The vote of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, if taken at this conference, will not be binding, nor will it resolve disagreements over homosexuality among Conservative Jews. But it will send a strong message to the wider community about how far the Conservative branch is willing to go in reinterpreting traditional understanding of Jewish law.
"It will be an important symbolic case for the Conservative movement," said Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
Pressure has been building on Conservative Jewish leaders to liberalize core teachings and thus prevent less observant Jews from leaving for the Reform stream, which has overtaken Conservative Judaism as the largest North American branch.
Traditional opposition to gay sex is based on Leviticus 18:22, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence," and a similar verse, Leviticus 20:13.
Rabbi Joel Roth, a Conservative expert in Jewish law based in Israel, has said that ignoring these prohibitions "would undermine the integrity of the very legal system which stands as the unassailable foundation of our movement."
But Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the committee vice chairman and rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, has argued that the verses in Leviticus refer to promiscuous sex, not monogamous relations between adults. He said telling gays to be celibate would be "cruel" and "un-Jewish" because Jewish tradition says sexual desires should be channeled into "legitimate modes of expression," not completely suppressed.
Issue not new
A decade ago, the panel approved a "Consensus Statement on Homosexuality," which stated that Conservative rabbis would not lead same-sex blessings nor "knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools" or professional organizations for clergy.
The committee also said it would not conduct “witch hunts” to remove gays, and urged congregations, youth groups, summer camps and schools to welcome homosexuals.
Homosexual Jewish groups said the policy was still discriminatory. and commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples.