In the Diaspora: Brokeback minyan
By Samuel Freedman
When I was a senior in high school and editor of its student newspaper, my English teacher took our staff into Manhattan for a scholastic journalism convention. At the end of the events, which happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, he shepherded us onto the subway and then walked us to the correct platform of the bus terminal for the ride back home to New Jersey. Having boarded us all, he backed away from the closing door and said in a sprightly way, "Well, I’m off to see some Irish friends in the Village."
Most of us knew the import of those flip words. Mr. Stevens, our teacher, was gay, and he was heading into the part of his life that was an open secret. Certainly, our community would not have acknowledged the presence of a homosexual on the faculty, someone entrusted with the lives of scores of teenaged boys. Just as certainly, nobody would have wanted to lose the most inspiring teacher in the school by forcing a confrontation. The result was just one more version of the closet, and it was in that closet that Mr. Stevens essentially drank himself to death.
I found myself recalling Mr. Stevens, a Protestant from the South, in relationship to the Jewish world last week, as the Conservative movement was finally, admirably opening the closet door. The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards accepted a position paper that permits Conservative seminaries to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, and allows Conservative rabbis to perform ceremonies for same-sex unions.
THIS REMAINS incomplete justice, to be sure. Among the five papers accepted by the committee are one restating the movement’s 1992 ban on ordaining homosexuals and another urging gays and lesbians to receive treatment so they can become straight. Each of the movement’s five seminaries and hundreds of congregations has the right to adopt or ignore any of the approved positions.
Even so, four small-c conservative members of the law committee resigned in protest. "Just because something is politically correct," Rabbi Joel Roth told the New York Jewish Week, "does not make it halachically correct."
Such reasoning might carry more weight were homosexuality merely the sort of trendy garment that so many opponents of gay equality persist in caricaturing it as. Personally, I have never known or read about any gay or lesbian who described sexual identity as a lifestyle choice. To the one, they depict it as a biological reality. If anything, many of them tried for years to deny it, because until very recently the costs of being homosexual in America were so severe - estrangement from family, ridicule from the public, loss of employment, harassment or arrest by the police.
THE HOMOPHOBIC culture I recall from high school in the 1970s did nothing to keep Mr. Stevens from being gay, because nature made him gay. And the refusal until now of the Conservative movement to accept homosexuals as clergy and laity did nothing to keep those homosexuals from existing in the form nature made them, attending seminaries and becoming ordained. All it did was drive them underground, or outside the Conservative movement, or perhaps beyond Jewish communal identity altogether.
The decision to open a space of theological acceptance for gays and lesbians seems to me deeply true to the Conservative movement’s mission of interpreting Halacha in light of modernity. One can appreciate the gravity of the choice, and the wisdom of it, by comparing the vote on gay equality to the vote 56 years ago by the law committee permitting driving on the Sabbath.
Admittedly, there was no biblical verse that explicitly forbade driving on the Sabbath, the automobile not having been invented at the time of revelation in Sinai, and so it was only a rabbinic interpretation of text, not text itself, that was being amended in 1950. But neither was car culture in the postwar United States a law of nature, a scientific reality to which Halacha needed to be reconciled. The auto boom was a product of man-made forces - commerce, demography, recreation, government funding for highways.
Either disingenuous or hopelessly na ve, the Conservative movement decided to allow driving to Sabbath for the sole purpose of traveling to synagogue. History has demonstrated, I think, that in the wake of the ruling no groundswell of devout drivers suddenly, gratefully flocked to shul.
The matter of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy, in comparison, derives from an evolving understanding that sexual orientation is biologically determined. The scientific debate over whether such a thing as a "gay gene" exists has been proceeding since the early 1990s. While decades may pass before a consensus among geneticists emerges on the subject, the realization that sexual orientation is part of our hard-wiring has begun to take hold in American society.
IN MOST instances, I would not place much stock in popular culture as a measure of anything except the lowest common denominator. But something has happened about homosexuality in the last year, typified by the film about two gay cowboys, Brokeback Mountain, and the plot line concerning a gay mobster and gay firefighter on the cable series The Sopranos. What both of those works of entertainment acutely grasped was the price in stealth and self-hate and deceit and wrecked families that comes with having to hide the truth of one’s self.
The aspects of gay life most inscrutable or offensive to straights - the promiscuity of the bathhouse scene, the campy drag shows - might be best understood as adaptations to a surrounding society that refused to recognize healthy, stable, life-affirming relationships within the same sex. The blame belongs less on the occupant than on the closet.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the author of the position paper on gay equality, has also written a book about Jewish ethics entitled To Do the Right and the Good. What he means by invoking that biblical phrase is doing what serves the needs of both the individual and the community.
While even his paper has some tortured reasoning - suggesting that the famous verse in Leviticus forbids only anal but presumably not oral sex between men - it has moved the Conservative movement toward what is indeed both good and right.
The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of six books, is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post.