03/27/2008 02:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Gay Conservative Rabbi is Coming to a Synagogue Near You -- or Not

One year ago yesterday, the head of the most influential seminary of the Conservative Jewish movement announced that openly gay and lesbian students could become rabbis and cantors. The Reconstructionist movement decided 24 years ago to permit gay rabbis, and the Reform movement followed 18 years ago. Finally, after decades of heated debate, the Conservative movement, with 1.5 million members in North America, had come around, also permitting same-sex commitment ceremonies. To mark the anniversary, a group of rabbinical and cantorial students called the Committee on Inclusion hosted a conference at their school, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), in New York City.

As an observant Jew who supports gay and lesbian rights, I have long been troubled by the strict Jewish legal interpretation that categorically prohibits same-sex relations. After reading and studying, I have arrived at the same conclusion that many well-respected theologians have advanced: that coerced same-sex relations, not consensual relations, are prohibited in Leviticus 18:22. I also believe that the Torah prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians ("Love your neighbor as yourself," Leviticus 19:18) and permits intimate relationships between people of the same sex ("It is not good for the human to be alone," Genesis 2:18).

So I was eager to attend the celebration. When I arrived, I took in the brightly colored balloons decorating the conference space. But what I felt from the conference-goers -- there were roughly a hundred, many of them JTS students and faculty -- was not entirely festive. It was as if they had been holding their breath, the air in their lungs held captive like the air in those vibrant balloons, and only now could they finally breathe out. A year had gone by, after all, and the decision hadn't been revoked. "I never thought this day would come," an alumna told me, still slightly stunned.

There was Israeli music and hora dancing (also known as "simcha" or joyous dancing -- the kind done at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs). There was a big sheet cake with a colorful rainbow in frosting. Someone threw in the air glitter confetti, which showered down on the dancers, landing in their hair and on their shoulders. A rabbi recited the "Sheheyianu," the blessing that thanks God for enabling us to have reached this moment, and everyone stopped what they were doing to recite it along with her.

But why did it take so long? How many would-be rabbis over the years had never been ordained? How many gay rabbis and cantors had to remain closeted for fear of losing their jobs? How many remain closeted? I thought about the modern Orthodox community with which I am very involved religiously and socially. Within Orthodoxy, the most stringent movement in interpreting Jewish law, there is no room for anyone (let alone a rabbi) who is openly gay or lesbian. Why are we instructed to embrace the ger, the stranger, yet we are told to distance ourselves from someone who loves Judaism and lives a Jewish life but happens to be gay? "When a stranger resides with you in your land," reads Leviticus 19:33-4, "you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Lord am your God."

The confetti still glittering in everyone's hair, we sat down to hear a panel of three rabbis, one cantor, and one rabbinical student who shared their personal coming-out stories. It was a painful hour. We heard about the internalized homophobia, the fear of losing their livelihood, the feeling that they never truly belonged. When they were done spilling these intimate details, there were few dry eyes in the room. We gave them a standing ovation.

JTS took a bold step last year, but it can't move forward without more steps. The Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the highest legal body in the movement, left it up to individual synagogues to decide whether to accept or reject gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies. Either course is justified by Jewish law, according to the committee. Thus, there is something for everyone. This big tent policy allows individual synagogues and seminaries to exclude, and many have chosen to do so.

Still, the decision last year was undeniably momentous. "When the word came that the seminary had changed their policy, it changed my life," said Cantor Rachael Littman, of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, one of the speakers. "It made all of the past statements like, 'You don't belong here' and 'Why are you at a place that doesn't want you' fade and not have the same hurtful impact they had carried for so long.... I felt free, free to be me, free to have a choice. Free to finally belong where I was never truly welcome."