Pride And Prej­u­dice

Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism faces calls to be­come more LGBTQ friendly.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Daniel J. Solomon

The Jewish com­ing- of- age cer­e­mony known as a bar mitz­vah is al­ways chal­leng­ing. It hap­pens at the awk­ward age of the early teen years, and re­quires the child to chant, be­fore fam­ily, friends and con­gre­ga­tion, from the ar­chaic He­brew of the To­rah.

For Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Is­raeli-born scion of an Eastern Euro­pean rab­bini­cal dy­nasty, it was even more dif­fi­cult. The sec­tion he read, called Ke­doshim (Leviti­cus 19:1-20:27), con­tained the bib­li­cal pro­hi­bi­tion against sex be­tween two men:

“A man who lies with a male as one would with a woman, both of them have com­mit­ted an abom­i­na­tion; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them­selves.”

It was a painful mo­ment for Lau-Lavie, now 48, who had al­ready re­al­ized he was gay.

Decades later, in part be­cause tra­di­tional Ju­daism con­demns ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, LauLavie left Or­tho­doxy to be­come a rabbi in the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive move­ment of Ju­daism which, in 2006, laid the ground­work for or­dain­ing LGBTQ rab­bis and bless­ing same-sex mar­riages.

But now, more than a decade later, LauLavie and other Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis are push­ing for more change. Their ac­tivism rep­re­sents one in­stance of how queer lead­er­ship is push­ing the move­ment to mod­ify its ap­proach on a range of is­sues, in­clud­ing the study of To­rah, the place of in­ter­mar­ried fam­i­lies and how syn­a­gogues are run.

The prob­lem is that even while Con­ser­va­tive life is in­clu­sive of LGBTQ peo­ple, it still places lim­its on their most in­ti­mate lives. It in­structs gay men to avoid anal sex pre­cisely be­cause of the verse Lau- Lavie chanted at his Bar Mitz­vah, and urges bi­sex­ual peo­ple to pur­sue

re­la­tion­ships with those of the op­po­site sex. It also cites het­ero­sex­u­al­ity as the ideal sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Lau-Lavie and other Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis be­lieve those rules should be aban­doned. Forty-nineyearold Rabbi Ad­ina Le­wittes, who iden­ti­fies as a les­bian, is lead­ing the charge.

She rec­og­nizes that queer peo­ple can be full par­tic­i­pants in Jewish life, that they can marry and be­come rab­bis. And few mem­bers of the move­ment are likely to know about those other, re­stric­tive rules, much less fol­low them. But en­shrin­ing in Jewish law neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and bi­sex­u­al­ity amounts to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” pol­icy that leaves some queer Jews feel­ing ex­cluded, she ar­gues.

“Spir­i­tual and ha­lachic ac­cep­tance isn’t some­thing to snatch un­der­hand­edly,” Le­wittes wrote in a For­ward op- ed, us­ing the He­brew word for “Jewish law.” “It’s some­thing to be ar­tic­u­lated with clar­ity and pride.”

The push to erase these ques­tion­able poli­cies and at­ti­tudes from the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment’s books could re­open a bit­ter de­bate over ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­tween the move­ment’s pro­gres­sives, like Le­wittes, and its tra­di­tion­al­ists, like those who op­posed the 2006 de­ci­sion and still re­gret it.

But even the pos­si­bil­ity of such a de­bate demon­strates the bur­geon­ing in­flu­ence of openly queer rab­bis within the move­ment. That’s a rel­a­tively new devel­op­ment for Con­ser­va­tive Jews, who make up roughly one-fifth of the coun­try’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion. Their de­nom­i­na­tion’s at­ti­tudes to­ward ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity re­flect the move­ment’s cen­trist sta­tus, to Re­form’s right and Or­tho­doxy’s left.

Re­form Ju­daism, which ac­counts for 35% of Amer­i­can Jews, im­poses no lim­its on con­sen­sual sex be­tween adults, and He­brew Union Col­lege-Jewish In­sti­tute of Re­li­gion, the move­ment’s sem­i­nary, has ad­mit­ted openly gay can­di­dates since the early 1990s. The Cen­tral Con­fer­ence of Amer­i­can Rab­bis, an um­brella group for Re­form clergy, also re­cently elected its first queer pres­i­dent, Denise Eger.

No main­stream fig­ures within Or­tho­doxy, which makes up about 10% of Amer­i­can Jews, have en­dorsed gay or­di­na­tion or same-sex unions. De­bate cen­ters in­stead on how and whether to wel­come openly queer peo­ple within syn­a­gogues. Many within the move­ment as­sert that LGBTQ peo­ple who do not try to change their ori­en­ta­tion should be lim­ited in their par­tic­i­pa­tion in re­li­gious life.

Con­ser­va­tive doc­trine has been in a state of flux. In the 1990s, the move­ment wel­comed queer Jews into com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions, but re­fused to ad­mit gay can­di­dates into rab­bini­cal school or to al­low its clergy to of­fi­ci­ate at com­mit­ment cer­e­monies.

But then, in 2006, rab­bis El­liot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reis­ner re­vised that doc­trine with a new rab­bini­cal opin­ion ti­tled “Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, Hu­man Dig­nity and Halakha.” The three ar­gued in the doc­u­ment, known as a re­spon­sum, that modern science and moral­ity ne­ces­si­tated ap­prov­ing some forms of sex be­tween gay cou­ples.

“It en­abled rab­bis to per­form same-sex wed­dings, and helped gay peo­ple marry and live within a Jewish con­text,” Dorff, 73, told the For­ward, de­fend­ing the opin­ion a decade on. He said it was fea­si­ble that gay men could ab­stain from anal sex. “I was won­der­ing whether that would be a com­plete le­gal fic­tion,” he said. “Ul­ti­mately, the re­search showed that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of gay men re­frain from anal sex.”

Still, he sup­ports Le­wittes’s pro­posal to erase the anal sex ban and the lan­guage on bi­sex­u­al­ity, and holds the right po­si­tion to ad­vance it, as head of the move­ment’s law­mak­ing body, the Com­mit­tee on Jewish Law and Stan­dards. In or­der to be­come of­fi­cial pol­icy, a ma­jor­ity of the com­mit­tee’s 25 vot­ing mem­bers, all of them rab­bis, would have to ap­prove it. Le­wittes and her col­leagues are talk­ing about draft­ing their own rab­bini­cal opin­ion in the mean­time.

But all this is un­likely to hap­pen, pre­cisely be­cause ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is still very con­tro­ver­sial in the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment. The Rab­bini­cal As­sem­bly, the move­ment’s um­brella group for rab­bis, has tem­po­rar­ily

‘Ul­ti­mately, the re­search showed that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of gay men re­frain from anal sex.’

stripped Dorff’s com­mit­tee of the power to is­sue leg­is­la­tion — a devel­op­ment linked to what he called “the ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity wars.”

The prob­lem is that ig­nor­ing the plain mean­ing of Scrip­ture — as in the death sen­tence for “ly­ing with a man as one would with a woman” — re­quires the is­su­ing of a spe­cial rul­ing.

In­deed, main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo is prefer­able for Martin S. Co­hen, 63, a Long Is­land rabbi and for­mer edi­tor of the move­ment’s quar­terly jour­nal, Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism. He ar­gued that leg­is­la­tion would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate and would an­tag­o­nize the move­ment’s tra­di­tion­al­ists.

“It would cer­tainly alien­ate tra­di­tion­al­ists, but, even more to the point, the whole ef­fort to pass and then to pro­mote such a [change] would re­quire drag­ging into the light prac­tices that con­sti­tute the most pri­vate parts of life,” he wrote in an e-mail to the For­ward.

“En­gag­ing in that kind of pub­lic dis­sec­tion of oth­ers’ in­ti­mate lives would be as dis­taste­ful as it would be vul­gar, and as un­nec­es­sary as shock­ing from a ha­lachic point of view,” he con­tin­ued.

Le­wittes coun­tered that Jewish law has al­ways treated sen­si­tive mat­ters. “We are the in­her­i­tors of a tradition that shied away from the dis­cus­sion of noth­ing when it came to ar­eas of life filled with po­ten­tial ho­li­ness,” she told the For­ward. “Sex­u­al­ity is a topic that ap­pears through­out rab­binic lit­er­a­ture.”

Whether they win or lose this battle, queer rab­bis have plans to chal­lenge and change the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment and Ju­daism in other ways. LGBTQ clergy ar­gue that their sex­u­al­ity has led them to a fresh per­spec­tive on re­li­gious law, prac­tice and learn­ing.

“The more our voices mat­ter, the more we can be al­lies and ad­vo­cates for more in­clu­sion, whether it’s on be­half of a bi­sex­ual agenda, for our trans broth­ers and sis­ters, for oth­ers who aren’t heard within Ju­daism,” Lau-Lavie said.

He and oth­ers stress that dif­fer­ing from the het­ero­sex­ual norm im­pels them to work for the greater recog­ni­tion of all who are on the side­lines of tra­di­tional Ju­daism — among them racial mi­nori­ties, the in­ter­mar­ried and dis­abled peo­ple.

Lau- Lavie and Le­wittes have emerged as lead­ing ad­vo­cates of in­ter­mar­ried spouses: Lau- Lavie will not per­form any wed­dings un­til the move­ment re­vis­its its blan­ket pro­hi­bi­tion on rab­bis of­fi­ci­at­ing mar­riages for them; Le­wittes re­signed from the R.A. in or­der to lead in­ter­faith cer­e­monies.

Queer­ness has also in­flu­enced teaching. Rabbi Be­nay Lappe, 57, runs SVARA, a yeshiva in Chicago. She ex­pands the con­cept of queer­ness past the bounds of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der ex­pres­sion, to in­clude all those who have “a deep ex­pe­ri­ence of oth­er­ness or marginal­ity, re­gard­less of the source.”

Trained as a Con­ser­va­tive rabbi, she told the For­ward: “Jewish tradition will be bet­ter able to do the work it was de­signed to do when the ex­pe­ri­ences and in­sights of those on the mar­gins are brought to bear. Ju­daism it­self is ‘queer’ in this sense.”

Gil Stein­lauf, the se­nior rab­binic ad­viser at Wash­ing­ton, D. C.’ s Adas Israel Con­gre­ga­tion, has also in­cor­po­rated “queer per­spec­tives” into re­li­gious learn­ing. By lead­ing a se­ries of classes named “Mak­ing To­rah Per­sonal,” he en­cour­aged con­gre­gants to sit with parts of the Bi­ble that left them the most un­com­fort­able.

“The To­rah is a mir­ror that we hold up to our lives, even in the most dis­turb­ing sense,” he told the For­ward. Stein­lauf, 48, came out as gay three years ago. He will soon leave Adas Israel to take a lead­er­ship po­si­tion in the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment.

Run­ning a new “in­no­va­tion lab,” he will work with clergy, con­gre­ga­tions and aca­demics on en­gag­ing Amer­i­can Jews in the move­ment’s re­li­gious life — and he ex­pects his queer per­spec­tive to come in handy.

“There’s a new em­brace of di­ver­sity and queer­ness, and the idea of queer­ness can cre­atively dis­rupt pat­terns that have kept us back,” he said. “What fas­ci­nates me is the ex­tra­or­di­nary chal­lenge of con­fronting where peo­ple are, what they aren’t look­ing at, and then get­ting them to look at it.”

‘En­gag­ing in pub­lic dis­sec­tion of oth­ers’ in­ti­mate lives would be as dis­taste­ful as it would be vul­gar’


Gay, Friendly: Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie left Or­tho­doxy for the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment, in part due to its stance on gay is­sues.


‘Em­brace Sex­ual Flu­id­ity’: Rabbi Ad­ina Le­wittes wants the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment to move away from rigid bi­na­ries.


Erase The Ban: Rabbi El­liot Dorff, head of the rel­e­vant com­mit­tee, be­lieves the 2006 rul­ing was right and should go fur­ther.



Ju­daism It­self Is ‘Queer’: Rabbi Be­nay Lappe would in­clude all with a ‘deep ex­pe­ri­ence of oth­er­ness’ in the cat­e­gory.


‘Queer Per­spec­tives’: Rabbi Gil Stein­lauf, out­go­ing leader of Adas Israel in D.C., en­cour­ages con­gre­gants to make To­rah per­sonal.

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