When it comes to the issue of gay marriage, the Jewish Theological Seminary blinked and gave way to society’s shifting mores. So one must ask the question: Should we guide religion, or should religion guide us?
The ongoing battle over redefinition of marriage threatens to shatter a long-standing, popular approach to personal faith and biblical morality.
For several generations, most Americans have embraced what could be described as the Goldilocks attitude toward religion: affirming faith choices that seemed not too soft but not too hard, not too hot but not too cool. Majorities viewed easy-going moderation and comforting compromise as the religious path that counted as "just right."
Conservative Judaism — the "middle branch" of the ancient faith — always exemplified the "Goldilocks" orientation with its emphasis on the "sweet spot" between stringencies of Orthodox observance and the anything-goes adaptability of Reform. But just before Passover, the Conservative movement's flagship institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), announced a controversial decision highlighting the painful contradictions of middle way religions.
Following the findings of an expert panel filed last December, JTS signaled its intention to accept openly gay candidates for the rabbinate and to raise no objection to their involvement in same-sex commitment ceremonies. For a movement that still stresses time-honored standards of Sabbath observance and kosher food, this represents a stunning break with tradition. A spiritual leader proudly, publicly promoting consumption of pork would never fit in with the Conservative rabbinate, but this same denomination now will sanction rabbis who call unblushing communal attention to their personal practice of sexual relations that the Torah describes as "abomination."
Following the written word
For more than a hundred years, The Jewish Theological Seminary and Conservative Judaism have prided themselves on honoring biblical and Talmudic texts, while applying more flexible principles of interpretation than their Orthodox colleagues. Unfortunately for today's leaders, there is little wiggle room on biblical insistence on male-female marriage. Not only does Leviticus (part of the Torah that's sacred to all Jews) specifically prohibit lying "with a man as one lies with a woman" (18:22) but the description of the very first marriage (between Adam and Eve) makes clear that the ultimate union of two souls requires partners of opposite genders. When the Torah (Genesis 2:24) says a man will "cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh," it's not just referring to an emotional or erotic relationship, but the unique ability of a male-female couple to fuse in the creation of children.
Religious liberals in Christian as well as Jewish denominations call it hypocritical to focus on biblical definitions of marriage or sanctions against homosexuality, while readily disregarding so many other rules from Scripture. Despite Old Testament references, they note, most people don't marry multiple wives today, or employ slave-like indentured servants in our homes, or avoid eating shellfish. But the Bible merely permitted polygamy and indentured servitude in certain circumstances, never commanding those practices for everyone. In Jewish law, male-female marriage, on the other hand, is a mitzvah — an obligation, a commandment. And to this day, Conservative Judaism still doesn't sanction shrimp.
Pluralism means that we recognize more than one way to be a good Conservative Jew, more than one way of walking authentically in the path of our tradition."
In other words, he now embraces moral relativism in its modern-day "let's not be judgmental" garb and abandons the traditional role of religion to command or at least suggest clear standards for human behavior and intimate relationships. Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, justified this new direction by suggesting that Conservative Judaism couldn't survive without it. "A movement that wants to attract a younger generation of disaffected Jews had no choice but to make this decision," he told The New York Times.
Recent history in both the Jewish and Christian communities suggests he's wrong: Disaffected young people seldom flock to watered-down versions of religious faith that lack continuity or integrity. The rapidly growing denominations are those that make demands on potential adherents and advance clear standards of right and wrong. That's why Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity has grown while "mainline" Protestant denominations have dwindled, and why traditionalist Catholicism boasts more worldwide vitality than liberal strains of the church. Meanwhile, Mormons uphold multiple restrictions (giving up alcohol, coffee, tobacco, among other things) and yet constitute one of the fastest-growing creeds in the USA.
In Judaism, the same dynamic applies: with tepid, uncertain versions of the faith fighting a losing battle to maintain the affiliation of their young people, while the unaffiliated explore enthusiastic, traditionalist sects. No movement in Judaism has experienced anything like the explosive recent growth of the Hassidic organization, Chabad, with its 3,300 community centers miraculously appearing nearly everywhere and transforming the face of American Judaism. The Conservative movement has been losing influence during the past 40 years not because of its unbending adherence to outmoded rituals but because of its confusion, contradictions and gradual disregard of tradition.
When I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in the 1950s, my mother took pride in the dominant position of our denomination — then representing a majority of synagogue-affiliated American Jews. She looked with disdain at our Reform neighbors who ignored customs such as wearing skullcaps at prayer, and viewed the Orthodox with pity as unbending Old World relics whose fanaticism doomed them to disappearance. Despite her confidence, my mother lived to see all four of her sons leave the comfortable compromises of Conservative Judaism — one of them for a Reform Temple, and the other three of us (and my dad) for active involvement with Orthodoxy.
The marriage issue plays a decisive role in exploding moderate equivocations in Christian denominations as well as in Judaism, as evidenced by the increasingly unbridgeable gap among Episcopalians between those who want to endorse homosexuality and those who hold fast to biblical proscriptions. Denominations must choose their ultimate source of authority: looking either to religious texts or to contemporary sensibilities.
The core question remains the nature of religion itself and our relation to it. Should we challenge ourselves, or our faith traditions? Do we measure religion against personal impulses and values, or should we judge our impulses and values against religion? Should we adjust our faith to suit current trends and to enhance our comfort and convenience, or should we evaluate trends in the light of timeless teachings, no matter how unfashionable or inconvenient?
The choice is stark and, on the issue of marriage, inescapable. Talk of "pluralism" only dodges the issue, because if religion fails to provide forceful guidance on the most crucial behavioral issues of life, it offers only meager servings of lukewarm porridge. That might be good enough for Goldilocks, but it won't nourish the spiritual seekers who desire — and deserve — more commitment and clarity.This article originally appeared in USA Today