Conservative Halakhah and Homosexuality

An insider's view of the 2006 CJLS gay vote.

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If this was a welcome, it was hardly warm. Many gay and lesbian Jews, as well as their family and friends, advocated for a more inclusive policy. Eventually the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Judy Yudoff, addressed a letter to Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the CJLS, asking if any change in policy could be considered. He agreed to reopen the subject, leading to a four year process of retreats, research, debates, and ultimately the votes of December 6, 2006.

The Deliberating Process

While there was principled disagreement regarding matters of textual interpretation, legal philosophy, and practical law, there was also a deep sense of collegiality and appreciation for the good faith efforts being made by each of the committee's 25 voting members and six non-voting members. At the outset it is important to emphasize that none of the committee members uttered anything like animus toward gay or lesbian Jews in the entire four years of proceedings.

On the contrary, even those most opposed to halakhic change framed their arguments with respect and sympathy for the predicament that gay and lesbian Jews face. One rabbi who voted for retaining the status quo spoke about his own daughter's coming out as a lesbian, and now as a transgendered man. This rabbi loves and respects his daughter/son, but feels that the halakhah itself cannot change in this dramatic fashion.

At the first CJLS retreat on this subject, in March 2004, we focused on our respective theories of Jewish law, and also on the current scientific understanding of sexual orientation. We heard from experts on all sides of the spectrum.

I was most impressed by the testimony of Dr. Abba Borowich, an Orthodox psychiatrist who practiced reparative therapy for Orthodox homosexuals for nearly 30 years before concluding that this was an ineffective course of therapy which only increased suffering among his patients and their families. At the end of this retreat, nine rabbis indicated that they would begin work on responsa.

The next retreat, in 2005, included discussion of the nine initial papers and their various approaches. Some of the differences related to halakhic methodology, while others related to the conclusions that would be supported by each.

Early on I realized that it would not be possible to shift halakhic policy 180 degrees from yeihareig v'al ya'avor ("die rather than transgress") to chuppah v'kiddushin kdat Moshe v'Yisrael ("sanctified marriage by the laws of Moses and Israel"). That is, it would not be possible to go from considering male homosexual intercourse to be a cardinal prohibition requiring martyrdom to considering same sex relationships as sanctified marriages. Perhaps there was a middle ground?

The Making of a Teshuva

My "ah-hah" moment came a few years ago when I was studying daf yomi, the daily Talmud page, and came back to a passage I hadn't thought of in this light before. In Tractate Brakhot 19b there is a discussion of human dignity--kvod habriot--and its legal implications.

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Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins

Rabbi Daniel Nevins is the Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In addition, he is senior lecturer of Professional and Pastoral Skills, chairs the Department of Professional and Pastoral Skills, and serves on the Chancellor's Academic Council. He has written responsa on the halakhic topics of personal status, disabilities, bioethics, and homosexuality. For more information, see his web page, Rabbi Nevins.?