The Reconstructionist Experience of LGBTQ Inclusion and the Ordination Struggle Among Progressive Orthodox Jews

Might the knowledge gained within Reconstructionist communities and our experience of values-based decision-making prove useful to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah? I believe that it can.

An important barometer of progress in the fuller inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is the level of acceptance of LGBTQ rabbis. Policies at the liberal movements and their seminaries have reflected the steady evolution of attitudes in broader American society. Thirty-five years ago, in 1984, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College became the first of the American liberal movement seminaries to adopt a non-discrimination policy on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1990, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform) became the second to do so, following more than a decade of discussion and deliberation. The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) followed in 2006, after years of contentious debate.

There is a range of views among liberal movements about the degree and speed by which Jewish norms and practices can respond to changing societal norms. For instance, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, spoke of the past as having “a vote but not a veto.” This reflected a shift away from Orthodox and Conservative halakhic process based largely upon precedent. A new process gradually evolved by which Reconstructionist decision-making would begin with Jewish ethics. Historical Jewish texts and conceptions are explored in light of contemporary realities, and they are evaluated within the context of relevant Jewish values. Policy changes can require an extensive period of study, and the culture of organizations can lag behind official policy. Nevertheless, Reconstructionism assumes that Judaism will respond in a timely way to new societal insights and understandings, resulting in periodic changes in Jewish practices.

Within the various streams of Orthodox Judaism, long-established tradition tends to serve as the lens through which cultural change is assessed. Change can be slow. Halakhic authorities are the decision-makers. There is substantial resistance to the idea that Jewish norms and mores should shift in light of new insights within the broader society. Resistance has been particularly strong to any change in the expectation that rabbis must be heterosexual men. Rabbi Steve Greenberg stands alone within Orthodox Judaism as an openly gay rabbi. Although Greenberg was ordained by Yeshiva University, his coming out occurred subsequent to his ordination. His status has not occasioned a policy reconsideration on the part of Yeshiva University’s Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Modern Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) was founded in 1999 as an “Open Orthodox” alternative. Among its stated achievements, listed on the YCT website, is having “reinvigorated and brought vibrant thought and discussion to a Modern Orthodoxy that was growing increasingly complacent by confronting honestly and openly some of today’s most critical contemporary issues.” This includes having “created more welcoming communities for people with disabilities, Jews of color, Jews of choice, and people of the LGBTQ community.”

The admissions policy adopted by YCT cautiously signals a step in the direction of inclusivity. President Rabbi Dov Linzer articulates it in this way: “We accept all students regardless of sexual orientation, provided that they are fully committed to Orthodox halachic observance.” There is much ambiguity in this statement since halakhah has been understood within Orthodox Judaism as including a prohibition against gay sexuality. Clearly, YCT struggles with the halakhic permissibility of gay sexual relationships. Rabbi Linzer defines the Jewish legal prohibition as specifically a biblical prohibition on same-gender male sexual intercourse (rabbinic law is more broadly prohibitive of same gender sexual intimacy), holding that this “does not necessarily mean that two men cannot, within halakha, live in the same home, have a committed, loving relationship, and raise children (if they choose) together as a family.”

Specifically, Linzer would permit a loving relationship between same-sex partners, provided sexual activity were circumscribed. It is not clear whether Linzer means no intercourse or no sex.[fn]The status of lesbians is not under consideration since YCT does not ordain women (although YCT founder Rabbi Avi Weiss has done so privately and under the aegis of Yeshivat Maharat).[/fn] A “no intercourse” position might align YCT with the more lenient of the two conflicting rabbinic responsa accepted simultaneously in 2006 by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinic Assembly (CJLS). That responsum retained biblical (no intercourse), but not rabbinic prohibitions (no intimacy). This more permissive (albeit restrictive) opinion, opened the door to the 2007 JTS decision to ordain lesbian and gay rabbis.

The conflict between an Orthodox interpretation of sexual norms and a goal of inclusion came to a head this year. Three months prior to his anticipated 2019 ordination, YCT informed fifth-year student Daniel Atwood that he would be denied rabbinic ordination.[fn]Atwood has since received Orthodox semikhah from Rabbi Daniel Landis in Jerusalem.[/fn] Atwood came out to the seminary during his first year of study. He anticipated becoming the first openly gay Orthodox man to be ordained as a rabbi by an Orthodox seminary. There is speculation that YCT’s reversal may have been prompted by Atwood’s public announcement of his intention to marry his male partner. It is possible that YCT was willing to ordain a gay man provided he was single and thus not in a sexual relationship, and/or not intending to marry. In a note to YCT alumni, Linzer sidestepped the specifics by stating: “So much more is expected and demanded from our rabbis than from our laity.”[fn]Quotations are taken from April 2019 Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reports.[/fn]

The contradictions embedded in YCT’s current policy parallel the Conservative movement’s 1992 CJLS finding (superseded by the 2006 opinions) that welcomed lesbian and gay Jews, though stopped short of accepting committed same-sex relationships or granting gay and lesbian Jews the right to assume leadership positions (either lay leadership nor rabbinic ordination).

A YCT policy statement is anticipated in May 2020. Presumably, clarifications will be forthcoming reconciling the implied mixed messages regarding the place of sexuality within same-sex relationships, the status of gay marriage, and whether a distinction is to be made between what is permissible to rabbis and laity.

It is fair to note that change has not been swift in any of the Jewish religious movements. While the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College admissions policy welcomed gay and lesbian rabbinic students in 1984, it was not until 1991 that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association formalized its tacit acceptance of all graduates of the College with an official non-discrimination policy. While the lay arm of Reconstructing Judaism (at the time named the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot) formally welcomed congregations primarily serving gay and lesbian people in 1985, it was not until 1992 that a movement-wide policy statement to fully accept “gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, as members and as leaders” was adopted. Rabbinic and lay policy statements each followed a two-year study by a commission representing the constituent arms of the movement.[fn]For a detailed account of the process, see Rebecca T. Alpert and Jacob J. Staub “The Making of Gay and Lesbian Rabbis in Reconstructionist Judaism, 1979-1992,” in Devotions and Desires: Histories of Religion and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century United States, chapter 11, edited by Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton and Heather White. University of North Carolina Press, 2017, pp. 214-233.[/fn]

Congregations and havurot were encouraged to engage in study, utilizing a “Reconstructionist Workshop Series.” Each affiliate, it was hoped, would adopt their own policies of welcome, leading to a designation as a “Kehillah Mekabelet/Welcoming Congregation.”

Policy often precedes broad implementation. In fact, affiliates were slow to engage in sustained study, adopt individual policies of welcome or work towards a planned “Kehillah Mekabelet program.” Change is rarely easy or linear. The 1992 Reconstructionist Commission Report observed that the contemporary environment had not been friendly to the transformation of attitudes and policies being sought: “the presence of an alternative to the assumption of heterosexuality causes discomfort, and is perceived as personally threatening by many. The Jewish legacy includes biblical and rabbinic prohibitions against homosexuality … . Misconceptions and distortions about homosexuality are not only pervasive; they serve as the major source of popular opinion.”

Nevertheless, over the ensuing years, Reconstructionist affiliates have gradually but steadily aligned with the aspirations of movement policy. LGBTQ rabbis have found acceptance as rabbinic leaders, and Reconstructing Judaism has become an inclusive and welcome home to increasing numbers of LGBTQ Jews. The Reconstructionist movement—and subsequently, Reform and Conservative Judaism—have responded to changes in contemporary American society, leading to new interpretations of Jewish traditions and practices.

Orthodox Judaism has proved more resistant, as witnessed by this year’s ordination denial at the most progressive Orthodox seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Statements by YCT leadership tacitly acknowledge an impetus similar to the one that drove the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality: “the recognition that … all Jewish organizations include[s] lesbian and gay Jews among our laity and rabbis.” A call for inclusion of all members of our communities begins with a recognition of the fact of our communal diversity. On this point, YCT and Reconstructing Judaism agree.

There are marked differences between a Reconstructionist decision-making process and the relative adaptability of Reconstructionist communities, and the precedent-based halakhic process and less democratic nature of Orthodox communities. Might the knowledge gained within Reconstructionist communities and our experience of values-based decision-making prove useful to YCT? I believe that it can.

The Report of the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality opens with a discussion of core Jewish values relevant to a consideration of this topic and proceeds to explore historical Jewish sources: biblical, rabbinic and medieval. The Commission traced scholarly understandings of these texts, placing them within historical and contemporaneous cultural context. The concern of biblical texts in their use of the term to’evah (“abomination”), for example, is not clear. The subject seems to be sexual acts outside the context of loving relationships that distinguish the Israelites from surrounding peoples (as understood by the Bible). Some scholars understand the Bible’s words as directed against cultic prostitution, or as part of a desire to place things and activities within categories of sacred and profane; kashrut is an example of the latter.

Rabbinic sources generally affirm and broaden the biblical strictures. The rabbis understood biblical narratives such as Sodom and Gemorah not as stories about inhospitality, as their plain meaning would suggest, but as cautionary tales about sexual misbehavior. Post-biblical texts struggle to define to’evah; medieval sources globally sexualize the term. Sexual acts between men are at times clustered with masturbation and with a prohibition against “spilling seed” or non-procreative sex.

What is lacking across the traditional textual sources is a coherent or consistent understanding of the biblical prohibitions or an understanding that homosexuality could be defined within the context of loving relationships. Before the modern era, societal values and practices in the world beyond Jewish communal life were often perceived by rabbinic authorities as threatening. Homosexuality was a case in point, viewed as threatening Jewish distinctiveness and the assumed norm of heterosexual marriage. The Commission Report notes that rabbinic sources have not always been resistant to change regarding sexual norms and definitions of family. Jewish families, for example, have long ceased to be polygamous. Affirmation of halakhic norms can be arbitrary: Capital punishment was rarely enforced, while homosexuality is said to be never permissible. That Rabbi Linzer refers to biblical strictures about sex suggests that there may be potential for movement with regard to more comprehensive rabbinic prohibitions.

The Reconstructionist Commission Report continues with a discussion of contemporary scientific knowledge, defining homosexuality as sexual orientation rather than discrete sexual acts. It is a commonly occurring and increasingly accepted human characteristic and a normal expression of human psychological selfhood. Ancient, popular misconceptions ungrounded in reality have been used to incite pervasive discrimination. Thus, religious organizations have a special role in taking “an unequivocal stance regarding the nature of homosexuality and the treatment of gay men and lesbians.”

The core section of the Reconstructionist Commission Report elaborates contemporary Jewish values that can be drawn upon as a lens to assess historical texts and changing realities. These include:

  • human dignity and integrity (“respect without regard to gender, race, and other personal characteristics”);
  • kedushah/holiness;
  • equality (“equality implies not only equal participation, but also an equal opportunity to share in leadership and in the setting of policy”);
  • community and communal responsibility (“regard for community concerns, while respecting individual freedom of choice”);
  • loving, caring relationships (“it is the qualities of mutual respect, trust, care, and love that we consider the fundamental attributes of loving partnership”);
  • stable family and community life (“the most constant value of the family is its ability to provide intimacy, emotional and material support, stability, and the transmission of Jewish commitment, values, and practices. Many old and new kinds of families can fulfill these values”);
  • childrearing within the context of family;
  • physical pleasure and responsible sexuality (“fulfillment in sexual intimacy is not only valued but seen as an obligation of marital partners”);
  • physical, emotional and spiritual health (“The physical… [and] emotional component of sexual intimacy is recognized as essential to the maintenance of the well-being of the person and relationship”);
  • personal freedom (“the freedom to make responsible choices”);
  • Jewish continuity and adaptability (“when formulating an authentically Jewish response to the demands of contemporary ethical concerns, we must do so with discipline and responsibility to what is central in our tradition”);
  • inclusive community, democracy (“every person should have a voice and a vote regarding those matters affecting his or her life”);
  • learning from contemporary sources of knowledge (“the explosion of available information and new scientific data makes the study of sources beyond our traditional texts ever more critical”).
  • tzedek, tzedek tirdof: “you shall surely pursue justice” (the improvement of conditions under which human beings live… . The Jewish people has a special concern about just and fair treatment for those needing protection”).

Some of these values are core Jewish values, assuredly shared across the religious movements—for example, community and communal responsibility; childrearing within the context of family; and Jewish continuity and adaptability. Other values, core to liberal American Judaism, may be viewed as peripheral to or in conflict with Orthodox Judaism—for example, our understanding of equality as not merely equal value in the eyes of the Divine, but implying “equal opportunity to share in leadership and in the setting of policy.” From this value follows the related value of inclusive community and democracy.

There are a cluster of shared values articulated in the Reconstructionist position that align with YCT’s aspiration to create “more welcoming communities for … people of the LGBTQ community” and “confronting honestly and openly some of today’s most critical contemporary issues.” Certainly the values of loving, caring relationships, and stable family and community life are served by broader LGBTQ inclusion. While the value of personal freedom may be viewed as conflicting with communal authority, the value of human dignity and integrity—provided by the recognition of a contemporary scientific view of homosexuality—could suggest a rationale to change prohibitions on same-gender sexuality. Such a recognition would imply accepting the value of learning from contemporary sources of knowledge.

If indeed sexual orientation is one among numerous characteristics reflecting the spectrum of human personality, then human dignity and integrity can be coupled with the values of physical pleasure and responsible sexuality, and physical, emotional and spiritual health. Jewish values would dictate that sexual expression—a value held dearly by the rabbinic sources—be accorded to Jews, irrespective of sexual orientation. Rabbi Dov Linzer’s declaration that a male couple can “within halakha, live in the same home, have a committed, loving relationship” would inherently mean that the couple is entitled to a halakhically affirmed sexual relationship. If one affirms the values of community, childrearing within the context of family and Jewish continuity (as both Rabbi Linzer and the Reconstructionist movement have asserted), how could the value of kedushah/holiness be denied to the couple that forms that family? The value of communal responsibility becomes an imperative for communal leaders—if they seek full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews—to call for a new understanding of halakhah that recognizes if not embraces a contemporary understanding of social reality. Such a move would be received by the LGBTQ Jews within all Jewish communities as a response to the call for tzedek, tzedek tirdof: “you shall surely pursue justice.”

Indeed, a new halakhic understanding would represent a pioneering act by a progressive Orthodox institution. Surely, there will be resistance, as has been occasioned by all substantive social change. By offering a welcome to same-sex couples, as implied by YCT’s mission, the institution has already stated that relevant halakhah is not immutable. By affirming the value of inclusion, YCT has taken a first step to open the door to fuller acceptance of the full humanity of LGBTQ Jews. Certainly, there may be strong resistance to ordaining Jews in same-sex relationships. Yet if lay Jews deserve an acknowledgement of their full human dignity and integrity, how can the same not be accorded to rabbis?

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