Conservative Halakhah and Homosexuality

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

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As I looked up parallel sources and then later applications of this concept in halakhic sources, I realized that this might be the key to the conundrum: How to be inclusive and sensitive to human dignity, while still being authentically halakhic?

For me, this dilemma has always been a matter of dignity. It is forbidden to humiliate another person, and yet our policy on homosexuality is clearly humiliating. It is commanded to love our fellow person and to dignify him or her. How was this possible given our precedent?

A paper by our colleague in Israel, Rabbi Simchah Roth, argued persuasively that the varied prohibitions on male and female homosexual relations could be separated into biblical and rabbinic categories. What I didn't get from Rabbi Simchah Roth was an understanding of how one might permit gay and lesbian Jews to violate a rabbinic precept. After all, we are not biblical Jews, but rabbis!

My main insight was to apply the Talmud's concept of "gadol kvod habriot shedocheh lo ta'aseh shebaTorah"--the principle that human dignity is so important that it can override negative commandments in the Torah--to suspend the rabbinic level prohibitions on homosexual intimacy for people whose only other option was celibacy. This means that the biblical prohibition against anal sex between men remains in effect, but other forms of intimacy between men and women are permitted.

I realized that it would be hard to construct this argument convincingly alone. Like other members of the committee, I decided to collaborate with other rabbis who had come to similar conclusions. Rabbi Elliot Dorff had done a wonderful job evaluating the social science literature on sexual orientation; Rabbi Avram Reisner had gone into great depth on talmudic texts that address various sexual activities, and also on the medieval controversies surrounding the definition of the resulting prohibitions.

The three of us agreed to combine efforts. It wasn't easy, because we live in three different parts of the country, have very different writing styles, and approach the literature from distinctive positions. Yet all of us share a core commitment to using halakhic precedent, and also to finding a livable solution that would make an inclusive and dignified place for gay and lesbian Jews in our community.

December 2006 Decision

In the end, both our responsum and Rabbi Joel Roth's responsum--which reiterated the comprehensive ban and called for gay celibacy--received a majority support of 13 votes. Rabbi Leonard Levy's responsum, which accepts reparative therapy as a possibility and supports the same public policy as Rabbi Roth, attained the minimum threshold of 6 votes.

The other two papers were deemed takkanot (rabbinic legislation rather than interpretation) and did not reach the necessary threshold of 13 votes. There was a last-minute attempt to accept all the papers without prejudice, but this foundered when it became clear that none of the new papers would be considered a validated position of the CJLS, leaving only the 1992 papers in place.

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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.?