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Ban on gay rabbis may be lifted
Yahoo News/AP
September 7, 2006

NEW YORK - A key Conservative Jewish leader is organizing talks nationwide to tell synagogues that the movement will likely roll back its ban on ordaining openly gay rabbis by year's end.

He and two religious law experts joining him at the meetings are trying to help congregations prepare for the confusion and discomfort to follow.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says a committee of scholars who interpret Jewish law for the movement will likely loosen the prohibition when they vote in December.

At the same time, Epstein expects the scholars will endorse a policy aiming to keep more traditional congregations within the fold. Synagogues that believe Jewish law bars same-sex relationships still will be able to hire rabbis who share their view.

The vote by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will test what Conservative leaders call their "big umbrella" — allowing diverse practices within one movement. It will also signal to the wider community how far the Conservative branch will go to reinterpret Jewish law.

"The committee might accept — will accept, I think — two or more" policies, Epstein said at an Aug. 24 meeting of New York Conservative Jewish leaders. "One that actually reaffirms the current position and at least one that will liberalize it."

The effect of the contradictory actions will be that local Jewish communities have more freedom. Conservative seminaries, along with the movement's estimated 750 synagogues and more than 1,000 North American rabbis, will get to decide which policy to follow.

"It could cause confusion, it could cause tremendous angst, it could cause tremendous tension, it could cause tremendous disagreement," Epstein said.

The vote comes as the movement is trying to hold on to a shrinking middle ground between innovation and strict tradition in American Judaism. The Conservative branch follows Jewish law, while allowing limited change for modern circumstances.

It's been a hard road to follow. Many Conservative Jews have joined the more liberal Reform stream, which has recently surpassed the Conservative branch as the largest in America. The Reform movement ordains gays and is more accepting of interfaith couples.

For Conservative Jews seeking more rigorous observance, the Orthodox branch has become a popular choice. The Orthodox strictly adhere to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, prohibiting women and gays from becoming rabbis.

Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading religious scholar and a member of the Conservative Law Committee, questioned whether people with traditional Jewish views on sexuality will stay, even if the panel allows synagogues leeway to accept or reject gay relationships. Roth said he has been "demonized" for saying that he interprets religious law as barring same-gender sex.

"I know the law as it stands causes pain," he said. "But pain is not to be equated with immorality."

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the Law Committee and also a respected scholar, supports ordaining gays, saying "it is simply not natural" to demand that they remain celibate.

"We have to interpret God's will in our time," Dorff said.

Dorff and Roth are traveling with Epstein, with more stops scheduled for Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The trio also spoke last month in Toronto.

The debate focuses on the significance of Leviticus 18:22, which states "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman," and 20:13, which says such an act is punishable by death.

The last major Law Committee vote on gay relationships came in 1992, when the panel decided overwhelmingly to maintain the ban on openly gay rabbis.

In the latest discussion, the 25-member committee is considering legal opinions called "teshuvot," for and against change. A policy needs six votes to be accepted. Although it occurs rarely, more than one opinion can be endorsed, leaving local leaders to decide which to follow. That is the result Epstein expects.

Arnold Eisen, incoming chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship school for Conservative Judaism, personally supports ordaining gays. But he plans to discuss the issue with faculty and students before any admissions rules are changed.

The University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which also trains Conservative rabbis, says only that it will follow whatever policy the committee adopts. However, Dorff is the school's rector and many expect the seminary, if permitted, will admit openly gay students.

The conflict over homosexuality mirrors the battles over the issue in mainline Protestant groups including The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Dozens of individual churches are leaving the Christian denominations because of the disputes.

Roth says many Conservative Jewish synagogues already know their position on the issue, but others will be conflicted after the committee votes.

"The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards," he says, "is debating the future of the entire movement. Nothing less."

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