The first case testing a decade-old policy permitting Conservative rabbis to serve gay and lesbian congregations has illuminated the movement’s many struggles and inconsistencies in connection with homosexuality-related issues.
A day before her ordination this spring at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ayelet Cohen informed the Rabbinical Assembly that she had been offered a job at New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue. She had served at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah as a rabbinic intern (placed there by the seminary) for the past two years.
Since CBST is not a member of the movement’s congregational arm (gay and lesbian synagogues are banned from membership on halachic grounds) Rabbi Cohen knew she needed a waiver to accept the post.
Rabbi Cohen, who is straight, was warned by the RA that accepting the job without its approval could result in sanctions, even expulsion. That would have nearly ended her career within the movement almost before it began.
After taking two months and calling Rabbi Cohen, 28, to appear before the placement commission, the RA gave her the green light just days before her job was slated to begin next week.
As the Conservative movement continues in its effort to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, the case raises questions about its stand on same-sex commitment ceremonies and the right of a rabbi to serve a gay and lesbian congregation, which in theory is permitted by an RA policy but in reality is not clear.
RA officials say they routinely consider applications for waivers, sometimes granting them and other times not.
In the case of Rabbi Cohen, getting the waiver approved was an unusually arduous and, at times, contentious process, say some involved, because the synagogue at issue serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
"We had concerns that there were issues that went beyond strictly placement issues," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at CBST, the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue.
The West Village congregation, which has 800 members, is closer liturgically and ritually to the Conservative movement than any other, Rabbi Kleinbaum said. CBST follows Conservative practice, observes kashrut, both of its rabbis were educated in several Conservative institutions and they do not officiate at interfaith marriages.
"It’s hard for me to believe that the fact that CBST is a large and active gay and lesbian synagogue, committed to the equality of gays in the Jewish world, did not inform their concern about placing Rabbi Cohen here," said Rabbi Kleinbaum, who is a member of the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical organizations.
According to a source familiar with the proceedings, who asked not to be named, RA officials "were flipping out" over Rabbi Cohen’s application for a waiver and purposely "dawdled" in dealing with it.
Rabbi Cohen was finally brought before a panel of 10 men and one woman on the placement commission and was questioned in a way "which bordered on sexual discrimination," said the source.
Asked by the panel if she intended to officiate at commitment ceremonies, Rabbi Cohen said she would do so in whatever synagogue she worked.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the RA, said the primary obstacle for Rabbi Cohen "was that the synagogue was not eligible for placement under our system."
"But the fact that it’s a gay and lesbian synagogue presents certain issues, obviously," he said. "The secondary issue was that the rabbi would be immediately put into a position of halachic compromise" by being expected to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies, which is prohibited by RA policy.
"Therefore, that would not be something we would generally go for," Rabbi Meyers said. "There are many congregations over the years that ask us to have rabbis come and serve them which are not United Synagogue members. Many are rejected precisely because they don’t meet our general halachic parameters."
In the end, the waiver was granted with one condition: that Rabbi Cohen not be technically called "assistant" rabbi. This is being viewed as a nod to the fact that many Conservative congregations struggle to fill their assistant rabbi positions even as the RA is approving that one potential candidate be hired by an independent synagogue.
Before the decision was made final, however, other conditions were discussed and negotiated among Rabbis Kleinbaum and Cohen and RA officials.
The difficulties of this particular case "point to the confusion and the struggle within the Conservative movement that is as yet unresolved about homosexual issues," said Rabbi Kleinbaum in an interview in her synagogue study with Rabbi Cohen.
Rabbi Cohen declined comment on the placement process, instead smiling and saying, diplomatically, "I look forward to being a member of the RA."
Many Conservative positions on gay-related issues date from the early 1990s, a tumultuous time when they prompted contentious debate among factions within the movement. At that time the RA’s Law Committee, which interprets Jewish law for the denomination, concluded that "avowed" gays and lesbians are to be barred from serving as rabbis. An openly lesbian rabbinical student was expelled; soon after an openly gay rabbi was booted out of the RA.
Since then, however, rabbinical school officials have adopted a "don’t ask, don’t tell" approach, which has led to gay and lesbian students leading secretive personal lives while in seminary. But several have been ordained and now serve mainstream Conservative synagogue communities.
A 1992 RA statement makes official the right of Conservative rabbis to serve gay and lesbian synagogues.
Yet another RA policy prohibits its members from officiating at commitment ceremonies. Experts say that asking rabbis at gay congregations to refrain from performing such ceremonies is like asking rabbis at predominantly straight congregations not to perform heterosexual weddings.
Many Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies despite the policy and, while Rabbi Meyers declined comment on it, none seemed to have been disciplined.
Rabbi Kleinbaum recently called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to ask if CBST could consider applying for membership in an effort to remove barriers to Rabbi Cohen’s employment. She was told that the synagogue could not belong to the congregational organization because Rabbi Kleinbaum officiates at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.
Asked about the contradiction in policies between the RA’s permitting its rabbis to serve at gay and lesbian synagogues and the United Synagogue’s not allowing those congregations to be Conservative-affiliated, Rabbi Jerome Epstein said in an interview from Israel that he had no comment because he was unfamiliar with the rabbinic group’s policy and was unable to review it while on his trip.
"We have a guideline that says we don’t accept congregations that don’t follow the general practice of the movement as determined by the RA," said Rabbi Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue.
"I have been told there are synagogues where rabbis do [perform] commitment ceremonies but don’t know of any" specifically, he said. "Not admitting a congregation that we know does that is different than saying there are some out there."
The commitment ceremony officiation issue is a policy of the RA that can result in disciplinary action, but is less severe than breaching one of its three standards of rabbinic practice, violation of which can result in expulsion.
The standards require that Conservative rabbis not officiate at intermarriages or at second marriages without ensuring that previously married parties have Jewish bills of divorce, and that they adhere to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness.
For the Conservative movement, the homosexuality issue has been particularly difficult to resolve. For Orthodox interpreters of Jewish law, it is a closed issue. For Reform and Reconstructionist, it is a non-issue.
"To the outside, the movement sometimes appears to be inconsistent," said Rabbi Meyers. "That puts the Conservative movement at times under a lot of pressure because people will assume that either the movement is liberal or restrictive.
"In fact, it’s trying to be very consistent with its whole approach and understanding of halachic development and openness to the world," he said. "But that’s a very hard line to walk."