10 December 2006

Institutional Movements

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I all but promised a friend that I would write something that puts the phrases “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex” in close proximity; what I proposed, only half-jokingly, was a post that consisted of nothing but those two phrases, “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex,” repeated over and over again. For the moment, a cooler head has prevailed, and in any case, it seems to me that to be effective at making the point, any references to “Conservative Judaism” and “anal sex” have to be in some kind of context.

So, then, let’s look at that context, because it is an issue that affects more than just the Jewish community. The specific news this week is that Conservative Judaism’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” voted to approve a series of contradictory standards for how the movement should approach issues of homosexuality, in terms of ordaining (openly) homosexual rabbis and sanctifying same-sex unions. In the near-term, the results of all this are mixed: it was neither a full blessing of, or a full-fledged rejection of, homosexuality within Conservative Judaism, ultimately allowing for (likely) different decisions by the Conservative Jewish seminaries, and also by some individual rabbis. Taking the long view, it is probably a victory for the forces of openness and inclusion because, by failing to reject homosexual rabbis and couples outright, the door remains open for deeper and more substantial – if admittedly slower – change.

Still, Conservative Judaism is not the only religious branch struggling to come to terms with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church of the U.S. is dealing with its own demons on the issue of gay ordination (to cite just one example), while the Catholic Church recently affirmed its belief that homosexuals are “disordered,” a position sure to help in their recruiting drive. Well, at least it isn’t just the Jews.

I don’t mean to be glib about this, but it is sometimes difficult to take seriously the dire need for religious movements to hold on to certain kinds of traditions in the face of changing social mores and norms. For one thing, traditions that were considered normal several millennia ago – like human sacrifice, or even animal sacrifice– are now generally deemed outside the scope of acceptability. These changes did not happen over night, but they reflected a valuable evolution in the ordering of society. In the case of human sacrifice specifically, this can be seen as a part of a religious evolution that places a greater emphasis on the value of human life than on the idea of “satisfying” god through death. (Ok, mostly valuing life over death, except when not.)

Listening to or reading the remarks of religious leaders of all stripes can reveal a kind of tunnel vision, a fixation on a very limited perspective of history that glosses over other kinds of changes both within a given religion and the society around it. We wallow in hypocrisy, let’s admit it. And religious organizations are comprised of humans, and humans are imperfect – so such hypocrisy is not surprising. Indeed, we might expect it, as a means of understanding the flawed beings we are, which is how some strains of Christianity approach life: we are damned from the start. But if that is true, if all of us are sinners, then why are homosexuals singled out as “disordered,” sinners who are steps apart from the flaws embedded in the rest of us? It is a hypocrisy on top of a hypocrisy.

I stake no claim to knowing whether there is truth behind any of these religions or the positions they advocate – I only know the truth that exists between me and my religion, in a very narrow way. I know what Judaism teaches me, the kinds of values I believe it promulgates, and the importance of acceptance and inclusion, unambiguously. Nonetheless, religious affiliation should be made by choice, and religious organizations should be free to determine that an individual member might not be the best fit.

Sadly, for all the talk of values, traditions, and holy texts, religious organizations and movements – like most institutions – can get trapped in a cycle of seeing their own organizational survival as being of paramount importance. This is what happened with Conservative Judaism’s recent set of mixed, mixed-up decisions. The Jewish Theological Seminary’s website says “Our multifaceted community is committed to making Judaism come alive for new generations, to bring the richness and vitality of traditional Jewish values into the twenty-first century.” But, as The Forward noted, “...the former chancellor of JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, has long argued that sanctioning gay ordination and unions would fracture the movement, with those who opposed it joining the ranks of the Modern Orthodox and those who supported it ultimately converging with Reform Judaism, America’s largest stream.” The Washington Post had a similar quote, from (pro-change) Rabbi Elliot Dorff, that “he hoped that the adoption of two optional, conflicting positions would serve as a model for other religious groups of how to handle deep disagreements, ‘so movements don’t have to split up over these kinds of things.’”

In other words: saving the Conservative Jewish movement might just be more important than the lives of the Jews within it. Well, at least we know where everyone stands.

Update: The 12 December 2006 edition of The New York Times has an article about the resignation of a pastor in Denver after an anonymous caller informed his church he had sexual relations with men. To my point above, about the bizarre perspective on regular vs. gay "sinners," the article includes the following quote from a self-described gay evangelical named Justin Lee: “The church has created a double standard that all of us are sinful and have temptations and need to be open about that — unless you’re gay.”


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