The Conservative Jewish seminary in Israel says it will allow gays and lesbians to become rabbis, overcoming years of opposition by many of its own leaders and setting up a new point of contention between the movement and Israel's Orthodox establishment.
The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, affiliated with Israel's Conservative Jewish movement, announced it would begin accepting gay and lesbian rabbinical students in Jerusalem this fall. The decision late Thursday ended a rift with the Conservative movement in the U.S., which began accepting gay and lesbian rabbinical students in 2006 and ordained its first openly lesbian rabbi last year.
Like other branches of Judaism, Conservative Judaism — a major denomination in the U.S. but a marginal force in Israel — has faced calls for greater openness toward gays and lesbians, despite biblical prohibitions on homosexual conduct.
The wording of the movement's announcement hinted at the fiery debate that preceded it.
"In the Conservative world, there are rabbis who accept ordination of gay and lesbian students as well as those who do not," the statement said. "The decision is the result of a long process that included broad consultation and a search to find a consensus among differing opinions that will allow continued cooperation."
Professor Hanan Alexander, chairman of the seminary's board of trustees, said the decision "highlights the institution's commitment to uphold Jewish religious law in a pluralist and changing world."
The Conservative movement interprets Jewish law more strictly than the liberal Reform movement, but its ordination of female rabbis and other nontraditional practices are not accepted by more stringent Orthodox Jews.
Dror Chankin-Gould, 28, a gay student at the American Jewish University, the movement's rabbinical school in Los Angeles, said the decision was "something that we've been dreaming of for years."
"It's just been a lot of pain and a lot of tears and a lot of years to get to this place," said Chankin-Gould, who is in Israel for a year of religious studies. "We have now an opportunity for more committed, wonderful teachers to rise up in Israel and to teach their Torah and to model for Israeli society and for the Jewish people what it means to include all of our voices."
The Reform movement — the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S. — and the much smaller Reconstructionists began ordaining gay and lesbian clergy decades ago. No Orthodox rabbinical institution currently admits openly gay and lesbian students.
Israeli law gives exclusive jurisdiction over the ordination of clergy, marriage and divorce to Orthodox rabbis, who generally consider homosexuality an abomination. The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel has strenuously resisted inroads by the liberal streams, refusing to recognize their rulings, conversions or ceremonies as religiously valid.
The decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy drew fire from the ultra-Orthodox community.
"In my opinion, it's a grave mistake," said Shaar Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of the northern city of Haifa. "It's a violation of the Bible."
There was no formal comment from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, but an official there, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that only the Orthodox rabbinate can ordain rabbis in Israel.
Others "can perform ceremonies until the end of time, but they aren't valid," he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to issue an official comment.
Michael Melchior, an Orthodox Israeli rabbi and former lawmaker, said he could "appreciate" the movement's outreach to its gay and lesbian members.
"I think they took this decision out of consideration for people who are homosexuals and lesbians, and wanted them to be able to be ordained," said Melchior, whose views on religion and politics are more liberal than the Orthodox establishment's. "To the extent that it expresses empathy toward the individual, then it is a decision that I can definitely understand and I can appreciate it."