Sunday, March 09, 2008

A slow evolution

I've been doing some reading about the processes of change among the different Jewish denominations. It's interesting to see what decisions influence what changes, and at what pace the denominations move to adapt to each other.

Take the issue of ordaining female rabbis. Apparently the Reform movement was kicking the idea around all through the late 1800s (and vetoing it through the first few decades of the 1900s), but took another 100 years for it to come into practice with Rabbi Sally Preisand, who was ordained in 1972. I had vaguely heard of R. Preisand but was surprised to learn that right behind her, nipping at her heels, as it were, was a Reconstructionist Rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, ordained just two years later. It took 11 years after Sally Preisand for the Conservative movement to follow suit, a process which some feared (and others threatened) would split the movement. For the most part, this did not happen. And even though there is presently no widespread move towards ordaining women rabbis in the Orthodox world, it too has not been immune from the shift. Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic increase in the quality and diversity of educational opportunities for women, something that I would say must be partially read as Orthodoxy's attempt to negotiate a middle road between not actually ordaining female rabbis (too goyish!) and not overly pissing off/alienating women and the feminist-inclined in their own camp ("I can read Hebrew better than you, I can understand Talmudic argumentation, so remind me again why I can't study Talmud?")

This is all interesting to look at because it suggests the model for future issues. Take homosexuality. Again, we have Reconstructionist and Reform leading the way, letting gay students into their seminaries back in the late 1980s. As before, it has taken the Conservative movement longer, this time about twenty years, to come to similar conclusions- though, again, there is a lot of talk about this potentially splitting the movement, and the decision by the American wing to allow the ordination of gay rabbis seems like it will take a while to gain full acceptance among its counterparts in the UK and Israel.

But what's really fascinating is to look at how these questions of law and ideology influence things like political positions. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements were vocally supporting same-sex marriage as early as 1992 and 96. A recent article chronicling the latest salvo in the marriage wars in California focused on the religious movements involved, and which side they came down on:

On one side are the Mormon church, the California Catholic Conference, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. They describe marriage between a man and a woman as "the lifeblood of community, society and the state" and say any attempt by the courts to change that would create "deep tensions between civil and religious understandings of that institution."

On the other side are the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Soka Gakkai branch of Buddhism, and dissident groups of Mormons, Catholics and Muslims. Saying their faiths and a wide range of historical traditions honor same-sex unions, they argue that the current law puts the state's stamp of approval on "the religious orthodoxy of some sects concerning who may marry."

Notice anything? The Conservative movement stayed out of it. Didn't want to take a side. It's kind of sad, but understandable. Given the trend for the Conservative movement to act slower (perhaps, in their minds, rightfully slow) on issues relating to social change, so it might have been too much to expect them to come out swinging for same-sex marriage so soon after finishing the last major battle over whether gays and lesbians can even become rabbis.

But then I spotted this:

Los Angeles — In 2005, when a Jewish gay-marriage activist first pressed California rabbis to sign a statement supporting full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, only a handful of Conservative rabbis lent their names. Over the course of the past two months, however, more than a dozen Conservative rabbis here have signed on to a growing list of clergy who support gay marriage in the civil realm.

What changed in between was the December 2006 decision, or teshuvah, by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to allow gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex commitment ceremonies — a decision made after 15 years of rancorous argument about the issue. As a result of that long-simmering debate, observers note, Conservative rabbis, many of whom were previously uninformed on issues of gay rights in the civil sphere, did their homework and read up on the issues. Others who may have already supported gay marriage finally felt freed up to express their views publicly.

...In Massachusetts, an anti same-sex marriage amendment was roundly defeated in 2005, and again in 2007 at the state legislative level. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a former Bay State Conservative rabbi who in June of last year became rabbi of Berkeley synagogue Congregation Netivot Shalom, helped organize rabbinic efforts to defeat the Massachusetts bill. Three years ago, 97 Massachusetts rabbis signed a public advertisement opposing the proposed legislation. But according to Creditor — who founded Keshet Rabbis, an organization of Conservative rabbis who support gay and lesbian equality — only seven of those signatories were Conservative. Following passage of the law committee decision in December 2006, Creditor said, many more Conservative rabbis signed their names.

Elliot Dorff, the rector of Los Angeles’s American Jewish University and a co-author of the rabbinic opinion that opened the doors for gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex unions in Conservative Judaism, said the scientific evidence that the opinion presented, showing that sexual orientation is not a choice, has been a key factor in swaying rabbis. Before the hard-fought opinion passed, Dorff said, it would have been far more difficult to convince Conservative rabbis to rally behind the cause of same-sex marriage.

I guess the desire to have the rabbi find a good match trumps the squick/halacha factor!

I have to say, I'm encouraged by this. I don't need Conservative Judaism to be a clone of Reform or Recon, but to see that there is a pattern of having CJ lean the direction of its liberal counterparts when it comes to progressive change, at least on a basic, human equality level... I see that as all for the good. And, again, as the other movements take positions, the Orthodox world modifies some of its own, albeit in different ways. (Who could have predicted this twenty years ago?)

I predict that the next big question will be about intermarriage, patrilineal descent, and so on. I think CJ is content to let patrilineal descent remain their "dividing line" relative to Reform for a good while, unless something big happens to change that. And, most likely, they will find a way of dealing with the issue that at least gives more face value to halacha than Reform's "screw it" position (perhaps continuing some of the practices they already have, like formal conversion of patrilineal-descent children at or before Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). But CJ has demonstrated over the years that fundamentally, it is more interested in seeing what halacha can permit and coexist with, as opposed to shut out. I would say that is what fundamentally distinguishes it from Orthodoxy, and that is why eventually CJ will wind up figuring something out that will probably be more, not less, inclusive of the intermarried and patrilineals.

A final thought: if R. Roth resigned from the Law Committee over ordaining gay rabbis, god knows what he'll do if they decide to allow mixed marriages. Presumably it will involve fire.

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