Leaders in the Masorti (Conservative) Movement were split Tuesday on what the local impact would be of the appointment of a new dean to the Jewish Theological Seminary's (JTS) Rabbinical School who is in favor of normalizing the status of gay and lesbian Jews.
The JTS's incoming chancellor, Prof. Arnold Eisen, who has in the past voiced support for same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of homosexual rabbis, chose Rabbi Daniel Nevins to replace Rabbi William Lebeau as dean of the rabbinic school.
Eisen's decision was announced Monday after a search committee of about a dozen Conservative Movement leaders interviewed a list of potential candidates.
Its stand on homosexuality is just one of many challenges facing the American Conservative Movement, which has been losing membership to both Reform and Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Nevins, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post by telephone from the US, denied that his opinions on the homosexuality issue were central to his appointment.
"I was asked about my opinions on a long list of issues including the training of successful pulpit rabbis, Jewish education and my vision for the future of Conservative Jewry," he said.
Nevins coauthored "Homosexuality, Dignity and Halacha," a halachic opinion approved by the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). It was the most liberal halachic opinion approved by the CJLS, the Conservative Movement's supreme halachic authority.
Nevins argued that Conservative Judaism must retain the Torah's explicit prohibition of homosexual intercourse. But Nevins called for full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews. Conservative Judaism should ordain gay and lesbian Jews and recognize commitment ceremonies, though not as sanctified marriage.
Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and a supporter of normalizing homosexuality in the Conservative Movement, applauded the Nevins appointment.
"How can it not be part of a momentum and a certain direction that has begun in the Conservative Movement?" Sacks asked. "It is hard for me to believe that Israel can be insulated from that liberalizing phenomenon, albeit the community here has not only the right but the obligation to make its own decision."
Regardless of the homosexual issue, Sacks praised Nevins as "a man with the highest moral qualities. He is personable, committed and warm and has all the qualities needed as a dean."
Sacks also said that the appointment by Eisen indicates openness at the JTS that would not have existed under the previous chancellor. Sacks was referring to outgoing JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsh, who was outspoken in his opposition to the normalization of homosexuality.
In contrast, Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute, also praised Nevins, but denied that the appointment signaled a future change in the JTS's admissions policy regarding homosexuals.
"I would imagine the JTS chose someone that could live with various points of views on the issue of homosexuality," said Golinkin, who pointed out that none of the Conservative rabbinic seminaries, including the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the most liberal institution, have officially changed their admissions policies.
"Opinions on homosexuality are heavily influenced by sociological factors," said Golinkin. "That's why you'll find Conservative rabbis in Europe and South America and mid-America tend to be less liberal on the issue."
Professor Steven M. Cohen, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has just completed a survey of over 10,000 Conservative rabbis, cantors and laymen on their opinion regarding normalization of homosexuality. Results are expected in coming days.
Rabbi Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinic School in Israel, refused to comment on Nevins's position regarding homosexuality.
In a recent conference on homosexuality at the Schechter Institute, both Ramon and Golinkin spoke out against the Nevins opinion, which was coauthored by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff and Avram Reisner.
Excerpts from Ramon's and Golinkin's speeches were posted by an American Conservative rabbinical student spending a year in Israel on "www.jewschool.com," a blog that focuses on liberal Jewish issues. These excerpts were verified for the Post by anonymous sources who were also present during the speeches.
Ramon said that the position put forward by Nevins endangered the "traditional family."
"Conservative Judaism must protect the family from those with an agenda to see that it is destroyed," said Ramon. "Those are the homosexuals who have already succeeded in this destruction within the Reconstructionist Movement. Only by standing strong can the family be protected."
As dean of Schechter's rabbinic school, Ramon said that she could not and would not allow her institution to contribute to the further breakdown of traditional family values, as she understood them.
Golinkin denied the quotes in his name that appear on www.jewschool.com, but admitted that Nevins's opinion on homosexuality was "difficult to justify according to Conservative halachic criteria."
Nevins is currently the senior rabbi of Adat Shalom synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where he previously served as assistant rabbi. A 1994 graduate of The Rabbinical School, he received an MA in Hebrew Letters from JTS in 1991 and a BA from Harvard College in 1989, where he also received an MA in history.
Nevins is past president of the Michigan region of the Rabbinical Assembly and serves on the board of the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. Deeply committed to interfaith and interreligious work, he is past president of the Farmington Area Interfaith Association and the ecumenical Michigan Board of Rabbis, and a member of the board of the Detroit chapter of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.
In May 2005, Rabbi Nevins led a group of Protestant and Catholic leaders on a unique trip that included Pope Benedict XVI's first public audience, Holocaust Memorial Day at Titus's Arch in Rome and a week in Israel visiting Jewish and Christian holy places.