Conservative Jews OK gays for seminaries

Times Staff Writer

Judaism's much-divided Conservative Movement voted Wednesday to allow seminaries to enroll homosexuals as rabbinical students and to let rabbis perform blessings for same-sex couples, but kept in place a restriction on sexual activity.

Under an unusual voting system that allows for contradictory measures to be adopted, the splintered rabbinical law panel meeting in New York also passed two other measures that would keep the long-standing prohibitions against gay rabbis and commitment rituals.

As a result, seminaries and synagogues in the second-largest branch of Judaism in North America now will have to decide which of the conflicting stances to follow. Unhappy with that, four traditionalist rabbis resigned from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards but said they would remain in the Conservative Movement.

The biggest change came with the committee's passage of a measure co-written by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. His measure approved gay ordination and commitment ceremonies, yet kept an interpretation of Leviticus that forbids male anal sex.

All other forms of noncoercive, monogamous homosexual sex would be permitted under the compromise, written with rabbis Daniel Nevins of Michigan and Avram Reisner of Maryland.

In a phone interview from New York, Dorff said he was happy that his measure got 13 of the panel's 25 votes, even though it needed just six to pass. The change shows that his branch of Judaism can be both traditional and "be open to gays and lesbians in our society," said Dorff, who has a lesbian daughter.

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles is expected to start enrolling openly gay students soon, he said. The other Conservative rabbinical school in North America, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, will review the matter.

Amid what was described as intense debate, opponents of gay ordination blocked more liberal proposals that would have lifted the restriction on anal sex. Nevertheless, a group of students and faculty who support gay inclusion at the New York seminary welcomed the change.

"We are excited about the progress. This is a large step forward but we commit ourselves to working for full equality," said Elizabeth Richman, a heterosexual rabbinical student at the New York seminary.

But the passage of Dorff's measure triggered deep dissension on the rabbinical law committee, whose decisions guide Conservative Judaism.

The branch occupies the theological middle ground between Orthodoxy's strong traditionalism and Reform's liberalism and, with 1.3 million members, has dropped into second place in size behind Reform. The Reform branch and the smaller Reconstructionist Movement allow gay clergy while Orthodoxy forbids homosexual and female rabbis.

Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and author of one of the two approved measures that continue to ban gay rabbis, resigned from the law committee. So did three other members from the New York region.

Roth said the Dorff measure and the two more liberal ones were outside "the reasoning of halachic tradition," referring to Jewish law.

Roth insisted that he would stay within the Conservative Movement and doubted that there would be much defection to Orthodoxy among Conservative synagogue members in the U.S. if gays are ordained. But he said that some potential rabbinical students might decide to bypass Conservative seminaries for Orthodox ones and that he was worried that some Canadian synagogues might consider leaving the movement.

Other leaders of the Conservative branch said synagogues and seminaries would be able to choose their positions on gay issues without vitriol and avoid the splintering that similar debates have caused in some Christian denominations.

Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the law committee, said: "We believe in pluralism. We recognized from the very beginning of this movement that no single position could speak to all members of the community."

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Mark S. Diamond said he expected more area synagogues to allow gay commitment ceremonies but not all, and not without debates.

"We have significant variation in Jewish thought and practice among our rabbis and congregations. And I would expect diversity here, even in Los Angeles," said Diamond, who stressed that he was expressing his own opinion as a Conservative rabbi and not that of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, of which he is executive vice president.


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