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