FROM CHANCELLOR-ELECT ARNIE EISEN OF
THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
To the JTS Community:
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly has now issued its ruling on the status of homosexual behavior. We are all in their debt for the years of hard work and sustained reflection they have put into this issue. Views on the matter among all of us at JTS differed widely before this week's decision, and they will no doubt continue to differ widely in the wake of this decision. Opinions on both sides of the issue are strongly held and passionately felt. As we embark on the next stage of our consideration of gay and lesbian ordination at JTS, I am confident that the long-standing JTS tradition of embracing and respecting significant differences of opinion will continue to guide us. I write to remind you of the steps through which we at JTS will carry the discussion forward in coming weeks.
First, let me emphasize that the halakhic authority for the Conservative Movement and the institutions associated with it rests with the CJLS. The Law Committee has split on the status of homosexual behavior according to Jewish law; its rules and those of the Rabbinical Assembly regard each of the opinions authorized as equally legitimate. The ball is thus in our court with regard to the question of ordination of gays and lesbians at JTS — a decision regarding admission and graduation requirements that we will treat as such and not as the matter of law that stood before the Law Committee. We at JTS are not poskim. We will not be adjudicating matters of halakhah. However, we are going to consider what we think best serves the Conservative Movement and larger American Jewish community. We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense. We fully recognize what is at stake. This is why we are determined to conduct a thoroughgoing discussion of which we can all be proud no matter what outcome is eventually reached.
We have commissioned a survey with Stephen M. Cohen to determine where rabbis, Conservative Jewish laypeople, and the movement's leadership stand on the issue. This data will be in hand before JTS reaches its decision on the matter.
I have invited the heads of the other seminaries affected by the CJLS decision — Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, and the Ziegler School of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles — to join me for a frank airing of the matter.
JTS students will be informed about the details of the Law Committee decision in coming days and will over the next month or so have a chance to debate with one another the pros and cons of the ordination of homosexuals. They will also have the opportunity to make their voices heard by faculty and administration.
Through the Campus Life Committee, the Deans of Student Life and the five schools will continue to consult and plan for both possible outcomes of this process.
Faculty will hold several discussions of the matter in coming weeks with the aim of making a clear and reasoned determination.
Let me note, that this critical phase of the discussion and the very debate itself is a hallmark of JTS — and Conservative Judaism more generally — of which we can be proud. We have the burden and privilege of this debate not because we are in the middle, but because of our commitment to halakhah on the one hand and full immersion in the culture and society of the present on the other hand. We are dedicated to thoughtful change as an essential element of tradition — which is not to say that the change proposed to us now is right or necessary, but that the process of considering it thoughtfully, whatever we eventually decide, is to us inescapable and welcome. One could say that such debate defines us — and that, well-conducted, it strengthens us. Of course debate on this and similar matters has the potential to wound us as an institution and a movement. It also, however, has the power to remind us of what we stand for, and why despite our differences — or even because of them — we choose to stand together.
That is why I hope you will all join me in doing our very best to ensure that we do this right. I firmly believe that the way we discuss the matter in coming weeks may well have as great an effect on the future of JTS as whatever decision we eventually reach. Argument le-shem shamayim is for us a long and valued tradition. Never has it been more needed than now.
Let me just add in conclusion that if you have suggestions or thoughts about either the process or its outcome, please do not hesitate to communicate them to me.