Taiku! Israeli Masorti Movement Opens Door to Gay Rabbis

Taiku! This is the word the Talmud uses when a debate simply can’t be resolved. Rather than pick one solution the Talmud cries Taiku! Tie! Let it stand! and the parties go onto other issues. We like to think that there is one right way and if people work hard enough they will find it. In reality there were many many times when the Talmud could find no way to resolve a dispute. Forcing a solution only divides a community. Calling “Taiku!” allows the community to stay together even without exact agreement on every issue.

Two Contradictory Opinions

The Conservative movement’s handling of gay unions and ordinations is a modern day example of “Taiku!”. In 2006 the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) took up the issue of the status of homosexuality within Conservative Jewish Halachah. Given the strong feelings on all sides, there was no way to come to a single answer, so the committee accepted two contradictory rulings.

The first of these opinions ( EH 24.2006a ) , by Joel Roth, argued against gay unions and ordinations. Roth was concerned that wholesale rejection of rabbinic bans against homosexual relatinships would put the Conservative movement too far outside the bounds of the halachic community which includes orthodox Jews and not just conservative Jews.

The pro-ordination opinion (EH 24.2006b) was written by Rabbis Eliott N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins, Avram I. Reisner. It argued that gay unions and ordinations were permissable. Only male-male anal intercourse is prohibited from the Torah; all other prohibitions are rabbinic fences around the Torah prohibition; in today’s environment those rabbinic prohibitions violate kvod habriyot. Since kvod habriyot can be used to override rabbinic prohibitions, Dorff et all argued that we needed to let them go. There are many ways to build a relationship and engage in sexual relations. Male-male anal intercourse should have the status of nida. Even though intercourse during nida is prohibited, we still marry heterosexual couples. We don’t worry that they could decide at some point to violate nida. Similarly we should celebrate gay unions and allow gay ordination even though in theory male partners might violate the male-male anal intercourse ban. Roth was so strongly opposed to the Dorff opinion, he resigned from the CJLS when the Dorff opinion was accepted.

Rabbinic Schools Respond

In the USA acceptence of the Dorff opinion gave the two major conservative rabbinical schools the green light to accept gay students. The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angelos began accepting gay students starting in fall of 2007. The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York followed suit a year later.

But in Israel the dual responsa solved nothing. Each responsa had strong advocates at Machon Schechter, the Israeli rabbinical school for the Masorti (Conservative) movement. Two rabbis resigned from Machon Schechter, one because it wouldn’t ordain gays and one because it would. Gay Masorti Jews who wanted to be rabbis were forced to move to the USA and study in US rabbinical schools.

But last week, on Thursday, April 19, 2012 in the spirit of taiku, the Board of Trustees voted on a new plan. There was no coming up with a unified decision because each side thought the other was doing something unconscionable. Their solution was to stop their arguing and say in effect “elu v’elu devarim elokim chaim”.

At the end of their rabbinic training, students are examined by a beit din. According to the plan, students will be allowed to chose the members of the beit din from rabbis belonging to the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the seminary. Since both Dorff and Roth are accepted by the CJLS as valid positions, rabbinic students will be allowed to choose the members of the beit din based on whichever opinion the student follows.

Eighteen rabbis board members attended the meeting. When they voted all but one affirmed the decision. The one hold out abstained. The official statement about the decision observes “This unique mechanism is an expression of halachic pluralism, one of the founding principles of SRS [Schechter Rabbinical School]“.

Israeli Gay Rabbinical Students Respond

Prior to this decision gay Masorti Jews in Israel wanting to be rabbis have had to enroll in institutions outside of Israel.

Israeli born Amichai Lau-Lavie is a gay rabbinical student studing at JTS in the USA. He is one of the founders of StorahTelling. In his blog article celebrating the decision he also highlighted the decision as an example of courageous halachic change.

This decision is not just about LGBT rights. It is an important statement about Halachic change, evolving social-legal norms and the courage to make progress in a society so suspicious of changes and so badly in need of this fresh approach.

Israeli D’ror Chankin-Gould, a 28 year old gay rabbinical student at Zeigler stressed the suffering that has preceded this decision was quoted by AP saying:

[this decision was ] something that we’ve been dreaming of for years. It’s just been a lot of pain and a lot of tears and a lot of years to get to this place…. We have now an opportunity for more committed, wonderful teachers to rise up in Israel and to teach their Torah and to model for Israeli society and for the Jewish people what it means to include all of our voices.”

The Status of Masorti Rabbis in Israel

Marriages and divorces performed in Israel are only recognized by the state if they are performed by rabbis recognized by the Israeli Rabbinut. The Rabbinut is currently controlled by Haredi Jews that do not recognize rituals performed by Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox rabbis.

Conversions by Masorti Batei Din fall into a grey area. The state of Israel recognizes conversions performed by Reform and Masorti Batei Din, but the Rabbinut does not. Due to state recognition, a Masorti convert can put the word “Jew” on her ID card. However, due to the Rabbinut’s refusal to recognize Masorti converts and Masorti weddings, a Masorti convert can’t have a state recognized Jewish marriage in Israel. The children of female converts suffer the same restrictions.

On a popular level however things are quite different. According to the recently released Avi Chai/IDI study on religion in Israel, 48% would personally consider someone converted with a non-orthodox conversion as Jewish. Personal beliefs not withstanding, 61% of Israelis agree or strongly agree that Reform and Conservative Jews should have equal status with Orthodox Jews in Israel.

News Sources:

Categories: Building a Better Judaism, Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Taiku! Israeli Masorti Movement Opens Door to Gay Rabbis

  1. Thank you for this concise, clear, impressive and inspiring summary of a big moment in Jewish history and what is hopefully the continuation of a long tradition of wrestling with our tradition in creative and dignified manners. May the Elusive One Solve All Issues, Amen.

  2. Urkyle

    At the end of the day who gives a….. what any groups thinks, feels, does or even believes. The question should be a simple one.
    What does YHVH think and we find what HE not only thinks but what He has commanded us?

    I have an better question then the Gay issues.

    What makes it so difficult to do what HE asks us to do?

    • Beth Frank-Backman

      There are at least two reasons why people care about what “any group” thinks.
      (a) God cares and since we are created in God’s image, we too should care.
      (b) Each human being is created in the image of God, and therefore has an inherent dignity that does not go away even when they make mistakes.

      It is my sense that the groups involved in this decision all care very much about what God thinks. They just happen to have studied God’s Words, i.e. the Torah, and come to different opinions on _what_ God thinks.

  3. Charles

    “There are many ways to build a relationship and engage in sexual relations. Male-male anal intercourse should have the status of nida. Even though intercourse during nida is prohibited, we still marry heterosexual couples. We don’t worry that they could decide at some point to violate nida. Similarly we should celebrate gay unions and allow gay ordination even though in theory male partners might violate the male-male anal intercourse ban.”

    The difference is, for one thing, that it is actually possible for married heterosexual couples to engage in sexual relations that are permitted by God. But we wouldn’t marry a married woman to a new man while she is married, would we? No. It would not be possible for the new couple to engage in permissible sexual relations with each other.

    “We have now an opportunity for more committed, wonderful teachers to rise up in Israel and to teach THEIR Torah…”

    Herein lies the problem. People need to get back to HASHEM’s Torah.

    In HaShem’s Torah, it is plainly written in the beginning,

    ‘And [from] the rib, which the HaShem God had taken from the man, made He a [WOMAN], and brought her unto the man.’ And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called [WOMAN], because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his [WIFE], and they shall be one flesh.’
    – Bereshiit (Genesis) 2:22-24, JPS Tanakh, Emphasis Added

    Man and wife; woman. One flesh.

    ‘But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell securely, and shall be quiet without fear of evil.’
    – Mishlei (Proverbs) 1:33, JPS Tanakh

    • Beth Frank-Backman

      Charles,

      “Many ways to build a relationship” was referring to things like emotional support, team work, and non-penetrative sexual intimacy.
      Even for heterosexual couples, sexual intimacy doesn’t always involve penetration. Dorff agrees with Roth that male-male anal intercourse is forbidden. The debate between Roth and Dorff is whether long term committed platonic same-sex relationships and/or non-penetrative sexual relationships are also forbidden.

      Gen 2:22-24: This verse beautifully affirms the value of heterosexual relationships, but how can you use that to exclude relationships? By omission? If so then other completely valid situations would also be wrong. For example, it omits leaving home to live on their own without ever being married, widowhood, and being single after divorce, among others.

      Proverbs 1:33 Another beautiful verse. Indeed we should always listen to G-d. But we also need to understand what G-d is saying. This article is about how the Conservative Movement dealt with a situation where they disagreed about what G-d wanted.

  4. Charles

    Beth,

    We’re not talking about omission here. We’re talking about specification. We’re talking about HaShem’s obvious, natural design, which is also clearly laid out in Genesis—if one should even need to read it there! It absolutely does not include male-male sexual relations in any way, just as it does not include person-animal unions. HaShem does not call being single, etc. ABOMINATION, as He does gay sex, so your example is completely inappropriate. One is seriously out of touch with HaShem who thinks that HaShem disapproves of men having anal sex with each other but approves of one rabbi giving another rabbi fellatio! This is what’s called missing the spirit of the Torah; twisting the letter of the law to your own destruction. The letter kills, but the spirit is life.

    People like to see how close to the fire they can get without being burned, and many are perishing for it.

  5. Rabbi Andy Sacks

    Very well written and quite on the money where there is analysis.

    Tow corrections:
    1. You write “Eighteen rabbis attended the meeting. When they voted all but one affirmed the decision. The one hold out abstained.” Yes, this is what was reported in HaAretz but it was a mistake. There were a8 members of the board who voted. Not 18 rabbis. That said, it happens that the one person who abstained was a rabbi.

    2. You write”Conversions, marriages, and divorces performed in Israel are only recognized if they are performed by rabbis recognized by the Israeli Rabbinut.” Not sure what you mean by recognized. Conversions performed in Israel by Masorti and Reform Batei Din are, indeed, recognized under Israeli law (true the Rabbanut does not accept our Gerim) by the Israeli government. Our converts may change their registration to “Jewish” in the Interior Ministry. If the convert is a women – any children subsequently born to her will automatically be registered as Jewish.

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