Monday, March 26, 2007

JTS to Accept Gays and Lesbians for Rabbinical School

With the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the school formerly known as the University of Judaism (now called the American Jewish University after its merger with Brandeis Bardin) would accept gay and lesbian students into its Ziegler Rabbinical School, the Jewish Theological Seminary's chancellor Arnie Eisen (right) announced today that JTS will follow suit.

I guess this means that my depiction of the new Jewish Theological Seminary building on will be getting some more views. (Note: I'm very much in favor of this inclusive decision at JTS and the image should only be viewed as a joke.)

The official JTS press release can be viewed here. What follows is the beginning of Chancellor Arnie Eisen's letter to the JTS Community. His very long letter also includes detailed paragraphs outlining the process, the decision, and the next steps.

To the JTS Community:

I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.

This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.

Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators — that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) — but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed necessary.

First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is now complete. I will review its elements below.

Second, the announcement of JTS’s decision would lay out our thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and complexity of the decision.

Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement closer together. To that end, we have launched — and in coming months will help to lead — a full-scale process of learning and discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices. Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new process are outlined below.

For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.

The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple. I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it to be so.

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