Loving Tradition Enough to Change It

A rabbi who sat on the committee that approved gay ordination reflects on the decision and how it came full circle at his last congregation.

by Rabbi Myron M. Fenster

This saga began seven years ago when I was invited to join the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I had been a congregational rabbi since 1949 and was quite aware of the difficulties that the committee faces as it tries to bring together two divergent concerns, that of the traditional and that of the contemporary. It could be done. It was being done, but never with ease. Knowing this, I nonetheless accepted the invitation.

The committee meetings were always intense as 25 rabbis from all over the country with different experiences and backgrounds came together. The subject at my first session was the question of whether the Jewish Theological Seminary could ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. Today, with gay marriage legal in several states, it hardly seems like such a radical idea. A decade ago, the atmosphere was quite different.

The meetings began early in the morning and continued late into the night. Back and forth we went, with passion, heat, rhetoric, and tension. Many were conflicted, including me. After three days, we were frustrated and deadlocked.

In a brilliant teshuvah (rabbinic responsum), Rabbi Elliot Dorff discussed the psychological, social and theological issues of gay ordination. The most obvious challenge was the law in Leviticus 18 stating that when a man lies together with  another man, as if with a woman, it is an “abomination.” The prohibition is clear and has been in force throughout the ages.

Rabbi Dorff ’s teshuvah has to be read in full to appreciate its many nuances. The essence of his opinion is that if you read the text in context you see that the act in question is seen by the Torah as optional. But, if there is no other option – if we are dealing with an instinctive and irrevocable aspect of a person’s makeup – it could be argued that the prohibition does not apply. While there are those who still believe that homosexuality can be reversed, the medical community maintains that such changes simply do not hold up.

So why the prolonged debate and irreconcilable differences among committee members? For many traditionalists it was impossible to wipe out a biblical text supported by the authorities of the Talmud. Those who opposed the leniency suggested celibacy for gays. They simply could not abide the misreading of what they saw as fundamental Torah law. On the other hand, the group of which I was part turned to the admonition in Deuteronomy 17: “If a matter comes before you (that is new and different) you shall go to the place that the Lord your God has selected, and come to the Priest, the  Levites, and the Judge that will be in that time, explain the case troubling you, and  they will give you direction. Do what they tell you, and be zealous about following their instruction. Do not turn to the left or to the right from what they have told you.”

We 25 rabbis of the Law Committee were designated as the collective judges to decide exactly those issues which are difficult, new and in need of resolution. We knew that we were blazing new ground. As we saw it, it was what the times demanded. The Talmud speaks of a loud voice emanating from Sinai that “did not stop.” We felt that we were still listening to that voice. The original presumptions of the law no longer obtained. We were determined to speak, not only to those who wished to be ordained, but to thousands of others who were gay and lesbian, to say to them that they have a full and legitimate place in our tradition. Our call was for inclusion.

After long deliberation, in 2007 the Law Committee voted to ask the Jewish Theological Seminary to admit gay students into its rabbinical school. After acrimonious discussion and heated debate, a handful of committee members resigned, but the decision stood.

A year later, I became the rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel, in Greenport, New York. The synagogue, located on the east end of Long Island, more than two hours from New York City, was a far cry from the large congregation I had served for 36 years in Roslyn, New York. The Shelter Rock Jewish Center was a centrist congregation that came to egalitarianism slowly in a process that evolved over more than a decade. Tifereth Israel, on the other hand, was a liberal community interested in traditional practice but struggling to sustain an observant lifestyle in a small town. Seventy-five families make up the congregation.

One of the interesting things about being a rabbi in a small town is the camaraderie among the clergy of different faiths. Our interfaith community was an especially cohesive and supportive group. After gay marriage was legalized in New  York and I was to officiate at the wedding of a lesbian couple, my fellow clergymen asked how a traditionalist like me could square same-sex marriage with biblical scripture.

Their challenge was really more fundamental. They were asking when it is appropriate to challenge halakhah. And if we are to change the law, how do we do so while maintaining the integrity of scripture and centuries of Jewish law?

It is my belief that Conservative Judaism has the most accurate read of Jewish history because it recognizes the development of tradition without disregarding halakhah’s authority. The synagogue, the prayer service, the Sabbath, kashrut, are all fundamental aspects of Jewish life that appear in the Bible only in rudimentary form. To take the most  obvious example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) speak of Sabbath rest, both human and animal. Later Talmudic expansion lists 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat. Over the centuries, what was a one-paragraph description of how to observe Shabbat transformed into a long list of rules and regulations. As a JTS Bible professor once explained, “The Torah means what the rabbis of the Talmud say it means.”

This saying, just like the passage in Deuteronomy cited by the Law Committee, affirms the fact that the Bible cannot stand alone. The community decides the appropriate mode of interpretation. This is not to say that everyone has the authority to set law. The passage clearly commands us to seek out the judges, in other words the best educated and wisest of people. But the Torah is lo beshamayim hi, it is not in the heavens with God, but down here on earth. When the committed people of our community agree that one interpretation of a passage no longer works, we must trust  their judgment and make the shift. The Conservative movement should continue to put the pressing moral issues of our time into the hands of its most trusted leaders. And there must always be dialogue between those leaders and their people.

A half century ago, the Law Committee made a decision of equal magnitude to that of gay ordination when it approved driving to the synagogue on Shabbat. Synagogue attendance is a cornerstone of the observant Jewish life, but for suburbanites, driving to the synagogue is often a necessity. This decision grew from the premise that the observance of halakhah should never preclude the very spirit of the halakhah. In the era of 1950s suburbanization, Judaism might have been lost to countless people if the movement had not allowed this leniency. Jewish law must meet contemporary needs while retaining its traditional roots. By permitting gay ordination we were following the same process that was staked out by our leaders 50 years ago. How many souls, both gay and straight, would we lose if we did not allow anyone passionate and learned enough to become a rabbi to do so?

After four years in Greenport, my wife and I decided that it was time to retire. The synagogue’s rabbinic search committee found Gadi Kapela, a newly minted JTS rabbi, engaging and energetic, knowledgeable and charismatic. Rabbi Kapela also was the first gay rabbi ordained under the ruling we had passed five years earlier. He was installed by his mentor, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school, who agrees with me that Rabbi Kapela, an Israeli of Yemenite descent, has a distinguished future in store.

So why write this now? Many Jews still oppose gay and lesbian marriage. While respecting their view, we will work to win them over to the progressive unfolding of our tradition. These two seemingly contradictory actions – clinging to tradition, meeting the present full on – must be the basic foundation on which we build our spiritual and religious future. Judaism has the power to enliven tradition and envelop the contemporary. It is our responsibility to make sure it does.

Recently retired, Rabbi Myron Fenster was the spiritual leader of Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York, for 36 years and for four years at Tifereth Israel in Greenport, New York.