Conservative Judaism may be about to reopen discussion of the denomination's ban on blessing same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals -- a move that could be controversial within the centrist branch of American Judaism.
Judy Yudof, lay president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for the nation's roughly 800 Conservative congregations, plans to ask a panel of 25 rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, to examine whether the movement's current condemnation of gay sex should be maintained.
Conservative Judaism bars people who are openly gay from rabbinical schools, but doesn't investigate the sexual orientation of students -- a compromise policy adopted in 1992 after an intense debate. The policy also urges congregations, youth groups, summer camps and schools to welcome gays.
Yudof said she is not advocating a particular outcome, and she declined to discuss her views on the issue.
She said she is simply seeking answers for Conservative Jews. About a million U.S. Jews call themselves Conservative, making the movement the second-largest branch of American Judaism.
The slightly larger and more liberal Reform movement ordains homosexuals and blesses same-sex couples. Orthodox Judaism, which has the smallest number of U.S. adherents among the three branches, does not.
A key figure in any future debate over policy toward gays is likely to be Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and vice chairman of the Committee on Law and Standards.
Dorff, an advocate of same-sex unions and ordaining gays, said the existing ban has been applied unevenly, with some gay rabbis allowed to serve and others essentially forced out.
"Over the last 10 years, we agreed to disagree in the movement," Dorff said. "But more people now know people and love people who are members of their families and good friends who are gay and lesbian. It's much harder to hate or disdain people you know and love."
Dorff's daughter is a lesbian, but he said he decided to support ordination of gays before she told him of her sexual orientation.
The chairman of the Law and Standards Committee has the authority to decide whether to take up the issue. The current chairman, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, who wants to maintain the ban, plans to step down in April. He could be succeeded by Dorff.
Any change in the policy could create serious strains within the movement. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch -- chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school in New York -- has warned that ordaining gays would be a major break from Jewish law and would split the movement.
It could also move the Conservative branch closer to Reform Judaism and worsen relations with the Orthodox.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, also believes the current policy should stand.
"People who are from within the gay community themselves are treated just fine," Meyers said. "There is no discrimination."
Yudof, however, defends the idea of considering the issue. "I know it's a bold step on my part, but I didn't mean it to be divisive," she said. "I don't think we should ever be afraid of the truth."