Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

Breaking news: JTS to accept gay and lesbian students, effective immediately

Below is a letter from JTS Chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen announcing the policy change:

To the JTS Community:
I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish
Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to
our rabbinical and cantorial schools.
This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and
future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen
in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical
School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are
strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long
overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and
age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of
discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter
is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same
is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement.
For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.
Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not
as poskim, or legal adjudicators — that responsibility fell to
the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly
(CJLS) — but as educators charged with setting standards for our
unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about
considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed
First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful
process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully
heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be
thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is
now complete. I will review its elements below.
Second, the announcement of JTS’s decision would lay out our
thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and
complexity of the decision.
Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning
another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement
closer together. To that end, we have launched — and in coming
months will help to lead — a full-scale process of learning and
discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a
reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices.
Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and
how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new
process are outlined below.
For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices
are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this
past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian
students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the
larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in
general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive
to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah,
live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these
imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for
many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.
The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple.
I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am
announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it
to be so.
The Process
As I announced the day I was named Chancellor-elect of JTS nearly a
year ago, the first responsibility for considering ordination of gay
and lesbian students at JTS lay with the CJLS. If the CJLS ruled in a
way that permitted this step, the JTS faculty would take up the
matter. I pledged to take faculty opinion strongly into account if the
time came for the JTS administration to make a decision.
The Conservative Movement has from the outset defined itself as bound
by halakhah. This aspect of our tradition is precious to me, and it
has always been determinative for JTS. It is one of the major ways the
Conservative Movement navigates the complex path of change inside
inherited tradition. Part of being a halakhic movement is debate over
what that means: how halakhah relates to aggadah; how the authority of
the rabbis relates to that of the communities they lead and serve; how
change can be both adequate and authentic. But even as debate on these
and other issues has proceeded, Conservative rabbis acting through the
CJLS have for more than half a century considered how best to
interpret and apply halakhah in particular circumstances. Their
rulings have been all the more important, and more contentious, when
circumstances were new and challenging. The decision concerning
ordination of women was a case in point. So, too, is the question of
gay and lesbian ordination. The CJLS first took up the question about
fifteen years ago, debated it again over the past several years, and
voted on it at its meeting this past December.
The Law Committee issued a split decision on December 6, 2006, a
result in keeping with its commitment to halakhic pluralism. The
teshuvah by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner permitting ordination of
gays and lesbians received the same number of votes as the one by
Rabbi Roth that prohibited it. This paved the way for the discussion
at JTS to go forward, and the matter passed to the hands of the
Even before the December CJLS vote, JTS had initiated forums at which
students could make their opinions known to one another as well as to
the faculty and administration. These student forums continued after
the Law Committee’s vote. JTS administration and faculty
explained to students what the CJLS had ruled and discussed with them
what possibilities lay ahead for the future of the institution.
Administrative committees also began meeting before December 6. These
committees convened with increasing frequency in the weeks following
the CJLS decision. Their discussions are ongoing.
The Board of Trustees, at its meeting on December 7, discussed at
length the process and its potential outcomes. The members of the
board also aired questions and shared concerns and advice about the
question at previous and subsequent meetings.
Immediately following the Law Committee decision, JTS, along with the
Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,
commissioned an international survey of the opinions held by
Conservative rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders regarding the
ordination question. We also polled the student groups most affected
by the decision: those at JTS. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen undertook
construction and analysis of the survey for us pro bono. We were
unable due to constraints of time and budget to include rank-and-file
members of Conservative congregations. Nor did we reach every single
movement leader. However, many who were not polled directly did fill
out and submit the survey that was posted on the JTS website. I have
personally heard from hundreds of Conservative Jews on the matter
during my travels around the country this year and through
correspondence, email, and the JTS website.
The survey findings showed consistent majorities of roughly two-thirds
or more in favor of ordination. Rabbis and cantors endorsed the move
by almost exactly that majority. Conservative educators, executive
directors, and other professionals were in favor 76% to 16% (with
others undecided). Lay leaders voted for it 69% to 22%. JTS rabbinical
students did so by a much slimmer majority (58% to 32%), as did the
cantorial students (58% to 21%). Clergy in Israel were split down the
middle. Respondents in Canada were overwhelmingly against ordination.
We undertook this survey as one factor among many informing our
decision, not in order to have it dictate policy. The choice to ordain
— or not to ordain– gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis and
cantors at JTS will, as I have noted, have immediate and significant
consequences for the Conservative Movement. We wanted to learn how the
leadership of the movement, lay and professional, felt about the
matter. For the same reason, I spoke at great length in January with
the heads of the other Conservative/Masorti seminaries. I reported on
these conversations, as well as on the Cohen survey, to both the
faculty and the Board of Trustees.
The Faculty Executive Committee, at my request, accepted the task of
designing a process by which members of the Faculty Assembly could
inform themselves and give their opinions on the matter. Each person
weighed the factors involved — including halakhah — as he
or she saw fit. The faculty’s input would contribute
significantly in JTS’s decision, I told them, but their opinions
would not be binding. I myself took no position in the faculty debate.
The Executive Committee, working with these guidelines, set up a
series of faculty meetings. JTS administration assisted the process by
arranging for two seminars led by distinguished guest lecturers on (1)
recent developments in psychiatry and in its attitude toward
homosexuality, and (2) philosophy of Jewish law. Several faculty
meetings were devoted entirely to discussing and debating the matter.
The voting members of the Faculty Assembly filled out private ballots
and gave them to the Faculty Executive Committee, which then passed
them on to me. The faculty asked, since their vote was not binding,
that I report their response but keep exact numbers confidential. I
subsequently reported the result of this ballot to the Faculty
Assembly and to the Board of Trustees.
An overwhelming majority of those eligible to participate did so. A
substantial majority of these favored the admission of gay and lesbian
students to the rabbinical and cantorial schools. Quite a few, in
keeping with my request, included detailed accounts of their
reasoning. I will draw on these letters below.
At no stage did we at JTS take up the question of gay and lesbian
commitment ceremonies or marriages. That matter is entirely outside
our purview; decision on it rests with the Law Committee and with
individual rabbis and congregations. Our concern was ordination alone.
The final stage in the process of reaching our decision rested with
the JTS administration. We wrapped up our discussions earlier this
month. Ultimate responsibility for the decision rested with me. I turn
now to the reasoning behind it.
The Decision
Many participants in this process — whether rabbis on the Law
Committee, faculty and students at JTS, members of the Board of
Trustees, or leaders of the Conservative Movement — have
experienced and explained it as a tug of war between two goods:
fidelity to Jewish law and tradition and our sense of conscience as
contemporary American Jews. How does one remain true to the dictates
of tradition and yet adapt that tradition in ways compatible with
changing realities and convictions? Both imperatives compel us. Both
are precious to us. Several faculty members explained in their letters
to me that they felt this tug in opposite directions acutely. We in
the JTS administration have certainly felt this way. The search for
balance is what has made the decision difficult. It is also what has
made the discussion rich and, by and large, respectful.
It has not been a matter of how “we” the community of
Conservative Jews should treat “them” — gays and
lesbians. The latter are highly valued and respected members of our
Conservative communities. Those opposed to the change, as much as
those in favor of it, have taken pains to assert that this is the
That is why, even while denying gays and lesbians the right to
ordination and commitment ceremonies in 1992 on the basis of its
reading of Jewish law, the CJLS affirmed — likewise on the basis
of Jewish law — that “gays and lesbians are welcome in our
congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools.”
Those opposing ordination have done so, almost without exception, for
one reason only: they believe that Jewish law forbids it. Modifying
established law on this score, they maintain, would weaken or destroy
the halakhic character of Conservative Judaism. Some are convinced,
moreover, that a modification of this sort would open the way for
other, even more radical changes. But still others are equally
convinced of the opposite: that failure to make this change would
declare the incompatibility of Jewish law and tradition with Jewish
life today, discourage young people from joining the movement, and
therefore negatively impact Conservative Judaism. As Conservative
Jews, we all sought the middle ground between the demands of tradition
and the demands of life that has long distinguished our movement.
We at JTS, as I said earlier, were not called upon to make a legal
decision. Our task was to weigh all relevant factors and decide what
the right thing was for JTS and for the movement we serve. I, like
most of my colleagues, was uncomfortable with the notion of choosing
between two teshuvot that had been adopted as legitimate by the Law
Committee using time-tested procedures. To reject the propriety of the
CJLS process in this matter would call into question, after the fact,
the mechanism by which law has been decided in the movement —
and has governed JTS policy — for decades. Nevertheless,
halakhah had to be a major factor in our thinking. We are an
institution committed to the teaching and practice of Torah. In order
to decide in favor of ordination, the rabbinic decision allowing for
it had to be credible or persuasive in our eyes. Let me explain my own
thinking on these matters.
I begin by directly confronting the two major obstacles standing in
the way of a credible stance allowing for gay and lesbian ordination.
The first is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22. “Do not lie with a
male as one lies with a woman; it is abomination
(to’eva).” Is the text not crystal clear? Is it not
God’s word? Why, then, were learned rabbis (and the rest of us)
even debating the acceptability of homosexuality? The question has
been posed to me many times. It cannot be avoided by any Jew who takes
the Torah seriously. No matter how complicated our relationship to the
Torah, how much we move away from obedience to its rules, or whatever
our views on the divine or human nature of its authorship — one
cannot cavalierly dismiss Leviticus and then claim faithfulness to the
larger tradition of Torah of which the Five Books of Moses are the
core. Integrity and authenticity require more than this.
Moreover, if one claims to be a halakhic Jew, the Oral Torah (as we
call Jewish law and teaching over the centuries) also weighs in with
serious objection to ordaining gays and lesbians. There is precious
little legal precedent that can be invoked in favor of such ordination
in the entire 2,000-year history of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. One
finds instead either reaffirmation of previous opinion or utter
silence on the matter — though there are legal opinions urging
welcome of and compassion toward homosexuals. To Conservative Jews,
the weight of Rabbinic opinion is no less decisive than the words of
the Torah, and it is arguably more so. As Solomon Schechter explained
a century ago, “It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of
first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in
history, in other words, as it is interpreted by tradition.”
That is why the fact of Leviticus 18:22 in and of itself did not free
the CJLS or any other Conservative Jew from the need to debate the
matter of gay and lesbian ordination.
Our sages found ways two millennia ago to limit the applicability of
biblical statutes, one famous example being Deuteronomy’s
injunction to put the rebellious son to death. The Rabbis effectively
rendered that injunction unenforceable. They have defined and limited
the applicability of numerous other biblical ordinances, including
some set forth in Leviticus. I am among the faculty members (including
many rabbis and experts in Talmud) who are persuaded by the argument
that established procedures of halakhah allow for and mandate revision
of the legal limitations placed upon homosexual activity; or perhaps
one should say that these procedures allow for and mandate expansion
of the welcome and acceptance accorded homosexuals under previous Law
Committee rulings.
We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be
modified, in accord with our society’s changed knowledge about
and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far
different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law
and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat
every human being with full respect as a creature in God’s image urge
us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and
behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is
permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition
charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.
For we are Conservative Jews. The question facing us now, as always,
is what the tradition as a whole commands us to do. Members of our
community disagree about the correct answer to that question and about
the proper method of answering it but not, I think, about the nature
or urgency of the question itself. As Conservative Jews, we know that
halakhah has a history. The fact of its development and change over
time, partly in response to altered circumstances, ways of thinking,
and moral convictions, was proclaimed by Zacharias Frankel at the very
outset of the movement. It is a given in scholarship on Jewish law as
well. The CJLS debate and the discussion in its wake follow from these
principles of Conservative Judaism.
The debate over ordination of gay and lesbian students has served to
highlight the need for serious discussion and resolution of these key
issues of principle concerning what halakhah means for Conservative
Jews. Such disagreements are particularly vexing to Conservative
Jewish laypeople frustrated at the movement’s inability to
decide this and other matters quickly and unequivocally. Others,
myself included, while no less impatient at times, actually take pride
in the fact that our movement struggles over issues such as these. We
do so as the heirs to Frankel’s founding declaration of our
purpose: “the reconciliation of belief and life, the assurance
of progress within our faith, and the refining and regeneration of
Judaism from and through itself.” Both sides of the current
debate have acted in accord with Frankel’s call for
“maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with
progress.” This remains, as he wrote in 1844, “the
essential problem of the present.” We cannot, any more than he
could, “deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution.”
But we must find a solution.
I believe, with the great majority of my colleagues on the JTS
faculty, that the Law Committee, by voting in equal numbers for the
two teshuvot, provided halakhic authorization for the ordination of
openly gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students. That
permission having been given, I believe that the nature of our
communities in contemporary America, and the moral convictions we
hold, argue strongly for accepting gay and lesbian students for
ordination. So does the fundamental mission of JTS. I have in my head,
as I make this decision, the faces of numerous gay and lesbian
students, colleagues and friends who I know would make fine rabbis and
cantors. Their moral character is unimpeachable, their leadership
ability remarkable. I am confident that they would serve as excellent
role models and guides for their communities. We have the
responsibility to train qualified gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors
as best we can so they can serve the Conservative Movement.
Moreover, the decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy at JTS is in
keeping with the longstanding commitment of the Jewish tradition to
pluralism. That commitment has been all the more central to
Conservative Judaism. Pluralism means we recognize more than one way
to be a good Conservative Jew — more than one way of walking
authentically in the path of our tradition and of carrying that
tradition forward. It means, too, that we respect those who disagree
with us and understand that, in the context of all that unites us,
diversity makes us stronger.
I take heart from the fact that, despite continuing disagreement over
other contentious issues in some quarters, JTS and the Conservative
Movement are much stronger because of changes that have occurred over
the years. Neither the institution nor the movement has splintered,
despite predictions to the contrary. I do not believe that we will
splinter now, particularly if we take the proactive steps that I will
outline below. Nor do I fear the “slippery slope,” used by
some as an argument against the change we are adopting. Every choice
brings unintended consequences in its wake. We never have control over
what those who come after us will do with the legacy we have left
them. We do all we can to set course in the proper direction. I trust
my successors to act responsibly with the legacy I pass on to them,
just as we have carefully weighed the relevant precedents, reasons,
and implications before taking the step we are announcing here. We owe
this precedent to our successors, this bridge to the reality in which
they will be called upon, as we are, to build and strengthen
communities of Torah. I am confident that, if they are educated in the
principles that have long guided this movement and if they experience
the special pleasures and obligations that come with membership in it,
they too will make decisions in a manner that takes Conservative
Judaism forward and helps its communities, and the Jewish people as a
whole, to grow.
In sum: The CJLS has authorized the ordination of gay and lesbian Jews
as rabbis and cantors. A solid majority of Conservative clergy and lay
leaders supports it. The JTS faculty likewise strongly favors it. I am
convinced this decision to ordain is right — right not just on
the basis of my experience as a North American who came of age in the
latter part of the twentieth century, or as a Jew who seeks above all
to remain true to the tradition we call Torah, but as an American Jew
seeking wholeness and integrity in the combination of these to the
fullest possible extent. That, I believe, is what Conservative Judaism
is all about.
The Next Steps
Frankel was clear about the difficulty of this path. “Where is
the point where the two apparent contraries should meet?” But he
advocated that path nonetheless, as did Solomon Schechter two
generations later. I am humbled by the long line of leaders and
teachers, wiser and more learned than I, who have found the
difficulties of charting this path formidable. But I am also
encouraged by the fact that Schechter’s resolution of the matter
was not Frankel’s, and that Louis Finkelstein’s, too,
differed from theirs in accordance with the unprecedented challenges
that JTS faced in his day. The eminent historian Chancellor Gerson
Cohen urged Conservative rabbis in 1972 to shape the movement in a way
that was clearly and authentically Jewish but that would “also
reflect our own formulation of Judaism, a formulation that will
respond to our situation, our needs as Jews in America.” That
need is once again clear and urgent. How shall we undertake to meet
The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set
of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to
engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and
why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations
with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a
keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word
by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should
perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should
cherish. They feel responsible for all these, commanded to do them,
drawn to the discipline of which they are a part, privileged to
perform them. They take on these tasks, in many cases, not only out of
obligation but out of love.
It is my hope and belief that getting Conservative Jews to talk about
these matters will be a step toward greater commitment and consensus.
Our communities will be strengthened by the very act of discussing our
“obligations of the heart” honestly and face to face. We
will come to realize in doing so how much unites us as Conservative
Jews. The sense of what binds us together will grow still more if we
can arrive at consensus about the norms of belief and behavior that
should guide us. I believe we can.
JTS has already taken on the responsibility for leading this
discussion. Working with the Chancellor’s Rabbinic Cabinet and
with the RA and the United Synagogue, we have set in motion a process
that we hope will eventually include every arm of the movement as well
as professional and lay leaders. Our faculty and students will be
actively involved. Stage Two of that process — logically and
pedagogically dependent on the first — will be reclarification
of the place of halakhah in the movement: the nature, authority, and
scope of Jewish law in relation to other sources of authority and
guidance. We will embark on that stage in the upcoming two years.
Concurrently, we must and will reaffirm the legitimate place in our
movement — and at JTS — of all who take part in this
debate. Discussion of how and why we feel commanded, and to what,
should reinforce the commitment to pluralism on all such points far
more effectively than preachments by me or anyone else could ever do.
That discussion, face to face and heart to heart, will serve to remind
us all how precious it is to be engaged in the ongoing conversation
that defines us as members of the JTS community and as Conservative
Finally, because our ultimate goal at JTS is to serve Torah and the
Jewish people, we will establish and maintain regular contact on the
issues dividing us with Conservative clergy and lay leaders elsewhere
in the world. JTS will intensify contact with the Ziegler School of
Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in California, the
Schechter Institute in Israel, and the Seminario Rab�nico
Latinoamericano in Argentina and encourage an increased number of
joint missions of lay leaders and more exchanges among the faculty and
students at these institutions. We will also take special steps to
strengthen the relationship between Canadian and American Conservative
Jews. All these actions would have been undertaken to some degree by
JTS in any case. They form part of our basic mission as an
institution. The decision we have just reached renders them urgent. We
will respond appropriately in the coming weeks and months.
In closing, I want to thank the many individuals who took the trouble
to write to or meet with me, and in particular those who carefully and
honestly explained why they were opposed to the move we have now
taken. I hope that all will now join me in focusing on the great deal
of work ahead of us. As always, I invite your comments, concerns, and
Thank you.

6 thoughts on “Breaking news: JTS to accept gay and lesbian students, effective immediately

    Contact: Ira Stup, organizer of JTS Students for Change
    Phone: 215-704-5537
    Email: [email protected]
    New York, NY (March 26, 2007) – JTS Students for Change is gratified to see another step within the Conservative Movement towards the full and unequivocal inclusion of LGBT people into Conservative Jewish life.
    It is our hope as members of this community that the Seminary’s decision will begin a larger process of healing and inclusion in which LGBT people can finally begin to feel truly welcomed and embraced by their religious movement. We commend JTS and Chancellor-Elect Eisen for taking a step forward in this process. Their decision sends a message of hope to all marginalized Jews that the Conservative community’s understanding of Jewish values can be used to heal and not hurt it’s most vulnerable constituents.
    However, our joy does not overshadow what necessarily has to be cautious optimism. This decision is only the beginning of what must be a much larger process of change. The culture and atmosphere at JTS is still incredibly hostile to LGBT students. Almost no support systems are in place for students questioning their sexuality and LGBT students endure almost daily debates on their religious legitimacy within the Conservative Movement. Heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships are modeled as ideal and superior in JTS classrooms and residence halls.
    Furthermore, in contrast to public announcements stating otherwise, JTS made almost no effort to engage the undergraduate student body in the discussion of accepting qualified openly gay rabbinical and cantorial students. Chancellor-Elect Eisen’s letter to the larger community is unfortunately misguided in its assertion that “Even before the December CJLS vote, JTS had initiated forums at which students could make their opinions known…to the faculty and administration.” JTS Students for Change was created precisely because of this lack of engagement.
    JTS Students for Change looks optimistically to the future. The Conservative Movement and JTS have finally initiated a path which can lead to a stronger, more unified, and most importantly more inclusive and just Jewish community. With this is mind, we continue our struggle for a Conservative Jewish Movement which embraces and nurtures all of its members equally.
    JTS Students for Change was recently formed by a coalition of undergraduates at JTS, in order to give students an effective and productive method of advocating for change surrounding issues of LGBT inclusion and ordination. The group hopes to help create a more diverse, open, and welcoming community at JTS for all Jews, in all spheres of student life.

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