Rabbi Daniel Landes’ recent op-ed (“We Orthodox Jews Desperately Need Gay Rabbis”) about his decision to ordain an openly gay man as an Orthodox rabbi is bad for both rabbis and the LGBTQ+ community. We hold this position for many reasons; here, we show it is unwise based on what “ordination” should mean. Indeed, with the breakdown of consensus over what terms like “halacha” and “Orthodox” mean, we think it has become a necessity to argue based on ideas all the parties to a discussion share.
In all denominations, we believe, ordination as a rabbi is conferred only on those whose personal conduct and religious worldview matches those of the stream of Judaism within which the person is being ordained. The fight within Reform Judaism about whether to ordain the intermarried seems precisely over whether an intermarried Jew can be considered to be living a life recommended by Reform Judaism. The Rabbinical Council of America asks candidates for admission whether they think the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is the messiah because belief in the Rebbe as messiah violates their bounds of acceptable.
These theological and practical problems likely arise in other faiths, perhaps all faiths, who also require ministers, imams, etc. to be doing their best to adhere to the standards important to that faith or movement.
One might think we have just given Rabbi Landes cover to ordain gay men. Were he, like many outside of Orthodox Judaism and some within Open Orthodoxy, to deny the sin in same sex relationships, ordination would fit his standards, and we could object only from our perspective, not his.
However, a close reading of Rabbi Landes’ article explaining why he ordained Daniel Atwood shows this not to be his view. He recounts the various problems homosexuals confront within the Orthodox community and in functioning consistent with Jewish law as he understands it. Then he says, “I don’t have the answers to many of these questions.” Instead, he extols the communal value of having rabbis who lead as they struggle.
At no point does he say Jewish Law permits this conduct. Instead, he says he thinks we need to ordain sinners, who can show us all how to struggle with sin. Correct as Rabbi Landes is that rabbis, like all humans, fight temptations (sometimes failing), he is here arguing to ordain someone who has announced his intention to live a life Rabbi Landes thinks inconsistent with halacha. He is ordaining a rabbi who intends to live outside the bounds of Rabbi Landes’ own view of Orthodoxy.
Of course, we are aware that Rabbi Landes promises us that “an expanded argument in the form of halachic responsum is forthcoming” and that is exactly the problem here. If Rabbi Landes really thinks he has a viable halachic argument present, he should share it. The proper squence – really quite crucial, if you think about it – is first present his responsum to the community of scholars, and then to act on it in daily life for people who are not rabbis and then to ordain people who function based on this responsum. “Ready, aim, fire” is much better than “fire, aim ready” in any serious activity.
We respect the difficulties and complexities of life and we recognize that compromise happens. One of us had an Orthodox Jewish friend who – having learned in a yeshiva for many years — had a sexual relationship with a gentile woman in graduate school. She became pregnant and chose not to abort. He chose to marry her and raise his child. In this complex situation, he remains and tries to be the best Orthodox Jew he can– daily minyan, daf yomi and much more – even as he stays in his intermarriage. We can admire his dedication to the child, his efforts to live an Orthodox Jewish life within the parameters of his existence, but we should be clear he is not eligible for Orthodox ordination.
Denominations should not ordain people to watch them struggle with sin. Rather, they ordain rabbis who strive to fulfill all of Jewish law’s dictates, mores, customs, and norms, each stream in its own way. Publicly embracing any sin – as your own movement defines it — disqualifies one from ordination.
Equally importantly, gay men and women are not well served by Rabbi Landes’ approach. The LGBTQ+ community want recognition and acceptance, which means they want to join a movement whose view of Jewish law accepts same sex relationships as valid and not sinful. Otherwise, they are dooming themselves—and the Judaism with which they affiliate—to continuing tension and ill will: suffering all around is likely to occur in such situations. Rabbi Landes decision to ordain without clarifying his underling view makes this problem worse and not better.
Ordination as a way to role model struggle is a bad approach for the rabbinate, the Jewish community and LGBTQ+s within the Jewish community. There are denominations of Judaism which see no problem in LGBTQ+s identity and life; it is there that the LGBTQ+ should be able to find ordination and the full acceptance they seek.
This essay was written in conjunction with Rabbi Michael J. Broyde. Michael Broyde has served in a variety of rabbinic roles for the past many years, from the Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta, to the director of the Beth Din of America. He is now a Professor of Law at Emory University, and this year he is a senior Fulbright Scholar at Hebrew University. Next Year he is teaching Jewish Law at Stanford Law School.