Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Conservative Survey: Divided Unity

Few were surprised when the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) adopted a liberal paper permitting the ordination of rabbis leading an openly homosexual lifestyle. Even if some eyebrows were raised, it was not a total surprise that the CJLS also approved the performance of same-sex commitment ceremonies. What may have been unexpected was that this so-called “inclusive” approach was adopted by a majority vote. Still more surprising – and more problematic – was the fact that a diametrically opposed paper, which forbade both ordination and commitment ceremonies, was approved by an equal majority vote.

Immediately following this majority approval of contradictory positions, four members of the CJLS resigned in the belief that the liberal view could not be deemed a legitimate statement of halakha. It would not be unreasonable to understand these resignations as possible harbingers of the divisive potential of implementing the inclusive position in the Conservative Movement.

Against this background, it is understandable that the Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly commissioned Professor Steven M. Cohen to conduct a
survey on the issue of homosexual ordination.

The results of that survey were reported with some fanfare last week. The press release stressed that the survey showed overwhelming support for gay and lesbian ordination among Conservative clergy and laity, while reaffirming the Movement’s commitment to halakha. According to Professor Cohen, the consensus reflected in the survey’s results spoke to “the underlying unity and distinctiveness of the Conservative Movement.”

Almost concurrent with the celebration of the happy results of the survey came the announcement of the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Although the concurrence of the two announcements was, no doubt, entirely a matter of chance, the fact that Rabbi Nevins was one of the authors of the inclusive paper on homosexuality may seem to some the ultimate validation of the liberal view.

But careful examination of the study’s results leads one to suspect that that the announcements studiously downplayed or even omitted what may be the most salient and troubling findings of Professor Cohen’s survey.

First, it seems that the majority of Conservative clergy who view themselves as ideologically conservative are opposed to the ordination of homosexuals.

Moreover, thirty-five percent of the Conservative Movement’s clerical leaders are of the opinion that “the legal reasoning in the permissive paper that was approved by the CJLS was outside the pale of acceptability of halakhic reasoning.” In other words, over a third of the Conservative clergy agrees with the position that prompted four rabbis to resign from the CJLS.

If that were not enough, the survey also shows that “about half the rabbis, cantors and JTS students have some doubts as to whether the liberalizing stance is compatible with Jewish law.” That statement may reflect a fundamental schism within the Conservative Movement that cannot be glossed over by assertions about underlying unity, nor even by more nuanced attempts to explain that some rabbis prefer an aggadic approach to halakha rather than one of legal positivism.

The reason for suspecting such a rift is that while about half of the clergy believe or suspect that homosexual ordination is incompatible with halakha, nevertheless two-thirds of the Conservative clergy support such ordination. This presumably means that a significant number of Conservative clergy supports an approach that it feels unable to justify in its own conception of Jewish law. Rather, the members of this group ostensibly believe that their personal views of justice and morality overrule even their own understanding of what is halakhically acceptable.

What that says is that regardless of whether one believes that the Jewish theological dialectic yields halakha as the practical realization of aggada, or views aggada as the handmaiden of the halakha, about half of the Conservative clergy is of the opinion that the ordination of homosexuals cannot be justified without leaving what it perceives as the bounds of it own theology of tradition and change. A significant number seem willing to do just that.

Seen in this light, the results of the survey appear less indicative of unanimity and distinctiveness than of what may be a deeply seated theological division in the Conservative Movement.
Avinoam Sharon