Opening The Closet Doors
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen - Staff Writer
As a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1990s, Carie Carter was plagued by a feeling that she was “hiding, denying something.”
Rabbi Carter spent many years struggling with her sexual orientation before finally realizing she was a lesbian. Once she did, she struggled over whether she should keep it a secret to remain in rabbinnical school.
Only now, with the announcement this week that the Conservative seminary will ordain openly gay rabbis, is she willing to have her sexual orientation discussed in print.
“Rabbinical school is a place where you’re supposed to be learning to be whole, connecting to God and the community, to teachers you respect tremendously,” she said. “To try to develop that when you’re holding back a part of yourself is nearly impossible, and leads to tremendous anxiety and pain. That’s why I’m so glad that no one will have to do it again.”
Now the spiritual leader of the Park Slope Jewish Center, Rabbi Carter was one of many rabbis, rabbinical students and lay leaders adapting to the centrist movement’s dramatically transformed climate for gays and lesbians.
Now that the Conservative movement and its flagship institution, JTS, are permitting the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies, denomination leaders are jumping in to address the implications of the recent policy shifts. And Rabbi Carter’s decision brings into sharp relief the emotions at play in JTS’ landmark decision.
After 15 years of fractious and often-painful debate over the status of gay and lesbian Jews, the head of JTS, Arnold Eisen, this week announced that it is reversing its policy and for the first time will now admit openly homosexual rabbinical students.
One openly gay candidate has had his application pending there but declined to be interviewed, citing his desire not to create any new obstacles to being accepted. There have been other inquiries from openly gay potential candidates, said Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi William LeBeau, but not yet other applicants. The school extended its deadline until June to permit others to apply. The other Conservative rabbinical school in the U.S., the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles’ American Jewish University (formerly called the University of Judaism), began accepting applications from openly gay students as soon as the denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards adopted a paper permitting it, last December. The Ziegler school has accepted two openly gay students for the coming academic year.
The Law Committee in December also endorsed two legal analyses that maintain the traditional prohibition against Jewish leadership by those who are openly gay.
But this week, when the JTS policy was officially changed, Rabbi LeBeau sent out a note saying “with today’s decision we will join in welcoming new students without regard to sexual orientation, and embrace students already in our school without regard to sexual orientation.” JTS’ rabbinical school has 140 students in its six-year program. There are currently no openly gay students enrolled, and a couple of years ago three students withdrew in the middle of their training when they came out as gay.
While this week’s announcement would seem to close a difficult chapter in the denomination’s history, it also opens up a new one, said those interviewed, exploring all the issues surrounding gay and lesbian involvement in every aspect of Conservative life. The ritual, social and spiritual challenges range from same-sex commitment ceremonies to how to help gay students feel fully integrated into life at JTS.
“Inside JTS we’ll be holding forums. The faculty will be talking about this in class,” said Eisen in an interview with The Jewish Week. “We don’t stop now, but take steps to make sure we go forward as one community.”
Rabbi LeBeau said, “We want to consider the implication of the policy changes on the curriculum” at the rabbinical school, but it hasn’t yet been discussed in detail. “I think it’s going to be an education process for the movement.”
The rabbinical school, JTS overall and a pro-gay ordination student group called Keshet have all held educational and discussion forums throughout the period that the denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was debating different interpretations of the traditional ban on homosexual activity. There have also been several discussions since then, said JTS officials.
The movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has also become proactive about addressing the implications of these major policy changes. In February it established an Ad Hoc Committee on Implementation of the CJLS Teshuvot on Homosexuality. Its seven members have already met several times, says chair Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.
“We want to be of service to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly by helping explain how the teshuvot are to be applied, how to deal with the questions raised because of those teshuvot, among rabbis and from members of congregations to their rabbis,” he said.
They are first addressing same-sex commitment ceremonies. “We want to try and determine exactly what it is and how it is structured, because many of us, myself included, have never seen one,” said Rabbi Wohlberg. “We’re analyzing what it is so we can know how to perform them.”
The committee will also take up the question of how to ritually dissolve a same-sex commitment, and if a same-sex commitment ceremony would be permitted if either of the partners was previously married but does not have a “get,” the Jewish divorce required by the movement before remarriage is permitted. “We haven’t thought yet about family purity and mikveh” as those obligations might relate to a same-sex couple, said Rabbi Wohlberg.
“We’re trying not to rush but we do want to finish, because people are asking these questions, and we want to provide help as soon as we can,” he said, adding that the committee will work through the summer and hopes to have material to send to Rabbinical Assembly members by early autumn.
When the Law Committee voted last December, Eisen began consulting with various JTS constituencies - faculty, students, rabbis and congregational leaders - before deciding to change the school’s policy.
While many viewed the JTS policy change as a foregone conclusion, Eisen said, “It was anything but.”
The recent discussion “was a good process, it was unifying,” said Eisen. “It was important for people to be able to talk about something that had not been discussed openly at the seminary before. It was important for students to see themselves and faculty members disagreeing in a way that was mutually respectful.”
Eisen and others, including the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, called the JTS process itself a major accomplishment.
“The real story is the fact that the movement has undergone a tremendous emotional wrench in terms of debate and struggle, and come through it whole, with maturity and integrity recognizing that the movement remains divided on this issue,” said Rabbi Meyers. “We have a divided rabbinate and a divided laity on this. Given that, what has happened since the [Law Committee] decision has been rather remarkable. Everyone remained respectful and stayed together. It’s a model for others to see what can happen in the midst of a very difficult issue,” he said.
It stands in stark contrast to the way the same issue is playing out in the Episcopal Church, which has dioceses withdrawing, and is facing a schism from the worldwide Anglican Communion over gay ordination.
Though some had predicted that opening the door to gay ordination would create a major rift in the Conservative movement, a denomination already troubled by shrinking and aging membership, that has not seemed to occur.
“We’re all grateful for the way the conversation has been conducted here at the seminary, for us to learn from both sides of this issue. This has been a very good time for the Conservative movement and the Seminary,” said Rabbi LeBeau.
When the law committee made its decision, four of its members resigned in protest. Following that, six members of the Rabbinical Assembly withdrew their membership from the 1,600-member association, according to Rabbi Meyers. But no JTS students or faculty members have quit over the matter, Eisen said, “And I don’t expect it, either.”
One of the rabbis who withdrew from the law committee was Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish thought at JTS who is widely considered the movement’s foremost legal scholar. He authored one of two papers passed by the Law Committee upholding the ban on gay ordination.
Of the policy change, he said, “I’m disappointed but not surprised. I had little doubt that this would be the decision.
“Here’s what I fear,” Rabbi Roth said. “If, now that the movement has validated two positions, one so overpowers the other that those who advocate the prohibition no longer feel they have a place in the movement. If potential rabbinical school students opposed to the permissive position still feel they are welcome, that they are not accused of immorality or homophobia, not told they are living in the Middle Ages, then it won’t have any long-term effect on the Conservative rabbinate.”
Several people interviewed said that this week’s policy shift may usher in a period of renewal.
“It allows us access to a fuller range of talent and passion among potential Jewish leaders,” said Elizabeth Richman, a third-year rabbinical student who is co-chair of Keshet (Hebrew for “rainbow”), the student group.
Welcoming gay and lesbian rabbinical students “is symbolic of the movement being a welcoming place for all people, regardless of their sexual identity,” said Richman. “I can really see this as being something that revitalizes excitement and enthusiasm about the Conservative movement.”
Park Slope’s Rabbi Carter says she feels “relief and joy” for future JTS students. “They’re really going to have a different experience than I did, and I’m grateful for that. JTS just made it possible so that so many people who are utterly committed to Conservative Jewish living can be whole.”
The Jewish Week