Thursday, August 4, 2011

Yet Another New Low for Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Nevins
When Rabbi Daniel Nevins, now the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, together with Rabbi Eliott Dorff penned their now-famous Teshuvah permitting Conservative clergy to perform commitment ceremonies for members of the same sex, I spent the time to actually read it. In fact, I devoted two shiurim on Shavuot night (the first and the last shiurim of the night - it was a great way to keep people awake), explaining how the entire Teshuvah represents a complete departure from accepted halachic norms and logic, making a complete mockery of the notion of "halachah" and "psak." (As an aside, it's pretty clear that this Teshuvah was, de facto, Rabbi Nevins' interview for the job of Dean of JTS. Why else would it be cited specifically in his bio on the JTS website?)
While I'm somewhat certain that I was the only Orthodox rabbi to read the Teshuvah, it's now becoming increasingly clear that, other than the committee that approved the position paper, no Conservative rabbis have read it either. Because, while they seem very happy to follow what they assume is the p'sak of the Teshuvah - that Conservative Judaism now accepts homosexuality - nothing could be farther from the truth.
Just to be clear: I disagree with pretty much every one of the very large logical leaps the authors make to arrive at their clearly predetermined conclusion. 
While the authors of the responsa did indeed permit Conservative clergy to perform homosexual marriages and commitment ceremonies, they found no way around (despite trying pretty hard) the prohibition against homosexual male intercourse. On page 5 of the Teshuvah they write,
Although we sympathize with the motivation that inspires such readings, as a general rule the established rabbinic understanding of the Torah governs halakhah, even when modern scholarship is at one in proclaiming a different p’shat (which is hardly the case here). Simply stated, these verses have been understood and codified as creating an unqualified prohibition on anal intercourse between men, rather than a conditional and limited restriction.
Moreover, the particular negative commandment associated with male homosexual sex is listed in the Torah among the גילוי עריות - (literally, “exposures of nakedness”), and of these prohibitions it is said יהרג ואל יעבר “one should die rather than transgress.” To strike this law from the Torah is a radical step.
While the rabbis held themselvse back from "striking" an explicit Torah prohibition, they then permitted men to marry each other, but forbade intercourse between the newly married couple. It's really in black and white in the conclusion of the paper (page 19):
A. Piskei Din: Legal Findings
Based upon our study of halakhic precedents regarding both sexual norms and human dignity, we reach the following
1. The explicit biblical ban on anal sex between men remains in effect. Gay men are instructed to refrain from anal sex. (page 19)
It's ridiculous, I know. Consecrate a loving, devoted relationship into the Jewish people, but then tell the happy couple that they can't consecrate the marriage. But that's what these Conservative rabbis had to do to claim to adhere to the Torah while permitting homosexual marriage.
He doesn't perform same-sex marriages
So what do Conservative clergy actually do? Are they counseling the men that they marry to refrain from anal sex? That seems pretty unlikely, especially in light of a recent article in the New York Times about the Conservative Movement's great rabbinic divide over the issue. While rabbis of the "older generation" can't bring themselves to marry members of the same sex, the younger generation seems fine with it. The article states,
The latter opinion, however, fell short of explicitly authorizing an authentic Jewish wedding for same-sex marriages.
But the movement, which believes that Jews must conserve traditions yet also holds that laws must evolve to meet the shifting realities of modern life, has long given individual rabbis in its 700 congregations in North America the authority to make many decisions for their communities under a privilege known as mara d’atra — authority for a place.
Many rabbis have capitalized on this concept to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies for gay couples, complete with a chuppa, or traditional wedding canopy, and a ketubah, or marriage contract. They say they overlook the Torah’s prohibition against homosexual sex as an ancient dictum that has lost its moral force.

But he does.
I guess I take it back. Perhaps they did read the Teshuvah. And while the law committee accepted two positions - one prohibiting homosexual marriages, and another permitting them in limited fashion (giving new meaning to the term eilu v'eilu), rabbis out in the field not only rejected the prohibitive decision; they also reject the permissive one, instead deciding on their own to take the "radical step" of "striking" a law from the Torah.
So, basically any rabbi can decide, in his or her position as the mara d'atra, to ignore any halachah, law, verse, prohibition or practice that he or she finds has "lost its moral force."
In a way I feel bad for Rabbi Nevins. As much as he tries to navigate that golden path between modernity and fealty to Jewish Law, and as far as he's willing to go to bend the Torah to modern life, it's really not enough. He's still an old-timer, far behind the times. The article concludes,
Rabbi Kalmanofsky, who has declined to perform one same-sex marriage because one of the partners was not Jewish, also believes that his Conservative colleagues will slowly come down on the side of same-sex marriage — though for slightly different reasons. “This is going to line up heavily on age lines,” he said. “People in their 50s are simply going to be less likely to reach this sea change, and people in their 30s are going to be much more inclined.”
It doesn't really matter what the law committee decided. Rabbis in the Conservative movement can and will do whatever they want nonetheless.
On his fine blog, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen writes,
We stand at Sinai, with every previous generation of the children of Israel, and reaffirm the promises made there to God, to one another, and to the world. I believe—humbly but firmly—that the Sinai Covenant continues in 2011/5771 through us. Participation in the set of relationships set forth in Covenant adds immeasurably to the meaning and purpose of our lives. The fact that the Covenant at Sinai established a people simultaneously with a relationship to the Holy One stands at the heart of Conservative Judaism today and in the future.
Conservative Judaism continues to claim that it maintains a fine balance between modern life and fealty to halachah. But when any community leader can arbitrarily decide to reject the halachic decisions of her movements leadership and scholars, how is that fealty to halachah? What is law, when anyone can do whatever he or she wishes? The word "Covenant" means an agreement - a pact between God and the Jewish people. What kind of Covenant can Conservative Judaism claim to represent when its leaders continually rewrite their side of the deal?