Barack Obama, Marriage Equality and Lag Ba’Omer

On Tuesday, October 28, 2003 I clicked “Publish” for the first time on this blog. This is my 1,000th blog post.

In my first blog post I simply wrote, “Welcome to my new Blog. I haven’t yet decided what I will use this forum for, but we’ll see. It will likely have some of my writings, as well as some news articles that I find of interest. Thanks for visiting and enjoy!” No one read it.

Now, over eight-and-a-half years later my blog has been visited over half-a-million times and each post averages 1,000 readers.

So, what should my 1,000th blog post be about I wondered. I decided to take the advice I give to would-be-bloggers all the time: “Write about what’s happening in the world and how it affects you and your community.”

Yesterday was Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer. During this time of year almost 2,000 years ago, the Jewish tradition teaches, a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. According to a medieval tradition, this plague ended on Lag Ba’Omer. Thus, in modern times Lag Ba’Omer is treated as a festive day with celebration.

Yesterday, on Lag Ba’Omer 2012, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to fully endorse same-sex marriage. There will be those who will surmise that the President’s statements were made for political gain, but his words were powerful and historic and appreciated by millions.

Homosexuality is not an easy subject to deal with in Judaism. Based on a few words in the Torah, the issue is one of the most divisive in Jewish communities today. However, in very recent years and based on several monumental decisions, many in the more progressive Jewish communities have come to see this issue as a matter of human dignity (Hebrew: k’vod habriyot).

For gays and lesbians who have fought for marriage equality, Lag Ba’Omer 2012 was an epic day in which a plague ended.

Marriage in the minds of millions is the joining of a man and a woman in a holy union. We all have that traditional image of marriage because that is all we have known. However, times change. And with the changing of the times, the conventions we have long maintained change as well.

For many Jewish people, the Torah’s stance on homosexuality will continue to be clear, certain and immutable. However, for a good many people, there is much room for interpretation. And the interpretation of the Torah will be impacted by several factors including the dignity of real, living and breathing human beings who desire to love and be loved. Human beings who seek the equal rights of marriage regardless of their sexual orientation.

When I began my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York in 1998, I believed that homosexuality was a sin in Judaism. Admittedly, I hadn’t spent much time studying the applicable texts in the Torah or the commentary on the subject. I also didn’t know any gay or lesbian people (or at least I didn’t know they were gay or lesbian at the time). Throughout the course of my time at JTS, I came to understand how our community’s treatment of gays and lesbians has real and lasting effects on people’s lives. I got involved in a group called Keshet (rainbow), which advocated for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the rabbinical and cantorial schools of JTS.

During my final year at JTS I served as President of the Rabbinical School Student Organization. On the last day of my term in office, I signed off on a major allocation of funds to be directed to Keshet and used for programming to educate the Seminary community about LGBT issues. During my first years as a rabbi I watched with great interest as JTS students worked hard to encourage the Seminary to open its doors to gays and lesbians who wished to lead the Jewish community as rabbis and cantors. With great admiration and appreciation from afar, I witnessed change being implemented.

The passing of a teshuva (religious opinion) by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in December 2006 paved the way for gays and lesbians to enter JTS in the rabbinical and cantorial schools. The teshuva was co-authored by my teacher and friend, Rabbi Danny Nevins, who now serves as the dean of the rabbinical school there. It was his understanding that LGBT issues fit into the category of human dignity that served as the foundation of the teshuva.

Just as we’ve seen major change occur with regard to domestic partner benefits, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, and the ability for rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies, we are now witnessing the epic moment when marriage equality will be realized for the LGBT community. President Obama’s statement will be regarded as a watershed moment for this cause.

Same-sex marriage does not mean we no longer take the word of the Torah to heart. It doesn’t mean we are overruling God. It means that we are giving homosexuals the same rights to be in a committed, loving relationship that has been blessed and sanctified. That is certainly a matter of human dignity in my opinion.

Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that the appearance of a rainbow will bring redemption just as a rainbow appeared following the great flood in biblical times.

In addition to Lag Ba’Omer being the day on which the plague was lifted from the students of Rabbi Akiva and they stopped dying, it also corresponds with the date on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. While the anniversary of a great sage’s death seems an odd time to celebrate, we learn that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away a great light of endless joy filled the day. The happiness on that day was to the sage and his students “like that of a groom while standing under the canopy at his wedding.” In modern times, religious Jews flock to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the city of Meron on Lag Ba’Omer where they sing and dance.

Another tradition on Lag Ba’Omer is for children to play with bows and arrows. The “bow” symbolizes a rainbow because it is believed that a rainbow was never seen during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Tradition tells us that the sage himself was the sign of the rainbow.

And so, it is inspiring and meaningful that on Lag Ba’Omer, a day celebrated for a plague ending and the anniversary of the death of a great sage who was compared to a rainbow (Hebrew: keshet), the symbol of the LGBT pride movement, the President of the United States articulated his convictions that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.

May the gentle radiance of the rainbow be a sign of God’s blessings on all of us who seek dignity and equality for all human beings. May the love that two people have for each other, regardless of sexual orientation, be blessed and made sanctified for the entirety of their lives together. Thank you Mr. President for helping to bring about this necessary freedom of equality.

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

Religious Leaders Must Preach Tolerance & Compassion Toward LGBT Community

Last night, I saw the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The movie, based on the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini, deals with teenage depression and suicide in a very real and honest way. I might have reacted differently to this movie had I seen it before the recent wave of teen suicides in the LGBT community that have made national headlines. Each of the four teen characters in the movie suffer from depression in one way or another. And while none of them is homosexual, watching the movie I was forced to consider the responsibility that I, as a rabbi, have in preaching tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community to eradicate this epidemic.

The high rate of suicide among gay and lesbian teens has been brought to light in the darkest way possible. Communities have been devastated by the news of gay teens being bullied to the point of taking their own lives. The reaction to these tragedies has been mixed, as have the reactions to the reactions. For example, I’m sure that Clint McCance, the vice president of the Midland, Arkansas School Board, never expected the reaction he received after posting his anti-gay rant on Facebook. That a leader in a school system could make such hurtful and shameful comments publicly on the Web about his fellow human beings is outrageous. It is up to religious leaders to shift the national conversation on LGBT issues to one that prioritizes human dignity and compassion.

On Tuesday, October 19, as Facebook users across the nation were changing their profile pictures to a purple hue to publicize the need for compassion toward the gay community and in memory of the gay teens that killed themselves, another tragedy was taking place. At Oakland University in Michigan, where I serve as a visiting professor of Jewish Studies, yet another gay teen ended his life after being bullied relentlessly since coming out a few months ago. Less than a week earlier on Oakland’s campus, a lunchtime program sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center screened the film “Bullied,” a teaching tolerance documentary. The banner advertising the event still hung in the hallway of the student union in the days following Corey Jackson’s death, as if to say “Something more must be done.”

To show my support to the LGBT community, along with millions of others, I added a purple tint to my Facebook and Twitter profile pictures on Spirit Day. All of the responses I received were positive and supportive, except for the comment left on my Facebook page by a politically conservative Orthodox Jew. He simply added the link to a New York Post article by Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, titled “Don’t blame me for gay teen suicides.” I read the article and then felt even sadder. Gallagher argues that she doesn’t have blood on her hands when gay teens are bullied and kill themselves. She conveniently shifts the conversation to the gay marriage debate, but at issue here is allowing gay and lesbian teens to feel pride and comfort in society so they don’t get bullied, fall into depression, and eventually take their own lives. Until this horrific trend ends, all Americans have blood on our collective hands.

My teacher, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, recently wrote a powerful opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week, titled “The Cost of Standing Idly By.” The first article of Greenberg’s I ever read was in a rabbinical school class at the Jewish Theological Seminary when he was still a closeted gay man using the pseudonym “Jacob Levado” (a reference to the patriarch Jacob of the Hebrew Scriptures feeling alone). Here, Greenberg relates what happened when he and his partner relocated from New York City to Cincinnati. Soon after they arrived, the rabbi of the local Orthodox congregation called apologetically to inform him that he and his partner were not welcome to attend the synagogue based on a ruling from another rabbi. Greenberg contacted the rabbi who issued the ruling and shared with him that “people who are gay and lesbian who want to remain true to the Torah, are in a great deal of pain. Many have just left the community. Some young gay people become so desperate they attempt suicide.”

Most people would expect the religious leader to respond to that last sentence with some amount of compassion, perhaps deep sadness. However, he replied, “Maybe it’s a mitzvah (commandment) for them to do so.” The speechless Greenberg asked for clarification and was told that what he heard was precisely what the rabbi intended to say. In other words, since homosexuals are guilty for capital crimes according to the Torah, perhaps it might be a good idea for them to do the job themselves. Wow! I wonder how many Jewish people will read that statement and question if this is the right religion for them.

Rather than let this uncompassionate individual silence him or force him to find a more inclusive community, Greenberg came up with a list of three steps his colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate, and leaders in Orthodox institutions, can and should take at this time. He encourages them to sign the Statement of Principles, which says that “embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” Second, he calls on Orthodox institutions to sign a letter, initiated by the LGBT advocacy group Keshet, condemning bullying and homophobia in the Jewish community. Third, he states that Orthodox institutions must immediately cut off any support or endorsement of so-called “reparative therapy.”

I would take Greenberg’s call to action a step further and call upon all religious leaders, regardless of faith, to advocate for tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community. We all stand firm in trying to eradicate the other stressors leading to teenage depression and suicide. Why should the bullying of gay teens be any different? This epidemic is only made worse by the inflammatory comments of people like the Orthodox rabbi in Cincinnati who proposed that it’s a mitzvah for gay teens to kill themselves and Clint McCance, a school board official who wrote on Facebook, “It pisses me off though that we make special purple fag day for them. I like that fags can’t procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other AIDS and die.”

At this stage it is no longer about the heated and divisive issues like gay marriage or “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” It is now a matter of life and death. Teens being bullied until they commit suicide isn’t a political issue; it’s a human issue. Religious leaders across this country: Please stand up and put an end to this national tragedy.

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

Technology’s Limits – After Tyler Clementi’s Death, a Rabbi Warns of Technology without Ethics

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

The tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who took his own life after being filmed having sex with a man, has led some to voice concern over young people’s misuse of technology.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, the founder of BrooklynJews, wrote an open letter to young people in the community on his blog. The letter was reposted on the Forward’s Web site.

In his open letter, Bachman begins by reaching out as a rabbi to the young generation of his community be they gay or straight to let them know they were created in the image of God. He then goes on to address the use of technology to invade the privacy of Clementi and lead him to take his own life.

Bachman writes, “…[Clementi’s] peers, besides reflecting a disgusting prejudice, also worshiped their technology. Young people live in a world of too much access to too much instantaneous entertainment. And with a webcam and a laptop and an Internet connection, college students at Rutgers created their own bizarre “reality TV,” without thinking about the moral and ethical and criminal implications of what they were doing to another human being. A click and a laugh — and now someone with so much potential is dead. And that, plain and simple, is wrong. Technology can save lives but it can also be a tool for evil. So take stock next time you’re ready to click so quickly. Think and feel before you act.”

I teach a weekly high school class about Judaism and technology at a large Reform congregation in Metro Detroit. On the first day of class, we discussed the pros and cons of technology. I asked the teens to describe how new forms of technology can be used for good and how they can be used for evil.

The NY Times reports that the news about Clementi’s suicide came on the same day that Rutgers kicked off a two-year, campuswide project to teach the importance of civility, with special attention to the use and abuse of new technology.

We are still learning how best to use these new technologies, from social networking to video streaming. The ability to broadcast realty television is now possible for millions of people with a camera and an Internet connection. The question is whether our society has the ethics necessary to guide us in the appropriate use of these media. As we see from the case of Tyler Clementi, the misuse of technology can be fatal.

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

JTS to Accept Gays and Lesbians for Rabbinical School

With the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the school formerly known as the University of Judaism (now called the American Jewish University after its merger with Brandeis Bardin) would accept gay and lesbian students into its Ziegler Rabbinical School, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor Arnie Eisen (right) announced today that JTS will follow suit.

I guess this means that my depiction of the new Jewish Theological Seminary building on Bangitout.com will be getting some more views. (Note: I’m very much in favor of this inclusive decision at JTS and the image should only be viewed as a joke.)

The official JTS press release can be viewed here. What follows is the beginning of Chancellor Arnie Eisen’s letter to the JTS Community. His very long letter also includes detailed paragraphs outlining the process, the decision, and the next steps.

To the JTS Community:

I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.

This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.

Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators — that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) — but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed necessary.

First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is now complete. I will review its elements below.

Second, the announcement of JTS’s decision would lay out our thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and complexity of the decision.

Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement closer together. To that end, we have launched — and in coming months will help to lead — a full-scale process of learning and discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices. Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new process are outlined below.

For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.

The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple. I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it to be so.

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

Conservative Judaism on PBS

The PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly program did a segment recently on Conservative Judaism and Homosexuality. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (left), Rabbi Joel Roth, rabbinical student Ethan Hammerman (right), and a gay couple with three children were all interviewed.

I was surprised by this quote from JTS Talmud professor Joel Roth: “Jewish law is clearly without ambiguity opposed to any sexual behavior, either between men or between women.” While I understand his argument, I’m not sure that it can be said that the Halacha is clearly without ambiguity with regard to the view on lesbian acts. However, each of these respondents were only given the chance for a quick sound bite, and Rabbis Roth and Dorff have both written and spoken so much on the subject that it is difficult to summarize their view in a sentence or two.

Both the transcript and the video are available on the PBS website.

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

Samuel Freedman on the Brokeback Mountain Effect and the Conservative Movement

Columbia University Professor Samuel Freedman takes on Rabbi Avi Shafran in today’s Jerusalem Post on the issue of the homosexuality in Judaism and the recent decision by the Conservative Movement to be more inclusive toward gays and lesbians. Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew (I wonder if Rabbi Shafran read that one?) and Letters to a Young Journalist, writes that “the decision to open a space of theological acceptance for gays and lesbians seems to me deeply true to the Conservative movement’s mission of interpreting Halacha in light of modernity.” Well said Professor Freedman.

From the Jerusalem Post (complete article)

In the Diaspora: Brokeback minyan
By SAMUEL FREEDMAN

When I was a senior in high school and editor of its student newspaper, my English teacher took our staff into Manhattan for a scholastic journalism convention. At the end of the events, which happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, he shepherded us onto the subway and then walked us to the correct platform of the bus terminal for the ride back home to New Jersey. Having boarded us all, he backed away from the closing door and said in a sprightly way, “Well, I’m off to see some Irish friends in the Village.”

Most of us knew the import of those flip words. Mr. Stevens, our teacher, was gay, and he was heading into the part of his life that was an open secret. Certainly, our community would not have acknowledged the presence of a homosexual on the faculty, someone entrusted with the lives of scores of teenaged boys. Just as certainly, nobody would have wanted to lose the most inspiring teacher in the school by forcing a confrontation. The result was just one more version of the closet, and it was in that closet that Mr. Stevens essentially drank himself to death.

I found myself recalling Mr. Stevens, a Protestant from the South, in relationship to the Jewish world last week, as the Conservative movement was finally, admirably opening the closet door. The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards accepted a position paper that permits Conservative seminaries to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, and allows Conservative rabbis to perform ceremonies for same-sex unions.

THIS REMAINS incomplete justice, to be sure. Among the five papers accepted by the committee are one restating the movement’s 1992 ban on ordaining homosexuals and another urging gays and lesbians to receive treatment so they can become straight. Each of the movement’s five seminaries and hundreds of congregations has the right to adopt or ignore any of the approved positions. [more]

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

Rabbi Joel Roth Speaks Out

Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned his long-time position on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) — the Conservative Movement’s standing law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, has explained his actions in an op-ed piece found on the JTA.org website. He claims that the CJLS stepped outside the halakhic framework in its ruling on the gay issue. “The ostensible legal reasoning in the permissive paper that was approved was outside the pale of acceptability of halakhic reasoning,” Rabbi Roth explained. He is the author of the book, The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis.

The entire text of Rabbi Roth’s op-ed can be found here.

The photo to the left is of Rabbi Joel Roth and me at my 2004 ordination ceremony at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We are standing next to JTS professor Rabbi Burton Vizotsky who is donning an “ORDINATION REGARDLESS OF ORIENTATION” button produced by the JTS Gay Lesbian advocacy group Keshet. I was wearing one of these buttons as well, but out of respect for Rabbi Roth I removed it before taking this photo. What makes this such a great photo however is that just to the right of Rabbi Roth’s head is Rabbi Neil Gillman, almost functioning as a “thought bubble” for Rabbi Roth (or is he one of those little angels or devils on Rabbi Roth’s shoulder?).

Also available on the JTA.org website is an op-ed written by Cyd Weissman, an irate member of the Conservative movement who is the mother of a gay son. She takes great exception with the passing of a teshuvah by Rabbi Len Levy, another member of the CJLS who resigned following the passing of a teshuvah allowing for gay inclusion was passed. Levy’s paper argued for the status quo but also suggested that, contrary to the common medical and psychological opinions, gays should undergo “reparative therapy.”

She writes, I was compelled to ask a Conservative rabbi, “When does Jewish tradition allow you to stand up and say the hurt caused by a law far outweighs the halachah?” Burning within me when I asked this question was the pain I felt while reading in The New York Times that the Conservative movement approved a legal opinion suggesting that “some gay people could undergo ‘reparative therapy.’ ” The movement I’m affiliated with was elevating to Jewish law the notion that gays and lesbians needed repair. Although not enough to make a minyan, six men had decided to brand my son — many sons and daughters — in need of fixing.

Well stated and I happen to agree with her. Certainly, Rabbi Levy (my professor for two courses in the JTS Rabbinical School including one titled “Practical Halakhah”) worked long and hard writing this paper, but it should not have been brought in front of the committee for a vote. Originally, many rabbis wrote teshuvot on this issue and there was a decision to merge several papers into only a few. The two extremely liberal papers that were both deemed takkanot should have not been considered, and the paper by Rabbi Levy should not have been considered leaving only the inclusive paper by Rabbis Nevins, Dorff, and Reisner along with the status quo paper by Rabbi Roth. If Rabbi Roth wanted to re-draft his paper with Rabbi Levy, then this would have been his choice. The three rabbis of the middle-of-the-road position (increased inclusion based on the concept of human dignity, but no abrogation of the ban on male-male anal sex) did decide to collaborate their efforts and I believe it made for an even better constructed teshuvah.

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

United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism to change gay hiring policy

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism will not currently hire a Jewish educator or staff member to work with youth if they are gay or lesbian. Following the decision of the CJLS today, the USCJ issued a statement that seems to say that they will soon reverse that policy:

“Given the Law Committee’s decision today, Rabbi Epstein (at left), who is United Synagogue’s mara d’atra, has told United Synagogue’s leadership that he sees no reason why we should not revise our hiring policies. Based on this conclusion, we may consider applicants for United Synagogue jobs no matter what their sexual orientation. United Synagogue’s leadership will discuss the issue at its next scheduled meeting.”

The response on the USCJ website seemed to say “Here here” to the CJLS vote. Actually it said “here” a few more times:


Halakhic Status of Gay Men and Lesbians

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met to consider the halakhic status of gay men and lesbians. We respond to decisions made on December 6 here and here.

On August 24, in one of a series of panels to be held across North America, Rabbi Joel Roth and Rabbi Elliot Dorff discussed the issue. Click here and here to read newspaper articles about the panel. If you want to see a three-part video filmed that evening, click here for Part I, here for Part II and here for Part III. To see a guide to the video, click here.

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

Arnie Eisen on the CJLS Vote on Homosexuality

FROM CHANCELLOR-ELECT ARNIE EISEN OF
THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

To the JTS Community:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly has now issued its ruling on the status of homosexual behavior. We are all in their debt for the years of hard work and sustained reflection they have put into this issue. Views on the matter among all of us at JTS differed widely before this week’s decision, and they will no doubt continue to differ widely in the wake of this decision. Opinions on both sides of the issue are strongly held and passionately felt. As we embark on the next stage of our consideration of gay and lesbian ordination at JTS, I am confident that the long-standing JTS tradition of embracing and respecting significant differences of opinion will continue to guide us. I write to remind you of the steps through which we at JTS will carry the discussion forward in coming weeks.

First, let me emphasize that the halakhic authority for the Conservative Movement and the institutions associated with it rests with the CJLS. The Law Committee has split on the status of homosexual behavior according to Jewish law; its rules and those of the Rabbinical Assembly regard each of the opinions authorized as equally legitimate. The ball is thus in our court with regard to the question of ordination of gays and lesbians at JTS — a decision regarding admission and graduation requirements that we will treat as such and not as the matter of law that stood before the Law Committee. We at JTS are not poskim. We will not be adjudicating matters of halakhah. However, we are going to consider what we think best serves the Conservative Movement and larger American Jewish community. We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense. We fully recognize what is at stake. This is why we are determined to conduct a thoroughgoing discussion of which we can all be proud no matter what outcome is eventually reached.

We have commissioned a survey with Stephen M. Cohen to determine where rabbis, Conservative Jewish laypeople, and the movement’s leadership stand on the issue. This data will be in hand before JTS reaches its decision on the matter.

I have invited the heads of the other seminaries affected by the CJLS decision — Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, and the Ziegler School of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles — to join me for a frank airing of the matter.

JTS students will be informed about the details of the Law Committee decision in coming days and will over the next month or so have a chance to debate with one another the pros and cons of the ordination of homosexuals. They will also have the opportunity to make their voices heard by faculty and administration.

Through the Campus Life Committee, the Deans of Student Life and the five schools will continue to consult and plan for both possible outcomes of this process.
Faculty will hold several discussions of the matter in coming weeks with the aim of making a clear and reasoned determination.

Let me note, that this critical phase of the discussion and the very debate itself is a hallmark of JTS — and Conservative Judaism more generally — of which we can be proud. We have the burden and privilege of this debate not because we are in the middle, but because of our commitment to halakhah on the one hand and full immersion in the culture and society of the present on the other hand. We are dedicated to thoughtful change as an essential element of tradition — which is not to say that the change proposed to us now is right or necessary, but that the process of considering it thoughtfully, whatever we eventually decide, is to us inescapable and welcome. One could say that such debate defines us — and that, well-conducted, it strengthens us. Of course debate on this and similar matters has the potential to wound us as an institution and a movement. It also, however, has the power to remind us of what we stand for, and why despite our differences — or even because of them — we choose to stand together.

That is why I hope you will all join me in doing our very best to ensure that we do this right. I firmly believe that the way we discuss the matter in coming weeks may well have as great an effect on the future of JTS as whatever decision we eventually reach. Argument le-shem shamayim is for us a long and valued tradition. Never has it been more needed than now.

Let me just add in conclusion that if you have suggestions or thoughts about either the process or its outcome, please do not hesitate to communicate them to me.

Arnold Eisen
Chancellor-elect

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

Four Resignations on the CJLS over the Vote on Homosexuality and Halakhah

Rabbi Joel Roth and Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz Resign from Conservative Movement Law Committee

At the end of the CJLS deliberations, four members of the Committee resigned: Rabbi Joel Roth (at right), Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz (at left), Rabbi Joseph Prouser and Rabbi Leonard Levy. They expressed the view that the permissive teshuvah accepted by the Committee went beyond the bounds of halakhic process. The CJLS members have asked them to reconsider. I think this is really a shame. I disagree wholeheartedly with these four rabbis that the permissive tehuvah went beyond the bounds of the process to decide Jewish Law, however, these are also four very talented and thoughtful poskim in the Conservative Movement. Rabbis Roth, Rabinowitz and Levy were my teachers in rabbinical school (Rabbi Prouser’s wife Ora Horn Prouser was my teacher too). I certainly hope they re-consider (especially Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Rabinowitz who have served on the Law Committee with distinction for so many years).

At the conclusion of deliberations, three papers were approved. The teshuvot of (1) Rabbi Joel Roth and of (2) Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Daniel Nevins (at left) and Rabbi Avram Reisner each received 14 votes. A third teshuvah by Rabbi Leonard Levy received six votes. The other papers were voted takkanot and failed, each receiving seven votes. These will be included in our papers as either concurring documents of papers to study.

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