Justice, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

The Tshuvah

Since there has been an exceptional amount of snark, even from those who count themselves as progressive, I thought I would make available, to those who are genuinely openminded to the possibility that a non-Orthodox authority might be knowledgeable in halakha and that radical reinterpretation doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, the introductory statement at the proceedings, the tshuvah and notes from one of the rabbis who authored it, Rabbi Daniel Nevins.
While I might have done things ever so slightly differently (not that anyone cares), I believe that the Nevins/Dorff/Reisner tshuvah is indeed a well-written tshuvah, and certainly within the boundaries of the hermaneutics of halakha. The fact that many people in the blogosphere don’t like the tshuvah, reflects not on the tshuvah itself, but in many places, on preconceived notions of who are appropriate authorities, and on ideas about the limitations of interpretation (I don’t note that any of them have actually read the tshuvah. The response has been solely, as far as I can tell, a response to the movement of the authors and the content of the decision, rather than knowledge of the halakhic reasoning). Nevertheless, of the tshuvot offered, I believe that this tshuvah is the best of them. It does not make the mistake of attempting to overturn d’oraita halakha, nor does it overvalue the weight of any particular rabbinic commentary, while still taking precedental halacha closely under consideration and giving it appropriate value. The sources are traditional, and it does not ignore the problems presented.
Here is an excerpt from Rabbi Nevins letter

… I decided to collaborate with other rabbis …Rabbi Elliot Dorff had done a wonderful job evaluating the social science literature on sexual orientation; Rabbi Avram Reisner had gone into great depth on Talmudic texts that address various sexual activities, and also on the medieval controversies surrounding the definition of the resulting prohibitions …all of us shared a core commitment to using halakhic precedent, and also to finding a livable solution that would make an inclusive and dignified place for gay and lesbian Jews in our community.
…It is gratifying that 13 out of 25 rabbis on the committee voted for our paper. That may not be an overwhelming endorsement, but in our fractured state, it was remarkably strong support. As has been reported, Rabbi Joel Roth’s paper, “Homosexuality Revisited” also received 13 votes. Since he argued vociferously against our interpretations, and since one rabbi obviously voted in favor of both papers, this is surprising to many. My impression is that the double-yes voter felt it important that our movement preserve equal support for both positions, rather than arguing over majority and minority points of view.
Rabbi Roth’s primary arguments against our paper were as follows:
1. The biblical prohibitions in Leviticus are not necessarily restricted to anal sex.
2. The Midrash claims a broad biblical prohibition on all homosexual intimacy by its interpretations of the verses “do not copy the ways of the Egyptians” and “do not approach nakedness”.
3. Rambam and later legal authorities consider all such acts to be biblically forbidden.
4. Even if Ramban is correct, as we claim, that the broader prohibitions are only rabbinic, our argument based on human dignity cannot sustain a permanent change in policy to include gays and lesbians.
These were strong challenges, described at length in his paper, and we mounted a vigorous defense of our position. We brought great rabbinic authorities from the past centuries to support our readings of the primary texts. You will have to read all of this for yourself and make your own decision, if you care to. We wrote this responsum not for today’s newspaper headlines, but for future generations of Jews and interested others who are seeking to balance the Torah’s mandate to love your neighbor as yourself with its specific mitzvot that govern human conduct

13 thoughts on “The Tshuvah

  1. Thanks for the source article, although it seems I can only read the appendix of the PDF on my computer.
    Do you by any chance have the actual Roth or Levy T’shuvah? I haven’t been able to find the full texts anywhere.

  2. Just because I can’t seem to stop obsessing over this tshuva/process/decision and you have been nice enough to engage me in debate thus far, I will share a few thoughts . (As a note: I have skimmed Nevins’ impressive work and will, for my own education, read it seriously in the next week or so – my issues that I present now are somewhat outside of the text of the tshuva though). There are several separate levels to this tshuva process that have troubled me, and it may be helpful to separate them.
    1) CJLS process. Who are these 25 people and why do they have so much weight over a movement (at least rhetorically and in terms of institutions). Also, is it rhetorically saavy to produce a decision that will strike many a “layperson” (that’s me) as incoherent (the contadictory tshuvas and moreso the internal contradiction of sanctifying gay relationships but prohibiting one sex act)? And, what was that takanah maneuver all about?
    2) Extra-halachic considerations: Is there ever an issue which is vital enough that even though a verse in the torah might seem to indicate one thing, conservative judaism finds a way, makes a way to interpret it another way. Even admits that it is making a change for extra-halachic considerations (such as ethics, for example).
    3) Personal authonomy: Isn’t there a place for jews to make their own decisions vis a vis difficult halachic/religious issues, and that is left between g-d and themselves?

  3. Hi, I’ll be happy to do that. I don’t quite understand why these issues aren’t relevant to everyone, but okay.

  4. okay, sounds interesting. I sent you my email address through your website. hopefully you’ll get it (barring technical difficulties on my side)

  5. Becca Stern writes: Is there ever an issue which is vital enough that even though a verse in the torah might seem to indicate one thing, conservative judaism finds a way, makes a way to interpret it another way. Even admits that it is making a change for extra-halachic considerations (such as ethics, for example).
    I will quickly mention slavery and polygamous marriage, which the Rabbis banned for moral reasons (among others), and cooking on Shabbat, which they permitted for practical ones, and defending yourself militarily on Shabbat, to keep the Jewish People alive when that was in doubt.

  6. The long and short of it is (and I’ve read the tshuva), that they are trying to make an end run around all d’rabanan issues here because they think it’s important enough. I think the case for why some issues are d’rabbanan and not d’oraita is, for the most part (though by no means in all cases), solid. But for those of us more traditional, there seems to be something wrong with stripping away all fences just because we think we should… this tshuvah will not satisfy those who are orthodox and are looking for consolation in their views that gay relationships are ok… and it will certainly disappoint conservative jews as well (at least a subset of those conservative jews who are both knowledgable of the halacha and also understand the value of d’rabbanan halacha).
    my favorite claim: that those who engage in oral sex aren’t more likely to have anal sex… really now. i know there are exceptions to this, but a general law allowing one is another thing entirely.

  7. The problem with the relying on “ethics” as the ultimate arbitor of what is right is its flexibility. Whatever I disagree with becomes unethical. It places current values as the criteria fo what should be. Had mainstream Judaism followed this approach, Judaism would look far different than it does today ranging from: supported infanticide since the Romans believed it immoral to keep children with deformities alive to abo;ished kashrut since some European countries consider it barbaric.
    It is not that thigs haven’t changed over the centuries. The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware that they were making profound changes in Judaism (see Menachot 29b) but three things distingusihed their efforts from those of Rabbinical Assembly:
    1. Their changes were intended for the survival of Judaism as a whole and not a justification for a particular group (gays, internarried, etc.)
    2. Decisions were made democratically but only by the best and brightest. With all due respect to the members of the Law Committee, few would affirm that they represent the most knowledgable Rabbis of this generation or even of the Conservative movement.
    3. Not all of their changes were lenient. The Law Committee has almost never mading a binding law which was stricter. I am not suggesting that the best way to evaluate the legitimacy of the Law Committee is by the number of times it is machmir (strict) but one would think that if the movement had intellectual integrety, in the last 25 years there would be some issues which the movement would find beyond the pale. And if you argue the positio on intermarriage or patrilinal descent remains intact, I suspect we need only give it time.
    There was an old joke about Conservative Jewish movement when I was growing up – Im Tirtzu, ein zu halacha – if you will it, it won’t be Jewish Law.
    It is with a heavy heart that I read the curren t goings on. It has far less to do with the the actual decision regarding the ordination of gays than the fact it had so little concern for Jewish Law.

  8. In my view, we should regard the Law Committee’s decision as strict on kvod habriut, not lenient on sexual issues. The Law Committe wasn’t motivated by a desire to let as many people have sex with one another as possible; it was motivated by pain and suffering being caused to large numbers of people (and yes, queer people are part of the Jewish people as a whole and their lives matter to the future of the Jewish people). Viewing this decision as “lenient” suggests that the well-being of human beings is not a factor in the determination of Jewish law– which has never been the case.
    If the rabbis could find a way to allow interest among Jews when interest was strictly prohibited, or to keep chametz in the home when that was strictly prohibited, because it benefited Jews economically, how much more so should we be concerned with the fundamental dignity and well-being of our famlilies, friends, and neighbors.

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