Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
March 2015
Guest Introduction: Rabbi Daniel Nevins   
Dean, JTS Division of Religious Leadership 

     Seldom has public opinion on a charged social issue reversed as quickly as has occurred regarding LGBT equality in America. Gay rights rose in public consciousness in the 1980s during the devastating outbreak of HIV-AIDS. Initial homophobic declarations by religious leaders (including by my Rosh Yeshivah) about divine punishment evoked a rising tide of indignation led by members of the LGBT community. They were soon joined by allies -- family, friends and faith leaders whose conscience could no longer abide the preaching of intolerance and even hatred within their tradition. For some faith leaders -- both Jewish and Christian -- a reversal of policy was quickly achieved, and the teaching of gay pride became its own religious imperative. Among more traditional denominations, the process was slower and even torturous. Was it possible to accomplish a dramatic shift in the ancient heteronormative assumptions of tradition without undermining all that remained  precious and holy within its structures? For some communities, the answer was and remains no, or at least not yet.


     Even in the most traditional circles, whether Orthodox Jewish or Roman Catholic, there is a notable softening of rhetoric and an informal respect for LGBT people, though policy has not changed, and prominent homophobic voices remain. Still, the liberal and centrist strands of the Jewish community have preceded and influenced the wave of change in American society as marriage equality has displaced the recent consensus in "defense of marriage." The essays included in this collection reflect the varied trajectories of different sectors of the Jewish community on LGBT inclusion and are an important archive of this chapter of American Jewish history.


     Within the Conservative Movement of Judaism, I witnessed a profound shift over the course of twenty years. While that span seemed an eternity for many engaged in the process, it is but a blink in the course of Jewish history. In 1991, when I was still a rabbinical student at JTS, the first round of debates in the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards included some vitriolic statements regarding the threat posed by gays to the Jewish family. The 1994 consensus statement was to "welcome" gays, but not as married couples, much less as clergy. By 2006, when the CJLS voted again, the votes were literally split down the middle, with 13 of 25 rabbis voting for two opposed papers (one voter was himself divided!). Rabbi Joel Roth argued that Jewish law simply could not accommodate gay rights, but Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Avram Reisner and I argued that the halakhic principle of human dignity demanded an accommodation to allow gay Jews to form a committed relationship with a beloved partner, and to bring their talents and faith to the service of God and the Jewish people as leaders, including as clergy.


     By 2012, when our same team proposed ceremonies for same-sex marriage and divorce, our paper received unanimous support. Just recently, one of the colleagues who voted against our 2006 paper wrote a moving article about his decision to perform a wedding for two men, and his gratitude that our approach had prevailed despite his initial opposition. As dean of the JTS rabbinical school since 2007, I have been fortunate to welcome lesbian and gay, and then (after further process) bisexual and transgender students, to ordain them, and to see them begin their rabbinic careers. We are committed to continuing that process of reflection and growing sensitivity, even as other denominations have continued to adapt their liturgy and rites to celebrate the diversity of their community. By scanning this rich collection we are prompted to look back and reflect on how far American Jewry has come. 





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