Conservative Judaism and Same-Sex Marriage
I attended a class at my synagogue earlier this week in which the discussion focused on same-sex marriage; it was part of an excellent weekly series called “Wrestling with the Rabbis” conducted by my friend Rabbi Steven Abraham.
One of the more interesting topics of conversation stemmed from a question about whether the rabbis who wrote up guidelines for a same-sex marriage ceremony were leading the Conservative movement based solely on their politics rather than on a defensible interpretation of the Torah. Now that we have a document that effectively endorses same-sex marriage, someone asked, what would lead us to believe that we won’t — in five or ten years — see a document from these rabbis that creates guidelines for an interfaith marriage ceremony, effectively endorsing something that has always been anathema to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism (but about which Reform Judaism has no hard-and-fast rule).
In other words, there’s a slippery slope argument here. If same-sex marriage is allowed by Conservative Judaism — and allowed without the same sort of textual justification that undergirds other documents approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — what would prevent the approval of other controversial changes to long-held doctrinal positions?
The answer, I think, revolves around inclusivity, exclusivity, and choice.
Judaism is, like all religions, an exclusive club. You can join if you really want to … but you have to abide by certain rules that are made clear to you in advance. If you’re Jewish and want to marry someone who isn’t, you can certainly do so … but not in a ceremony at the synagogue officiated by a Conservative rabbi. Our club, our rules.
That said, your partner could convert to Judaism and then you can have the location and officiant you want. Why? Because then you’ve decided to play by our club’s rules and you’re both full-fledged members.
You and your partner have a choice. Conversion and a Jewish wedding or no conversion and no Jewish wedding. Alternatively, you could join a Reform congregation; they are always such sticklers about conversion. You might not like these options, but you clearly do have a choice.
The same cannot be said with regard to same-sex marriage.
In the case of same-sex marriage, the argument is about whether two Jews are entitled to the same rights and privileges to which all of the other members of the club are entitled. There’s no choice to be made here, no options available to the partner. The two men or women cannot make a decision that will impact whether or not they are allowed to have a Jewish wedding ceremony; they can’t get any more Jewish and they can’t choose to be straight or to love someone of the opposite sex. Instead, it’s the club that has to decide whether or not it will treat all of its members equally.
The Conservative movement has now made it possible for its rabbis to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies; this is a major step because it recognizes that all members of the club have to be treated equally. It doesn’t lead to a slippery slope where interfaith marriages will be permitted because it’s not a ruling on who is a member of the club. It’s a statement about the equal treatment of the club’s existing members.