Conservative Judaism Today

Smaller but more committed, the movement is seeing vibrant, sometimes divisive debate as it navigates between tradition and change.

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Controversial Issues of Jewish Law

One might argue that contemporary Conservative Judaism was born in 1983, when JTS began ordaining women. This was the final step toward sanctioning complete egalitarianism, and though many Conservative leaders embraced the move with open arms, others saw it as a betrayal of tradition. Some JTS faculty members--including one of its leading Talmudists, David Weiss Halivni--left the school after the ruling.

Nearly twenty-five years later, another divisive issue arose. Because of its commitment to Jewish law, the Conservative movement officially disapproved of homosexuality. While advocating compassion and kindness toward gays and lesbians, the movement barred open homosexuals from studying at its rabbinical schools and holding leadership roles in Conservative institutions.

This position became increasingly unpopular. Elliot Dorff, the rector of the University of Judaism--a Conservative rabbinical school in Los Angeles--and vice-chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was one of the most prominent leaders seeking a policy change. Already in 1992 Dorff had authored a legal responsa (rabbinic decision) that condoned homosexuality by employing a concept called ones--the idea that one is only responsible for things that he or she can control--and relying on evidence that homosexuality is innate and therefore not under a person's control.

The biggest source of ferment on this issue, however, came from future Conservative rabbis. In a survey conducted in 2001 among rabbinical students by Keshet (Rainbow), an advocacy group at JTS, almost 80 percent of 236 respondents averred that gays and lesbians should be admitted to Conservative rabbinical and cantorial schools. Nonetheless, there was still opposition to changing the denomination's official position. 

The issue came to a tenuous resolution in March of 2007, when JTS made the decision to begin accepting qualified gay and lesbian students into its rabbinical and cantorial students. This came three months after the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a teshuva permitting the ordination of gays and lesbians, while upholding the prohibition against male intercourse. The law committee also endorsed two teshuvot supporting the traditional position on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies. Rabbis Joel Roth and Leonard Levy, who authored the more conservative teshuovot, resigned from the law committee in protest, as did Rabbis Mayer Rabinowitz and Joseph Prouser.

Exodus Spat

Jewish legal issues--like homosexuality--invite the most controversy in the Conservative movement, but that's not to say that the movement is theologically homogeneous.

In a sermon during Passover 2001, David Wolpe, rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, opined that the Exodus from Egypt didn't happen in the way it is recorded in the Bible. Wolpe's opinion reflects the position of academic Bible scholars and archeologists, who believe that the Israelite nation was indigenous to Canaan and not--as the Bible suggests--a group of tribes who conquered Canaan after leaving slavery in Egypt.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.