Most survey respondents vote in favor of gay Conservative rabbis

new york | Leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary insist the ordination of gay rabbis is not a foregone conclusion despite the appointment of a rabbinical school dean committed to the move and a recent survey showing that a majority in the Conservative movement would support the step.

The seminary’s incoming chancellor, Arnold Eisen, said a survey of movement leaders released this week is just “one factor among many” in his decision whether to admit openly gay students to the JTS rabbinical and cantorial schools.

The survey found that roughly two-thirds of Conservative rabbis and cantors believe JTS should admit gay and lesbian students for rabbinical study. Percentages in favor were slightly higher among the movement’s professional and lay leadership, and slightly lower among student rabbis and cantors.

Similar margins of support were found when respondents were asked if Conservative rabbis should officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Eisen, currently a professor at Stanford University, commissioned the survey following a December teshuvah, or decision, from the movement’s highest rabbinical authority permitting the ordination of gay clergy.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards also endorsed two contrary opinions on the status of homosexuals within the movement, leaving it to individual Conservative institutions to decide their own policy.

On Monday, Jan. 29, the seminary named Rabbi Daniel Nevins, one of three authors of the permissive teshuvah, as dean of the JTS rabbinical school.

Nevins, a Harvard-educated rabbi from Farmington Hills, Mich., dismissed the suggestion that his selection made gay ordination inevitable.

“Don’t overplay it,” Nevins said. “You might find yourself surprised.”

Within the movement, though, preparations are under way for the consequences of a change in policy.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue association, said that he has enlisted a consultant to help his staff cope with synagogues that may choose to hire a gay rabbi.

“We don’t see our role as promoting change,” Epstein said. “We see our role as promoting pluralism.”

A JTS press release highlighted the fact that consensus exists on several key questions believed to distinguish Conservative Judaism from other streams.

By substantial majorities, respondents said they believe the movement is “halachic,” that rabbis should not officiate at mixed marriages, that patrilineal descent should be rejected and that women should serve as rabbis and cantors.

Support for a more permissive approach is also far more prevalent among those who are less religiously observant, describe themselves as “liberal” and who have friends or family that are gay.

Among those who call themselves theologically liberal, 91 percent support gay ordination; among the theologically conservative, 57 percent oppose it.

In one particularly striking finding, 35 percent of the rabbis, cantors and JTS students surveyed agreed that the liberal teshuvah was “outside the pale of acceptability of halachic reasoning,” while only half rejected the proposition.

Sixty-seven percent of Conservative clergy reported that they were “somewhat embarrassed” by the committee’s decision.

The survey was conducted entirely online, with 18,676 invitations e-mailed to Conservative rabbis, cantors, seminary students, and lay and professional leadership; 4,861 responded. An additional 722 responded through a Web site.

Steven Cohen, the Hebrew Union College sociologist who conducted the survey pro bono, said the survey’s margin of error was “negligible” due to the high percentage of respondents.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.