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Out and Ordained – An Update

Before updating Lilith readers on the story “Out and Ordained,” in Lilith’s current issue, a few corrections to the published piece:

–While Rachel Isaacs is the first openly gay rabbinical student to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the seminary’s first openly gay rabbinical student is Aaron Weininger. He entered as a first-year rabbinical student in the fall of 2007. Isaacs entered as a third-year student in 2008.

–Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins’ comment that gay and lesbians number no more than “a good minyan” referred to the JTS Rabbinical School, not to the Conservative rabbinate as a whole.

–American Jewish University is an independent institution not affiliated with any one branch of Judaism, although the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, housed within AJU, is Conservative.

As fate would have it, New York State’s legalizing same-sex marriage came shortly after the Jewish Theological Seminary’s ordination of its first openly gay rabbinical student – putting New York’s Conservative rabbis on the line on performing gay and lesbian marriages.

The 2006 Conservative movement law committee responsum allowing gay/lesbian rabbis and cantors within Conservative Judaism also permits Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies – if they want to. Proof that homophobia is alive and well, The New York Times article on Conservative rabbis featured one New York rabbi as shamelessly saying he’s never performed a same-sex marriage in his nearly 40 years in the pulpit and is not about to start now.  Overtly sexist and racist actions are now taboo, not to mention illegal, but homophobic leaders can still exercise their prejudices.

A measure of the homophobic atmosphere within the Jewish Theological Seminary and beyond during the Conservative movement law committee’s 1991-92 hearings on homosexuality is the 1992 responsum clause against “instigating witch hunts” authored by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, AJU rector and current chairman of the law committee. Meant to protect gays as part of the responsum forbidding homosexual rabbis, Dorff said he “came to regret it – a lot.” He explained the wording was meant as “a flourish” to avoid “any kind of super investigative commission,” but the result was that gay and lesbian rabbinical students and rabbis were the victims of witch hunts instigated by outsiders.

Despite Dorff’s attempt at protection, five years later, lesbian rabbinical student Benay Lappe was interrogated by Rabbinical School Dean William Lebeau days before her ordination after being outed by an anonymous caller. As she recounts in a searing chapter in Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation, following two hours of grilling that ended at 11 p.m., she was finally free to go after “saying no in the name of a higher yes” to whether the caller was accurate.

And it didn’t end there. Once Lappe was ordained and came out, she was threatened with expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional arm of the Conservative rabbinate. The R.A. eventually backed down. She analyzes the attack as triggered not by sexual identity but because she was open about it.

Determined to put her years of seminary education to work for a higher yes, Lappe, now 51 and the single mother of a 5-year-old girl, heads Svara, a small yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois. She positions it as a queer yeshiva welcoming everyone and says, “It redeems my experience at JTS.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish Theological Seminary seems to be doing its best to obliterate any trace of its old anti-gay policies. The communications department says the pre-2007 Rabbinical School admissions guidelines are not available. So much for history. (Anyone who has a copy of the pre-2007 application, please send it our way.)  The current guidelines call for “Commitment to holiness in relationships, including halakhic [Jewish law] and ethical parameters of sexual intimacy.” Not all that different from the old policy as paraphrased by Rabbi Lebeau, which required commitment to halakhah as understood by the interpretation of Conservative Judaism at the time the applicant sought admission to rabbinical school.

Dramatic change, at least as communicated in public guidelines, can be subtle.