Six years after its American counterpart, the Conservative movement’s Israeli rabbinical school voted last month to admit gay and lesbian students. It’s one small step for LGBT people, one foot-dragging schlep for the Jews. As progressives celebrate this milestone, many not connected to the debates have asked: What took them so long?
In ascending order of interest, the answer has to do with personalities, social contexts, and crises of legitimacy. First, and least interesting to non-insiders, a very small handful of individuals have personally stood in the way of this progress for years. (As a semi-insider myself, I know who they are, and who the activists are, and who the folks in the movable middle are.) One person really can make a difference—especially when he or she is resistant to change.
More interestingly, though, are the different social contexts of Israeli Conservative Jews and American Conservative Jews. The label notwithstanding, most Conservative Jews in America are relatively progressive. They vote Democrat, support gay rights, and don’t keep kosher—at least not in the traditional way. Many are Conservative Jews for social reasons: it’s how they grew up, it’s where their friends are, it’s the better (or closer) synagogue. Most lack a strong ideological commitment to the movement, which has been a problem in recent years as an older generation of philanthropists disappears.
In Israel, on the other hand, you have to work to be a masorti Jew. (The word masorti means traditional, but the Conservative movement has coopted it. Confusingly, it also applies to Sephardic Jews who are not conventionally religious but who observe some of the traditional norms for cultural or spiritual reasons.) There are few such Jews around, masorti institutions are not supported by the state, and if all you want is to be culturally Jewish, there’s no reason to affiliate at all. Israeli masorti Jews are Jews by choice.
So, unlike their American counterparts, Israeli masorti Jews have a stronger sense of connection to Jewish law and tradition. In the bifurcated language of Israeli Jewish society, they see themselves as liberal religious people, and religious culture in Israel is still deeply, small-c conservative. Tel Aviv may be a gay mecca, but outside the bubble, Israel remains a very traditional place.
Most importantly, however, masorti Jews are always looking over their right shoulder at a religious establishment that denies their legitimacy. This, I think, is the most significant reason for the Israeli movement’s slowness on the LGBT issue. Politically, religiously, socially, and economically, this is a marginal community that will never be Jewish enough for the Orthodox. Caving to yet another modern, non-Jewish value (i.e., equality) makes them even less legitimate than they were before. Which, of course, was zero, but now it’s zero in italics.
Which, to me, is the real point. It’s understandable for masorti Jews to worry about what the Orthodox will think; the Orthodox have political power and don’t hesitate to use it to coerce others to conform to their view of Judaism. But socially and religiously, it’s too late for such concerns; the ship has already sailed. Gay rabbis are only marginally more controversial than women rabbis are. The legal issues are different, but in terms of social and religious legitimacy, it makes more sense for masorti Jews to find common cause with their American cousins than with Orthodox Israelis who have never respected them in the first place.
And now, at least on this issue, they have done so—and just in time. American and Israeli progressives are becoming deeply alarmed at ultra-Orthodox religious coercion and violence. We’re dismayed at women being told to sit at the back of the bus (literally) and young girls being spit on (also literally) for being immodestly dressed. And in these struggles, Reform, Conservative, Progressive-Orthodox, and Secular Jews are all in the same boat. As we find common cause together, this is one less issue to drive us apart.
Jay Michaelson, a Religion Dispatches associate editor and founder of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, writes regularly for the Forward and Tikkun. He is completing his Ph.D. in Jewish Thought at Hebrew University and his most recent book is God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality (Beacon, 2011).
Originally posted at Religion Dispatches.