Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

Celebrating a Year

One year ago today, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) began its final deliberations on whether or not to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. On December 6 the CJLS approved three teshuvot (rabbinic responsa): the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner teshuvah (which passed by a majority of 13 votes and permitted gay ordination), the Roth teshuvah (which also passed by a majority of 13 votes and prohibited ordination), and the Levy teshuvah (which was passed by 6 votes and was not only anti-ordination in its underlying attitude but was also considered offensive by many for its references– among other things– to the potential of reparative therapy.) Several months later, then JTS Chancellor-elect Arnie Eisen declared that the JTS rabbinical and cantorial schools would now accept openly gay and lesbian rabbis.
In reflecting back on the turmoil of that time, I came across a statement made by Rabbi Joel Roth during discussions on the first day of the CJLS meeting. I had forgotten all about it, but it’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that a pro-ordination teshuvah actually received a majority of votes. Did he truly mean what he said? Was it just a political strategy to get the papers off the table? How would he react now to his words? To wit:
Rabbi Roth began by (in his own words) “begging” the law committee to move the discussion out of the realm of whether or not the papers under consideration were takanot. He claimed that there was a different consideration that was “more important to me.” Numbers of votes, he said, were what mattered. “Takanot or not, what matters is whether the decisions have enough support to validate them in any but the most formalistic of ways… To [change halachah] on the basis of so small a number of votes would do a disservice to the halakhic process, the decisions themselves, the institutions, and the Conservative Movement.” Rabbi Roth acknowledged that change was coming eventually anyway, but said “It won’t help the view of the permissive papers to be validated by so few votes…. Their legitimacy will be impugned by the paucity of the number of those who vote in favor.” Rabbi Roth consequently made several appeals to the authors of the “permissive papers” (“I plead, implore, beseech the authors…”) to withdraw their papers if they believed that– as he strongly suggested they would– they would receive a very small minority of votes.
Of course Rabbi Joel Roth cares deeply about the halachic issues as he sees them and participated in the arguments on technical/halachic grounds as well. But I still find his emphasis and his words (which were written down with general permission at the CJLS meeting) intensely surprising. It also goes without saying that I’m thrilled he was wrong.

19 thoughts on “Celebrating a Year

  1. I ask this question with all sincerity. Does anyone know of any males couples who have had commitment ceremonies performed by Conservative Rabbis or students that have come to JTS or the Ziegler Rabbincal school who are public with agreeing to the sexual prohibitions – primarily no anal sex that are outlined in the Nevins-Dorff-Mackler teshuva within the past year? I think I remember reading that the Rabbinical schools will use a dont ask dont tell policy when interviewing students. So students in the interviewing process can still get away with making any public declarations. But I have to think if there are some gay males who sincerely will abide by the teshuva they will make it known to the public. And of course according to the teshuvah, male-male commitment ceremonies should only take place within the Conservative movement if the couple agrees to no anal sex. But to date I haven’t read or heard of any male couple who agrees to the teshuva. And if this is really the case then as nice as people want to make this teshuva out to be, why should anyone think this teshuva has any teeth?

  2. The Conservative movement should enforce the Torah prohibition on mishkav zachar (male-male anal intercourse) with exactly the same seriousness, zeal, and procedures with which it enforces the Torah prohibition on baei niddah (male-female intercourse during the woman’s menstrual period).

  3. I think Kishkeman’s assertaion that “gay males who sincerely will abide by the teshuva … will make it known to the public” is flawed. I suspect that gay males who sincerely will abide by the teshuva also understand the value of modesty, and bragging about what one does or does not do in bed does not seem to be a value the Movement wants to promote in its leadership.

  4. Perhaps I should rephrase my question a bit. Does anyone know of any male-male commitment ceremonies that have happened in the past year that were officiated by a Conservative Rabbi who agrees to follow the Nevins teshuva? Because then by defacto the couple is at least giving the impression in front of God and the community that they will refrain from having anal sex. I haven’t heard or read of a Conservative Rabbi who has done such a ceremony yet. And if there is an out male gay Conservative Rabbi now then by simply being out they are also giving the impression that they are refraining from having anal sex too. And if they are out about having anal sex shouldn’t they be disbarred from the RA? So does anyone know any of these people. I have yet to meet any. Have you?

  5. My (Conservative) rabbi has been known to turn on microphones and speakers on Shabbat, and a cantor I know has been known to ring doorbells on Shabbat. Should they be disbarred from the RA too?

  6. >>“The Conservative movement should enforce the Torah prohibition on mishkav zachar (male-male anal intercourse) with exactly the same seriousness, zeal, and procedures with which it enforces the Torah prohibition on baei niddah (male-female intercourse during the woman’s menstrual period).”
    It’s not quite a fair comparison. People engaging in intercourse during a woman’s niddah time haven’t established a movement publicizing their activities and demanding its public and halachic acceptance.

  7. Eric, are you serious? Couples who violate baei niddah, or who are suspected of doing so, aren’t discriminated against for just walking around and living their lives, and therefore, their public acceptance is a non-issue.

  8. Desh…that’s kind of my entire point! Couples who violate the halachot of niddah don’t talk about it, don’t announce to the world what they’re doing in private and don’t insist on social and halachic acceptance of their activity. They do what they do in private and nobody on the outside is the wiser.
    It’s obviously very different than having a very public religious / political / social movement that demands a big shift in attitude, law and practice. That’s why I’m saying that attempting to draw linkages between the two cases, niddah vs. homosexuality, doesn’t really work.

  9. Actually Eric, the place where the comparison breaks down is that heterosexual couples don’t get crap for the very fact that they are attracted to the people they are attracted too.
    That kind of crap would prompt a very public religious/ political/ social movement demanding change, wouldn’t it?
    And none of my queer friends have ever announced to the world what kinds of sex they engage in. For that matter, neither do my straight friends. And I like it like that.

  10. Are we talking about the Dorff teshuvah or not? It seems like its nuance is lost on some of the commenters here.
    Let’s be clear:
    Acceptance of same-sex romantic relationships DOES NOT equal promotion of male-male anal intercourse.
    Lesbians have nothing to do with it, and gay men have plenty of other ways to make love.
    I think some of you have buttsex on the brain.
    Go back, learn the Dorff teshuvah again, and then return to this conversation.

  11. Teshuvah’s
    what chutzpah.
    Reb Shlomo Kluger wrote teshuva’s. People that were gaonim and tzaddikim wrote teshuva’s
    These people should call there writings by that name.
    Please have some historical sensitivity.

  12. Actually, I’m wondering if Roth will move that the horrendous Levy tshuva be stricken from the record, given it’s measly 6 votes.
    And Eric, I’m sure if gay Jews could live their lives in peace and not be told that they’re evil and need to go to therapy by the law committee, there wouldn’t need to be a very public religious/ political/ social movement.

  13. Genereally speaking, claiming that gay people shouldn’t have a public movement is code for gay people shouldn’t be publicly gay, which really means we shouldn’t be allowed to do things like hold hands, mention our partners, etc, never mind share health insurance, inheritance rights, etc.
    Simply living out our lives is offensive to people, and that’s why it had to become a movement.

  14. RU Serious: The CJLS calls their papers tshuvot. Why shouldn’t we use those same terms? Just because you may not agree with the content, or even the manner in which the conclusions are drawn, does not mean they’re not tshuvot.

  15. dlevy –
    True dat. I heard a good quote once: “How come, when straight people hold hands, it’s taken as a statement of their love, but when gay people hold hands, it’s taken as a statement about what they do in bed?”

  16. I do have butt sex on my brain and certainly the Nevins-Dorff-Reisner teshuva was thinking and contained a lot of comments on butt sex too. As the teshuva states, “It is not possible to set aside the explicit biblical prohibition on anal sex that is stated twice in Leviticus and frequently reaffirmed by the Rabbis.As we have shown,the kvod habriot principle supersedes rabbinic, not biblical law. Of course, there is a theoretical way to overturn biblical law via the legislative mechanism of takkanah (decree). We do not find this mechanism to be appropriate in our case, because takkanah requires the consent of the majority of the population, and this subject remains quite controversial in the observant Jewish community.”
    So apparently people like Rooftopper Rav and others that are “Celebrating a Year” are doing so by finding happiness in a teshuvah that states that a major way male couples can have sex is still prohibited in Conservative Judaism.
    When Roth wrote his teshuvah that JTS accepted as there reason to allow women in the rabbinate, it seems that at least for the first few years after that teshuva was adopted that women who would enter the JTS rabbinical school would be making a public declaration simply by asking for admission that they would obligate themselves to daven 3 times a day and would also obligate themselves to take on other time bound mitzvot. I think over time JTS has dropped this automatic demand that women entering rabbinical school automatically take on that Roth teshuva’s demand that women keep all those time bound mitzvot. Only that these women will work on keeping time bound mitzvot eventually.
    With that said, it appears to me that at least right now, while this Nevins-Dorff-Reisner teshuvah is fresh in everyone’s mind, a male couple looking for a Conservative Rabbi to perform a commitment ceremony would be making a statement that they will not be involved in anal sex simply by asking the Conservative Rabbi to commit them to each other. And an out gay male rabbi will also by defacto now be saying that he would not engage in anal sex either.
    It seems that the pro gay rights people who are celebrating a year of gays being accepted in Conservative Jewish rabbinical schools and also celebrating more Conservative Rabbis performing male-male commitment ceremonies based on the N-D-R teshuva are doing so knowing that at least for now that those who allow this, would be doing so with having in mind that its still a sin for male-male couples to have butt sex. Perhaps like the way the Rabbinical school has stopped having in mind that women will automatically take on all mitzvot simply by showing up to school, the gate keepers of Gay rights in the Conservative movement will also overlook the ban on male-male butt sex too. To me that still looks like that will take some time.

  17. “What? What? In the Butt! What? What? In the Butt!”
    My previous comment about mishkav-zachar-obsession wasn’t really addressed to you, K-Man. It seems like you have a tight handle on the issue and DNR’s halachic analysis, as well as its social & policy implications for the Conserv. movement.
    It was addressed to other folks, who can’t seem to follow the logic that “Gay Rights is not the same thing as promoting male-male anal intercourse”, or that “If there’s only one Issur Deoraita, the CJLS believes it can strike down everything else keeping gays and lesbians from leading full halachic lives, if there’s a good reason”, or that “From the Conserv movement’s halachic perspective, full-on anal intercourse is the only prohibition left, meaning that gay male relationships are comparable to straight relationships in halacha: legal but with rules.” etc.
    I did think it was a little weird that it seemed you were asking the olam to fess up whether any of us had had anal sex with a Conservative rabbi, however… 🙂

  18. So apparently people like Rooftopper Rav and others that are “Celebrating a Year” are doing so by finding happiness in a teshuvah that states that a major way male couples can have sex is still prohibited in Conservative Judaism.
    On the off-chance that anyone’s still reading this thread…
    Kishkeman: First off, Rabbi Dorff has said publicly that his teshuvah addressed male anal intercourse in the way it did in order to enable the teshuvah to pass (i.e., it needed not to be “radical” enough to be labelled a teshuvah), not necessarily out of personal or legal conviction.
    Second, rabbinical school officials have stated publicly that they will never inquire into an openly gay applicant’s or rabbi’s sex life, in the same way they wouldn’t inquire into that of a straight applicant or rabbi.
    Third, this conversation is totally not what this post was about. Is anyone interested in the actual content? I find it fascinating, but maybe it’s too inside baseball.

  19. Rooftopper Rav: I have to think that practically no Conservative Jews who aren’t Conservative Rabbis care about how many votes a CJLS teshuvah gets or not. And only a small fraction really care about the CJLS teshuvah making process at all.
    I am one of the few regular members of a Conservative Jewish synagogue that does care. As a sidebar, I wish there was more info available about the CJLS meetings available to the public on a regular basis. I know the CJLS is meeting this week. Can you update us on what they discuss and vote on there? In all seriousness that would be a welcome service you could do for me and the few people out there who want to discuss and observe Conservative Jewish law. I feel that the and the don’t publish what happens at CJLS meetings unless a teshuva is passed that will get them headlines in the media.
    Now that we are a year into this teshuvah, I think its much more interesting to see if in fact the NDR teshuvah is livable halacha or not. How many gay males have become part of Conservative Judaism or have left Conservative Judaism over the past year because of the NDR teshuva? How many gay males will consider the NDR teshuva binding on themselves? And I am curious to see if gay males will be attracted to Conservative Judaism in the future while the NDR teshuva is still a primary opinion of Conservative Judaism towards homosexual men.
    Going forward I feel my issue is more tachlis then ripping Roth for how many votes the teshuvah received or didn’t receive. For us in the dwindiling pews your original point is a mere footnote.

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