Conservatism is Judiasm’s third-largest branch, with some 1,600 rabbis worldwide. It is poised theologically between the liberalism of Reform Judaism and the (small-c) conservatism of Orthodoxy. On the upside, today’s decision reaffirmed Conservatism’s de facto position as America’s Jewish center, minding Jewish law but sensitive to shifts (in this case, toward greater tolerance) in the national social mainstream. On the downside, it also suggested once again that the center may not hold, and Conservatism itself may be increasingly split down the middle. As soon as the votes were taken, three members of the rabbinical committee resigned.
Conservatism is actually in a classic American centrist bind. Since 1991 Reform Judaism has allowed gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies, a position probably slightly to the left of the Episcopal Church of the USA. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, regards homosexuality as deviant, and gay Orthodox Jews are as closeted as they are in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention. Until today Conservatism followed Orthodoxy’s legal lead, based in part on the biblical injunction that “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” But many Conservative congregations have openly gay members, and pro-gay-rights sentiment is on the rise, especially among younger Jews. At the branch’s largest teaching body, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a group called Keshet has been handing out buttons demanding “Ordination Regardless of Orientation!”
Keshet can now claim a victory, albeit of the “three opinions” variety. The law and standards committee, the movement’s highest legal body, passed three teshuvas, or interpretations of Jewish law. The contradictory opinions are possible because a teshuva only identifies a legitimate interpretation, not the legitimate interpration. Rabbis and seminaries can now make their own choices without fear of contradicting Conservative interpretation. (The Committee could have passed a more powerful prohibition on gay rights, but declined to, after months of private negotiation.)
The practical upshot is that there will be more same-sex ceremonies, which some Conservative rabbis have been performing already without official sanction. The University of Judaism, a seminary in Los Angeles, will almost certainly begin making gay rabbis immediately; New York's Jewish Theological Seminary will debate the issue and probably decide to follow suit. Two smaller seminaries in Argentina and Hungary may continue the no-gays route.
Is this a satisfactory balance? It’s hard to tell. Conservatism’s numbers have been shrinking steadily for over a decade, as more liberal members have moved into the Reform camp and members of so-called “conservadox” congregations have become simply Orthodox. One religious body that will no doubt be watching closely is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Last June the Presbyterians’ National Assembly came up with a position of near-Talmudic complexity: it maintained language on ordination requiring "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." At the same time, it granted local congregations considerable latitude to go ahead and ordain gay clergy if they wished. The uneasy compromise was the result of a five-year deliberative process. Perhaps “two Jews, three opinions” isn’t so much a comment on Judaism any more as it is on any moderate denomination wresting with these tough questions.