Liberalizing Conservative Judaism's LGBT Policy Might Be a Ten-Year Process

Interview with Rabbi Elliot Dorff

by, March 14, 2006

March 14, 2006. It could be ten years before Judaism's Conservative movement adopts a policy permitting same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who participated in deliberations on the policy earlier this month. But he also reminded us, during an interview, that the issue of gay rights only emerged into the public's consciousness in the 1990s.

Dorff spoke with JewsOnFirst soon after the the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Conservative Judaism's law-making body, postponed an expected vote on proposals changing the movement's stance on homosexuality. Dorff, a longtime member of the committee and a proponent of changing the policy, said the committee now plans to vote on the proposals at its December meeting.

In 1992 the movement passed resolutions supporting full civil equality for homosexuals, in such areas as jobs and housing. The resolutions also supported civil unions and extended to domestic partnerships and marriage when that became legal, said Dorf.

He said that the main obstacle to taking the next steps -- Jewish marriage and ordination of gays and lesbians -- is how to interpret Leviticus 18:22, which says "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."

In the context of the Conservative Movement's debate, the rabbis are considering whether to interpret the biblical passage in the light of rabbinic understanding as prohibiting only male anal intercourse..

Dorff said that the committee researched the issue, discussing it with a number of gay men. He said they got a "conflicting response." Some of the men said that they weren't interested in anal sex and believed that a significant percentage of gay men did not practice it.

Dorff noted that, under the current rabbinic interpretation of the passage, anal intercourse (or any other practice) is permitted for married heterosexuals.

Two of the four proposals before the committee reaffirm the movement's 1992 policy, he said. One would maintain the current understanding of Leviticus 18:22, but prohibit only male anal intercourse. The fourth proposal, which Dorff termed "unrealistic," is to see Leviticus as prohibiting only coercive anal sex, and on that basis permit gay commitment ceremonies. These ceremonies would be different from heterosexual marriages, he added.

Said Dorff: "If you take Jewish law seriously -- as this movement does -- how do you go from Leviticus to sanctfying these unions? It's really a stretch, really a change in the law."

Nevertheless, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards can change the law, he said. "As rabbis, we have the authority to undo what rabbis have done before". But that involves garnering more support than simply issuing a new interpretation of the law.

The process has been going on for a year. Originally there were nine separate proposals, which, at the committee chairman's request were integrated into four. "That's what happened over the past year," Dorff said, "and we thought we were going to vote on them" at the committee's meeting earlier this month. Instead, he said, the committee discussed all four and "voted as to whether to vote or not."

Those opposed to liberalizing the policy are either troubled about the legal interpretations or uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality. "That's why the philosophy of Jewish law is critical," Dorf said, adding that some committee members would not have a problem if Leviticus did not say what it does.

Dorff explained that there is a political strata to the prolonged deliberations. Five members are due to rotate off the committee before December, and some of them favor liberalizing the movement's position.

It is far from certain that the committee will then vote to expand acceptance of gays and lesbians. Dorff said. "It's very much an uphill battle," and the change that lesbian and gay Conservative Jews are waiting for might be a decade away. Dorff said he can "imagine that many of them are frustrated" and even "those committed to Jewish law are a little bit frustrated."

But, he said, offering perspective, one of the strengths of the process "is not pretending that everything is neat and clean."

Again, offering perspective, Dorff said,one of the reasons the debate is underway now is "because so many more people are out of the closet."

Indeed, it's difficult to view the push for change "as a rebellion against tradition," when so many people have gays and lesbians in their families and friendship groups. "It has become real for people in a way it wasn't 15 years ago."