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.
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.
- Israeli Conservatives Will Ordain Gay Rabbis, Forward via JTA, April 20, 2012.
- Israeli Conservative Movement approves ordination of gay rabbis , HaAretz, April 20, 2012
- Jerusalem – Conservative Movement In Israel OKs Gay Rabbis , Vos Iz Neias via AP, April 20, 2012
- Conservative Judaism school to ordain gay students, Jerusalem Post, April 22, 2012.
Updated: 2012-04-24, to incorporate corrections and clarifications made by Andy Sacks in comments below.