Thursday, 4:30 PM
First openly gay rabbi elected leader
By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff
A West Newton rabbi who is deeply involved in advocacy of economic justice in the United States and peace in the Middle East became Tuesday the first openly lesbian or gay person to head a rabbinical assembly.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek was elected president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly at the groupís annual convention, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Reconstructionism is the smallest and youngest of modern Judaismís four major movements. About 165,000 of the approximately 5.5 million Jews in North America identify as Reconstructionists.
Despite their numbers, Reconstructionists are influential among North American Jews, particularly in the Reform movement, which with 39 percent of North American Jews is the largest branch on the continent.
"History has shown that the Reconstructionist movement is in the vanguard of change and that what we do, others follow," Spitzer said in a telephone interview. "We were first to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, first to affirm [same sex] commitment ceremonies.
"The Reform movement follows soon after, and the Conservative movement decades after that," Spitzer said. "Some day, the Orthodox will have women rabbis."
She stressed that a girl was called to be bat mitzvah by Reconstructionismís founder decades before ceremonies marking the passage to adulthood were extended to girls in the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox traditions.
In a lively online discussion of the pending election of their rabbi, members of Spitzerís congregation questioned the emphasis placed on her sexual orientation in press releases distributed by the rabbinical association.
"Gender issues are not the major focus of the congregation," said Emily Sper, an author of Jewish childrenís books and a member of Dorshei Tzedek.
"The focus is on building a community of practice, developing people who have Shabbat dinners and come to services on Shabbat.
"Thereís been a lot of talk about why they trumpeted that," she said in a telephone interview. "Why didnít they trumpet that her goal is to bowl in every state in the country?"
Sper praised Spitzer for her intelligence, insight, and a musical ability that has drawn many to the 170-household congregation.
Spitzer, however, said she agreed with the decision to highlight her orientation.
While election of a lesbian as president of the rabbinical association "is not any big thing within our movement," she said, "it is still a big deal elsewhere, so we want people to know about it."
Reactions to Spitzerís election were varied among non-Reconstructionist rabbis.
Rabbi William G. Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline said: "She is a fine rabbi and a fine leader. I have been in many settings where both her leadership and the esteem and acceptance of her colleagues has been in evidence."
He said he had not known that Spitzer was a lesbian. "It has never come up; it has never been relevant," Hamilton said. "I think that is a good thing."
Orthodox rabbis declined to speak about Spitzerís election. They said they consider much of Reconstructionist theology unacceptable, but stressed that the Reconstructionists were not considered to have left Judaism.
"If a movement says that gay or homosexual behavior is normative Judaism, we would say that is not a correct and proper understanding of what Judaism is and stands for," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the New York-based Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical group in the world.
Asked about Spitzerís assertion that one day the Orthodox would have women rabbis, he said: "If one defines a rabbi as one who officiates as a judge and officiates at weddings and divorces, it is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy to say women can fulfill those functions."
Reconstructionism is most distinct from other streams of Jewish life in its concept that Judaism is defined by the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people, rather than by the literal word of the Torah and the laws formulated millennia ago on the basis of the Torah.