Kodoshim – 5778 – Leviticus 18:22 – Does the Conservative Movement Have it Right?

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

In the late 1990’s, I was teaching middle schoolers at Shearith’s religious school. Before class one Sunday morning, I stopped the rabbi in the hall and told him that the time had come – I was going to discuss a really big issue that day – the elephant in the room. The rabbi had a look of deep concern – what was I going to bring up to these adolescents? “Today,” I said, “We’re going to discuss . . .Gd!!” the rabbi was greatly relieved and joked that yes, in a religious school, the subject of Gd may well indeed belong. So today, I’m going to do it again – a really big subject.

I signed up for this d’var based on the calendar, not knowing which subjects were included in the parashah. When I reviewed it, I found the dreaded verse – Leviticus, 18:22, and knew my time had come to discuss it. “A man shall not lie with another man as he lies with a woman. It is an abomination.” And later in the parashah, 20:13, the death penalty is invoked as punishment for homosexual relationships. There are lots of other possible topics in this combined parashah, but I can duck this subject no longer. And just as Fred did several years ago, I’m going to take a stab at this.

Now as we are all too familiar with, the Torah has issues – in many ways, women don’t count as much as men, slavery is allowed, whole populations should be wiped out after war. Gd speaks in real words . . . and seems to have anger management issues! And on and on.

But the truths of the Torah lie not in concrete measures and quantities, but in values. For instance, one truth of the Torah is that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. Pharaohs and tyrants are ultimately brought down. The downtrodden are depicted as Gd’s very children. We live those truths and so many others by separating the holy from the profane, and we use our various rituals as means of depicting which is which, thus constantly reminding ourselves of that separation. But the actual words of the Torah are not necessarily to be taken literally.

For the most part, the Orthodox have no conflicts with literal translation. The Torah is the word of Gd, and that’s that. To not follow it is to be doomed. Of course, the Torah also states that recalcitrant children should be stoned to death. Well, that was never intended to be taken literally, they claim. Well, so they already concede that the Torah, as Heschel said, is one big midrash. Some of the Torah is to be taken literally. Other portions, not so much. Who, exactly, arbitrates that?

The Reform regard the Torah as just stories and suggestions, not feeling bound by its commandments. It was produced by Judaism in its infancy, and they have little regard for its dictates. Homosexuality? No problem for them. They take into their congregations Jews, non-Jews . . . whatever. Just be a good person, the Reform say. Well fine, but there’s nothing especially Jewish about that. And who, exactly, decides what being a good person is, anyway?

The Conservative movement has it right. Issues like homosexuality are taken very seriously. Words of the torah are halakhically binding, but those words must be interpreted in the context of their times, changing very slowly, but not set in . . . stone . . . as it were! So slavery was accepted by the world as a whole when the Torah was written. It was not banned in the Torah, but it was tightly regulated and restricted. This represented a marked change from the norm of those days. Only much later was it completely banned. And in its perhaps most major split with Orthodox custom and belief, we Conservative Jews regard women in a fully egalitarian manner.

We Conservative Jews have always regarded the words of Torah as being, perhaps, Divinely inspired, but informed by the values of the time. And that’s true of so many consequential documents. Our very Constitution, for instance . . . We hold these truths to be self evident that all MEN are created equal? Come on, now, Tom (Jefferson)! So we adapt. We yearn for wisdom and connection, and the Torah has bound us together and has changed the world in the most profound ways.

So where does this leave us – how does all this apply to those verses concerning homosexuality?

The Conservative movement dipped its collective toe in the water in the 1990s, found the water too cold, and recoiled from taking a stance on the tougher implications of the verses. The 25 rabbis that comprise the CJLS – the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – tackled the issue again some years later, and in 2006 issued a responsa – a decision that represents the position of the Conservative movement. Not surprisingly, it straddles the fence.

And it does so because it recognizes that some issues can’t be tidily wrapped up in a single conclusion. The way these responsa work is that if a certain number of rabbis among the members of the CJLS are of a particular opinion, that opinion becomes a valid standard that other Conservative rabbis may follow. In this case, two were adopted.

One view was that a specific act – anal intercourse – was forbidden, but that other behavior was fine. This view held that gays and lesbians could apply to rabbinic schools and that Conservative rabbis could perform commitment ceremonies. It was a relatively liberal stance that was accepted by 13 of the 25 rabbis on the committee.

The reasoning was that the specific act in question was expressly forbidden in the Torah – and thus was “biblical” – but the other restrictions were not in the Torah – they were rabbinic, and could thus be reinterpreted. They further maintained that kavot habriyot – human dignity – mandated that other restrictions be lifted.

Another view was more restrictive, accepting that although homosexuality was not a choice, but rather was innate, still, although rabbinic in authority, there was not enough justification for reversing the prohibition against all types and forms of homosexual behavior. They felt that the definition of human dignity in the competing responsa was contrived. Restriction from the rabbinate was maintained, and no rabbi could officiate at a commitment ceremony. This position garnered an equal 13 votes.

Wait – how could 25 rabbis yield 26 votes? And there were additional votes for a couple of other positions as well! This is so Jewish . . . it seems that this is not like an election, where one candidate or another is chosen by the voter. It’s more like a buffet – Cherry pie? Fine, I’ll have a piece. And yes, I also would like a chocolate chip cookie. Rabbis could vote for one position, another, two of them, or ALL of them!

So it seems that one rabbi wanted to maintain the pluralism of the movement, and felt that precisely equal votes for these two positions would dramatically express just that. So he voted to accept both!

As I looked at all this, read the responsa, read commentaries, and so forth, it will not surprise you that I personally come down on the more “liberal” side of this. Our understanding of human nature has evolved enormously. Would a compassionate Gd have made a human with evil written directly into his or her DNA?

Of course not.

I encourage you to read the various positions and commentary about this topic and see what you think.

In my view, though, we’re all Gd’s children. Every one of us.

Shabbat Shalom!