Saturday, December 09, 2006

What Do You Do If the Future is Against You?

This is a follow-up post to my earlier thoughts about the recent decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Jewish Movement regarding the place of gay and lesbian Jews in their movement. But where, in my earlier post, I had a point to make, in this one I don't. Rather, I have a question to ask -- a question which will manifest itself as a constellation of questions but which is, I think, a single question at bottom.

The question arises from the comments of Rabbi Joel Roth -- author of the one of the status-quo-upholding teshuvot accepted in the recent CJLS meeting, who nevertheless resigned from the CJLS to protest the acceptance of the (rather moderate) pro-gay teshuva which they accepted simultaneously. His comments were made during a public discussion from before the meeting, but it was already fairly clear (indeed, it was widely reported) what the outcome was likely to be. The discussion was between Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, co-author of the liberal teshuva, and were reported in the Jewish Week's news story on the recent decision as follows:
“The effect of having multiple positions passed will be a sign of the strength of the movement,” [Rabbi Dorff] argued. “We have learned to live and let live.”

Rabbi Dorff said this would mean that some Conservative rabbis will now perform commitment ceremonies that permit the union of same-sex couples and others will not... “Some [Conservative seminaries] may decide to ordain gays and lesbians and others may not,” he explained, adding that they would continue to “live with each other.”

Rabbi Roth strongly disagreed, however.

“It’s simply not true that it will be live and let live,” he argued. “That implies that both positions are equal.”

He suggested that “most young people” are intolerant of the current ban on gay and lesbian leadership and believe their inclusion to be a “moral imperative.”

He noted that after the Conservative movement’s Law Committee voted to ordain women in 1983, its rabbinical school in Manhattan set up an egalitarian minyan in addition to the one it had maintained since the seminary was established in 1886. The non-egalitarian minyan “survived 10 years until the upstairs egalitarian minyan claimed that any Conservative Jew who was not egalitarian was immoral and [therefore] delegitimate. The student body to this day virtually reviles students who go to the non-egalitarian minyan, and if it was up to most of them, it would not exist because it is [considered] immoral.”

“It will only take two years on this issue,” Rabbi Roth predicted, before critics of the permissive position on gays lose out.

There is something strange -- even, in an odd way, affecting -- about these comments. Rabbi Roth not only knows that the demographics are against him, but that "most young people" -- and it seems clear that he actual meant the young people in his own movement -- are not only against him, but feel so strongly on the other side that he fears that within two years the social pressure against his view will make it de facto illegitimate.

Given that he believes that, what does he think he is likely to accomplish on the other side?

Even if his legal reasoning and persuasive power had managed to keep the more inclusive teshuva from being accepted this year, what then? If most young people in his own movement -- even, he seems to suggest, in his own seminary -- find his position not only mistaken but are "intolerant" of it, and believe that including gays and lesbians is a "moral imperative" -- what would his convincing another half-dozen or so influential Rabbis currently on the CJLS do? Surely Roth can't think that upholding the ban on gay and lesbian Rabbis would bring young people around to his position, since the ban is currently in place and they're against it.

So what was he hoping to accomplish? At the best, he would have delayed the full inclusion of gays and lesbians until a time when the current "most young people" became, well, "most people" -- including, presumably, a majority on the CJLS. At worst he would had convinced those who thought that the Conservative Movement was failing in a moral imperative to leave it, and join another, more moral, movement.

Or is that latter option in fact what he wanted -- a sort of Jewish version of what is said to be the current Pope's strategy, purging the institution of insidious liberals to make a smaller but "purer" movement?

Or is he simply upholding what he sees as God's will, in the face of seemingly-inevitable defeat -- hoping, perhaps, for a miracle?

I must admit that generally in such cases I would tend to think that yet another explanation was in play: namely, animus and bigotry so strong that it overrode any tactical considerations or thoughts for the future in a mindless drive to suppress. But one of the co-authors of the more inclusive teshuva, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, has said in a statement that
... none of the committee members uttered anything like animus to gay or lesbian Jews in the entire four years of proceedings. On the contrary, even those most opposed to halakhic change framed their arguments with respect and sympathy for the predicament that gay and lesbian Jews face.
-- and I will take Rabbi Nevins at his word: this was not about animus. But quite honestly, it makes the question all the more puzzling.

I suppose that Rabbi Roth thinks he is simply sticking up for legal standards for their own sake. It is in a way a noble thing to do -- even if the practical ends he seeks are discriminatory and unjust. And I suppose going down with the ship has a certain nobility even an unjust cause.

But what does he think is going to happen?

His comments on the decision about admitting women Rabbis are in some ways even more puzzling. I presume that he doesn't wish that the egalitarian minyan had never been established. (He apparently supported the ordination of women.) But what then? Presumably he simply wishes that both were accorded equal legitimacy.

But then, that's the problem, isn't it? A statement of equality between two options -- one inclusive, one discriminatory -- is inherently unstable. If not discriminating is at all viable, then discrimination becomes unjustifiable. The non-egalitarian minyan has to claim that the egalitarian minyan is against Jewish law; otherwise they're simply a bunch of sexist bastards.

This isn't necessarily intellectually true. A person might say: 'I personally disagree with your evaluation of the legal question on the merits, but I think it is important for you to uphold your own intellectual position and not feel social pressure to change your mind -- even though I will continue to try to convince you that intellectually you should change your mind.' It's a possible intellectual position -- but it's one that's hard to maintain socially. Could such a person justify going to a non-egalitarian minyan -- i.e. a minyan that they thought was discriminating for no good legal reason -- just to help someone else maintain a social function that the second person believed necessary to fulfill their intellectual position (a position which is, again, mistaken in the eyes of the first person)? Well, again, maybe -- but that's even a moral stretch. (If you think they're wrong, is your duty really to help them persist in their error, even against the claims of justice?)

Practically speaking, once both minyanim are seen as an option then, really, only one is: the one with justice on its side.

Which is precisely Rabbi Roth's point. If both tolerance and intolerance are options then, really, only tolerance is an option. So he has to hold his fight against letting gays and lesbians get their foot in the door, since once they do, all of a sudden he is illegitimate.

But as arguments for maintaining the status quo go, it's a pretty piss-poor one. Of course, it's also a common one these days: this is the same argument that (largely Christian) conservatives make in the U.S., when they say that accepting gays discriminates against them. It's false in any rational, just sense of "discriminate". But intolerance can't maintain itself on a level playing field. It has to squash the opposition.

Which is what Rabbi Roth tried to do. He tried to get the committee of older Rabbis, Rabbis who he knew does not represent the movement that they were legislating for -- namely, the one that will exist in the future -- to hold it back. For a time.

It's comparable to a theory that Andrew Sullivan has floated about the amendment that Christian conservatives wish to add to the constitution: that they know that they will soon lose on a state-by-state level (for demographic reasons: in terms of percentages, young people are less bigoted against gays than older ones), and so they are trying to lock their desired outcome into the U.S. constitution where it will be hard to change. I don't think this suggestion of Sullivan's is right; I suspect that the Christian conservatives who support such an amendment genuinely believe it will be part of (or will precipitate) a revival of conservative Christianity which will eventually change the demographics -- or perhaps they are simply counting on a miracle. At any rate, Christian conservatives are hardly the most reality-based bunch around, so it's likely they don't give much credence to the demographics.

But Rabbi Roth does: he said so himself. And nothing he's said seems to indicate that he thinks that maintaining the ban will produce a swing in its favor. (The only such scenario that seems at all plausible -- that the demographics switch because upholding the ban leads to a mass exodus of the pro-gay faction from the Conservative Movement -- was entirely my speculation; I have no reason to think that Rabbi Roth expects or hopes such a thing will happen.)

It's hard to maintain a position of intolerance when tolerance is an option. Of course Rabbi Roth doubtless feels that he is right on the intellectual merits -- that halakah, and through it God, forbids the sanctioning of any non-celibate gay or lesbian life. But what do you do when you've so signally failed to convince the next generation of your intellectual point of view?

It's one thing to fight from a minority intellectual position; I do it all the time. You hope to convince others, in time, of the rightness of your view. But when the intellectual divide matches onto a generational one, the fight seems basically hopeless. Your opponents will win, in the end.

Is there really a point in making them wait until you're dead?

As I said, I oppose Rabbi Roth on this issue; I am glad that gay and lesbian Jews will now be allowed to be (nearly) full participants in the Conservative Jewish Movement, even though I no longer attend services with any regularity. But reading his comments made me spare a moment to think of Rabbi Roth and the loosing side -- for I think he's probably right and that his side was not equally accepted this week, but took the first step to a larger loss, even if he's wrong about how swiftly it will happen -- and wonder what I would do in his shoes. Would I go down fighting for a cause which is not only most likely doomed, but which is increasingly seen (correctly, of course, in my actual view) as a fundamentally unjust stance?

What do you do if the future is against you?

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