Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

Status Quo Versus Change

I have never been the type of person whose ideas fit into a box. My parents raised me to be independently minded as opposed to an ideologue or towing a party line. It allows me to be the rabbi of a synagogue which is much more traditional than the movement’s average while arguing for a measure which is more liberal than where the Conservative Movement is currently at.

I am very grateful for all of the responses I received to my article about the Conservative Movement and patrilineal descent. In the past week I have heard from professors of halacha who I greatly respect (Rabbis Joel Roth, David Golinkin, Diana Villa and Noah Bickart) as well as read an article by Rabbi Israel Francus. I have also begun a hevruta on the sources, beginning with Talmud Kiddushin. The sources on matrilineal descent, from Deuteronomy as interpreted by the Talmud unto the Rishonim and Aharonim is the sole tradition of our people for the past 2000 years. I have been asked to recant my position because it is halachically unprecedented (excluding biblical stories by which we don’t rule anyway) and if it passes, separate from or along with interfaith marriage, it would cause a rupture within the Conservative Movement.

First let me say that from my knowledge, the Conservative Movement is not discussing patrilineal descent, and that regarding interfatih marriage the standard of our movement will remain on the books. There is a Blue Ribbon Commission looking into the topic of interfaith marriage that has not yet reported any of its findings, and I highly doubt it will result in any changes. Also, I did not enter JTS with any desire to change any of the standards of the Conservative Movement. If I did I would have gone to Hebrew Union College. On the contrary, I was on the traditional end of most halachic issues, deciding between attending JTS and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

What started to change my thinking was the passage of a completely unrelated issue: the performance of same-sex commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples in December 2006. The law committee debates were open to rabbinical students, and I went on one of the days. Five position papers were debated: two to keep the status quo prohibition on same sex marriage and three to allow commitment ceremonies and/or marriage. Both positions to keep the status quo passed and one position to allow for commitment ceremonies passed. I remember the law committee deliberations on Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s teshuvah (legal responsum), which called for uprooting from the Torah the prohibitions on gay relations. Four traditionalists in a row said that his paper was the most “intellectually honest” (stating that the prohibition is what it is but nevertheless that we should uproot it). His teshuvah did not pass. Instead the position which passed was by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Danny Nevins and Avraham Reisner. I greatly respect these rabbis, each of whom has served our movement with great dignity and who know far more halacha than I likely ever will. However, I was greatly troubled by their Teshuvah, which has been wrongly embraced as allowing LGBT Jews into our movement (even though it just deals with L and G and is not all-embracing). In reality, the teshuvah allowed for same-sex commitment ceremonies (not marriage) as long as gay men do not engage in anal sex. In so doing it maintains the biblical prohibition from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 while overriding the 2000 years of rabbinic literature on this topic (Sifra and Mishneh Torah in particular) in favor of the rabbinic principle of k’vod habriyot (human dignity). It also restricts those who are bisexual from being in a same-sex relationship, saying they should choose to be in a heterosexual relationship.

At the time this Teshuvah passed four members of the law committee resigned, two of whom were my teachers. Like them, I was opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage being commemorated by Jewish law, and this Teshuvah felt like a roundabout and disingenuous way to allow it. While I respect all three rabbis who wrote it, it felt like it was begun with an end goal was in mind and the need was to make the halacha correspond to this goal. The teshuva was quickly adopted at JTS where people who were opposed to it were castigated as homophobic. I wrote an email to the JTS rabbinic listserve where I mentioned my opposition (at the time) and received some support but also a lot of vitriol. My perception was that, at least publicly at JTS, one had to take the party line and embrace this teshuvah. There was no opportunity for discussion amongst rabbinical students.

Over time I became supportive of same-sex commitment ceremonies, although I have never been asked to perform one. In my last year at JTS I began to think about what were the redlines of the Conservative Movement. If we could go so quickly from being opposed  to same-sex marriage one day to finding a roundabout way to allow it the next, what other issues could the Conservative Movement start to embrace? The law committee had long before uprooted the prohibition of a Kohen marrying a divorcee as well as gotten rid of the requirements of Kohen and Levi aliyot because they are nonegalitarian. I thought what other issues that had become steadfast halachic principles could be changed due to the times in which we live? In retrospect, I guess the “slippery slope” argument does hold water.

One can make the argument that Jewish identity is a completely separate issue from those others, one that should unite כלל ישראל (all of Israel). One can also always convert to Judaism, whereas one cannot change their biological makeup or the family into which s/he was born (though one can also not always control who one falls in love with either). I understand those arguments and have always pushed for conversion and will continue to do so. Taking a child to the מקוה is easy. The challenge comes when we require הטפת דם for a child. When you tell the parents of a patrilineal first grade boy that we need to ritually extract a drop of blood from his penis because the boy did not undergo a ברית מילה לשם גרות (circumcision for the sake of conversion) at 8 days old and you see the look of sheer horror on their faces, it stays with you. Sure you can say it will only hurt for a minute and that it won’t cause psychological damage, but when you have children raised to view their bodies as private-things which you don’t have stranger touch-and then you require a ritual procedure done on the most intimate part of the body, chances are it doesn’t work so well. The other alternative is to not require הטפת דם and break a standard of our movement.

The truth is what the Conservative Movement chooses to do on the topics of patrilineal descent and interfaith marriage will not have a major impact on my life. If I have to turn a couple more families to a Reform congregation because they don’t meet our standards, at least the children are getting a Jewish education. The three couples I have turned down for interfaith marriages and civil ceremonies have all understood gracefully and found other people to marry them. My frustration is that our movement has allowed other numerous measures that I don’t see as halachic so why draw a redline here? If you’re coming from a more traditional perspective and don’t accept some of the other changes made in the Conservative Movement that is one thing but if not, why make opposition to patrilineal descent and interfaith marriages your absolute standard? Is it about being accepted by those to the right or is there another reason?

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.
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