Monday, April 05, 1993

Case of Rabbi Joel Roth

Case of Rabbi Joel Roth
Dean of Students - Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), New York, NY

Resigned from the position March 29, 1993 after allegedly making a sexually explicit statement to a male student at the seminary's West Coast affiliate, the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism. The occurrence was reportedly a repeat of a similar episode that cost Roth his job as dean at the same school back in 1984.


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Table of Contents:  


  1. Accused of sexually harassing student (1984)


  1. Dean of JTS Rabbinical School Resigns After Making Sexual Remark To Student (04/05/1993)
  2. Jewish scholar resigns as dean of NY seminary   (04/10/1993)
  3. Jewish dean resigns after making a sexual remark (04/10/1993)
  4. Dean Resigns: Rabbi Joel Roth  (04/23/1993)

  1. Biography  (04/2004)

  1. Conservative Jewish scholars ease ban on gay ordination, testing unity of the movement   (12/06/1996)
  2. Brokeback minyan  (12/13/1996)


Dean of JTS Rabbinical School Resigns After Making Sexual Remark To Student
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Jewish Telegraphic Agency - April 5, 1993

NEW YORK, April 4 (JTA)--Rabbi Joel Roth, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school, has resigned in the wake of a scandal that has derailed the career of the Conservative movement's most prominent interpreter of Jewish law and tradition.

Roth resigned from the position March 29, several days after allegedly making a sexually explicit statement to a student at the seminary's West Coast affiliate, the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism.

Roth was one of six members of a committee interviewing a candidate for admission to the rabbinical school. According to an eyewitness, he made sexually suggestive remarks to the male student, leaving the other committee members stunned and angry.

"He said inappropriate things to the student," said Rabbi Eliot Dorff, the university provost and a member of the committee conducting the interview. Roth has "some deep-seated problems for which he needs help," Dorff said.

Roth did not return phone calls, and a family member, reached at home, said he was unavailable for comment.

But Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the seminary's chancellor, said Roth resigned last week "because he felt he was becoming increasingly ineffective in his post as dean and was concerned it would impair the school, as well as the seminary."

The incident is significant in part because Roth has been a leading opponent of the Conservative movement taking a more liberalized approach on matters of sexuality. He recently led a campaign in the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to prohibit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.

It is also not the first time Roth has been accused of sexual impropriety. In fact, the Los Angeles incident occurred after a month in which Roth was surrounded by a storm of controversy over a much earlier incident in which he allegedly harassed a student sexually.

That incident, which allegedly occurred nine years ago, was brought to the attention of everyone at JTS through an unsigned letter distributed at the seminary four weeks ago. The anonymous letter, which many believe was written by a rabbinical student, charged that Roth had sexually harassed a student in 1984 and that the JTS administration had not publicly admitted or dealt with what had transpired.

Roth served as dean of the seminary's rabbinical school for several years until 1984, when he stepped down.

According to several seminary graduates, Roth's 1984 resignation was part of a settlement to avert a threatened lawsuit from the family of the alleged sexual harassment victim. Roth, who is married, also promised at the time to seek counseling, according to these accounts.

In 1984, all rabbinical students were male.

Seminary officials confirm that something inappropriate transpired between Roth and a student nine years ago, but they refuse to confirm or deny that it was of a sexual nature.

After resigning in 1984, Roth continued to teach at the seminary and later served as chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker succeeded him as head of the rabbinical school and occupied the position from 1984 until the summer of 1992, when he left on a two-year sabbatical.

Roth resumed as dean of the rabbinical school at the beginning of the current academic year. According to Schorsch, he will continue as a seminary faculty member, where he is a widely respected professor of Talmud and rabbinics.

In the course of several meetings of the law committee devoted to discussion of the gay and lesbian issue in late 1991 and early 1992, Roth presented two responsa that some supporters of gay and lesbian rights said were based on outmoded scientific sources and homophobic reasoning.

And while some said that the way Roth framed his views created a climate of rejection of gay and lesbian Jews at the seminary, the anonymous letter circulated in March is widely believed to have been written by a heterosexual woman student.

The seminary community has been ripped apart by the controversy surrounding Roth. Both those who support Roth and those who feel that the seminary has mishandled the incident are concerned about the destructiveness of lashon harah, or gossip, and about what some have described as the administration's insensitivity to the sexual harassment of students.

Schorsch defended Roth after the anonymous letter was circulated and, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after Roth resigned, portrayed the former dean as the victim of the letter writer.

"The anonymous letter placed him under the searchlight and made it difficult for him to conduct the affairs of the rabbinical school normally and naturally," said Schorsch.

A rabbinical student at the seminary criticized the chancellor for backing Roth. "Schorsch is out on a limb," the fourth-year student said. "He really undermines his support among the students."
The student, who requested anonymity for fear that he would be punished by the administration for speaking out, said that even before the anonymous letter was circulated many rabbinical students knew of the earlier alleged incident of harassment.

The administration's reluctance to deal head on with the questions about Roth's conduct have caused students great pain, the student said.

"Many students, as individuals, both before and after the letter, asked the administration to deal with this pastorally, to work this out in a c communal way, so we would feel less isolated. It still hasn't happened and never will," he said.

When asked if there were any special programs slated in which the students' concerns would be addressed, Schorsch said, "We have counseling staff available and a very active student life office."


Jewish scholar resigns as dean of NY seminary

From Wire Reports
Dallas Morning News - April 10, 1993; Pg. 29A

NEW YORK -- One of Conservative Judaism's leading interpreters of Jewish law and tradition has resigned as a dean of Jewish Theological Seminary, several days after making a sexually explicit statement to a rabbinical school applicant. Rabbi Joel Roth, dean of the seminary's rabbinical school, made the statement to a man seeking admission to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said officials of the West Coast school, which is affiliated with the New York facility. Details of the statement weren't disclosed. Officials said Rabbi Roth will continue on the seminary faculty, where he is a widely respected professor of Talmud and Rabbinics.


Jewish dean resigns after making a sexual remark
Orlando Sentinel (Florida) - April 10, 1993 Saturday

One of Conservative Judaism's leading interpreters of Jewish law and tradition has resigned as a dean of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, several days after making a sexually explicit statement to a rabbinical school applicant.

Rabbi Joel Roth, dean of the seminary's rabbinical school, made a sexually explicit statement to a male seeking admission to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, according to officials of the West Coast school, which is affiliated with the New York facility.

The recent occurrence is reportedly a repeat of a similar episode that cost Roth his job as dean at the same school nine years ago.

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the seminary's chancellor, Roth will continue on the seminary faculty, where he is a widely respected professor of Tal-mud and Rabbinics.

Roth, who had been restated as dean at the beginning of the current academic year, was one of six members of a committee interviewing the candidate when he made graphically sexual remarks, leaving the other committee members stunned and angry.

"He said inappropriate things to the student," said Rabbi Eliot Dorff, pro-vost at the University of Judaism. Dorff was a member of the committee conducting the interview.

Dean Resigns: Rabbi Joel Roth
By Margo Lipschitz, Sharon Ashley and David Horovitz
The Jerusalem Report - April 22, 1993. Pg. 4

Rabbi Joel Roth, Conservative Judaism's top talmudic scholar and leading traditionalist, stepped down on March 29 as dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America after the circulation of an anonymous letter at the seminary which said Roth had "sexually harassed" a student eight years earlier.


The Jewish Theological Seminary - April 2004

[Dr. Joel Roth] Joel Roth is Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Roth also serves as Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The Yeshiva, founded and maintained by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, is under the academic auspices of JTS.

In addition to his teaching post at JTS, Rabbi Roth has held four key administrative positions, serving as Dean of Students of List College (then called Seminary College), Director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, and both Associate Dean and Dean of The Rabbinical School.

An expert in halakhah, Dr. Roth was appointed to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1978, served as Chairman for eight years, and continues to serve today. In addition to articles and responsa for the Committee, Rabbi Roth has written The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis and Sefer ha-Mordecai: Tractate Kiddushin.

Dr. Roth received a BA from Wayne State University in his hometown of Detroit. He also participated in the Herbert H. Lehman Institute of Talmudic Ethics, a special studies program. He received his master's degree at JTS, where he was ordained in 1968. That same year, Rabbi Roth was appointed to the faculty of JTS as he continued his studies toward a PhD in Talmud, which he received in 1973.

Conservative Jewish scholars ease ban on gay ordination, testing unity of the movement
By Rachel Zoll , AP Religion Writer
Asssociated Press - December 6, 2006

NEW YORK -- Conservative Jewish scholars eased their ban Wednesday on ordaining gays, up-ending thousands of years of precedent while stopping short of fully accepting gay clergy.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which interprets religious law for the movement, adopted three starkly conflicting policies that nonetheless gave gays a wider role. Four committee members who wanted to uphold the ban outright resigned in protest after the vote.

One policy maintains the prohibition against gay clergy. Another, billed as a compromise, maintains a ban on male sodomy but permits gay ordination and allows blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. The third policy supports the ban on gay sex in Jewish law and notes that some gays have successfully undergone ther-apy that changes their sexual orientation.

That leaves seminaries and synagogues to decide on their own which approach to follow.

The decision will 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.

"We believe in pluralism," said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, the committee chairman, in announcing the vote. "We recognized from the very beginning of this movement that no single position can speak to all members of the community."

But Rabbi Joel Roth, one of the four members who resigned, said the decision was "outside the pale of acceptability' in Jewish law. Roth was author of the paper that upheld the ban.

The 25-member panel voted at the end of a two-day closed meeting in an Upper East Side synagogue. Students from Keshet, a gay advocacy group at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship school of Conservative Judaism, huddled out-side as they awaited the results.

Jay Michaelson, director of Nehirim, a group that provides spiritual retreats and other programing for gay Jews, said he was "pleased not thrilled" about the vote.

Conservative leaders are facing the issue as they struggle 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 Reform move-ment praised the committee's vote Wednesday, while the Orthodox called it a re-jection of "authentic Torah traditions."

It's unclear whether any congregations in the United Synagogue of Conserva-tive Judaism, the synagogue arm of the movement, will break away because of the vote.

A handful of Canadian congregations, which tend to be more traditional than their U.S. counterparts, have said they would consider the idea. Leaders believe the more likely response is that individuals who object to the change will leave to worship in Orthodox synagogues.

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 rabbis from officiating at gay union cere-monies.

In this latest vote, the rabbis chose among five "teshuvot" or legal opin-ions. The two main opinions for and against lifting the ban received 13 votes each. An opinion needs only six votes to pass, allowing more than one paper to be accepted.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the panel and a co-author of the pro-gay legal opinion, argued that the biblical verse at the center of the debate Leviticus 18:22, which states, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman" had been interpreted too broadly in the past.

He said Conservative Judaism's ability to "integrate tradition and modernity" allowed for the change.

Dorff is rector of The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, which also trains Conservative rabbis. He said he expected the school to announce within the next several weeks that it will accept gay and lesbian applicants.

Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has said he personally supports ordaining gays. But he said in a statement Wednesday that the faculty would vote on whether they should revise the school's admissions policies. He has commissioned a survey of Conservative rabbis and lay people on the issue to inform the debate.

"We know that the implications of the decision before us are immense," Eisen said. "We fully recognize what is at stake."

Background on Law Committee vote:


Brokeback minyan
Jerusalem Post - December 13, 2006
By Samuel G. Freedman  

Wednesday, December 13, 2006 -- When I was a senior in high school and editor of its student newspaper, my English teacher took our staff into Manhattan for a scholastic journalism convention. At the end of the events, which happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, he shepherded us onto the subway and then walked us to the correct platform of the bus terminal for the ride back home to New Jersey. Having boarded us all, he backed away from the closing door and said in a sprightly way, "Well, I'm off to see some Irish friends in the Village."

Most of us knew the import of those flip words. Mr. Stevens, our teacher, was gay, and he was heading into the part of his life that was an open secret. Certainly, our community would not have acknowledged the presence of a homosexual on the faculty, someone entrusted with the lives of scores of teenaged boys. Just as certainly, nobody would have wanted t o lose the most inspiring teacher in the school by forcing a confrontation. The result was just one more version of the closet, and it was in that closet that Mr. Stevens essentially drank himself to death.

I found myself recalling Mr. Stevens, a Protestant from the South, in relationship to the Jewish world last week, as the Conservative movement was finally, admirably opening the closet door. The movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards accepted a position paper that permits Conservative seminaries to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis, and allows Conservative rabbis to perform ceremonies for same-sex unions.

THIS REMAINS incomplete justice, to be sure. Among the five papers accepted by the committee are one restating the movement's 1992 ban on ordaining homosexuals and another urging gays and lesbians to receive treatment so they can become straight. Each of the movement's five seminaries and hundreds of congregations has the right to adopt or ignore any of the approved positions.

Even so, four small-c conservative members of the law committee resigned in protest. "Just because something is politically correct," Rabbi Joel Roth told the New York Jewish Week, "does not make it halachically correct."

Such reasoning might carry more weight were homosexuality merely the sort of trendy garment that so many opponents of gay equality persist in caricaturing it as. Personally, I have never known or read about any gay or lesbian who described sexual identity as a lifestyle choice. To the one, they depict it as a biological reality. If anything, many of them tried for years to deny it, because until very recently the costs of being homosexual in America were so severe - estrangement from family, ridicule from the public, loss of employment, harassment or arrest by the police.

THE HOMOPHOBIC culture I recall from high school in the 1970s did nothing to keep Mr. Stevens from being gay, because nature made him gay. And the refusal until now of the Conservative movement to acc ept homosexuals as clergy and laity did nothing to keep those homosexuals from existing in the form nature made them, attending seminaries and becoming ordained. All it did was drive them underground, or outside the Conservative movement, or perhaps beyond Jewish communal identity altogether.

The decision to open a space of theological acceptance for gays and lesbians seems to me deeply true to the Conservative movement's mission of interpreting Halacha in light of modernity. One can appreciate the gravity of the choice, and the wisdom of it, by comparing the vote on gay equality to the vote 56 years ago by the law committee permitting driving on the Sabbath.

Admittedly, there was no biblical verse that explicitly forbade driving on the Sabbath, the automobile not having been invented at the time of revelation in Sinai, and so it was only a rabbinic interpretation of text, not text itself, that was being amended in 1950. But neither was car culture in the postwar United States a law of nature, a scientific reality to which Halacha needed to be reconciled. The auto boom was a product of man-made forces - commerce, demography, recreation, government funding for highways.

Either disingenuous or hopelessly naive, the Conservative movement decided to allow driving to Sabbath for the sole purpose of traveling to synagogue. History has demonstrated, I think, that in the wake of the ruling no groundswell of devout drivers suddenly, gratefully flocked to shul.

The matter of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy, in comparison, derives from an evolving understanding that sexual orientation is biologically determined. The scientific debate over whether such a thing as a "gay gene" exists has been proceeding since the early 1990s. While decades may pass before a consensus among geneticists emerges on the subject, the realization that sexual orientation is part of our hard-wiring has begun to take hold in American society.

IN MOST instances, I would not place much stock in popular culture as a measure of anything except the lowest common denominator. But something has happened about homosexuality in the last year, typified by the film about two gay cowboys, Brokeback Mountain, and the plot line concerning a gay mobster and gay firefighter on the cable series The Sopranos. What both of those works of entertainment acutely grasped was the price in stealth and self-hate and deceit and wrecked families that comes with having to hide the truth of one's self.

The aspects of gay life most inscrutable or offensive to straights - the promiscuity of the bathhouse scene, the campy drag shows - might be best understood as adaptations to a surrounding society that refused to recognize healthy, stable, life-affirming relationships within the same sex. The blame belongs less on the occupant than on the closet.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the author of the position paper on gay equality, has also written a book about Jewish ethics entitled To Do the Right and the Good. What he means by invoking that bib lical phrase is doing what serves the needs of both the individual and the community.

While even his paper has some tortured reasoning - suggesting that the famous verse in Leviticus forbids only anal but presumably not oral sex between men - it has moved the Conservative movement toward what is indeed both good and right.



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