The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets religious law for the movement, adopted three starkly conflicting policies that nonetheless gave gays the chance to serve as clergy.
One upholds the prohibition against gay rabbis. Another, billed as a compromise, permits gay ordination while continuing to ban male sodomy. The third upholds the ban on gay sexual relationships in Jewish law and mentions the option for gays to undergo therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation.
That leaves seminaries and synagogues to decide on their own which approach to follow.
It will also 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.
The 25-member panel made its decision in a two-day closed meeting in an Upper East Side synagogue. Students from a gay advocacy group at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship school of Conservative Judaism, stood vigil nearby while the results were announced.
Conservative leaders are struggling 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 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 the more than 1,000 rabbis in the movement from officiating at gay union ceremonies.
Canadian congregations to consider idea
The debate focuses on Leviticus 18:22, which states, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman," echoing the fight in mainline Protestant groups about the Bible and sexuality.
It's unclear whether any congregations in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the synagogue arm of the movement, will break away over the gay issue.
A handful of Canadian congregations, which tend to be more traditional than their US counterparts, have said they would consider the idea. However, leaders believe it's more likely that individuals who object to the change will leave to worship in Orthodox synagogues.
Arnold Eisen, incoming chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, personally supports ordaining gays. But he said in a Nov. 22 e-mail to the seminary community that faculty will vote on how the school should respond to the committee's decison.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the panel and a supporter of gay ordination, is rector of The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, which also trains Conservative rabbis. The school was expected to admit gays now that the committee allows it.