For Aaron Weininger, Conservative Judaism is not just a religion - it's a way of life, one with an impact seen in his individual history, familial relationships and personal philosophy.
"I grew up as an observant Conservative Jew," Aaron said before listing off bullet points that spotlighted his experiences in the community: He attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester from kindergarten through 8th grade and Solomon Schechter High School of New York, was president of his local United Synagogue Youth, and participated in USY summer programs. When it came time to focus on his future career goals, therefore, serving as a rabbi for his religious community was a definite dream. "My life experience was very much rooted, and is rooted, in the Conservative movement," he explained. "In many ways, a Conservative rabbinical school was a logical extension of my upbringing."
But up until his senior year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the idea of studying at a Conservative rabbinical school was implausible. As an openly gay man, Aaron was not eligible to be ordained as a rabbi for the Conservative movement. The sect of Judaism specifically prohibited openly gay men and women from becoming rabbis, a ban that could be traced back through the rich history of the religion.
However, during March of 2007, Aaron's senior year of college, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the premier seminary for the Conservative movement, announced it would begin admitting openly gay and lesbian students for the following year. Excited to actually be able to pursue his dream, Aaron applied, interviewed ten days after the pro-inclusion decision was made, and was accepted. He became the first openly gay student to attend JTS.
The JTS administration was confronted with the decision of whether homosexuality is compatible with the college's values in December 2006. That's when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the highest governing body within Conservative Judaism, released a landmark decision about homosexuality that in part sanctioned the ordination of gay and lesbian Jews.
This decision represented the spirit of the Conservative Judaism movement, often described as the "middle ground" between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism. The movement is characterized by a constant tension between change and tradition, a back-and-forth between moving along with the times and maintaining ancient Jewish laws.
The CJLS' Decision
The CJLS' statement regarding homosexuality and rabbinical studies came on Dec. 6, 2006, after years of opposition to gays and lesbians serving in the clergy. The last time the topic had been formally discussed was in 1992, when the CJLS released a statement, which passed with a 19-3-1 vote, declaring that Jewish law definitely prohibited homosexuality in official Conservative Jewish life.
The topic emerged again in 2006, and the CJLS again solicited opinions from within its own 25-member body. Ultimately, the CJLS published three different position papers, or teshuvot, with each having earned support from at least six members.
Each of the teshuva advocated a different approach to the issue of homosexuality within the movement. The first two responses reinforced the 1992 statement that any homosexual activity is prohibited in the faith. The third teshuva, however, was new and groundbreaking. The response reinterpreted Jewish law and reversed the 1992 decision, saying that gays and lesbians could be admitted into rabbinical and cantorial schools and that same-sex unions could be performed, although the teshuva maintained that anal sex is prohibited.
After the decision, any of the courses of action was justified under Conservative Jewish law. The three conflicting opinions, therefore, left Conservative Jewish institutions to decide for themselves whether they wanted to support the presence of gay and lesbian Jews in their own clergy.
A Flexible Faith
The opinions were a monumental step forward in the Conservative Judaism movement, an affirmation that the movement will continue to change and shift with the times.
There are two key tenets to Conservative Judaism: tradition and change. Both are valued equally, and in various situations, one becomes more dominant than the other. The very foundation of Conservative Judaism is rooted in this balance. In modern Jewish theology, Conservative Judaism clearly occupies a middle ground between the Reform movement and Orthodox sect. That is, the movement is more based in tradition than the Reform sect, but is far more open to modernity and contemporary changes in religious practice than Orthodoxy.
Some Conservative Jews said that in this situation, change was not appropriate, citing scripture, namely two verses in Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 says: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination." Another verse later in that book, Leviticus 20:13, features a similar line asserting the sinfulness of homosexual intercourse.
In a dissenting opinion that was not adopted by CJLS, Rabbi Gordon Tucker wrote:
Virtually every position in recent years that has argued against the normalization of Jewish gays and lesbians has done so not out of any stated animus toward, or fear of, gays or lesbians, but rather out of theological ... concerns.
That is, it is near impossible to read Leviticus 18:22 as anything other than a clear and direct prohibition against sex between two men. At the same time, Tucker said, it's not like Jews, especially Conservative Jews, have maintained the sanctity of every line in the Torah. Essentially, Tucker questions in the dissenting opinion why the movement must be so rigid and stubborn with regard to this specific line of Torah when they have made so many previous adjustments and diversions from scripture in the past, like the ordination of women.
Making the Change at JTS
The decision from the CJLS was considered and soon implemented at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the fountainhead of the Conservative sect in the United States. One of only five Conservative seminaries throughout the world - the others are in Los Angeles; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Budapest, Hungary; and Jerusalem, Israel - JTS is responsible for the education of many Conservative Jewish rabbis.
Arnold M. Eisen served as the chancellor of JTS during the decision, which echoed the national sentiment about how inherent change is within the Conservative Judaism movement. Eisen reflected:
The decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy at JTS is in keeping with the longstanding commitment of the Jewish tradition to pluralism. Pluralism means that we recognize more than one way to be a good Conservative Jew, more than one way of walking authentically in the path of our tradition and of carrying that tradition forward.
On March 26, 2007, JTS officially began accepting openly gay and lesbian candidates. Aaron Weininger was the first openly gay student accepted to JTS, and he was admitted alongside Ian Chesir-Teran, another gay student. Both men have said that they felt comfortable on the JTS campus, proud to be LGBT trailblazers for the Jewish community.
In 2008, the first year with the new policy implemented, JTS started a "Committee on Inclusion," which seeks to anticipate new and innovative ways to incorporate gay and lesbian Jews more cohesively within the religion. Aaron, who has been involved with the committee since its inception, explained its significance to the JTS community, saying: "It was really designed to help us think about next steps," he said. "Basically--what's next? And how do we build on the momentum that had really been generated around the deliberations of the law committee on homosexuality? Now that we have openly gay and lesbian students in the school, what do we do now?"
On March 26, 2008, the committee helped the JTS campus celebrate the one-year anniversary of the school's policy change. The full day of celebration for gays, lesbians and their straight allies, helped the Committee on Inclusion assist the seminary in brainstorming next steps for the Conservative movement. As one of the largest Conservative seminaries in the country, JTS is a trendsetter and is integral to breaking the mold within the movement and establishing new social mores.
The seminary brainstormed new ways to educate about more inclusive life cycles and family structures. They started imagining trans-inclusive education and language in services, breaking gender roles and the gender binary down further. They even began developing new traditions--new ceremonies for coming-out events, marriage and same-sex partnerships.
A Dual Role
As the first openly gay person accepted to a Conservative Jewish, Aaron is blazing a trail for the movement. He must endure the trials of this unexplored territory, but he also gets to revel in the joys of being able to do what he loves.
"Since I was in college, I really began immersing myself on my own terms in the Jewish community," he said, but that didn't steer him away from immersing himself into his identity as a gay man. Rather, he saw the movement as one where this dual role as a gay man and a Conservative Jew could really thrive.
"Coming out in college, I felt such an integration between the two, and that change is built into the tradition," he explained. "When people talk about tradition versus change, it leaves me wondering--I just believe that change is such an intrinsic part of Judaism, and if you look at the tradition today, it has required change. It has demanded change. So for me, my sexuality and my Judaism have really been integrated, and I have found supportive communities throughout that process of coming out."
Aaron said he expects many of the barriers to full LGBT inclusion within Conservative Judaism will be eliminated in the coming years, and he says he understands the resistance. Despite this, he looks forward to the future, one where Conservative Judaism acknowledges the value of homosexual members and, more importantly, realizes that integrating this societal change into the movement will only strengthen the faith. "I never saw a conflict for myself," he said, "But I recognized that the Conservative movement may have a different process. Ultimately, it's a matter of time before we recognize the importance of fully welcoming LGBT Jews."