Mo (mofic) wrote,

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Good News for Gay Conservative Jews?

So, there have been some changes in the Conservative Movement's view of gay and lesbian Jews. I belong to a Conservative shul and am a lesbian, so this has been a topic of particular interest to me. I've been following developments in the Movement for years, and very actively these past few months, leading up to the decisions of this past week. There's some good news in what happened, but on the whole I'm pretty disappointed.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) met this past week to consider the role of gay and lesbian Jews in the Conservative movement. The CJLS is a panel of 25 rabbis who vote on issues of Jewish law. They were considering making changes to a 1992 Consensus Statement of Policy Regarding Homosexual Jews in the Conservative Movement.

That policy statement said:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of The Rabbinical Assembly affirms the following policies:

1. We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays or lesbians.

2. We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors’ Assembly. At the same time, we will not instigate witch hunts against those who are already members or students.

3. Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the rabbi authorized to make halakhic decisions for a given institution within the Conservative Movement. Presumably, in this as in all other matters, the rabbi will make such decisions taking into account the sensitivities of the people of his or her particular congregation or school. The rabbi’s own reading of Jewish law on these issues, informed by the responsa written for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to date, will also be a determinative factor in these decisions.

4. Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and for lay leadership positions.

5. In any case, in accordance with The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue resolutions, we hereby affirm gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools.

A good summary of the CJLS's role and what they were discussing can be found on a special FAQ page of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The whole of the Consensus Statement and who voted for it can be found at, along with the related teshuvot (responsa).

So What Happened?

After lengthy consideration and two days of meetings, three tshuvot were accepted by the CJLS. They contradict one another, which means that individual congregations can choose which one to follow. One reaffirms the prohibitions in the Consensus Statement and calls upon gay and lesbian Jews to live celibate throughout their lives. Another argues for reparative therapy.

The third is the "good one". What's good about it? What's not so good?

It recommends ending the ban on out gay men and lesbians in the rabbinical seminaries and calls for full inclusion of gay people in congregational life. It allows for some methods of acknowledging same sex intimate relationships. It says that kvod habriot (human dignity) - a bedrock Jewish principle - does not allow for requiring that people have no sexual or romantic relationships for their whole lives.

These are indeed good things, but I had hoped that the movement would go further. This teshuva reaffirms that heterosexual relationships are the ideal to strive for, and tells bisexuals to enter into life long heterosexual committed relationships. It denies kiddushin - Jewish holy marriage - to same sex couples. And although it allows for male couples to engage in some forms of sex, it continues the ban on anal intercourse, saying that that is the only form of sex between same sex partners explicitly forbidden by the Torah and all the other forms were only forbidden by rabbinic decree, which this teshuvah tries to overturn.

So, why anal sex in particular?

It's all because of two verses in the Torah, in Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. Two verses that are to my mind rather cryptic. Here they are:

Leviticus 18, verse 22

וְאֶת-זָכָר--לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה: תּוֹעֵבָה, הִוא

Transliteration: V’et zachar lo tishkav, mishkavey isha, toevah hi.

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination. (JPS Translation)

Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman, since this is a disgusting perversion. (Kaplan Translation)

Leviticus 20, verse 13

יג וְאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת-זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה--תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ, שְׁנֵיהֶם; מוֹת יוּמָתוּ, דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.

Transliteration: V’ish asher yishkav et zachar mishkavey isha, toevah aso, shneyhem, mot yoomato, dmayhem bam

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (JPS Translation)

If a man has intercourse with another man in the same manner as with a woman, both of them have committed a disgusting perversion. They shall be put to death by stoning. (Kaplan translation).

Okay so these are the verses. I’ve given two different translations, as well as transliteration. I don’t know if the Hebrew letters will show up. You can find the Hebrew of the whole book of Vayikra (Leviticus) at or the two different English translations at

I’m giving two translations but neither is really adequate. I think they are very cryptic statements. As noted in the teshuvah just accepted by the CJLS, they have traditionally been interpreted to refer to male/male anal sex as “toevah” – abomination or, as Kaplan would have it, “disgusting perversion.” But why anal sex? What does it mean to lie with a man as you would with a woman, or to lie with mankind as with womankind?

Let’s look at the Hebrew. The key to this is the word whose root is shin-kaf-vav. It shows up in three forms:

Lo tishkav – Don’t “shin-kaf-vav”

Mishkavey isha – the “shin-kaf-vav”s (i.e. plural) of a woman

V’ish asher yishkav – a man who does “shin-kaf-vav”

So, what does it mean? It clearly does refer to a sexual act, but which one? Here is how the Talmudic discussion goes (simplified) that led to concluding it means anal sex:

Mishkavey isha is plural – the ways of having sex with a woman. No word is wasted in the Torah. Since this is said in plural, it means exactly two ways of having sex with a woman. If it were one, it would be singular, if it were more than two the number would be specified. So it refers to two ways that men have sex with women.

What are the two ways that men have sex with women? Vaginal penetration and anal penetration. Since vaginal penetration is impossible between two men, the verses refer to anal penetration. That is what is toevah – men penetrating each other anally.

Now this discussion completely astonishes me. It is breathtaking in its ignorance (really? There are two ways men have sex with women? No one in biblical or Talmudic times ever did anything else? Not even oral sex?) and in its tortured reasoning (if every word in the Torah counts, why would G-d prohibit male/male anal sex in this bizarre manner by prohibiting two kinds of sex, when one of them is impossible to do?)

Additional papers were submitted that did take a new look at what "mishkevay isha" could mean that was prohibited. They were not accepted by the CJLS. One in particular would have led to lifting of all restrictions on same-sex partners in their sexual activities.

The Conservative Movement is a halakhic movement. It believes that halakha - Jewish law - is binding on Jews. It also believes that halakha can and does change over time as we gain new understandings of the Torah and of the human condition. It believes in a careful, slow, measured approach to change. There's some good news in the potential for out gay rabbinical students, in the ability of same sex couples to have acknowledgement in more Conservative shuls than we do now, in an acknowledgement - if only in one out of three acceptable stances to take - that even gay and lesbian Jews are entitled to kvod habriot (human dignity). Still, even the best of the accepted teshuvot sees our lives and our roles as secondary to that of heterosexuals, tells bisexual people to follow the "superior" heterosexual lifestyle, and allows our men full acceptance within the movement only if they put what I consider a completely unreasonable and very stringent restriction on their sexual expression.

I will add that not all Conservative shuls follow the "Consensus Statement" and not all will follow any of the new teshuvot. There is a growing number of synagogues within the Conservative movement that fully include gay men and lesbians in all aspects of synagogue life and honor our relationships equally with those of heterosexuals. My shul is among them. So, this development at CJLS won't change what happens in our shul, since we've already gone further than the more progressive of the teshuvot accepted. Still, I'm disappointed the movement as a whole couldn't go a little further on the path we've already traveled.

Obfanfic connection: In the series I am currently writing, Adam Greenfield reflects on his brief religious period, during which he was the lover of an observant Jew who believed in restricting their sex life in just that way.
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