Monday, March 06, 2006

The New York Times gets framed

Yesterday at the NHC Chesapeake Retreat, at "an undisclosed site near Baltimore" (tee hee), I taught a repeat of "Don't Think of an Elephant: How Can Liberal Jews Express Our Values?". Once again, it sparked creative thinking about framing in Jewish discourse. If we keep doing this, eventually we'll be using our own frames.

Meanwhile, as the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards prepares to sequester itself at "an undisclosed site near Baltimore" and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, today's New York Times provides some excellent textbook examples of framing. Let's fisk:

In 1992, this same group, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, declared that Jewish law clearly prohibited commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples and the admission of openly gay people to rabbinical or cantorial schools.

How do you say "cantorial school" in Aramaic?

The direction taken by Conservative Jews, who occupy the centrist position in Judaism between the more liberal Reform and the more strict Orthodox, will be closely watched at a time when many Christian denominations are torn over the same issue. Conservative Judaism claims to distinguish itself by adhering to Jewish law and tradition, or halacha, while bending to accommodate modern conditions.

As I've already discussed at length, the Conservative movement's self-identity may be all about having exclusive claim to "the center", but that doesn't make it objectively true. Conservative Judaism is very different from "Centrist" Orthodoxy. And in fact, this week's CJLS meeting (the very topic of the article) highlights one axis on which the C movement is not in the center at all, but at the extreme: neither Reform nor Orthodox Judaism (other than perhaps some Hasidic sects) gives this degree of authority to any body of living rabbis. But the Times gets points for including the qualifier "claims to distinguish itself".

"There are those who are saying, don't change the halacha because the paradigm model of the heterosexual family has to be maintained," said Rabbi Meyers, a stance he said he shared. "On the other hand is a group within the movement who say, look, we will lose thoughtful younger people if we don't make this change, and the movement will look stodgy and behind the times."

Oh boy oh boy. As someone pointed out yesterday (responding to a similar quote in the AP article we were studying in chavruta), this suggests that those who support the status quo are committed to principles, while those who advocate equality are concerned only about image and impressing the cool kids. (I wrote a letter to the editor to the Times on this topic; we'll see if they run it, but my track record is not good so far. I think I might be in their Spam folder.) According to Meyers (and the frame in which he's operating), there are serious Jews, and then there are Jews to be marketed to. Just for fun, let's rewrite his quote from another perspective: "There are those who are saying, change the policy because the principle that all people are created in God's image has to be maintained. On the other hand is a group within the movement who say, look, we will lose older people if we don't make this change, and the movement will look wacky and then the Orthodox will never ask us to the prom and I'll end up an old maid."

Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of "American Judaism: A History," said, "In the 1950's when Americans believed everybody should be in the middle, the Conservative movement was deeply in sync with a culture that privileged the center. What happens as American society divides on a liberal-conservative axis is that the middle is a very difficult place to be."

Right, go on believing that the Conservative movement's decline is an inevitable consequence of the polarization of America. No one has any interest in combining tradition and modernity anymore, so the movement's leaders take none of the blame. Here, they sound like Joe Lieberman, who claimed in 2004 to be a political martyr because everyone is moving to the extremes, never mind the other reasons why Democrats don't support him.

Rabbi Meyers, vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said he worried that any decision on homosexuality could cause Conservative Jews to migrate to either Reform, which accepts homosexuality, or Orthodoxy, which condemns it.

"Accepts homosexuality"! The Reform movement also accepts freckles.
Also, if Conservative Jews are migrating somewhere else, it must be either Reform or Orthodox, since that's all there is.

Few congregants are as preoccupied about homosexuality as are their leaders, said Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, a professor of Talmud and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who spends weekends at synagogues around the country as a visiting scholar.

"There are so many laws in the Torah about sexual behavior that we choose to ignore, so when we zero in on this one, I have to wonder what's really behind it," Rabbi Visotzky said.

Ha. So true. If the Conservative movement were to crack down on same-sex relationships as harshly as it cracks down on heterosexuals who have sex without going to the mikvah, dayeinu. (That comment wasn't sarcastic.)

UPDATE: The Rooftopper Rav posts a letter from Keshet to the CJLS over at the 'school.


  1. as usual, good stuff ben.
    it looks like this entry got double-posted.

  2. You should really talk to my friend Josh, who is at LIST and is in a group of people who are trying to get JTS to allow gays into the Rabbinical and Cantorial schools. I'm not sure what they're actually doing right now, but at least the entire Conservative movement isn't unanimous on this issue.

  3. Not to be a nudnik, and I'm all for Steve Greenberg-style reinterpretation of text to the extent that it's possible, but do you think that JTS would accept, to its rabbinical or cantorial school, an applicant who started a group that was vocally against mikvah? I mean, there are many people who take issue with the whole body of halacha that's concerned with mikvah/nida or more broadly, tuma/tahara and menstruation. In other words, most heterosexual couples who don't use mikvaot are "in the closet" (and I'm *not* equating this with the closet into which gay people are forced, merely using the same lingo to make a point) and that's why the Conservative movement doesn't care about it. They generally only seem to care about what their rabbinic students proclaim aloud and do in public. Please correct me if I'm wrong; I'm making a lot of assumptions here.

  4. alg:

    I'm just speculating here, but I bet that a closeted homosexual student (especially one in a committed relationship) would be expelled if she were "outed", and a closeted non-mikvah-using student would be permitted to remain if she were "outed".

  5. Excellent articulation of the issue, BZ. I read often, but this is only my first or second comment. Rabbi Vizotsky's comment is so true. I am interested to see how this turns out. Somehow, I think this will be more complicated than rennet and cheese. :-)