The Latest in the “Gay Rabbis” Debate

Rabbi quits seminary over exclusion of gays,” reports the Jerusalem Post.

I applaud Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum for a courageous decision to stand by her ethical convictions and resign from Machon Schechter, the Masorti (Conservative) rabbinical school in Israel, which is becoming less and less representative of the Masorti Movement there.

I studied at Machon Schechter as part of my “equivalency” studies while a student at RRC, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. At the time, neither American Conservative rabbinical school was accepting or ordaining openly gay students, but the majority of the student bodies, many faculty, and other leaders were pushing for change and we all knew it was a matter of time. A handful of years ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (rabbinical decision) that permitted same-sex relationships, essentially rejecting all rabbinically imposed restrictions or discriminations towards such relationships (and obviously also towards the people engaged in them or inclined to engage in them), except for the most literal understanding of the Torah prohibition in Lev. 18:22. (Many believe there is even interpretive room for rendering that perspective — which technically proscribes male-male genital-anal intercourse — as legally obsolete, presumably, at least, in the context of a loving, adult, covenantal relationship.)

Shortly after this ruling, the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies (at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles)  and then the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York changed their admission and ordination standards to provide full equality to openly gay students. It was a great change for those of us (whether officially part of the Conservative Movement or not) who support the idea of adherance to traditional Jewish practice and the value of a Jewish legal process in the context of a relevant and ethical worldview grounded in equality for all those earnestly engaged in such an endeavor. But, as with many (though not all) questions of social norms, Israeli society lags a bit behind the American pace.

A couple of years after the Ziegler School changed its policies, it made another important change regarding its year of Israel study for its students. No longer would students study for the year at Machon Schechter but rather at the Conservative Yeshiva, a learning project of the Conservative Movement that is open to non-rabbinical students as well, and to Jews of any sexual orientation. I don’t know how much that issue of inclusion influenced the original decision, but in light of the story about Rabbi Elad-Applebaum, it seems to me that Ziegler made a very wise choice to disassociate itself with Schechter, which appears to be stuck in some kind of moral (and halachic) vacuum on this issue. I feel terrible for those who wish to pursue rabbinical ordination as Masorti Jews in Israel who, whether because of their sexual orientation or, like Rabbi Elad-Applebaum, cannot abide being part of a discriminatory institution. Perhaps Schechter will eventually “see the light” on this issue. In the meantime, I would love to see JTS make the same change Ziegler did and send its students directly to the CY for their Israel year. Maybe the CY will form a s’michah (ordination) program. At this point, if I were a rabbinical student choosing where to study in Jerusalem (regardless of what American seminary I was attending), I certainly would no longer consider Machon Schechter. I actually spent a year at Pardes and a second year mostly at Schechter. If I were planning such a second year now, I would give the Conservative Yeshiva serious thought.

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