- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — A key conservative Jewish leader is organizing talks nationwide to tell synagogues that the movement will likely roll back its ban on ordaining openly homosexual rabbis by year’s end.

He and two religious law scholars joining him at the meetings are trying to help congregations prepare for the confusion and discomfort to follow.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said a committee of scholars who interpret Jewish law for the movement will likely loosen the prohibition when they vote in December.

At the same time, Mr. Epstein expects the scholars to endorse a policy aimed at keeping more traditional congregations in the fold. Synagogues that believe Jewish law bars same-sex relationships still will be able to hire rabbis who share their view.

The vote by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will test what Conservative leaders call their “big umbrella” — allowing diverse practices within one movement. It will also signal to the wider community how far the Conservative branch will go to reinterpret Jewish law.

“The committee might accept — will accept, I think — two or more” policies, Mr. Epstein said at an Aug. 24 meeting of New York Conservative Jewish leaders. “One that actually reaffirms the current position and at least one that will liberalize it.”

The effect of the contradictory actions will be that local Jewish communities have more freedom. Conservative seminaries, along with the movement’s estimated 750 synagogues and more than 1,000 North American rabbis, will get to decide which policy to follow.

“It could cause confusion, it could cause tremendous angst, it could cause tremendous tension, it could cause tremendous disagreement,” Mr. Epstein said.

The vote comes as the movement is trying to hold on to a shrinking middle ground between innovation and strict tradition in American Judaism. The Conservative branch follows Jewish law, while allowing limited change for modern circumstances.

It’s been a hard road to follow. Many Conservative Jews have joined the more liberal Reform stream, which has recently surpassed the Conservative branch as the largest in America. The Reform movement ordains homosexuals and is more accepting of interfaith couples.

For Conservative Jews seeking more rigorous observance, the Orthodox branch has become a popular choice. Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, which bars women and homosexuals from becoming rabbis.

Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading religious scholar and a member of the Conservative Law Committee, questioned whether people with traditional Jewish views on sexuality will stay, even if the panel allows synagogues leeway to accept or reject homosexual relationships. Mr. Roth said he has been “demonized” for saying that he interprets religious law as barring same-sex sexual relationships.

“I know the law as it stands causes pain,” he said. “But pain is not to be equated with immorality.”

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