Panel faces tough debate on gay Jews

Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Elliot Dorff concedes that his opinions about ordaining gays and restricting some sexual activity are likely to upset both traditionalists and liberals in Judaism’s Conservative movement.

In a much-anticipated event, an international rabbinical council is scheduled next week to debate and vote on possibly dropping the unevenly enforced bans against gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Bel-Air and a well-known bioethicist, is one of the lead authors of a position paper that would end the bans. But, keeping some tradition of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible, his proposal would prohibit anal sex between men. Other forms of consensual, monogamous sex would be permitted.


Jewish leaders predict this could be a watershed moment for Conservative Judaism, which occupies the theological middle ground between Orthodoxy’s strong traditionalism and Reform’s liberalism.

It also is another example of Christian and Jewish denominations struggling to be more welcoming of gays while abiding by what some view as scriptural injunctions against homosexuality.

“It is a compromise, no question,” Dorff, 63, said recently at his Beverly Hills home. It seeks “to maintain the continuity of the law to the extent that we can, while at the same time getting rid of the harm it causes.”

He cited the pain gays feel at not being fully included in Jewish life and the loss of Conservative movement members, both gay and straight, who don’t agree with current policies.

More traditionalist Conservative Jews contend that ordaining gays would violate what they see as the denunciation of homosexuality in Leviticus: “Do not lie with a man as one would lie with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Conversely, some rabbis are seeking to lift the bans, with no sexual restrictions, as the Reform movement did in 1990.


Dorff’s compromise, as he predicted, is being criticized from both other sides as logically incoherent and possibly open to mockery as bedroom policing.

Still, observers say, the stance by Dorff and his two co-authors may well pass when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which is part of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and guides general policies, convenes Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. But because only six of the panel’s 25 votes are needed to approve a position paper, or teshuvah -- from the Hebrew for “answer” -- it is likely that a contradictory policy will be adopted as well. Such a split result would allow rabbis and seminaries to choose which course to follow.

The authors of Jewish law are always affected by societal changes, said Dorff, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.

Dorff said he came to know many gay men in the 1980s during pastoral work with AIDS patients. His thinking also was influenced by research showing that people are born homosexual, as demonstrated, he said, by one of his four children, a lesbian who has had a child by artificial insemination.

A restriction on gay anal sex, he said, is similar to rules against heterosexual intercourse during menstruation. But requiring celibacy would be, he said, cruel and “very un-Jewish.”

Whatever the vote’s outcome, some Conservative Jews fear it could trigger further erosion in their U.S. ranks of about 1.3 million. Conservative Judaism used to be the largest wing of American Jewry but now represents about 33% of Jewish households, compared to 39% for Reform, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey.


Some Canadian synagogues have talked of leaving the Conservative movement if the bans are lifted, echoing the splintering in the Episcopal Church over the 2003 consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.

“Am I worried? You bet,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, one of two Conservative seminaries in North America. (The other is Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles’ University of Judaism.)

Roth, author of a motion that upholds the ban on gay clergy, said the decision would define whether Conservatives remain halachic, meaning based on Jewish law. “And I don’t think there is anything more important than that,” he said.

In Roth’s view, Jewish law forbids all homosexual sex. “It is as unacceptable to ordain people who thought you could eat cheeseburgers,” he said, referring to kosher rules against mixing meat and dairy. Homosexuals should be welcomed at temples, but a moral God can demand their celibacy, he said.

But others discount any talk of mass defections; they say similar warnings were unfulfilled when Conservative Jews began to ordain women in 1983.

Some leaders say Dorff’s proposal does not go far enough.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, described Dorff as “one of the giants of Jewish scholarship in our movement and a mensch of the first order.” But Diamond supports gay ordination without the restriction on sexual activity and said he feared that Dorff’s compromise would confuse people. (Diamond said he was expressing his own opinion and not that of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, of which he is executive vice president.)


Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents about 800 congregations in the U.S. and Canada, said there was a “strong chance” that contradictory measures on gays would pass.

Such an outcome would be all right with Dorff, whose co-authors were rabbis Daniel Nevins of Michigan and Avram Reisner of Maryland. “I do think it’s wrong to pretend we’re united where we are not,” Dorff said. “And you know what? We will get along fine as a movement.”

The emotions around the issues were evident last week when the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government there to register same-sex marriages performed abroad. The decision was denounced as a moral outrage by Orthodox leaders but praised by advocates of civil marriages in Israel, where only religious ceremonies are allowed.

American Christian churches are grappling with similar questions about the role of gays in religious life.

Earlier this month, the American Catholic bishops said again that non-celibate homosexuals should not receive Communion, but they encouraged the baptism of children of same-sex couples. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the nation’s second-largest association of Baptists, the same week voted to cut ties with “gay-friendly” churches.

In June, after decades of contention, the Presbyterian Church USA moved to allow local governing bodies to decide whether to ordain homosexuals. Last year, the United Methodist Church removed a Pennsylvania woman from the ministry for being a lesbian.


Much of American Judaism operates with looser governance. In 1992, the Conservative Jewish panel voted against gay commitment ceremonies and ordaining gays but said they were welcome in synagogues and schools. Some Conservative synagogues still hire gay rabbis and some allow the commitment rituals.

The Ziegler School has rejected openly gay applicants but Dorff, its former dean, says he knows students who remained under a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If the rabbinical panel gives the go-ahead, the Los Angeles school will enroll openly gay students, he said.