Ordaining Gays and Lesbians: Denominational Approaches

Among each of the movements, admitting gay and lesbian students has been a cause of debate, concern...and learning.

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The rabbinate is an evolving institution in Jewish life. Before the late 20th century, for example, only men could become rabbis. However, as women and men gained greater equality in secular society, each of the denominations began to consider the question of equal access to religious leadership for both women and men.

Similarly, now that a significant number of people both inside and outside the Jewish community openly identify as gay or lesbian, the denominations, to varying degrees, have begun to debate the place of gay and lesbian identity in the Jewish community and, specifically, the rabbinate. Each denomination has approached the issue of gay ordination differently, but the question has made its presence felt in all of the major denominations.

Reconstructionist Movement

During its first 15 years of existence, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) did not ordain openly gay Jews. Beginning in 1984, though, RRC changed its admissions policy and became the first major rabbinical seminary to accept openly gay students. In 1990, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly recommended that the Reconstructionist movement also establish a policy of non-discrimination in rabbinic job placement processes.

"It became a civil rights issue," said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a former director of practical rabbinics at RRC, of the college's decision to change its policy to admit gays and lesbians. "The gay rights movement was strong enough that it started to have an impact." Holtzman added that a lot of "pushing" catalyzed study and eventual change in the movement about what "it means to be open and inclusive."

Reform Movement

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement, catalyzed a series of discussions about homosexuality with its 1977 resolution calling for an end to discrimination against gay people in both secular and Jewish society. Among the responses over the following decade was a resolution submitted to the movement in 1985 by Rabbi Margaret Wenig and rabbinical student Margaret Holub calling for gay ordination.

In 1986, the movement convened a group called the Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate to study the issue of gay ordination. The committee eventually produced a report advocating that "all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen." In 1990, the CCAR officially endorsed this report, while still acknowledging that some of its members felt differently about the issue.

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Elizabeth Richman

Elizabeth Richman is a rabbinical student at JTS.