updated 12/6/2006 9:44:48 PM ET 2006-12-07T02:44:48

Conservative Jewish scholars eased their ban Wednesday on ordaining gays, upending thousands of years of precedent while stopping short of fully accepting gay clergy.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets religious law for the movement, adopted three starkly conflicting policies that nonetheless gave gays a wider role. Four committee members who wanted to uphold the ban outright resigned in protest after the vote.

One policy maintains the prohibition against gay clergy. Another, billed as a compromise, maintains a ban on male sodomy but permits gay ordination and allows blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. The third policy supports the ban on gay sex in Jewish law and notes that some gays have successfully undergone therapy that changes their sexual orientation.

That leaves seminaries and synagogues to decide on their own which approach to follow.

The decision will test what Conservative Jewish leaders call their "big tent" — allowing diverse practices by the movement's more than 1,000 rabbis and 750 North American synagogues.

"We believe in pluralism," said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, the committee chairman, in announcing the vote. "We recognized from the very beginning of this movement that no single position can speak to all members of the community."

For some, ‘outside ... acceptability’
But Rabbi Joel Roth, one of the four members who resigned, said the decision was "outside the pale of acceptability' in Jewish law. Roth was author of the paper that upheld the ban.

The 25-member panel voted at the end of a two-day closed meeting in an Upper East Side synagogue. Students from Keshet, a gay advocacy group at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship school of Conservative Judaism, huddled outside as they awaited the results.

Jay Michaelson, director of Nehirim, a group that provides spiritual retreats and other programming for gay Jews, said he was "pleased not thrilled" about the vote.

Conservative leaders are facing the issue as they struggle to hold the shrinking middle ground of American Judaism, losing members to both the liberal Reform and the traditional Orthodox branches.

Reform Jews, as well as the smaller Reconstructionist branch, allow gays to become rabbis; the Orthodox bar gays and women from ordination. The Reform movement praised the committee's vote Wednesday, while the Orthodox called it a rejection of "authentic Torah traditions."

It's unclear whether any congregations in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the synagogue arm of the movement, will break away because of the vote.

Canadians weigh idea
A handful of Canadian congregations, which tend to be more traditional than their U.S. counterparts, have said they would consider the idea. Leaders believe the more likely response is that individuals who object to the change will leave to worship in Orthodox synagogues.

The last major Law Committee vote on gay relationships came in 1992, when the panel voted 19-3, with one abstention, that Jewish law barred openly gay students from seminaries and prohibited rabbis from officiating at gay union ceremonies.

In this latest vote, the rabbis chose among five "teshuvot" or legal opinions. The two main opinions — for and against lifting the ban — received 13 votes each. An opinion needs only six votes to pass, allowing more than one paper to be accepted.

Deconstructing Leviticus
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the panel and a co-author of the pro-gay legal opinion, argued that the biblical verse at the center of the debate — Leviticus 18:22, which states, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman" — had been interpreted too broadly in the past.

He said Conservative Judaism's ability to "integrate tradition and modernity" allowed for the change.

Dorff is rector of The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, which also trains Conservative rabbis. He said he expected the school to announce within the next several weeks that it will accept gay and lesbian applicants.

Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has said he personally supports ordaining gays. But he said in a statement Wednesday that the faculty would vote on whether they should revise the school's admissions policies. He has commissioned a survey of Conservative rabbis and lay people on the issue to inform the debate.

"We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense," Eisen said. "We fully recognize what is at stake."

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