Conservative Rabbi changes his mind on Gay Rabbis

Conservative rabbi and former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Gerald Zelizer, explains in today’s USA Today how he has experienced a transformation in his views on homosexuality in Judaism and the potential for gay rabbis.

A rabbi’s struggle: To allow gay clergy or not?

By Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer

Over the past few decades, the cultural battles over homosexuality have been waged in courtrooms, workplaces, schools and any number of other public forums. Religions, too, have become divided over the issue. You need not look very far for headlines showing splits over the acceptance of gay clergy or congregants.

My faith is in the midst of just such a struggle.

My personal journey in rethinking this choice reflects one side of the debate underway in Conservative Judaism, a denomination with an ideology between the more stringent Orthodox and the more liberal Reform. Its resolution will affect the roughly 1 million American Jews who identify with our religious approach.

The issue of lifting the ban on gay rabbis was first considered, but rejected, in 1992. I was then serving as the international president of the 1,200 Conservative rabbis in the USA and worldwide. At the time, I supported our decision: No. The Torah’s prohibition in Leviticus – “Do not lie with a male as you would with a female; it is an abomination” – seemed too absolute to allow any wiggle room.

After all, I reasoned, those who violated other biblical injunctions – such as not keeping kosher or committing adultery – also were unsuitable to be rabbis.

My fealty both to the Bible and my denomination’s decisions affected me personally. My cousin, a gay rabbi, openly challenged the refusal to lift the ban and had difficulty securing a synagogue. Sadly, he abandoned the pulpit. Surely, my support of the ban contributed to his exodus.

But the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, composed of our most learned rabbis and professors, is revisiting the earlier ruling. (A decision is expected by year’s end.) The debate goes on.

At our Rabbinical Convention in March, the matter was passionately debated, as it is in the field. A survey taken in 2003 by Keshet (rainbow), an advocacy group at our New York Jewish Theological Seminary, found that 83% of 222 respondents at the seminary want gays and lesbians to be admitted to Conservative rabbinical and cantorial schools. Others, though, such as Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the retiring chancellor of that flagship seminary, contend that uprooting the Torah prohibition would do violence to the underpinnings of our whole religious faith.

What I think

I feel differently. Since the last go-round, as I have become acquainted with more pious and knowledgeable gay and lesbian Jews, I have asked myself why God would design some people with a trait – for which there is paltry evidence that it can be reversed – and then designate individuals with that characteristic as “sinners?” Even if triggered by a gene mutation, as some argue, what is sinful about that? Too many gays I met suffered in their efforts to engage in heterosexual sex, marry heterosexuals, even bear children, only to realize that their homosexuality was immutable.

Conservative Judaism has always taught that we must upgrade our biblical understanding with new scientific knowledge. Contrary to the biblical assumption that gayness is a sinful choice, our best knowledge today indicates that it is as determined and irrevocable as blue or brown eyes. Of course, adherents of Orthodoxy and even some in my own movement will charge: “How can one be so presumptuous as to think he can improve on the biblical word of God?” Well, Judaism has done that from its inception, especially when moral considerations required it.

The biblical demand of “an eye for an eye” was interpreted in the Talmud as the monetary value of a wounded eye, and not an actual gouging. The Bible also orders the stoning of an unruly son, but the Talmud already qualified that as theoretical, saying, “It was never done nor will it be done.”

Abraham Heschel, a pre-eminent 20th century theologian, wrote that the Torah is not a literal stenographic recording of God’s voice, as over a long distance telephone, but a human interaction with the divine revelation.

Adapting to society

Changes in secular society have also contributed to the push for a change in my denomination’s attitudes. Of course, religion should adhere to its beliefs and not slavishly respond “me too” to all of secular culture – as with, for example, the growing sympathy with euthanasia. But in instances where secular society develops just insights, religion should not stubbornly retain its own unjust ones. Sometimes, the sensibilities of society are ahead of religion. This is the case with homosexuality.

I have changed a lot since 1992, as have many colleagues. Gay/lesbian Jews are God’s creatures, too. Some, like my cousin, are knowledgeable, observant Jews, qualified to be rabbis but prohibited because of a sexual preference not of their own making. It is time to lift the prohibition against gay rabbis by using the same blueprint that Judaism has employed to rectify other unjust religious dictums.

Will I rush to hire an assistant or intern rabbi who is gay? No. I need some time for truths that my mind now understands to reach my gut. I need to get comfortable, for example, witnessing a rabbi and his male partner dancing at my synagogue’s spring social, or seeing two lesbians hand-in-hand at the Torah while celebrating their daughter’s bat mitzvah. I am confident that, eventually, religious commitment will trump sexual orientation.

Should other faiths allow gay clergy? That is not for me to say. I know only that other faiths have the same goals of both incorporating believers and encouraging the most committed to serve as clergy. Beyond that, I can only describe my journey, in hopes others might learn from my experience.

Gerald L. Zelizer is rabbi of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Craig from craigslist: A Jew… Who Knew?

I have never visited craigslist.org. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a craigslist success story. My wife found our absolutely wonderful nanny on craigslist. The famous Craig from craigslist happens to be a former Detroiter and Conservative Jew. He also went to Morristown High School in Morristown, New Jersey, which is where my oldest son was born. He’s in town for a speaking engagement at Cranbrook. Here’s some of his interview with the Detroit Free Press today:

Low-key former Detroiter finds success on Internet

BY EMILIA ASKARI
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
April 27, 2006
When Craig Newmark lived in Detroit in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was a computer programmer who worked in a Southfield office tower, servicing General Motors Corp.’s account with IBM.
He says he was socially challenged — a typical nerd with dark black glasses and a pocket protector.
On Thursday, Newmark returns to the Detroit area in triumph as the founder of www.craigslist.org, one of the most popular sites on the Internet. Today, it has more than 10 million visitors and more than 4 billion page views per month. Newmark, 53, of San Francisco is to speak tonight at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills.
He created the listserv for a few friends, letting them know about cultural events around town. Soon Newmark turned it into a Web site. And craigslist was born.
It is one of the few Internet sites that makes money, though most of the ads on it are free. Newmark only charges for help wanted ads and real estate ads in a handful of markets. So how did Newmark become one of the most influential people in the online world? What are his thoughts on the future of the Internet, the news media and himself?
We asked, and he answered during a phone call this week.
Q: Do you consider yourself religious?
A: I’m spending a lot of time thinking about my values these days. I think people should treat each other like they want to be treated. My religion, superficially, is Conservative Judaism. I look at the guts of it and I see that what I got from it gives me a lot in common with just about any religion. I am practicing but not formally.
Q: I’ve read that last year, you made the first web broadcast into space with a company called the Deep Space Communications Network? What was that all about?
A: That was largely something for fun that Jim did. We’re getting a lot of ads for inter-species dating. Apparently we’re seeing a lot of tentacles.
This is generally a joke. At least that’s what my alien masters want me to think.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

George Clooney to speak at Darfur Rally on Sunday

Academy-award winner George Clooney will speak at the Save Darfur Rally to Stop Genocide in Washington, D.C. on April 30, which is co-sponsored by the American Jewish World Service.

George Clooney and his father, Nick, just returned on Sunday from a fact-finding trip to the Darfur region. They now know from first-hand evidence how dire the situation in Darfur has become. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and nearly one-third of the population of Darfur has been displaced. And the world simply watches and waits.

More information about Darfur is available here

By the way, Clooney will appear on the Oprah show today, Wednesday the 26th, to talk about his trip and the situation in Darfur.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish student is now allowed to display Hillel-sponsored art

By Jessica Remitz
The Digital Collegian

Penn State President Graham Spanier said yesterday that Penn State student Josh Stulman could display his Portraits of Terror art exhibit as early as this semester.

“That exhibit is going to go up,” he said at the University Faculty Senate meeting. “The offer has been extended and may be displayed this spring or not until the fall.”

Stulman (senior-painting and anthropology) was not available for comment by press time last night regarding when the exhibit will go on display.

Stulman’s 10-piece exhibit, initially scheduled to begin Sunday, was canceled last Wednesday after he received an e-mail message from Charles Garoian, director and professor of the School of Visual Arts.

The exhibit depicted conflict in Palestinian territories and drew inspiration from images featured in newspapers and on television. Phone calls to the Muslim Student Association’s office were not returned by deadline.

Garoian said that after reviewing Penn State’s Policy AD42: Statement on Nondiscrimination and Harassment and Penn State’s Zero Tolerance Policy for Hate, he did not think the exhibit promoted “cultural diversity” or “opportunities for democratic dialogue,” and the exhibit was canceled.

Since Friday, Garoian has not responded to multiple phone calls and e-mail messages asking for further clarification.

However, Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon said in an e-mail message yesterday that the exhibit was canceled initially because Penn State Hillel sponsored it.

Garoian said in an e-mail message Friday that the School of Visual Art is reserved for work created by classes within the school, while having a sponsor moves the work into “the commercial realm.”

However, Stulman said Thursday that his exhibit Hodgepodge: Prints, Drawings, and Sketches, held this February, was sponsored by Hillel and displayed at the School of Visual Arts without conflict.

Tuvia Abramson, director of Penn State Hillel, said problems with the sponsorship were brought up only last week, after the exhibit was canceled.

Abramson added that Hillel donated about $75 to Stulman for food and advertising.

He also said Hillel plans to request a full apology from the university.

As a result of the interest generated by the cancellation of the exhibit, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Senate passed a resolution recommending that Stulman’s exhibit be reinstated in the fall.

The resolution, presented at the meeting last night, also called for Garoian and Vicky Triponey, vice president for Student Affairs, to provide Stulman with compensation for money lost in the advertisement and preparation of the opening.

Senate also recommended that the School of Visual Arts and university administration submit a public apology to Stulman on the grounds of a First Amendment rights violation.

“I expect some people to disagree [with the legislation], but the university seems to be moving in the direction I’d like to see,” USG Senate President Brock Coleman said.

USG executive branch has also sent a letter to the School of Visual Arts and other administrators defending Stulman’s right to display his work.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Pay to Pray?!?

Based on the title of this post, one might conclude this is about the issue of charging money for tickets to High Holy Day services, but it is not. Conservative Jews in Jerusalem had to pay 30 shekels (about $6.50) in order to pray in the area assigned to them by the Western Wall. I find it shocking that they have to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to get this fee waived. Here is part of the article from Ynet News:

By Tal Rosner

If you are members of the Conservative Movement and you want to pray near the Western Wall, it’s advisable to pass by a cash machine and withdraw a few dozen shekels, otherwise you can’t enter.

A petition submitted by the Conservative Movement to the High Court says that members of the movement, who arrived at Robinson’s Arch to pray near the Wall, are forced to pay NIS 30 every time because it is an archeological site.

The Conservative movement has held prayers at Robinson’s Arch for years, in accordance with an agreement reached after many arguments and clashes over intentions of the movement’s members to pray at the Western Wall plaza itself.

Those intentions were met with fury by the ultra-Orthodox, who refused to allow joint prayers between men and women near the Western Wall. In the end, after disturbances by the ultra-Orthodox in the end of 1999, it was agreed that the Conservative movement would hold its prayer sessions at Robinson’s Arch.

‘Unpleasant phenomenon’

The agreement was kept until 2004, when according to Conservative movement members, the Society for the Development of East Jerusalem, which runs the site, began charging payment for worshippers seeking to enter Robinson’s Arch after eight in the morning, since it was an archeological site. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Bush: May 2006 is Jewish American Heritage Month

The President yesterday proclaimed that May 2006 will be Jewish American Heritage Month. I just wonder if he could have left out the part where he mentions that 2006 is the “Year of Our Lord” (see bottom of text below). Who writes this stuff?

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

When the first Jewish settlers came to this land, they sought a place of promise where they could practice their faith in freedom and live in liberty. During Jewish American Heritage Month, we celebrate the rich history of the Jewish people in America and honor the great
contributions they have made to our country.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is better and stronger because Jewish people from all over the world have chosen to become American citizens. Since arriving in 1654, Jewish Americans have achieved great success, strengthened our country, and helped shape our way of life. Through their deep commitment to faith, family, and community, Jewish Americans remind us of a basic belief that guided the founding of this Nation: that there is an Almighty who watches over the affairs of men and values every life. The Jewish people have enriched
our culture and contributed to a more compassionate and hopeful America.

Jewish American Heritage Month is also an opportunity to remember and thank the many Jewish Americans who defend our ideals as members of the United States Armed Forces. These courageous men and women risk their lives to protect their fellow citizens and to advance the cause of freedom. By helping to bring the promise of liberty to millions around the world, they lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.

NOW, THEREFORE, I GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2006 as Jewish American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities that honor the significant contributions Jewish Americans have made to our Nation.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirtieth.

GEORGE W. BUSH

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Remembering Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg died this past Monday, but I am only able to now find the time after the end of the Passover holiday to blog about this news. I never met Rabbi Hertzberg, a liberal Conservative rabbi ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943, though I taught Religious School in his synagogue for a year. About once-a-month I would venture up the stairs to his office in the old, run-down synagogue building hoping to run into him. His was the door at Temple Emanu-El marked “Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Rabbi Emeritus.” At the time, Temple Emanu-El was located in Engelwood, New Jersey though it since has moved to a beautiful, million-dollar facility in Closter, New Jersey.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg - Rabbi Jason MillerHad I met him, I no doubt would have told him how helpful his book The Zionist Idea had been to me in formulating my own academic understanding of Zionism and Zionist history, as well as how I understand the role of Israel in my own personal life. I’ve read many of his books and articles over the years and at times agreed with him and at other times I could not have disagreed more. But that seems to have been Arthur Hertzberg. He was a brilliant, provocative speaker and writer who could never be dismissed or disregarded because he was never irrelevant. Certainly, no one could ever accuse him of failing to speak his mind. For that, I admire him greatly though I never had the honor of meeting him personally. We also have in common that our rabbinates began in the Hillel world (he at UMass and me at UMich) before taking a full-time pulpit position.

Yehi zikhro barukh – May his memory be a blessing.

Here is a selection from his obit in the Times:

From the New York Times


Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a provocative scholar of Judaism whose contrarian religious and political views and dedication to civil rights found prolific expression in books, articles and essays, died on Monday. He was 84 and lived in Englewood, N.J.

The cause was complications of heart failure, said Eli Epstein, a friend. Mr. Epstein said Rabbi Hertzberg died on the say to Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J.

Rabbi Hertzberg seemed to savor taking on partisans from opposite sides of the same issue. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, for example, he rankled many Jews by proposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet when the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, the Jesuit antiwar activist, accused Israel of “militarism” and “domestic repressions” of Palestinians, saying they echoed those of the Nazis, Rabbi Hertzberg condemned him for “simplistic moralizing.”

“Let us call this by its right name: old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism,” he wrote in an article.

As president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978 and vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991, Rabbi Hertzberg was in the forefront of efforts to protect the civil rights of Jews. Marc D. Stern, the assistant executive director of the American organization, said Rabbi Hertzberg “reveled in his iconoclasm.”

“There’s no question he was a man who created debate, in a healthy sense,” Mr. Stern said. “He was sufficiently independent that he did not need other people’s approval before he would take a position. Yet one of the dangers of being an independent thinker is you develop the habit of being countercultural.”

Rabbi Hertzberg even tweaked those whose programs for fortifying Jewish identity were grounded in Israel and the Holocaust. He called the Holocaust Museum in Washington “the national cathedral of American Jewry’s Jewishness.” As someone whose European relatives had died at the Nazis’ hands, he said he was trying to make the point that Jewish leaders needed to find more cerebral and spiritual programs for retaining the allegiance of believers. He urged Jews not to become reclusive and insular in the aftermath of the Holocaust but to open themselves to the pain of others.

His approach to any issue was consistently liberal, said Mr. Epstein, a businessman, adding, “But he came at it from his deep Jewishness and from his obsession with the Holocaust.”

The rabbi was also an early advocate of full equality for black Americans and an ally in the civil rights movement. He was among the prominent participants in the March on Washington in 1963, during which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

He started out as a Hillel chapter director at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then took pulpits in Philadelphia and Nashville. In the early 1950’s he had a two-year tour as a United States Air Force chaplain based in Britain, where he met his wife, the former Phyllis Cannon, a British bibliographer.

After his return to the United States, he was appointed to Temple Emanu-El in 1956. But he continued to pursue his scholarship, completing a doctorate in history at Columbia and teaching there and eventually at Rutgers, Princeton, Dartmouth and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After 1991, he was Bronfman visiting professor of the humanities at New York University.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Fun with Numbers

1. Grab a calculator, if you have one handy; it might be tough to do this on paper.

2. Key in the first three digits of your phone number (NOT the area code)

3. Multiply by 80

4. Add 1

5. Multiply by 250

6. Add the last 4 digits of your phone number

7. Add the last 4 digits of your phone number again

8. Subtract 250

9. Divide number by 2

Do you recognize the answer?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Schlepping Through the Alps

I just finished reading Sam Apple’s Schlepping Through the Alps after not being able to put it down for the last 150 pages. It is both a moving tale of Sam’s search for Judaism (and anti-SemitisSam Apple on Rabbi Jasonm) in post-Holocaust Austria with the help of the country’s last shepherd (a “wandering Jew” no less!) and a very funny journal of Sam’s experience. Sam, the son of famous Jewish author Max Apple, really makes a name for himself with his first book and I for one can’t wait for his next.

The Melton book club that I lead will discuss Schlepping Through the Alps at our next meeting in May and Sam has graciously agreed to join us via speaker phone from New York City. I hope to write a complete review of the book soon, but I can certainly recommend it to everyone without any reservation. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to go hug a sheep!

To order the book, just visit this website and view the animation by Dan Meth.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller