Conservative movement sends mixed message

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This week, Conservative Judaism seemed to change long-standing policy when its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to allow movement seminaries to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students.

Moreover, Conservative rabbis are now free to conduct commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian Jewish couples.

We applaud this decision.

Until today, gay and lesbian Jews who longed to serve in the Conservative clergy had been unable to do so. Committed gay couples, dedicated to living Jewish lives, have had their relationships consecrated in some Conservative synagogues, especially here in the Bay Area, but that had been against the rules.

All that may now change. But we recognize the step is fraught with controversy, because the 25-member committee, like the movement itself, remains split on the issue.

While authorizing the tshuvot (or responsa) on ordination and commitment ceremonies, the committee accepted other responsa upholding a ban on male homosexuality. The Conservative movement clearly does not speak with one voice on the subject.

Unfortunately, the issue remains divisive. One can only guess how openly gay students might be treated at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In one classroom a rabbi/professor might embrace them, while in another classroom gay students will find a professor who objects to their presence.

That is pure conjecture, because — for now, at least — the seminaries’ admissions policy has not changed. JTS Chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen sent out an email immediately after the vote saying he and his colleagues will soon begin to discuss whether to admit gay and lesbian rabbinical students.

The ruling this week said it was halachically permissible. Nothing more.

Will the decision result in a splintering of Conservative Judaism? When the movement sanctioned the ordination of women more than 20 years ago, similar fears abounded, and indeed some congregants, clergy and synagogues departed.

But it wasn’t enough to cripple the movement then, and the new ruling is not likely to do so either. It seems to be part of an inexorable evolution of society, including the Jewish world, toward a genuinely inclusive approach regarding sexual orientation.

While we acknowledge there are many Jews who, for halachic reasons, cannot condone something they view as proscribed by Torah, we nevertheless feel the new step is positive for Jews and Judaism.

Mixed message though it is, we commend the Conservative movement’s decision, and we look forward to the brilliant new clergy that will join the rabbinate in the years ahead.