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.

4 comments on “Out and Ordained – An Update

  1. Rabbi Danny Nevins on

    The tone of these comments saddens me because they are so far from reflecting the great joy and excitement that we feel at JTS about the presence of incredibly gifted lesbian and gay students in our school for the past five years. They make it seem that this change at JTS was begrudging, but the opposite is true. We feel overwhelmed with blessing by the presence of these students and look forward to their leadership in the coming decades. I didn’t say that we have “no more than a good minyan” but that we “have a good minyan” of gay students–even a positive comment comes across negatively here. The swipe at our communications department is uncalled for–they are not interested in purging any records. Does any organization preserve outdated documents on its web site?

    Finally, I feel that this article is unfair in its treatment of my predecessor and mentor Rabbi Bill Lebeau. He worked within a challenging environment and did not have the ability to change policies, but he has been a model of compassion, wisdom and mentschlichkeit for JTS students, both straight and gay.

    It is discouraging when constructive and even redemptive actions are met with such a judgmental response.

  2. Bob Lamm on

    Rabbi Nevins’ response to Amy Stone’s terrific piece is utter nonsense. This change of policy at JTS wasn’t “begrudging.” Really? Did the Law Committee of the Rabbinic Assembly unanimously adopt a responsum welcoming gay and lesbian Jews to apply to Conservative institutions that train rabbis, cantors, and educators. No, Rabbi Nevins, you were on that committee and you know that the vote was 13 to 12. AND you know that your committee simultaneously reaffirmed the earlier ban on homosexuality and endorsed the absurd, damaging approach of so-called “reparative psychotherapy.”

    Are you saying, Rabbi Nevins, that all this opposition to changing the Conservative movement’s traditionally bigoted, homophobic policies came from OUTSIDE the Jewish Theological Seminary, from Conservative congregations around the U.S. but not from anyone inside JTS? Yeh, right.

    And what’s especially sickening is Rabbi Nevins’ support for destroying the historical records documenting its traditional anti-gay policies. Just normal housekeeping of “outdated documents”? Please! For anyone who believes that, I know a lovely bridge, just down river from the Manhattan Bridge, and I’m ready to sell it at a very cheap price.

    I know activists, among them Amy Stone, who were very important in PUSHING the Jewish Theological Seminary into ending its longstanding bigoted ban on ordaining women as rabbis and cantors. I know activists who were very important in PUSHING the Jewish Theological Seminary into ending its longstanding bigoted ban on ordaining gays and lesbians and rabbis and cantors. In 2011, the Seminary would like to bury any memory of its longstanding bigoted policies and how much resistance there was to changing them. Sorry, Rabbi Nevins. That’s a battle you can’t win.

  3. Rabbi Daniel Nevins on

    As an advocate of gay inclusion I am stunned by the vehemence of these remarks. Of course there was lively debate at JTS and in many other religious communities, Jewish and beyond, about adapting traditional norms to respect the dignity of gay and lesbian Jews, to recognize their families, and to welcome them as clergy. For me, this was a matter of religious integrity, not a response to any lobbying efforts.

    In the end some of our committee’s disagreements were unbridgeable and remain in place. The prior administration favored the prior policy of exclusion; Chancellor Eisen, who had not even arrived in NY yet, consulted with the JTS community and its broader base, and then made a bold decision for inclusion. Obviously many of these issues remain unsettled in society, but at JTS we have been fortunate to welcome wonderful gay and lesbian students in the Rabbinical School every year for the past five years.

    I don’t understand where this assertion of purging records comes from. Prior to 2007 JTS admissions policy reflected established norms of halakhah, including the statements of the CJLS in 1992. These are all available on the RA web site. JTS didn’t have a written policy beyond these documents.

    Shanah tovah. dn

  4. Bob Lamm on

    You are “stunned,” Rabbi Nevins, by the “vehemence” of these remarks. Presumably more than you are “stunned” by the 12 votes out of 25 against ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors. Or the 13 votes out of 25 reaffirming the traditional bigoted policy of JTS and the Conservative movement. Or the votes in favor of the ludicrous “reparative psychotherapy.” Why aren’t you “stunned” by the continuing bigotry of respected figures within your movement?

    And isn’t it amusing how whenever an unjust, bigoted policy is finally changed, those who hold power ALWAYS insist that it had absolutely nothing to do with “any lobbying efforts” ? Again, for anyone who believes that assertion by Rabbi Nevins, I own this lovely bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn….

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