Thursday, July 27, 2006

Queer Rabbis

As everyone who follows these matters knows, the Conservative movement and its rabbinical representatives are having a knockdown drag out fight over the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. Now that Chancellor Schorsch has retired, the tide has turned away from the traditionalists and in favor of their opponents.

At first glance homosexual ordination is not a significant civil rights issue. It is not about state recognized marriages or whether homosexual couples should get equal benefits. This does not affect the basic rights or quality of life of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community. At most, it directly affects the lives of maybe 10 people a year, who will not be able to go to the Seminary, and will be forced to apply to the Reform or Reconstructionist divinity schools.

As the issue has been explained to me, it does not depend on the number of gay congregants who want or need a homosexual rabbi. The argument for allowing the LGBT community to be ordained is that not to do so is considered by many to constitute discrimination, and as a result it is considered a civil rights issue. Someone who is only moderately connected to Conservative Judaism, and who is not in need of a homosexual rabbi, may very well feel strongly that to not allow LGBT to be ordained is unacceptable. So the number of homosexuals in the Conservative movement is immaterial. The real question is how many people in the Conservative movement are in favor of equality for homosexuals, and I’d imagine that this is a large number. It’s the sort of situation where the pro gay ordination people might not particularly want or need a gay rabbi, but wouldn’t want to be a part of an organization that would not allow people to be rabbis because of their sexual orientation. Changing the traditional scope of ordination on the part of the Conservative movement is their way of trying to position themselves as pro-human rights, without discrimination against women and homosexuals, unlike the “oppressive” Orthodox movement where discrimination against these minorities is rampant.

I would conjecture, (I have no first hand knowledge) that this brouhaha about homosexuals is really about something else. Those who would allow homosexuals as rabbis want to move the movement closer to Reform and destroy the last vestiges of Orthodoxy and halacha. I guess they are thinking intuitively that they will ultimately lose in a head-on competition with the Orthodox. There is a huge religious revival going on in America and around the world. Conservatives cannot get ahead of such a tsunami. Better to move in the other direction and take a bigger share of the liberal market on the left. Their slogan could very well be: Better Reform Plus than Orthodox Lite

The people who want to push the movement away from halacha may ultimately over the long term prove correct. It is happening in a natural way as the liberal wing of American Jewry continues to assimilate. Most Conservative Jews are not properly observant of halacha. They do not observe the dietary laws or keep the Sabbath in the way it is prescribed in the shulchan aruch (legal codes). At the same time, I would say for a majority, maybe even for a large majority of Conservatives, it is the observance of some halacha that separates them from Reform. Even when observance of halacha is not strict and does not dictate their decisions, it is included and informs their daily life. Some kosher, some shabbat, imperfect observance, ever changing, with wide variations even within a family, but nevertheless revolving around the halachic axis.

Religious denominations like any other consumer product must be positioned and ‘branded’ to compete in the market place. At this point in time, the demographics for the Conservative message are closer to Orthodoxy than Reform. For the movement to agree to use the issue of homosexual Rabbis as a vehicle for quick theological change is self destructive. It would be a boon for the Modern Orthodox, since their ranks will grow. For the Conservatives, allowing for gay and lesbian rabbis will, in my opinion, lead to a further decline in membership, potential schisms and endlessly warring factions. Because Conservative Judaism has this deep vein of tradition running through its ranks, I feel the movement ought to position itself as Orthodox Lite rather than as Reform Plus.

The reality of the political situation is that it’s only a matter of time before the movement will be ordaining openly homosexual rabbis. A world of gay rabbis would add excitement and uncertainty to the otherwise staid world of Conservative congregational life. In fact, it might even usher in an entire new more Chassidish and tsniusdig (modest) dress code for Conservative women. For one thing is clear. We can be guaranteed that the Rebitzen (Rabbi’s wife) will wear a sheytel (wig) when she comes to shul in drag.


At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Rabbi Shael Siegel said...

The Conservative movement has been in a bind for quite some time. While they are strong on scholarship, they lack, I believe commitment to the Halachic system to which they subscribe. While the founding generation and the subsequent one had a profound understanding of the Halachic process I don't believe thats the case with the current generation of Rabbis. About twenty years ago the Union of Traditional Judaism (I believe that is their name) was founded by Right wing Conservative rabbis together with a group of left wing Orthodox Rabbis. Conservative Judaism seems to be obsessed with being politically correct at the expense of the very value system they claim to believe in. It sort of reminds me of the politician who won't make a decision without first reading the polls. This may work in politics, but I think not in a system that is faith based

At 8:08 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I don't know if it is fair to ask an American denomination not to consider how a proposed policy affects membership.We have a congregational system and people vote with their feet. My point is they are wrong how this will play out...they will lose members. There is no way the Conservative movement will be able to spin the theme of halacha and gay clergy. A movement without a coherent ideology will lose members.


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