The JTS Decision, part 1: On Pluralism and Foucault

April 8, 2007

Yesterday I called my parents’ house and interrupted Shabbat lunch. “Good shabbos!” my dad exclaims, “we were just talking about queer theory!”

Excuse me? I had apparently called during a discussion of Einat Ramon’s comments on chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen’s recent significant decision to allow out gays and lesbians into the JTS rabbinical school. You can read Dr. Eisen’s full statement here.

There are a few parts of this momentous decision and the discussions that have followed since it was made that have interested me in particular. The first is the debate about the significance of pluralism in the Conservative movement. Since the comparisons to JTS’ 1983 decision to ordain women as rabbis are so obvious, I appreciate that there are some bold leaders who are wondering aloud if pluralism is really a useful value for the Conservative movement. There’s this assumption that the more left-wing/ progressive/ whatever you are, the more you tout values of tolerance and pluralism above all others. How can you teach a girl that she is as worthy a member of a community as her boy peers if her participation in that community is “optional”? (thanks to Rabbi Ayelet Cohen’s wonderful drash, which I was lucky enough to hear during Pesach in my hometown synagogue, wherein she asked many of these important questions). And as Rabbi Jill Jacobs states plainly and strongly: “this type of pluralism cannot coexist with an ethic that values egalitarianism (both as related to women and GLBT Jews).”

Pluralism apparently also means that we have to respect homophobic bigots in our community, leaders in our community. Feh. Rabbi Einat Ramon, the dean of the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in Israel, doesn’t even pretend that her disgust towards gay and lesbian life has anything at all to do with Halakha (Jewish Law). Unlike many of her colleagues, Rabbi Ramon doesn’t even bother dealing with the beloved Leviticus verses.

“Jewish theology regards the union between a man a woman who are sexually and emotionally different from one another as a complementary covenant of friendship and intimacy, which forms the basis for procreation and childrearing. This is why Jewish law has so fervently opposed sexual relations between members of the same sex”, she explained, “and why the heterosexual family has played such a vital role throughout the ages in the transmission of Jewish values and the survival of the Jewish people.” (source)

By Rabbi Ramon’s own logic, then, shouldn’t she be at home, raising her children and keeping a home for her husband? Hypocrisy aside for a second, Ramon seems to be using the word “theology” in place of “personal discomfort and homophobia.” Here’s where my family’s queer theory discussion comes in – Ramon has been doing her queer homework and reading up on her Foucault, as most deans of rabbinical schools should be doing.

Ramon stressed that her conclusion was based in part on the importance of the heterosexual family unit in traditional Judaism. She said that a discussion of “why people are feeling disenchanted and alienated by the heterosexual family today” should be undertaken in order to ensure the family unit’s survival. Ramon further contended that homosexuality is a choice, a position, she said, that is taken by “gay thinkers,” including Michel Foucault. (source)

Both of her quotes deserve some unpacking, I think. I find it hilariously ironic that Ramon is reading queer theory. Here’s some clarifying points that might shock and frighten Ramon and her camp:

-People feel disenchanted by the heterosexual family because marriage’s original purposes, which were mostly economic, are becoming obsolete. Love does not a marriage make, apparently.

-Like secular and Christian marriage, traditional Jewish marriage has historically had less to do with “friendship and intimacy” than it does with economic security. Read the text of a traditional ketubah (marriage contract) lately? This is not to say that Jewish marriages now are not based on love – the point I’m making is that she cannot talk as if Jewish theology has dictated marriages based on love and friendship throughout all of Jewish history. BS.

-Queer theory is not about gay sexuality per se, it is about the history of sexuality as a whole, about giving names and legitimacy to structures already in place.

-Queer theory, if you’re reading it in context and not to pull out key points to throw back at the evil gays, will tell you that the whole question of whether homosexuality is inborn or a choice is asked with a whole set of problematic assumptions behind it.

In the History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that “sodomy” (a behavior) only became “homosexuality” (an identity) when it was named as such by psychiatrists and doctors in the 19th century. We can pick at this theory forever, but for the moment I’ll just say that there are a million ways to track the history of gay identity – Foucault, for me, is one of the less useful ones. What is certain for me is that this identity developed historically and not genetically. The whole idea of choice is complicated by the powerful roles of historical and contextual forces. If we are reading queer theory (and we are, apparently), then we understand that the nature/nurture dichotomy is bunk.

Beyond Ramon’s vitriol, pluralism continues to rear its ugly head in the form of complete silence from Conservative leaders on Ramon’s conflation of Jewish history, theology, Halakha, and her own personal paranoid opinions on homosexuality. I have yet to hear a single strong voice of public condemnation of these statements. So this is how it’s done: we make a careful, painstaking decision based on many factors. We say that we stand by that decision, we respect The Gays, we want them as rabbis, they are wonderful leaders, etc. But the moment that this decision is tested – another leader speaks out in pretty clear opposition, homophobia, and bigotry, sounding more like a Christian fundamentalist than a Jewish leader – we remain silent, and all for the sake of pluralism (i.e. we are too scared to actually make a strong, critical point so we will stand behind a big sign that says “pluralism.”). Why hold on to pluralism, above other values, so tightly?


In part 2, I’d like to delve a little deeper into names and categories and their significance in this decision – particularly on the nominal and ideological exclusion of transpeople and queers. I’d also like to talk about why Dr. Eisen’s long statement about opening JTS’ doors to gay and lesbian rabbinical students is mysteriously void of any language of sexuality.

tags: Judaism, LGBT/Queer, feminism



  1. Are you, perchance, going to Nehirim?

  2. Nope…not really my scene. Will you be there?

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