Access & Equality: Reflections on the CJLS
By Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean, Ziegler School
Last week we intensely and passionately discussed and debated no fewer than eight halakhic topics. However, this particular meeting illuminated one coherent theme: Access. Or, access, status, and equality in the light of Torah.
Access to Revelation.
Access to Authority.
Access to Relationships.
Access to God on behalf of the Community.
We talked deeply about real issues and real people. While it is impossible to cover everything at once, significant change demands careful attention, more questions than answers, and a healthy realization that different people understand and intuit God's will and word in diverse and distinct, yet equally valid ways.
(What follows is my take on four of the issues discussed, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the entire CJLS, or individual members.)
Access to Revelation: Rabbi Pamela Barmash put forth an appendix to her already unanimously passed teshuvah, "Status of the Heresh and of Sign Language." One issue remained unresolved: whether or not a deaf community could hold a fully ritualized Torah reading in sign language, complete with blessings. Rabbi Barmash brought with her well respected members of the deaf community who addressed the CJLS with passion and eloquence.
While the CJLS remains somewhat divided on whether or not sign language is 'reading' or 'translation', which impacts the Torah reading more than other rituals, Rabbi Barmash's teshuvah passed virtually unanimously. In this case, members of the Law Committee powerfully elevated inclusion and near-equal access to Torah for its deaf members of the Jewish community.
Access to Relationships: Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Avram Reisner and Danny Nevins put forth a worthy draft for a gay-marriage ceremony as a follow-up to their landmark teshuvah that passed in 2006. As the committee begins to fully unpack and internalize their effort, it is clear that the needs and rights of the gay community are being well considered within a framework of Halakhah and the Torah's most precious values.
Access to Authority: Rabbi Joseph Prouser presented a paper to rebut an unfortunate ruling by a prominent orthodox rabbi, that basically bans a convert from sitting on a Bet Din, even with all other qualifications being equal (see more here).
Rabbi Prouser has written an extraordinary response in the form of a teshuvah for the Conservative Movement's Joint Bet Din, bringing the best of halakhic discourse, academic rigor, and aggadic prose to strongly deflate any possible stringent opinion. In doing so, he beautifully reaffirms exactly how the Jewish community ought to treat and view those amongst us who make the holy choice to join Judaism - as nothing less than full Jews in every respect.
Access to God on behalf of the Community: Rabbi Gail Labovitz has addressed a question that has vexed living communities for quite some time. Knowing how essential and embedded the Yom Kippur fast is, may one who is unable to cease from eating based on medical advice (pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc..) still serve the community and God as Shaliah Tzibbur, prayer leader? Rabbi Labovitz's answer, Yes. While some restrictions will help guide the community in deciding how to implement this ruling, it is evident that Rabbi Labovitz has deftly utilized traditional sources and a realistic awareness of individual and communal needs to navigate this question.
After spending a few days reflecting on my first CJLS meeting I feel nothing less than honored and humbled to be nestled amongst this brilliant and thoughtful group, doing this work, all in service of God, Torah and Israel.