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.

The CCAR report also endorsed what had been a recent change in the admissions policy of its rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). That new admissions policy declared "that HUC-JIR considers sexual orientation of an applicant only within the context of a candidate's overall suitability for the rabbinate, his or her qualifications to serve the Jewish community effectively, and his or her capacity to find personal fulfillment within the rabbinate."

According to Jean Rosensaft, HUC-JIR's national director for public affairs, the Reform movement took a stand on the issue then as an outgrowth of the American Psychological Association's determination that homosexuality should no longer be classified as a disease. Rosensaft also suggested that the APA's decision helped empower gay and lesbian Jews, encouraging them to speak out.

Like the Reconstructionist seminary, HUC-JIR now accepts openly gay students and counts many openly gay rabbis among its alumni.

Conservative Movement

Changes in the Conservative movement occurred more slowly and more recently. Gay ordination was first considered in 1992 by the movement's halakhic decision-making body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). On March 25, 1992, after voting into effect teshuvot (rabbinic response papers) that prohibited gay ordination, the CJLS also issued a Consensus Statement on Homosexuality.

It declared that the movement "will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools..." or perform commitment ceremonies.  Whether openly gay individuals could serve as synagogue lay leaders, teachers, and youth leaders was left up to individual rabbis. The statement nevertheless ended with a declaration that "gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools."

In 2002, then-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Judy Yudoff, asked the CJLS to reconsider the question of gay rabbis and same-sex unions. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, then-president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), made a similar request. In response, the CJLS officially reopened its deliberations, and several grassroots organizations formed within the movement to advocate for gay ordination

The CJLS eventually received five papers and approved three of those teshuvot (responsa) on December 6, 2006. One teshuvah permitted gay ordination, while the other two opposed it. Because of the CJLS's rule that any approved teshuvah is recognized as valid, even if it contradicts another approved teshuvah, all three now represent official policy options for the movement. Individual institutions, congregations, and rabbis within the movement are free to decide which opinion to adopt:

·The teshuvah written by Rabbis Eliott Dorff, Danny Nevins, and Avram Reisner received 13 votes and used the principle of k'vod habriot (human dignity) to override rabbinic prohibitions on homosexuality. The teshuvah permits gay ordination and same-sex unions, but stops short of overturning what it considers the biblical prohibition on anal sex between two men.  

· Rabbi Joel Roth's teshuvah, which also received 13 votes, refuted the conclusions of Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner, and upheld his earlier position from 1992 banning gay ordination and same-sex unions.

· Rabbi Leonard Levy's teshuvah focused more on the current state of knowledge about homosexuality, but endorsed the same general policy conclusions as Rabbi Roth's paper and offered the suggestion of reparative therapy for gay Jews.

In the aftermath of the CJLS vote, four rabbis, including Roth, resigned from the law committee, saying the committee had overstepped the bounds of Jewish law.

The Conservative movement's Los Angeles-based seminary, the American Jewish University, permitted gay students to apply immediately, as it had promised to do once the CJLS paved the way for the change. The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the movement's New York-based seminary, waited until it had surveyed the opinions of faculty, students, rabbis, and other Conservative leaders before taking further steps.

On March 26, 2007 it announced that "effective immediately, [JTS] will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools." Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Advocates of gay ordination were jubilant about the policy change, though many also expressed disappointment that the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah did not go far enough in promoting full equality. Opponents of gay ordination were upset and disappointed, viewing the change as too extreme and concerned that their views might become less welcome in the movement.

Openly gay students are now studying at both JTS and AJU. However, the movement's two non-American seminaries, Machon Schechter in Israel and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Argentina, have indicated that their admissions policies will not change following the CJLS vote.

Orthodox Movement

Social attitudes toward gay Jews have begun to shift in the Orthodox community, due in part to movies like Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about the lives of gay Orthodox Jews,and books such as Rabbi Steven Greenberg's Wrestling with God and Men.

Rabbi Greenberg, a graduate of Yeshiva University's rabbinical school and generally considered the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, has worked intensively to raise the visibility of gay Orthodox Jews. However, the Orthodox community generally remains opposed to gay ordination and no Orthodox rabbinical institution currently admits openly gay students.

Non-Affiliated Rabbinical Seminaries

It is worth noting that The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a major transdenominational rabbinical program, was the first seminary to maintain an open admissions policy from its inception. Founded in 2003, its admissions policy states that "The Rabbinical School does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation." At least one openly gay student was admitted in the first class of students in 2003 and then ordained in 2008.

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Elizabeth Richman

Elizabeth Richman is a rabbinical student at JTS.