Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, March 2007)


December 6, 2006, was a monumental date for Conservative Judaism in America. More than a decade after the movement first considered ordaining gay rabbis and performing same-sex commitment ceremonies, the longstanding debate finally reached a resolution.

It came as no great surprise that the movement was pushing for an answer. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had devoted its annual meeting in 2004 exclusively to discussing these questions and had called for responsa (teshuvot) to be submitted the following year. By March 2006, the committee—a group of Conservative rabbis that rules on issues of Jewish law (halachah)—had agreed to vote on the final teshuvot at its annual meeting nine months later.

With issues of gay equality prominent in America at large, the law committee’s rulings were guaranteed to attract attention. But they’ve received all the more scrutiny because they come at a time of great change within the Conservative movement. Once the largest stream of Jewish religious affiliation in America, it has, in the last decade or so, lost that title to the Reform movement. Faced with dwindling numbers, an aging membership and changes in leadership, Conservative Judaism is at a crossroads.

“This is an important period for the movement,” says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations. “We have to do a better job of reaching out to more people. It’s not about changing who we are. We have to be the best of who we are in terms of maintaining our integrity and bringing new people into the movement.”

True to form as a branch of Judaism with a “big tent” philosophy that is simultaneously committed to tradition and change, in December the Conservative movement produced multiple, opposing answers. Essentially, it agreed to disagree.

Three of the five teshuvot received the requisite six votes from the law committee for passage. Two of the approved teshuvot upheld the movement’s traditional prohibitions against either ordination of gay rabbis or commitment ceremonies. However, the other approved position allows for both ordination and civil unions.

Those positions clearly contradict one another, but their passage by the committee means each is now recognized by the Conservative movement as a valid position.

Having different opinions approved by the law committee isn’t unusual in the Conservative movement, explains Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents about 1,600 Conservative rabbis. “The difference here is you’re saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for something that’s very emotional. But we in the Conservative movement do live under an umbrella, and there’s room for differences of opinion.”

Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s largest rabbinical college, is due to make a decision in the near term on which teshuvah to favor. In late January, Eisen, who has said in interviews that he favors ordaining gay rabbis, named Rabbi Daniel Nevins, co-author of the teshuvah allowing ordination, dean of the JTS rabbinical school.

Another Conservative rabbinical school, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, has already decided to accept gay and lesbian students. “We tried to balance tradition and change,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and cochair of the bioethics department at UJ. “When people say, ‘you’re abrogating centuries of rabbinic tradition,’ that’s true, but it’s not something we do lightly or cavalierly.”

In the long run, how the movement chooses to define itself may either attract congregants looking to accept a wider range of viewpoints and practices or repel those who feel the movement has strayed too far.

“I think the great issue before the Conservative movement is whether it wants to go back to what has been a big-tent strategy,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “Now in recent decades, there have been significant efforts within the Conservative movement to more narrowly define what it means to be a Conservative Jew— what’s in, what’s out, what are the bright yellow lines. As that’s happened, they have tended to lose people both on the left and the right.”

Time of Transition

Since it was formally organized in 1913, Conservative Judaism has often defined itself more by what it is not than by what it is. The movement historically places a higher value than Reform on Jewish law and tradition, but is more willing than Orthodox to change with the times and incorporate aspects of American culture. Younger than the other two branches, the Conservative movement combines a belief that halachah is divinely inspired law with a willingness to accept modern scholarship toward sacred texts. It relies on a concept called klal Yisrael, in which the practices of the Jewish community at large help determine the movement’s positions.

In the second half of the 20th century, the plurality of American Jews chose to affiliate with Conservative institutions, and the movement grew considerably in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As recently as the 1990-91 National Jewish Population Survey, 38 percent of American Jews were Conservative, more than any other category.

Ten years later, though, the same survey showed that number slipping to 33 percent while more Jews identified as Reform than Conservative for the first time in decades. The same survey also showed troubling demographic trends for the movement, with Conservative passing Orthodox as the stream with the oldest membership—and with four of five Conservative households childless. Moreover, NJPS data showed a plurality of Conservative Jews aged 25- 44 are not members of any synagogue.

At the same time, there are some positive trends regarding the movement’s younger members. Conservative day schools have grown and JTS itself has about 700 students now, compared to about 400 in 1994, with a similar increase in school faculty.

Still, it is clear that the Conservative movement is facing a pivotal moment, and the shift to a new JTS chancellor is a prime example. After 20 years in that role, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch retired in June 2006. In an outgoing speech to the JTS graduating class, Schorsch publicly scolded the movement, arguing that it had lost its tradition of scholarship and its focus on history. By doing so, he said, Conservatives had neglected their role as the “vital center” of Judaism.

“The Seminary embodies a brave, if fragile, experiment to prove the compatibility of truth and faith,” Schorsch told graduates. “This blend of piety and skepticism, of allegiance and integrity, of observance and critical scholarship is precisely what distinguishes the Seminary from a university or yeshiva.” But the viability of that blend is crumbling, Schorsch said, because students today prefer “instant gratification” over “discourse of scholarship.”

The task of recapturing the movement’s essence falls to Eisen, who will assume the position full time in June. With his appointment in April 2006, JTS looked outside the ranks of rabbis and brought in a Stanford University professor of Jewish culture and religion. Since his appointment, Eisen has traveled around the country on a “listening tour” and requested a nationwide survey of Conservative students, and religious and lay leaders, to see where the movement’s membership stands on various issues.

“One of the challenges facing Chancellor Eisen is whether to back that more big-tent image of the Conservative movement or whether he wants, as to some extent Chancellor Schorsch had wanted, a somewhat more narrow definition of the Conservative movement,” Sarna says. “A leaner and meaner Conservative movement that would probably be more traditional but would also be smaller. My own sense is that Chancellor Eisen will move back toward the big-tent model, embrace lots of folks who have not been embraced and bring them into the movement.”

Looking Back, Looking Forward

While Rabbi Meyers, of the Rabbinical Assembly, and others caution that it’s still too early in the process to say what effect the December decisions will have on the movement, the 20th-century experience with women’s equality is often cited as a good basis for comparison.

“Both these issues came to Reform first and were handled expeditiously there,” Sarna says. “Orthodoxy, while struggling with both issues, understood that at the end of the day, it had to decide based on the rulings of halachic deciders. The Conservative movement, of course, is devoted both to tradition and to change. So it becomes a longer, more heart-rending process.”

From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, the Conservative movement debated a series of issues concerning the role of women. The law committee voted in 1973 to allow women to count toward a minyan (quorum), and in the next few years, the movement opened the door for women to participate in the Torah service with aliyot; to serve as witnesses; for synagogues to mix seating; and, in 1983, for women to be ordained as rabbis. As with the recent debate concerning gay rights, Conservative professional and lay leadership pushed for changes even before the movement’s rabbinical leaders.

These debates about the roles of women did cost the movement some membership. The 1968 establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College offered an option to Conservatives in search of a more egalitarian approach. (Today, there are more than 100 Reconstructionist congregations.) After the decision was made to ordain women, some opponents in the Conservative right wing split and formed the Union for Traditional Judaism.

Over time, though, the more liberal view of women’s roles prevailed within the movement. Still, more than 20 years later, there are a small number of Conservative synagogues in both the United States and Canada that maintain separate seating and decline to appoint female rabbis or cantors.

The movement has had similar debates about religious practice that have seen the Conservative legal apparatus approve multiple positions and individual institutions choose different routes. If those models apply to the recent debate, at least in the short term, some synagogues will develop reputations as either open to gay and lesbian members or less willing to alter the historical prohibitions. That was true for the use of musical instruments in services, with many synagogues eventually incorporating organs. So, too, with rules for Shabbat, as some maintained the traditional prohibitions on driving and using electricity while others eased them.

But Rabbi Dorff, co-author of the teshuva allowing gay ordination, accepted by the law committee on December 6, says there was more passion in this debate than those about kashrut and Shabbat observance. “I don’t think anyone around the table was homophobic,” Dorff explains. “I don’t think that motivated them at all. It was just this commitment to tradition where my colleagues on the right didn’t see the arguments to overturn it as sufficiently strong.”

Different Approaches, Different Results

Dorff wrote the more permissive teshuva along with Rabbis Nevins and Avram Reisner. They argued that while the Torah explicitly forbids sexual relations between men, bans on other forms of homosexuality are the result of rabbinic (as opposed to biblical) tradition. While the writers argued to maintain the prohibition on intimate sexual relations between men and urge bisexuals toward heterosexual marriage, their paper rules in favor of ordination of gay rabbis and religious commitment ceremonies on the grounds that the previous tradition violated the dignity of gay and lesbian Jews.

Rabbi Joel Roth’s more conservative teshuva, which the committee also approved, argued that the science cited by the Dorff/Nevins/Reisner paper was not sufficient to overturn the centuries- old bans on gay clergy and civil unions. Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at JTS, says he entered his deliberations with a predisposition to allow increased roles for homosexuals but could not find halachic justification for that position. Instead, he agreed with rabbinic tradition that Leviticus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”) prohibits intimate homosexual relations.

“I don’t deny that the classical halachic position causes people pain,” says Roth, who authored a similar argument in the committee’s 1992 debate. “We need to understand that, but that cannot be the basis for how we decide these issues. If we make a change, it has to be as a decision of Jewish law, and this time I don’t think we can do that.”

Roth’s argument stresses that while homosexual Jews are violating halachah, the Conservative movement has many members who violate other halachic rulings and that gays should not be treated differently than those who violate rules concerning prayer or diet. He also argues that Jews can uphold these prohibitions for religious reasons and still oppose secular American civil laws, such as a proposed constitutional amendment, that discriminate against homosexuals.

The third teshuva accepted December 6, written by Rabbi Leonard Levy, agreed with Roth’s position while also arguing that homosexuality is a medical condition that can be cured. Levy’s teshuva passed with six votes, the minimum required for passage, while Roth’s and the Dorff/Nevins/Reisner paper each received half the committee’s support with 13 votes. Two liberal teshuvot, one authored by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and another co-written by Rabbis Myron Geller, Robert Fine and David Fine, would have removed all halachic prohibitions on homosexuals, but did not garner enough votes for passage.

“I think there were two main reasons why our centrist position gained support,” Dorff says. “One is that the science of the etiology of human sexuality has become much more clear. There’s much more evidence that people basically have their sexual orientation from age 6 on, that it’s not a matter of choice, and that we don’t come in these two neat boxes of heterosexuals and homosexuals.

“The other is that far more gays and lesbians have come out of the closet. As a result, it’s no longer just a matter of law; it’s a matter of people who you know and some you love. So I think the fact that many more rabbis around the table knew gays and lesbians was a major difference this time.”

Reform Rabbi Niles Goldstein of The New Shul, a self-described “independent” congregation in New York, says the December decision reflects a changing reality in which Conservative and Reform Judaism are inching closer together. “This decision was very much in line with what’s happening in the Conservative movement in general,” he says. “As the Reform movement has started to move toward traditional observance, concurrent with that, the Conservative movement—and this issue is a case in point—has moved toward a more liberal approach to Jewish thought and vision.”

From the Outside Looking In

According to Sarna, when it comes to the decisions on halachah of the Conservative movement, over time, the more liberal view tends to win out.

“And I expect over time that will happen here as well, but it may take 30 or 40 years,” he says. “What’s important now is this issue should get behind them. The Conservative movement has spent the better part of a generation talking about gender issues. The sooner they can get past that and move forward, the sooner they can spend more energy on ways to bring people into the movement.”

Other commentators, however, see it differently. For years, some have seen issues of gay rights as a looming catastrophe for Conservatives. In his 2000 book “Jew vs. Jew: the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” Columbia University professor Samuel Freedman even predicted that the movement would split over whether to approve same-sex unions.

Four rabbis—including Levy and Roth—did resign from the law committee in the aftermath of its December rulings, protesting the approval of the Dorff/Nevins/Reisner paper. But in the first weeks since the law committee’s ruling, it appears the movement is leaning toward that bigtent approach.

“It’s in some ways as much a political question as a theological one,” says Goldstein of the New Shul. “As in politics, it’s an issue of how do you speak to your base while not alienating others in the movement. So I think this decision will work both ways. Some on the right will feel alienated and may leave, but it will also bring more people into the movement. Not just gays and lesbians, but progressive Jews who were not happy with the previous stance.”

The results of the survey Eisen requested to gauge Conservative attitudes, conducted by Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen, were released January 31. Cohen received 5,583 responses after sending out 18,676 invitations to participate, and those responses show respondents largely open to the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors.

Sixty-five percent of rabbis surveyed supported ordination, with 28 percent opposed, while cantors (67 percent to 27 percent) and lay leaders (68 percent to 22 percent) responded in similar numbers. Among current JTS students, 58 percent of both rabbinical and cantorial students voiced support, as did 70 percent of the school’s other students.

Cohen’s survey found more support for ordination in America than in Canada, Israel or other locations and more support among those younger than 25. Cohen’s survey also found a gender gap in respondents’ attitudes. Sixty percent of men favored ordaining gay rabbis and cantors, but among women that number jumped to 86 percent, with just 10 percent opposed.

“I said when we discussed this issue in 1992, and I believe [it] even more today, that this is largely a generational issue,” the law committee’s Dorff says. “People younger than 40 are more likely to be liberal on this issue because, in general, they’ve been around openly gay people most of their lives.”

And with the movement’s population aging, the younger generation’s perspective is likely to become dominant over time.

“The next few years are going to be a time of major transition,” says Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at JTS. “There’s a general sense that the demographics of the movement are not favorable, and I expect there will continue to be a lot of debate about where the movement is heading.”

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine.

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