Friday, April 20, 2012

Israeli Conservative Movement finally approves ordination of gay rabbis

Finally - the Israeli Conservative Movement approves ordination of gay rabbis
Israel's Masorti (Conservative) Movement decided to approve the ordination of homosexual rabbis, in a dramatic vote on Thursday. The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, affiliated with the movement, will admit gay and lesbian students for training as spiritual leaders as of the upcoming school year.

In doing so the Israeli Conservative Movement is joining the American branch of the movement, whose rabbinical seminaries have been admitting gay students for some years.

The question whether or not to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis has been rattling the Conservative Movement in Israel and the U.S. for the past decade. Unlike the Reform movement that took to the question with ease, deciding firmly on the acceptance of gay rabbis. The Conservative Movement, whose rabbis see themselves bound to Jewish law, has been caught up in heated debate over the subject.

Years of discussion led to two contradictory religious rulings in 2006, one requiring the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and another banning any such act. The two rabbinical seminaries affiliated with the movement in the U.S. move the ruling allowing the ordination, while the seminaries in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires adopted the ban on ordination. The issue nearly caused a rift in the movement.

The debate continued to wage at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, with two female rabbis quitting the institute, one in opposition to the ordination of gay rabbis; the other over the hesitation shown by the organization in accepting gay and lesbian students into its ranks.
I don't know who the rabbi was who quit over the hesitation of Schechter to ordain openly gay students, but I think the rabbi who resigned was Einat Ramon, who opposed the ordination of openly gay and lesbian students, and who even thought that there was no place for gay and lesbian Jews in the Masorti movement in Israel.
On Thursday, the institute’s general council held another vote on the subject. Out of the 18 rabbis that attended, all voted to admit homosexual students, with one rabbi abstaining.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, President of the Israeli Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly expressed his support of the move.

“I see it as a very important development in Jewish law,” Rabbi Balter told Haaretz, adding: “It is the right thing to do. We were all made in the image of God, and as such we are all made equal. For me this is a very important value. I always said we should admit gay and lesbians into our ranks.”

“I’m glad we had the vote and that it went the way it did,” Rabbi Balter continued. “The decision to hold a vote was correct as can be seen by the fact that there wasn’t a single dissenting vote,” he said....

People working at the seminary admitted that over the years, members of the American Conservative Movement have been applying pressure to accept gay and lesbian students, as the American seminaries have been doing for some years now.

The institute also stressed that the decision was mostly a formality since it had never checked for the sexual orientation of its applicants.
When Einat Ramon was dean of the rabbinical school, I have my doubts that Schechter didn't check people's sexual orientation. Her opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian students was loud and clear. When she was dean, in 2007, she wrote in an article in the Washington Jewish Week (April 12, 2007):
As dean of the Schechter (Masorti) Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, I recently announced my decision to accept only students who believe in the importance of the intimate relationship between a man and a woman in the confines of the Jewish institution of marriage and to serve, to the best of their ability, as role models in that regard.
Ynet also reports about the policy statement she made in March, 2007, forbidding the ordination of openly gay students:
Rabbi Einat Ramon, Dean of the Conservative Movement's Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, announced that there will be no change in the admissions policy of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in response to a recent decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly in New York that would permit the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis and pave the way for the sanctification of same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The CJLS, the Conservative Movement's North American halachic authority, voted to endorse two proposals on this issue in December 2006: The decision that ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis is not permitted by Jewish Law (Rabbi Joel Roth,), and the decision permitting the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian rabbis (Rabbi Elliot Dorff and two colleagues).

Since Conservative Judaism is a pluralistic movement, when the CJLS votes to approve two conflicting opinions in this way, each local rabbi is authorized to choose which opinion to follow.

Although the Israel branch of the Conservative Movement has long asserted its independence in matters of Jewish Law, Rabbi Ramon felt that in light of the discussions in North America generated by the split CJLS decision, it was important to clarify the policy of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

In doing so, she was acting on the authority vested in her by the school's Executive Committee, chaired by Rabbi Hanan Alexander, Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at the University of Haifa. In upholding the status quo, Ramon is in agreement with Rabbi Roth's opinion, which was also endorsed by Rabbi David Golinkin, President and Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

In a position paper that Rabbi Ramon distributed to the Executive Committee, she called attention to the historic centrality of heterosexual marriage in Jewish life.

“Jewish theology regards the union between a man a woman who are sexually and emotionally different from one another as a complementary covenant of friendship and intimacy, which forms the basis for procreation and childrearing. This is why Jewish law has so fervently opposed sexual relations between members of the same sex”, she explained, “and why the heterosexual family has played such a vital role throughout the ages in the transmission of Jewish values and the survival of the Jewish people.”

"I have great respect for Conservative rabbis who have chosen to follow a different opinion," said Rabbi Ramon, "and for the Reform Movement in Judaism which has long admitted candidates to its rabbinical schools who are practicing gays and lesbians or who favor same-sex commitment ceremonies. However, Jewish Law has traditionally prohibited homosexuality and only sanctifies sexual relations between members of the opposite sex."
I wonder if Rabbi Golinkin (with whom I studied Talmud in the late 1980s at Midreshet Yerushalayim, housed at Schechter) has changed his mind, or if he was the one person who voted to abstain in the vote that just happened this last Thursday.

In an article in the Forward, December 7, 2009, "Uncertain Territory: Conservative Movement's Pioneering Gay Rabbinical Students Tread Carefully in Israel," two students from JTS are quoted about their nervousness at having to go to Schechter for their third year of rabbinical studies.
Chesir-Teran, a former attorney who entered the seminary at the age of 36, recalled one meeting that he, Weininger and Nevins had in New York with Rabbi Einat Ramon, then dean of Machon Schechter’s Rabbinical School. Upon being assured gay students would be treated equally when they came to Schechter, Chesir-Teran said he told Ramon, “I’m assuming that means we’re going to be allowed to lead services and read from the Torah like everyone else,” Her answer, he recalled, was, “I don’t know. I have to get back to you.”

Ramon later confirmed in an email to Nevins that the gay students would, indeed, be allowed to do so. But the equivocation, said Chesir-Teran, was another “red flag” that made him leery about going there.

Ramon’s public pronouncements against gay ordination also stoked the two students’ concerns. In a Washington Jewish Week opinion piece shortly after the committee’s historic vote, Ramon, explaining her opposition to the change, avowed, “Judaism has always been clear and unambivalent toward the centrality of the heterosexual family.” And in a September 2007 policy statement, Ramon wrote, “If we permit [gay marriage and ordination of gay rabbis], we should, in all intellectual fairness, permit also all other forms of prohibited sexual activity and allow the marriage of brothers to their sisters.”

Ramon, who still teaches at Schechter, left her position as dean this past September. And though no one claims the move was connected to her pronouncements on gay ordination, supporters of the historic change say Ramon’s departure has eased the atmosphere for gay and lesbian students at Schechter considerably.

Ramon declined to comment for this article. “I have written and said what I had to say,” she told the Forward.

Nevertheless, during her tenure, the relationship between the two schools was sometimes strained. For example, Schechter put its foot down in March 2008, when several JTS students studying there sought to mark the one-year anniversary of the change in JTS’s admissions policy. The students invited Yonatan Gher, then the incoming director of the gay community center Jerusalem Open House, to speak about his experience as a gay man in the Israeli Conservative movement. But after a dispute with Ramon and others in the administration, the students were forced to hold the event off campus.

Nevins cringed when asked about this event. “That was an incident where no one was at their best,” he acknowledged. “It was a very painful moment.”
Ynet wrote about the March 2008 incident:
A group of 10 visiting American rabbinical students studying at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (SIJS) in Jerusalem asked to hold a special event marking the one-year anniversary of the groundbreaking decision by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement's flagship rabbinic school in New York, to accept gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students.

Israeli students at the school objected, however, noting that holding such an event would contradict a halachic ruling stipulated by the Conservative movement in Israel. Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, met with the students and asked that the event also be sensitive to the Israeli Conservative movement’s point of view.

The American students refused, however, and ultimately a decision was reached to hold the event outside the school. Ramon assured the students that no other school activities would take place at the same time.

The anniversary ceremony eventually took place last Wednesday at the Valley of Rehavya in Jerusalem, and included not only the American students but some of their Israeli counterparts as well. Also attending the event were the director-general of the Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance, and member of Kehillat Tiferet Shalom, affiliated with the Masorti movement, Yonatan Gher, who spoke about the unique problems faced by Conservative gays and lesbians.

Gher viewed the Schechter’s Institute’s insistence in presenting both the viewpoints of the American and Israeli contingents of the conservative movement during the ceremony as utterly preposterous. “`Would one invite the (vehemently anti-Zionist) Satmar Hasidism to a ceremony marking Israel’s 60th anniversary?” he mused.

Some, however, harbor a far more positive view of the compromise offered by the institute.

“The Schechter Institute, its leadership and most of its student body adamantly object, purely from a halachic point of view, to the ordination of gays and lesbians,” said Dubi Hayun, one of the teachers at the school. “The American students' request is thus utterly disrespectful. It is tantamount to coming to a vegetarian’s home and eating a big, fat steak.”

Hayun also stated that he has nothing against gays and lesbians, and objects to their ordination purely from a halachic point of view. “Gays should, and must, receive equal rights from the state, it is wrong not to do so. However, one cannot circumvent halacha, or Jewish law, as painful as that decision may be.”

The SIJS noted put out a press release stating that “the institute decided to grant equal forum to the perspectives prevalent within the Conservative movement in the true spirit of the school, and our Jewish sages who respected each other’s rulings and opinions in spite of conflicts and disagreements.

"The Schechter Institute wants to provide a warm and welcoming environment for all of its students, but also adheres to the moral-halachic principle of 'a person should not deviate from the set ways of a place because of argument' (Mishna Pesachim 4:1). This means that one is obligated to respect the religious customs of a place that hosts him in order to preserve peace and harmony.”

Although Schechter has now voted to ordain gay students, I wonder if there will still be problems with faculty members or fellow students who still oppose it. (Although I suppose the same issue might have arisen at the other rabbinical schools that have begun to admit gay students - JTS and the Ziegler School in Los Angeles).

In any case - Kol ha-Kavod!

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