CHICAGO - The Conservative Jewish movement, the faith's American-based middle ground between liberalism and orthodoxy, is nearing a leadership decision that seems likely to permit openly gay rabbis and same-sex unions.
The Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which last tackled the issue in 1992 meets in New York next week, its 25 members reviewing an issue that has already rent many Christian churches and simmers across Judaism.
"The way it looks, it will be decided on a more liberal understanding of the law," Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Centre for Learning and Leadership, told Reuters. "It would be a very big, big surprise if that's not the case."
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said: "I really don't know what will happen. Many of my colleagues are betting they will have two opinions at the end -- that rabbis can maintain the prohibition on homosexual behaviour and another that says it normalises homosexual behaviour."
The assembly said in announcing the December 5-6 meetings that the committee's function is to advise rabbis on Jewish law or Halakha affecting Conservatives, who number 2 million of the world's 13 million Jews.
The rabbis are not bound by its statements which in the past have sometimes offered multiple interpretations on issues.
While the topic may be couched in gay rabbis and same-sex unions, the crux of the issue really is "how one views homosexual behaviour," Meyers said in an interview.
That is the subtext of the committee's 1992 statement which welcomed homosexuals to congregations, youth groups, summer camps and schools but prohibited same-sex commitment ceremonies and the knowing admission of "avowed homosexuals" to rabbinical or cantorial schools.
"That is cowardice," says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, whose 800 members comprise what is called the largest gay synagogue in the world.
"They have dragged their feet on this for many years. They look over their shoulder toward orthodoxy worried about not being called Jewish enough and I consider that cowardice," said Kleinbaum who left her roots in the Conservative movement for the liberal Reform wing.
At the other end of the spectrum ultra-Orthodox Jews condemn homosexuality, taking their text from Leviticus 18:22 -- "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. It is an abomination."
A gay pride rally in Jerusalem this month met with stormy protests and finally unfolded in a small stadium under heavy security. But Israel's highest court also has ruled that homosexuals who marry abroad may be registered as married in the country.
There are perhaps 6 million Jews in the United States, only about a third of them affiliated with a congregation. Of those who do attend synagogue 38 per cent are Reform, 33 per cent Conservative and 22 per cent Orthodox, according to one survey.
Rabbi Kula, author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, said the move toward liberalisation among Conservatives "is not something that came down from the top. It came from Jews in the pews ... Jews who had homosexual children and wanted them to be rabbis."
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Metuchen, New Jersey, a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly who is a contributing columnist for USA Today, said in an essay in that newspaper this year that he backed the 1992 position but now had a different view.
"Conservative Judaism has always taught that we must upgrade our biblical understanding with new scientific knowledge. Contrary to the biblical assumption that gayness is a sinful choice, our best knowledge today indicates that it is as determined and irrevocable as blue or brown eyes ..." he wrote.