership

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and a long time
proponent of ordaining declared homosexuals, is set to become chairman of
the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in March; He has
hinted, according to the Forward, that "a new teshuvah, or position
paper" on the subject might be offered soon thereafter. 

To be sure, there are still traditionalists regarding such matters in the
movement's leadership According to The New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Ismar
Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has voiced
concern that a change in policy would lead some congregations and rabbis
to leave the movement. In one of his few public remarks on the issue, he
told The Washington Post that "there is no doubt that such a step
[reversing the current ban] would fracture the movement, and in a very
severe way.

Rabbi Joel Roth, considered one of the main interpreters of Conservative
Jewish law, concurs, stating that even discussing the issue at present
"will be extremely divisive" and "would impel at least several members of
the law committee to resign".

Nearly two years ago, Moment Magazine published an article I wrote about
the Conservative movement. It provoked quite a strong reaction from a
number of Conservative leaders, partly, no doubt, because of the
unnecessarily incendiary title Moment gave it - "The Conservative Lie" -
but partly, too, as a result of its main thesis, that the movement's
leaders, despite their claim to be dedicated to halacha, all too often
manipulate that word to justify their abandonment of whatever elements of
Jewish religious law frustrate some of their congregants' wishes or clash
with contemporary societal mores. 

A major body of evidence presented in that article consisted of
statements and actions by respected Conservative rabbis concerning
homosexual activity. 

The article noted how the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's
rabbinic school, after a letter he wrote proscribing premarital and
homosexual sex drew the wrath of students, clarified that his letter had
been "only a personal statement, not a matter of policy". It recalled,
too, that the head of the Rabbinical Assembly had admitted that some
Conservative rabbis are already officiating at same-sex ceremonies
without any rebuke or action being taken against them.  And that the
University of Judaism's rector has openly blessed "gay unions".

Among the mail I received in the aftermath of the article's appearance
were several letters from Conservative rabbis claiming that I had
misrepresented their movement, that the evidence I had invoked was
inconclusive, that there would never come a time when homosexual activity
would in any way be "halachically" legitimated by an officially
Conservative responsum. 

That hasn't happened, yet. But it seems more and more likely to happen as
time goes on. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the University of
Judaism's rabbinic school says "I don't see the seminary moving on this
while [Rabbi Schorsch] is chancellor". The implication is hardly subtle. 

Even here and now, though, leaving aside entirely the words of the
increasingly vocal "progressives" in the Conservative camp, sincere
Conservative Jews might carefully consider the telling-by-omission
comments of their more traditionalist leaders. For in opposing any change
in policy, they express concern for the fallout and invoke the need for
rabbinic unity and organizational stability. But there is nary a word
about the essential underlying issue itself. One searches in vain for any
statement citing halachic principle or, for that matter, explicit verses
in the Torah that condemn homosexual conduct in no uncertain terms. What
the Torah wants seems almost irrelevant. 

Rabbi Schorch reportedly senses that the facade of Conservative fealty to
halacha is crumbling. According to The New York Jewish Week, a source
close to him says that he fears that a change in the movement's policy
would "break down the last wall of being able to say that the
Conservative movement operates within a halachic framework".

It should be apparent to honest Conservative Jews who affirm the
integrity of the halachic process that Rabbi Schorsch's fear has long
since been realized, that the sad Conservative truth is that the movement
is but a sluggish version of the openly halacha-rejecting Reform

May it become equally apparent to them that what they know to be the
lifeblood of the Jewish people lives and thrives in the Orthodox world,
and that it is clearly - as my own original title for the Moment article
had it - Time to Come Home. 

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