Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the position of Vice-President and Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. I had the privilege of growing up at Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo where he served as Rabbi for ten years. More recently, I had the opportunity to speak with him about the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s stance on LGBT participation in community life and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.
FEIN: You are credited with pushing the Conservative movement to examine and reform its age-old stance on the issue of LGBT participation and equality. How did you encourage leaders to approach this issue years, and even decades, before most wanted to address it?
ARTSON: I was a student–at the time there was only one Rabbinical school and that was in New York–at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I started there in 1983 and my sister came out that same year, so I had a personal agenda. I needed to figure out, “how could I believe what I believed about Judaism and Jewish law, and still know that my sister is a wonderful human being and that whatever relationship she would get into would be a source of blessing?” So I was taking a class on Jewish law and they offered me the opportunity to write a legal paper instead of taking a final. I ended up writing a 45-page t’shuva–a legal finding–arguing for gay marriage and for gay ordination. And that took on a life of its own: It became, I was told, the hottest unpublished item both at the JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] and HUC [Hebrew Union College] libraries. They had to keep extra copies on reserve as people kept coming in to get their hands on it. It was really odd because for the first several years [after writing the paper], total strangers would come up to me and ask, “are you Brad Artson?” and then scream at me. I remember one time in particular, in the cafeteria, this guy walks up next to me as I’m eating my soup and asks if I’m Brad Artson. I say, “yes” and he starts yelling about how I’m gonna “destroy western civilization and blah, blah, blah.” Then the Law Committee heard my paper, and my primary Halakha [Jewish law] teacher Joel Roth felt the need to write a paper arguing against my paper, because I used his method, but he didn’t agree with my conclusion. But he was such a gentlemen that when he taught an annual class in the Rabbinical school on the “Jewish Legal Method,” he always closed by having them read my paper. And by saying, “this paper is completely halakhik [lawful, kosher etc.], but I just think it’s wrong.” I expected it to take 40 years to move the world and the movement. And truthfully it wasn’t anyone in the movement–I mean there were lots of us in the movement pushing–but it was the larger world. As the world started to discuss the issue of sexual orientation differently, the burden was on the people against gay marriage, not those of us who were in favor it. That’s what created the room for people to give the issue a new hearing. And by then I was the dean of the Rabbinical School–and I’m one of the heads of the two academic centers of the movement–and that gave me an opportunity to really advance it with my students. And my students were entirely sympathetic, it’s not like I received any resistance.
FEIN: What official decisions have been made about the participation of LGBT Jews in Conservative synagogues, seminaries and other community institutions?
ARTSON: For all of our commitment to Jewish law–maybe even because of it–we don’t have that many policy statements, because our policies are really Jewish law. So the only decision that had to be made was, “is it permissible to have a partner who is the same gender as you?” And once that’s true then in a way the other issues get covered. Bisexuality, for example, is not a significant issue because you still have to pick a partner and once you pick a partner we expect you to be monogamous. So whether you have a broader range of people to date, that’s your business, but once you settle in on someone then we expect you to settle in. Once the Law committee decreed that it was permissible to marry gay and lesbian couples and ordain gay and lesbian Rabbis, the two seminaries moved very quickly. We–at the Ziegler School–moved first and then the JTS followed relatively quickly thereafter. So within a year of that decision we had both ordained gay and lesbian individuals.
FEIN: I’m sure you’re familiar with the oft-cited Leviticus verse that claims homosexuality to be an “abomination”. Was this either reinterpreted or amended, or was it altogether rejected?
ARTSON: I don’t personally believe that we have the authority to reject a verse in Leviticus. But I do believe that G-d expects us to interpret it in a way that’s compatible with love and justice. So to my mind, there are two ways to do that: One is an argument that I advanced, which was that in the ancient world there was nothing comparable to monogamous, committed homosexual relations between equals. The first time we hear the term “homosexual” applied to an individual as opposed to an action, is in the 19th century. So that takes a modern mindset to be able to say, “I have an orientation.” In the ancient world, there was a widespread belief that free, adult males were supposed to take pleasure and everyone else was supposed to give it. So, for example, in ancient Greece and ancient Rome it was a crime for a husband to perform oral sex on his wife, because that was considered unnatural. Whereas there was nothing wrong with a senator who had sex with his wife, his male slaves, his female slaves, foreigners, and cows–wherever he wanted to get it, get it. What I argued was that it was this specific concept of sex, as an enactment of power dynamics rather than love, that the bible was calling to’ebah–an abomination. And the idea of a monogamous, committed relationship is something new, which means we have to decide, “Is that something more analogous to the biblical to’ebah or is it like monogamous marriage?” And I argued that it’s pretty obvious to me that it’s like monogamous marriage.
FEIN: I read that the Reconstructionist and Reform movements both tackled this issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What caused the Conservative movement to lag behind?
ARTSON: In the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, Jewish law isn’t binding. That makes it a lot easier. If you can say, “I don’t agree with this and therefore we’re going to change it,” then you’re done. And I’m not saying that as a criticism of those movements, that’s a legitimate posture to take. So for the Conservative movement, we had to do it in a way that leaves the structure of Torah intact. And that just takes a lot longer. It would be like saying, “you changed your mind on immigration policy way before the U.S. Congress did”. That’s because the Congress has to pass it into law, and passing it into law means making it compatible with other existing laws.
FEIN: Yes, that sounds like a difficult task to undertake on a number of different levels.
ARTSON: It is and I think there’s a second philosophical challenge: is the law meant to move in advance of social consensus or is the law meant to reflect social consensus? And I think most of us would say sometimes one and sometimes the other, but in this case I don’t think the movement wanted to be too far in advance of our congregations. That doesn’t do anyone any good. When women’s ordination was debated, the movement passed a rule, but didn’t do the work out in the congregations to make them really open to having women as Rabbis. So the women got ordained and then they found this glass ceiling that they could not rise above. The movement doesn’t want to make that mistake twice, so we want to be sure to do it in a way where people in the pews feel good about it. And say, “Yeah that’s a legitimate reading of Torah the way I understand it.” So in proof of the pudding, this year in our graduating class we have two wonderful, lesbian Rabbis. Both of whom got jobs the first day it was permissible to accept pulpit positions. So the community IS ready for it.
FEIN: Were you expecting to find a level of consensus among all the Conservative congregations across the country? Isn’t it possible that it could be an issue that might inspire different reactions in different demographics or regions?
ARTSON: Yes, I think it’s linked to two factors that are extraneous to the merits of the argument: One is the age of the individuals, right? For your generation it’s just no big deal. It’s no big deal to the degree that I’ve had students who apply to the program as one gender and by the time they get here they tell me, either they’re not that gender anymore or gender doesn’t pertain to them. For my generation, it’s like, “What are you talking about?” and for their generation, their classmates go, “OK fine.” They instantly switch the gender terms used to address that person and it’s just nothing, it’s like nothing for them, right? So my generation can look with envy at that; I feel like Moses looking from the mountaintop, looking at a land I’ll never get into. Right, and I think it’s a better land, I think it’s great. So part of it is that those congregations that are mostly older, they are just going to have a harder time with this because they were never raised with this. And then those places that are more politically rightwing will have a harder time with it too. But interestingly, the Conservative movement is pretty center-left; so it’s just not been a big issue with the implementation pretty much everywhere. Our first lesbian ordinate got a job in Georgia.
FEIN: Is it possible that the word “Conservative” has a deterring effect on younger Jews? And if so, has a “rebranding” ever been considered?
ARTSON: You know, people talk about rebranding all the time and I think in the minority. So I talk to the leadership of United Synagogue or the Rabbinical Assembly–they, from time to time, have panels about it. The upcoming biennial convention of the United Synagogue is actually asking the public to propose new possible names and new possible slogans. I just don’t think anyone chooses a community based on the label. Who joins a church because the word “Methodist” is a good word or a bad word? In the rest of the world we’re known as Masorti, and is it better? I don’t know, it’s Hebrew, it means “traditional,” that’s nice. Ask yourself, if your local Conservative congregation changed its label to Masorti, would there be a hundred people on the front steps the next day saying “now we want to join?” So I think the issue is always harder than that. The issue is, we as a movement have grown lazy. I still think our cluster of ideas and practices are awesome and will appeal to a large number of people but we’ve gotten lazy and sloppy and smug. So what we need to do is “hustle.” We need to show–by being really dynamic, really energetic and really welcoming–that we’re the place for a larger number of people. And then they’ll come and nobody will stop because of the label.
Perry Fein is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.