Of all the branches of Judaism, the Conservative Movement is the most mixed in its response to LGBT issues (the movement calls itself the “Masorti” Movement outside the United States). In December 2006, landmark changes took place within the movement, the results of which allow Conservative-affiliated rabbinical schools to ordain openly gay rabbis, if they so choose, and allows clergy to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies, if they so choose. While these changes are new, the movement’s leadership has strongly encouraged Conservative-affiliated synagogues to welcome LGBT Jews as members since the early 1990s. In addition, Conservative leaders publicly endorsed civil unions and other measures that recognize gay relationships under civil law many years before changes were made within the movement.
Conservative Judaism considers Jewish law, or halacha, to be binding, but believes that the details of halacha can evolve as Jewish life evolves. This openness to change is based on an idea of “Positive-Historical Judaism,” which allows for an evolving interpretation of halacha through traditional modes of rabbinic study as well as through modern critical scholarship (Orthodox Judaism, in contrast, sees halacha as largely unchangeable and rejects the use of critical scholarship). The movement’s formal procedure for halachic change moves very slowly and methodically, particularly on issues of Biblical law.
In December 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, an arm of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly , issued multiple new teshuvot (rabbinic opinions, or responsa) regarding halacha and homosexuality. Two of the three teshuvot earned a simple majority vote and offered conflicting opinions. A responsa written by Rabbi Joel Roth affirming the Conservative Movement’s traditional stance on homosexuality was accepted, along with the precedent-setting responsa written by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner, Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah, which reversed the traditional positions while maintaining a ban on male sodomy (specifically, anal sex between men). A third teshuva, which received six votes, the minimum required for acceptance, was written by Rabbi Leonard Levy and upheld the traditional position of the movement while also rejecting the commonly held view that sexual orientation cannot be controlled by the individual. A fourth proposal that would have lifted all bans on same-sex behavior was not passed.
With three conflicting teshuvot passing, final decisions will be left to individual congregations and communities about how to respond to LGBT Jews in their institutions. These new teshuvot have resulted in changes across the movement, which began to occur almost immediately. Previously in 1992, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued a Consensus Statement on Homosexuality wherein the committee’s rabbis outlined the Conservative Movement’s stance on the participation of LGBT people in Conservative Jewish life. The Statement affirmed that LGBT people are welcome in Conservative congregations, youth groups, camps, and day schools, while, at the same time, it limited inclusion in several significant ways.
The acceptance of the new teshuva, Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah, has allowed the movement’s rabbinical and cantorial schools to make individual decisions on whether or not to admit openly LGB students to their programs (the question of openly transgender students remains untested). The Conservative Movement has four rabbinical schools: The Ziegler School at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the Marshall Meyer Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Argentina, and Machon Schechter in Jerusalem. Of these schools, the University of Judaism and JTS have now changed their admissions policies to allow openly LGB students in their programs. Machon Schechter’s dean has announced explicitly that the school does not intend to change its admissions policy to allow openly LGB students, and the seminary in Argentina has made no announcement. The previous policy, set out in the Consensus Statement on Homosexuality (1992), formally forbid the admittance of “avowed homosexuals” to the movement’s rabbinical or cantorial schools or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantor’s Assembly, the professional associations for movement clergy. However, the document also stressed that the movement would not “instigate witch hunts” against current students, cantors, or rabbis. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy enabled a handful of gay and lesbian rabbinical students to receive ordination prior to the changes in admissions policies by staying completely closeted throughout rabbinical school.
Congregations and Leadership
The policies regarding LGBT leadership in the Conservative Movement, outside of the rabbinate, remain rather complex. As previously mentioned, the adoption of the three new teshuvot in December 2006 has created a situation wherein each institution within the Movement can independently decide whether or not to allow LGB people to take on leadership roles. One notable change, however, was the announcement by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism —the movement’s national synagogue arm—that it promised to review its hiring practices in light of the new teshuvot. Previously, the USCJ would not hire an openly gay or lesbian person for any job where the person would function as an educator or role model, regardless of his or her professional qualifications and experience. While this policy did not directly affect synagogues and regional organizations, any teacher or youth leader hired through the national organization could not be openly gay, including, regional directors, regional youth directors and other national leaders in United Synagogue Youth.
In the 1992 Consensus Statement on Homosexuality, the movement both affirmed that LGBT people are welcome in Conservative institutions and limited the participation of LGBT people in certain forms of lay leadership to a level deemed appropriate by the rabbi who is halachically responsible for each institution. The adoption of the new respona have created little change in this area, as the movement continues to affirm that LGBT people are welcome in Conservative institutions and also continues to allow individual institutions to make their own determinations about the level of involvement of LGBT people in their leadership. In practice, LGBT people are generally welcome to serve in positions that are unrelated to youth, the level of participation by LGBT people as youth leaders or educators varies from congregation to congregation. There are some fully-inclusive congregations, and some that are more limited. Support for inclusion is significantly higher in the United States than in any other country with a significant Masorti/Conservative presence, such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Israel.
The adoption of 2006 teshuva, Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah, means that Conservative Movement clergy may decide as individuals whether or not to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. Notably, the movement does not consider same-sex unions kiddushin (santicfied/holy), which means that they do not consider commitment ceremonies to be the same as a marriage between a man and a woman. Previously, in accordance with the 1992 Consensus Statement, Conservative rabbis were not allowed to perform commitment ceremonies for LGBT people. However, there were many who chose to do so anyway, in some cases quite publicly and in others very discreetly.
Also, in 2003, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the movement’s synagogue association, issued a statement on the Federal Marriage Amendment, outlining the movement’s opposition to the amendment and offering support for civil unions. In this statement, the USCJ argues that, while government should not interfere in the religious elements or requirements for marriage, gay and lesbian people are entitled to equal protection under the law. Consequently, the USCJ does not support any attempt by the government to deny civil unions to gays and lesbians, citing these attempts as discrimination.
On December 3, 2003, the CJLS approved a responsa written by Rabbi Mayer E. Rabinowitz on the Status of Transsexuals. This rabbinic ruling concluded that individuals who have undergone full sex reassignment surgery (SRS), and whose sex reassignment has been recognized by civil authorities, are considered to have changed their sex status according to Jewish law. Furthermore, SRS is viewed as an acceptable treatment, under Jewish law, for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria. To date, there are no openly transgender rabbis or rabbinical students affiliated with the Conservative Movement and few institutions affiliated with the movement have publicly or pro-actively discussed transgender inclusion or transgender civil rights.
In 1991, the USCJ passed a resolution applying traditional Jewish concepts to the AIDS crisis. The USCJ called upon its member synagogues to “affirm the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh (the saving of lives) by instituting comprehensive, effective, and age-appropriate educational programs about preventing transmission of the AIDS virus.” It also denounced discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS in the wider society and prohibited the exclusion of people living with HIV/AIDS from participation in synagogue life. The USCJ called upon its member congregations to reach out to those in their community living with HIV/AIDS in the spirit of bikkur holim (visiting the sick).