A comprehensive, thought-provoking post that was worth the wait. Your timing is auspicious, as I was again thinking about some of these issues after a social event yesterday. Unfortunately, I again cannot respond to both of your points, so I'm going to focus, stream-of-consciousness, on the second one, and hope to respond to the first (about my celibate same-sex couple hypothetical) later. (Knowing my track record, it may be that you respond to me before I return to address your other point.)
Yesterday, I was discussing (at a housewarming party, of all things!) the legitimacy of the Conservative movement with a bunch of Reform Jews (maybe 70% gay/30% straight.) Most of them suggested the all-or-nothing approach that you seem to endorse - either follow halacha entirely, as the Orthodox do, or take a wholly permissive approach, as the Reform movement does.
This dichotomy often seems appealing. For instance, at the same party, I got into a passionate exchange about the morality of organ donation with a lesbian friend (born Jewish). I feel very, very strongly about my status as an organ donor; indeed, I feel it is a moral imperative for eligible donors to donate their organs upon their deaths. Both when I was raised Catholic, and now with Judaism, I find it mindboggling that religions that place such a high value on preservation of life (sometimes even extending that valuation to those who are not yet born) can take any stance other than encouraging their members to save lives by becoming organ donors in every circumstance. And yet they do. As regards my life, I reject this stance with the utmost fervor. As I stated to my friend yesterday, if I determine that I cannot convert to Judaism (however I end up understanding that concept) without making a commitment not to donate my organs at death, I will decline to seek conversion for that reason alone. She, in turn, felt very strongly as a Jew that she could not violate the proscription (rabbinic, again - right?) against organ donation. (My understanding is that it is a qualified proscription and that some forms of donation are permitted, but let's assume it is absolute, as she contended, for the purpose of discussion.)
That exchange caused me to realize two things.
First, I am not absolutely certain what I am seeking from Judaism (the answer may prove to be "nothing," even after all these years), but I can affirmatively state that I am not seeking to cede my right/duty as an adult agnostic to make my own determinations about what conduct I believe to be moral or immoral. Right now, I am looking to Judaism for "non-binding" ethical and spiritual guidance on how I should live my life. It may be that conversion is unnecessary to receive that guidance.
Second, though, one question was on the tip of my tongue during my exchange with my friend (though I did not ask) - "How can you view a rabbinic prohibition on organ donation as irrevocably binding (even where it could mean a missed opportunity to save life), but repeatedly and openly (even proudly) disregard the rabbinic prohibition on same-sex sexual behavior?" It seems clear that as to the latter, she is claiming the right to make an independent moral judgment.
And there's the rub - the proverbial slippery slope - it seems to me that we must either follow halacha unquestioningly or make independent moral judgments as to each aspect of halacha. It seems disingenuous to me to make independent moral judgments as to some aspects of halacha (e.g. driving to shul on Shabbat or homosexual behavior) but then cede the duty to make moral judgments back to halacha as to everything else. And that is the very raison d'etre of conservative Judaism - to offer an option to centrists who cannot or will not follow every aspect of halacha, but are not assertive enough to reduce halacha in their lives to the level of "non-binding persuasive authority."
Now, I find that that is exactly the role that I want for halacha in my life at present. I want it to inform my life but not to dictate it. And it seems to me that if that is what I want from Judaism, the most intellectually honest thing to do is to remain within the tradition without converting. As it stands, I am free to draw whatever benefit I will from halacha as a Gentile, but I am not commanded by halacha to behave in any specific way. If that is my level of comfort and commitment, then why should I make a greater commitment to Judaism that I might not be well-positioned to honor? And if I am making no greater commitment by a Reform conversion than agreeing to be mindful of halacha in a non-binding, non-absolute way, then why is conversion necessary at all?
When I began this odyssey into Judaism, now in its eighth year, community membership and belonging were very important to me. I wanted to be included in this tradition that I respected so much, and I wanted the external trappings and recognition that come with formal conversion. When most people my age were fantasizing about the perfect prom night, I was dreaming of what it would be like to immerse myself in the mikveh at my conversion or wrap myself in a tallit for the first time (liberal Judaism, remember
). I remember well vividly the intensity of that longing.
I also remember that it was tinged with angst. Either I could convert Orthodox, and as a woman, not receive a lot of what I felt would be meaningful - from donning the tallit to being called to the Torah for my first aliyah -- or, I could have a liberal conversion and not even be recognized as Jewish by the entire community. At times, I wished that I was a man so that I could convert Orthodox without these concerns. So much of my initial foray into Judaism was concerned with the recognition, validation, approval, and blessing of other people, of external sources.
Now, I feel that I do not need that external validation with respect to my spirituality. I do not see Judaism as a group in which I am seeking membership (not that I ever quite viewed it in that way), but rather as a tradition from which I am seeking to learn. I see the Jewish people as a group for which I will vocally express my respect and support, but it seems...less important than it once did, whether I express that support from within or without the group.
I think that these ideas carry over to the kiddushin/commitment ceremony context. As I have explained (in a very roundabout way), I am beginning to find the notion of maintaining a "semblance of tradition" without actually maintaining tradition to be intellectually dishonest. From that perspective, I am not sure whether it is
important that same-sex ceremonies bear the weight of tradition. In asserting a moral equivalence between gay and straight sexuality, I am assertively substituting my moral judgment for that made by halacha. (I have heard some revisionist interpretations of halacha that suggest that gay sexuality is not de facto halachically proscribed; I am not sure how persuasive these are. In any case, I am actually going one step further and suggesting that the final moral determination is mine
to make, even if my determination contradicts halacha (which, again, I am taking as merely persuasive authority.)) Since that is admittedly what I am doing, it seems disingenuous to turn around and say that same-sex ceremonies should be brought under the chuppah (as it were) of halacha. How can I simultaneously deny the validity of a tradition's moral judgment and insist that my new 21st century moral judgment be accorded the weight of (in my words) "thousands of years of Jewish tradition"? That seems grossly inconsistent, and I thank you for calling me on it. (Interestingly, the same analysis would hold true for many issues concerning the ritual involvement of women in Judaism.)
I know, however, where my interest in a same-sex commitment ceremony/kiddushin originated from. It is similar to my interest in the social trappings of a recognized religious conversion. I think it is a human thing, to want others to recognize and validate and honor the most intense feelings of your life. Any of us who have had the experience of discovering and reveling in the richness of a new religious tradition know how intense and overpowering those feelings can be. It is only natural to want to commit to that tradition in a socially understood manner, and to receive the recognition of those who also hold that tradition in high esteem. I have never been in love, but my understanding from various couples is that there is often an analogous desire (definitely not shared by all couples!) - to express one's commitment to one's beloved in a socially understood manner (this is often called "marriage") and to have that commitment recognized by one's family and friends, and in a broader sense, one's religion and society.
It seems as though these external forms of recognition, though meaningful and valuable, tend to obscure the focus of each endeavor. The focus of a religious conversion must of necessity be on God, on one's own heart, on one's internal spirituality. Similarly, the focus of a marriage must be on your relationship with your life partner and vice versa. Conveniently, these are things over which we have at least some control. I have begun to perceive a tendency, both within the gay community and the contingent of would-be liberal Jewish converts, to focus excessively on something not wholly within our control...the validation (or lack thereof) of spiritual or marital commitments by other people. I don't mean to trivialize the importance of validation, as I think that desiring validation is a fundamental part of being human ... but at some level it seems in each of these cases to be beside the point.
All of this by way of saying, stream of consciousness, that I think that my long-term answer to the question "What is Jewishness?" may have very little to do with any human ratification of Jewish identity, whether rabbinic or lay. I realize that this is a non-Orthodox thing to say, but then, I've never been accused of being Orthodox.