A Conversation with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
BY PERRY FEIN
FEIN: You are credited with pushing the Conservative movement to examine and reform its official stance on the
issue of LGBTQ participation and equality. How did you encourage leaders to speak to this issue years, and even
decades, before most wanted to address it?
ARTSON: I was a student— at the time there was only one Rabbinical school and that was in New York—at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I started there in 1983 and my sister came out [as lesbian] that same year, so I had a personal
agenda. I needed to figure out how I could believe what I believed about Judaism and Jewish law, and still know that my sister is a wonderful human being, and that whatever relationship she would get into would be a source of blessing. I was taking a class on Jewish law and they offered me the opportunity to write a paper, a legal paper, instead of taking a final. I ended up writing a 45-page T’Shuva—a legal finding—arguing for gay marriage and for gay
[rabbinical] ordination. That took on a life of its own. It became, I was told, the hottest unpublished item both at
the JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] and HUC [Hebrew Union College] libraries. They had to keep extra copies on
reserve as people kept coming in to get their hands on it. It was really odd because for the first several years [after writing the paper] total strangers would come up to me and ask, “Are you Brad Artson?” and then scream at me. I remember one time in particular, in the cafeteria, this guy walks up next to me as I’m eating my soup and asks if I’m Brad Artson. I say, “yes” and he starts yelling about how I’m going to “destroy Western civilization and blah
blah blah”. Then the Law Committee heard my paper, and my primary Halakha [Jewish law] teacher, Joel Roth, felt the need to write a paper arguing against my paper, because I used his method but he didn’t agree with my conclusion. But he was such a gentleman that when he taught an annual class in the Rabbinical school on the “Jewish
Legal Method”, he always closed by having them read my paper. He would say, “This paper is completely Halakhik [lawful]. I just think it’s wrong.” I expected it to take 40 years to move the world and the [Conservative] Movement.
And truthfully it wasn’t anyone in the movement, but it was the larger world. As the world started to discuss the issue of sexual orientation differently, the burden was on the people against gay marriage, not those of us who were in favor of it.
FEIN: What official decisions have been made about the participation of LGBTQ Jews in Conservative synagogues, seminaries, and other community institutions?
ARTSON: For all of our commitment to Jewish law—maybe even because of it—we don’t have that many policy statements, because our policies are really Jewish law. So the only decision that had to be made was, “Is it permissible to have a partner who is the same gender as you?” And if that’s true then, in a way, the other issues get covered. Once you pick a partner, we expect you to be monogamous. Once the Law committee decreed that it was permissible to marry gay and lesbian couples and to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, the two seminaries moved very quickly. We, at the Ziegler School, moved first and then the JTS followed relatively quickly thereafter. Within a year of that decision, we had
both ordained gay and lesbian individuals.
FEIN: I’m sure you’re familiar with the oft-cited Leviticus verse that insinuates homosexuality to be an “abomination”. Was this reinterpreted or amended, or was it altogether rejected?
ARTSON: I don’t personally believe that we have the authority to reject a verse in Leviticus. But I do believe that God expects us to interpret it in a way that is compatible with love and justice. So, to my mind, there are two ways to do that. One is an argument that I advanced, which is that in the ancient world there was nothing comparable to a monogamous, committed homosexual relationship between equals. The first time we hear the term “homosexual” applied to
an individual as opposed to an action is during the 19th century. It takes a modern mindset to be able to say that I have an orientation. In the ancient world, there was a widespread belief that free, adult males were supposed to take pleasure and everyone else was supposed to give it. For example, in ancient Greece and ancient Rome it was a crime for a husband to perform oral sex on his wife, because that was considered unnatural. But there was nothing wrong with a statesman who had sex with his wife, his male slaves, his female slaves, foreigners, and cows— wherever he wanted to get it, get it. What I argued was that this concept of sex—as an enactment of power dynamics rather than love—is what the Bible was calling To’ebah, an abomination. The idea of a monogamous, committed relationship is something new, which means we have to decide, “Is that something more analogous to the biblical To’ebah or monogamous marriage?” I argued that it’s pretty obvious that it’s like [heterosexual] monogamous marriage.
FEIN: I read that the Reconstructionist and Reform Movements both tackled this issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What caused the Conservative Movement to lag behind?
ARTSON: In the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements Jewish law isn’t binding. That makes it a lot easier…if you can say, “I don’t agree with this and therefore we’re going to change it,” then you’re done. And I’m not saying that as a criticism of those movements; that’s a legitimate posture to take. It would be like saying, “You changed your mind on immigration policy way before the U.S. Congress did.” That’s because the Congress has to pass it into law, and passing it into law means making it compatible with other existing laws. Likewise, for the Conservative Movement, we had to do it in a way that leaves the structure of Torah intact. That just takes a lot longer.
FEIN: Yes, that sounds like a difficult task to undertake on a number of levels.
ARTSON: It is and I think there’s a second philosophical challenge, which is, “Is the law meant to move in advance of social consensus or is the law meant to reflect social consensus?” I think most of us would say sometimes one and
sometimes the other, but in this case I don’t think the Movement wanted to be too far in advance of what our congregations were willing to accept. When women’s ordination was debated, the Movement passed a rule but didn’t do
the work in the congregations to make them really open to having women as rabbis. So the women got ordained and then
they found this glass ceiling that they could not rise above. The Movement doesn’t want to make that mistake twice. We want to be sure to [integrate members of the LGBTQ community] in a way where people in the pews feel good about it. We want congregants to say, “That’s a legitimate reading of Torah the way I understand it.” This year in our graduating class we have two wonderful rabbis—both lesbians. Both got jobs the first day it was permissible for rabbis to take pulpit positions. So the community is ready for it.
FEIN: Were you expecting to find a level of consensus among all the Conservative
congregations across the country? Isn’t it possible that it could be an issue that might inspire different reactions from different demographics or regions?
ARTSON: Yes, I think it’s linked to two factors that are extraneous to the merits of the argument. One is the age of the individual, right? For your generation, it’s no big deal. For my generation, on the other hand, we have a harder
time adjusting. I feel like Moses looking from the mountaintop, looking at a land I’ll never get into. And then those places that are more politically rightwing will have a harder time with it too. But interestingly, the Conservative Movement is pretty center-left; it’s just not been a big issue with the implementation. Our first
lesbian ordinate got a job in Georgia—not Atlanta but like Georgia, Georgia.
FEIN: Is it possible that the word “Conservative” has a deterring effect on younger Jews? And if so, has a “rebranding” ever been considered?
ARTSON: People propose rebranding all the time, but I think differently. The leadership of the United Synagogue or the Rabbinical Assembly, from time to time, have panels about it. The upcoming biennial convention of the United Synagogue is actually asking the public to propose new possible names and slogans. I just don’t think anyone chooses a community based on the label. In the rest of the world we’re known as Masorti, and is it better? I don’t know, it’s Hebrew, it means “traditional”. Ask yourself, “If the Conservative congregation in Santa Cruz changed its label to Masorti, would their be a hundred people on the front steps saying, ‘Now we want to join’?” I think the issue is always harder than that. We as a movement have grown lazy. I still think our cluster of ideas and practices will appeal to a large number of people, but we’ve gotten sloppy and smug. What we need to do is “hustle”. We need to show—by being really dynamic, really energetic, and really welcoming—that we’re the place for a larger number of people.