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Panel faces tough debate on gay Jews

Rabbinical council will review bans on homosexual rabbis and same-sex rites.

November 30, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Elliot Dorff concedes that his opinions about ordaining gays and restricting some sexual activity are likely to upset both traditionalists and liberals in Judaism's Conservative movement.

In a much-anticipated event, an international rabbinical council is scheduled next week to debate and vote on possibly dropping the unevenly enforced bans against gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Bel-Air and a well-known bioethicist, is one of the lead authors of a position paper that would end the bans. But, keeping some tradition of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible, his proposal would prohibit anal sex between men. Other forms of consensual, monogamous sex would be permitted.

Jewish leaders predict this could be a watershed moment for Conservative Judaism, which occupies the theological middle ground between Orthodoxy's strong traditionalism and Reform's liberalism.

It also is another example of Christian and Jewish denominations struggling to be more welcoming of gays while abiding by what some view as scriptural injunctions against homosexuality.

"It is a compromise, no question," Dorff, 63, said recently at his Beverly Hills home. It seeks "to maintain the continuity of the law to the extent that we can, while at the same time getting rid of the harm it causes."

He cited the pain gays feel at not being fully included in Jewish life and the loss of Conservative movement members, both gay and straight, who don't agree with current policies.

More traditionalist Conservative Jews contend that ordaining gays would violate what they see as the denunciation of homosexuality in Leviticus: "Do not lie with a man as one would lie with a woman; it is an abomination."

Conversely, some rabbis are seeking to lift the bans, with no sexual restrictions, as the Reform movement did in 1990.

Dorff's compromise, as he predicted, is being criticized from both other sides as logically incoherent and possibly open to mockery as bedroom policing.

Still, observers say, the stance by Dorff and his two co-authors may well pass when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which is part of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and guides general policies, convenes Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. But because only six of the panel's 25 votes are needed to approve a position paper, or teshuvah -- from the Hebrew for "answer" -- it is likely that a contradictory policy will be adopted as well. Such a split result would allow rabbis and seminaries to choose which course to follow.

The authors of Jewish law are always affected by societal changes, said Dorff, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.

Dorff said he came to know many gay men in the 1980s during pastoral work with AIDS patients. His thinking also was influenced by research showing that people are born homosexual, as demonstrated, he said, by one of his four children, a lesbian who has had a child by artificial insemination.

A restriction on gay anal sex, he said, is similar to rules against heterosexual intercourse during menstruation. But requiring celibacy would be, he said, cruel and "very un-Jewish."

Whatever the vote's outcome, some Conservative Jews fear it could trigger further erosion in their U.S. ranks of about 1.3 million. Conservative Judaism used to be the largest wing of American Jewry but now represents about 33% of Jewish households, compared to 39% for Reform, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

Some Canadian synagogues have talked of leaving the Conservative movement if the bans are lifted, echoing the splintering in the Episcopal Church over the 2003 consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.

"Am I worried? You bet," said Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, one of two Conservative seminaries in North America. (The other is Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles' University of Judaism.)

Roth, author of a motion that upholds the ban on gay clergy, said the decision would define whether Conservatives remain halachic, meaning based on Jewish law. "And I don't think there is anything more important than that," he said.

In Roth's view, Jewish law forbids all homosexual sex. "It is as unacceptable to ordain people who thought you could eat cheeseburgers," he said, referring to kosher rules against mixing meat and dairy. Homosexuals should be welcomed at temples, but a moral God can demand their celibacy, he said.

But others discount any talk of mass defections; they say similar warnings were unfulfilled when Conservative Jews began to ordain women in 1983.

Some leaders say Dorff's proposal does not go far enough.

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