Conservative Halakhah and Homosexuality
An insider's view of the 2006 CJLS gay vote.
On December 6, 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly completed its deliberation regarding ordination of gay men and lesbians and same-sex commitment ceremonies. After years of debate, the committee endorsed teshuvot (papers) both reaffirming the status quo and affirming change. The result of the committee's vote means that rabbis, synagogues, and other Conservative institutions may choose to continue to not permit commitment ceremonies and not hire openly gay or lesbian rabbis and cantors, or may choose to do so. Both positions are considered valid. Below, Rabbi Daniel Nevins reflects on his part in this process.
For the past four years, I have spent many of my spare hours reading the voluminous literature on what Judaism has to say about homosexuality. The early record is quite clear and literally forbidding. For two men to lie together like the "lyings of a woman" (understood in the Talmud to mean anal sex), is called "abhorrent" by the Torah, and prohibited under penalty of death (Leviticus 18:22). Rabbinic law greatly expanded upon this prohibition, banning other forms of sexual intimacy between men, and also sexual intimacy between women.
This much is clear. Less obvious was what the Torah, and then the Talmud, expected of homosexuals. The tradition seems to assume that this ban would lead them back into heterosexual marriages, and indeed, for centuries many gay and lesbian people have done just that.
In recent decades, we have learned a great deal about sexual orientation, though much more remains unknown. We do not know why some people develop a heterosexual orientation, why others are attracted only to those of the same sex, and why yet others are attracted to men and women.
What we do know is that there is no effective way for most people who are homosexual to become heterosexual. Those who try often "fail" this ill-advised therapy, resulting in depression and suicidal thinking, as well as anguish for their spouses and children. Does Judaism have anything to say to this state of affairs?
That was the real question behind the Conservative Movement's recent four-year process of study and debate on the subject of homosexuality and halakhah (Jewish law).
Past Conservative Policy
In 1992, when I was still in rabbinical school at JTS, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) debated the subject and emerged with a consensus statement that was self-contradictory. It proclaimed a broad welcome for gay and lesbian Jews, but denied recognition of their committed relationships, their ordination as clergy, and even their functioning in other "leadership roles."