When the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards [CJLS] passed their multiple tshuvot [rulings] this past December about whether gays and lesbians can be ordained as rabbis, the press reported it — with white-bread oversimplification — as a victory for gay ordination. The facts are far more complicated, and far more, well, Jewish. The rulings offer complex opinions — mutually irreconcilable ones (two of them argue against the ordination of homosexuals). What they don’t offer is a single, simple bottom line.
Jewish institutions — largely congregations and schools — are expected to consider the influential committee’s tshuvot and make decisions for themselves. That is, the CJLS rabbis who pored over texts and wrestled with how to interpret halakhah, Jewish law, were somewhat thrillingly showing-andtelling us that at the heart of Judaism is conversation — a conversation that has stretched over 3,000 years. Torah lishmah — studying, thinking, enjoying intellectual and moral complexity for its own sake — is at the core of Jewish identity. We Jews famously answer a question with a question, and study religious texts with the understanding that all ideas must be fathomed, regardless of what rabbis ultimately decide is “right.” Appreciating Jewish thought means valuing the untidy, respecting the process of argument, and living honestly with life’s ambiguities, tensions and plasticity.
Feminism, from its inception, has been a movement disproportionately stuffed with Jews, and our ability to think outside various boxes doubtless has its roots in Torah lishmah — the Jewish preoccupation with studying, pushing, naming, thinking, re-thinking, arguing, agitating. The Conservative movement has opened the door to gays and lesbians, but here’s what’s coming down the pike: not just lesbians or gays applying for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary, but those on the next ramparts: young Jews who reject “binary sexuality” altogether — who don’t identify as gay or straight — who, with sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, acknowledge both hetero- and homo-sexual desires; Jews who are transgender; Jews who don’t want their orientation or gender dictated by other than themselves. Even Freud acknowledged “continuum sexuality.” “Every human being’s libido,” he wrote, “is distributed, either in a mani- fest or a latent fashion, over objects of both sexes.” What about the “straight” rabbinical student who becomes “gay,” the “gay” student who becomes “queer,” and the male, or female, student who becomes… something else. What’s a seminary to do?
The reclamation of the word “queer” was intended to loosen up binary sexual thinking in a society that offers us only Either/Or. What’s more, Jewish texts, and their interpretation, provide us with support. The oft-quoted Leviticus verse (18:22) enjoining men not to “lie with a male as one lies with a woman” is generally taken as a commandment against homosexuality, but even the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has significantly interrogated this. The prohibition is literal, one of their tshuvot argues — it is a prohibition against the most technical definition of gay male intercourse. It is not against homosexuality. The Bible legislates behaviors, but it doesn’t speak the language of “fixed” sexual identities or orientations. It has no concept of a person whose identity is “homosexual.”