Loving tradition sometimes means incorporating change
By Harriet P. Gross

grossforwebThere are many times when I read things — books, articles, whatever — and wish I could stand up on a rooftop and shout down to everyone I know, and to the world in general, “Please! You MUST read this, too!” But, I don’t. People are always recommending readings to me, and I try not to promise that I’ll read them because I know the limitations of my time and my eyesight. But still, I’m grateful.
So I hope you’ll add that grain of salt to what I’m recommending here for everyone’s reading, and hoping that many of you will find this article, peruse it, think about it, comment on it — to others, and to me. Because I know that while its premise will hit the mark with some Jews, it won’t sit well at all with others.
What I’m talking about is a piece by Rabbi Myron B. Fenster in the current (Summer 2013) issue of CJ, the magazine subtitled “Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.” Notice that the word is “voices,” plural, because the movement it represents — often assumed to be centrist in the array of organized approaches to Judaism — offers varied viewpoints rather than one prescriptive stand on many issues. And of course the issue of gay inclusion in the Boy Scouts of America has pushed front and center just such potential controversy again.
I say “again” because in his current first-person article, Rabbi Fenster revisits the work of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, on which he was invited to serve seven years ago, after being a congregational rabbi since 1949. His title is what first caught my attention and wouldn’t let go: “Loving Tradition Enough to Change It.”
“The subject at my first session was the question of whether the Jewish Theological Seminary could ordain gay and lesbian rabbis,” he recalls. “Today, it hardly seems like such a radical idea. But then: “The atmosphere was quite different.” Here’s what happened: ‘The meetings began early in the morning and continued late into the night. Back and forth we went, with passion, heat, rhetoric, and tension. Many were conflicted, including me. After three days, we were frustrated and deadlocked.”
Traditionalists, he explains, could not easily move past the clear homosexual prohibition in Leviticus 18. But others took their lead from Deuteronomy 17, which tells those who are faced with difficult new questions to take them to the judges of their own time for advice. Fenster continues, “We 25 rabbis of the Law Committee were designated as the collective judges to decide exactly those issues which are difficult, new, and in need of resolution.” The majority determined that in Biblical days, homosexuality was seen as a personal choice, but today there is persuasive recognition of factors that mark it as inborn. Because of this, most of the committee members rejected the idea of gay celibacy as a viable solution.
Rabbi Fenster continues, “After long deliberation, acrimonious discussion and heated debate, the Law Committee voted to ask the Jewish Theological Seminary to admit gay students into its rabbinical school. A handful of committee members resigned, but the decision stood.”
More than a handful of Boy Scout members have already resigned, and more are sure to do so in the future, after its recent decision to be inclusive at the Den and Troop levels. And the organization’s leadership faces additional flak even from those who approve, because it has not given its permission for gays to serve as leaders of those groups.
Rabbi Fenster didn’t write his article now because of the Boy Scouts, but because of the issue of gay marriage demanding Judaic attention today. (Side comment: He does report that after his own recent retirement, his synagogue’s search committee chose a newly ordained gay rabbi as his successor.) I’m sure he would recommend to both the Scouts and his fellow Jews that, sometimes, you have to love tradition enough to change it. …

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