Culture, Politics, Religion

Schorsch Blasts Conservative Movement in Outgoing Remarks

If you’re not interested in the Conservative Movement, feel free to skip this one. But for those who are, read on about soon-to-be-ex-Chancellor (as of June 30th), Ismar Schorsch.
Last Thursday, Rabbi Dr. (or just “Dr.,” as he seems to prefer) Ismar Schorsch delivered the keynote address at the 112th JTS commencement. This was Dr. Schorsch’s swan song, his opportunity to address the faithful after having served as the titular head of the Conservative Movement for twenty years. His speech was breathtaking, though, unfortunately, not in a positive sense. Dr. Schorsch delivered a speech full of veiled and not-so-veiled insults to the very people he was addressing– the students, families, scholars, and clergy of the Conservative Movement. I wish I could post a transcript here, but it hasn’t been made public. Here are some highlights, with the caveat that everything not in quotation marks is how I remember it and not necessarily a direct quote.
Dr. Shorsch’s speech began with an anecdote about this year’s students at JTS that led him to the following conclusion: Today’s generation has no interest in wrestling with difficult texts or in deep scholarship. According to Schorsch, this generation refuses to delve into anything dense or complicated, shying away from texts that require hard work and deep thought. This is a particular travesty since true spirituality comes from academic study, particularly the study of history. (Schorsch is a trained historian.) The audience was more subdued than I would have imagined after Schorsch had just insulted his graduating students, but all around me I did see people whispering and shaking their heads.
Schorsch then talked at length about spirituality, which he called the “aquifer” that feeds and supports halakhic observance. (I see this relationship as precisely opposite, but that’s not surprising). Again, he seemed to be talking primarily about a spirituality gleaned from academic study and spoke against the contemporary focus on music as a source of real spirituality in prayer. Bizarrely enough, in the course of this discussion Schorsch very explicitly and very publicly tore apart the Etz Hayim Humash. Its editors and authors, he declared, had thoroughly “eviscerated” the JPS Torah Commentary that it was based on and de-scholared the whole enterprise. The only “true spirituality” to be found in Etz Hayim, he claimed, was in selected footnotes and essays from the academic commentators, not the rabbinical commentators. All in all, I think Schorsch ranted about Etz Hayim for at least five minutes. I haven’t used Etz Hayim enough to assess his claims, but it was crazy for the outgoing head of the Conservative Movement to heap such public scorn on a publication whose tagline is “a publication of the Conservative movement, produced through a joint venture of The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and The Jewish Publication Society.”
My favorite line of the whole speech (favorite mostly because I can’t believe someone said it in public and at a graduation no less) was a stinging rebuke to this generation of (and here I quote) “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms.” Again, it was unclear whether Schorsch was referring to his students, to Conservative Jews, or to Jews in general, but it was wild.
But this was the general tone of Shorsch’s speech. The clear underlying message was 1) the Conservative Movement has gone to the dogs, 2) it’s everyone else’s fault but his own (he blamed the students, the rabbis, Etz Hayim, new liturgical music, etc.), and 3) the only thing that will save the Movement is not a clear-eyed evaluation of how the Movement got into this mess or an openness to different approaches to Judaism and Jewish education or a sober acknowledgement of contemporary realities such as intermarriage or an embrace of this fuzzy-wuzzy musical sort of spirituality, but rather a return to “our glorious past.” By which I gather he meant a return to the Conservative Movement’s academic heyday, and not a return to the shining and glorious 1950s-on era of sterile suburban synagogues, organs and choirs, Jewish illiteracy, disaffiliation, and disaffection.
A final anecdote: At the end of Schorsch’s speech, a highly-placed employee in the JTS development office was asking nearby attendees what they thought of Schorsch’s speech. In response to one person’s answer that Schorsch had been insulting and demonstrated how out of touch he was, this person replied, “I know. We saw an advance copy of his speech and we asked him to tone it down. But I think he actually ratcheted it up.” This reply was punctuated by lots of regretful, disbelieving shakes of the head.
Schorsch’s whole speech was quite a performance. Did anyone else experience it differently? Or have thoughts about what was driving it?

39 thoughts on “Schorsch Blasts Conservative Movement in Outgoing Remarks

  1. Wow! Just imagine where American Judaism might be had he delivered his valedictory address 10 or 20 years ago?
    The sad thing is that there is a whole army of Schorch-wannabees throughout the Conservative movement. In the words of one of them (a Jewish educator): “Sometimes I stay awake at night, worrying that I’m not judgemental enough.”

  2. Don’t take this the wrong way, folks, but as a JTS student, you know what I think?
    I think it’s goddamned hysterical. Us young folks never like it when our elders call us selfish assholes. I’ve come to realize that they’re usually right. At least they’re right about me.
    I am pampered and promiscuous. I was pampered by my enormous Conservative synagogue and my Solomon Schechter Day School. I learned how to be promiscuous at USY events, and Ramah camps and Israel trips. I also picked up smoking.
    Ok, ok, I’m kidding. I’m half kidding.
    Whether or not his criticisms were legitimate or appropriate, it was his decisions as to whether or not to say goodbye to the graduates on this note. And if this is how he chooses to be remembered, then then consequences are his to bear.
    I don’t know a damn thing about Etz Chayim, really, and I don’t know why anyone would spend a graduation tearing apart a book.
    But the real question we do have to ask ourselves is: Is he right about this stuff? About our generation?

  3. This is not the first time Schorsch has dealt with the concerns of the younger generation of the Conservative movement by accusing them of being spoiled, which may mean that their struggles are not real to him because he doesn’t experience them himself. I was present at a speech six years ago when Schorsch spoke in a similar tone when asked to deal with students’ issues regarding sexual orientation. I can appreciate Schorsch’s commitment to academic study, but it’s sad to see an elder scholar who expresses mistrust of the next generation and insists that the only way forward is a return to the past. One would think that as a historian, Schorsch would realize that generations do differ from one another and that his response to those differences is an oft-repeated cliche. Here’s hoping Dr. Eisen will come up with a better attitude.
    But what Schorsch has against Etz Chayyim, which seems fairly mainstream from a Conservative point of view, I can’t quite tell. (I myself am not an adoring fan of the volume, but one would think Schorsch would like it.) Surely he doesn’t expect long historical treatises in the margins of a chumash for laypeople?

  4. It seems terribly inappropriate and deeply disrespectful to call the leader of the Conservative Movement a putz, so I won’t. But that’s what I’m thinking.

  5. If he were a leader, he would accept some responsibility. After all, however the graduates entered JTS, they’ve been under his influence for the past several years. If they haven’t become who he wants them to be, who’s fault is that?

  6. It reminds me of a bleak joke that JTS-niks tell to one another — the notion of the administration (let alone any spiritual leadership) as wholly non-functional at JTS is so deeply ingrained into the culture and so oft-repeated that it’s reached mantra status, re-inculcated at every meeting and conversation. So the joke is that even after a meeting with the Chancellor he will, on the way out, tug at your sleeve and say “But you know of course the administration here is so poor, so incapable, they’re simply pathetic. They won’t be able to do anything about it.”

  7. Schorsch is honest.* In time, when Reform and Conservative Judaism merge, folks will quote his speech. Very impressed.
    * Having spent 7 years working for USY as both a youth and regional director, davened in a Cons. shul for 5 years, applied to JTS (never went to the interview though), and watched two friends graduate as Cons rabbis…much of what Schorsch states is sting-hurtin’ true.

  8. Streimel,
    Let everyone else dismiss these remarks as the paranoid, nostalgia-driven rantings of an insulated and bitter old man. How clear-eyed of you to see through the obfuscation; it only hurts cause we all really know it’s TRUE, and the truth really stings. And of course, it’s clear that the spiritual bankruptcy and moral flabbiness of the Conservative and Reform movements will result, “in time,” in the inevitable consolidation of the two. Just curious: will that be by the summer of ‘08, do you figure, or perhaps somewhat closer to 2153? Well, no matter, whenever the collapse takes place, they can always look right here and say, “See, Streimel predicted it first”!! After all, who could possibly argue with the breadth of your perspective on the theological intracies and institutional vagaries of the Conservative movement, given your years of service in the USY. And not just as some peon, mind you, but as REGIONAL DIRECTOR.
    On the other hand, I wonder if perhaps we might slow the inexorable wheels of history from turning just a bit if we were to emulate the moral clarity and spiritual purity of those in the Orthodox camp. What do you think; how about if we borrow the snakes and revival tent of Elmer Gantry…, Gafni…. in order to teach our female adherents what authentic Judaism is all about? Or perhaps we could seek the spiritual guidance of those Charedi I saw laughing it up with their buddies at Islamic Jihad and Hamas, so we might have someone with whom to share a schwarma during compulsory Koran study after the disintegration of the hated Zionist entity?

  9. Shtreimel,
    To the extant that this is true of JTS graduates, it is Schorch’s fault. He’s the boss.
    And to the extant that you agree with him: What the heck does it mean, “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms”? If contemporary means 21st century, isn’t promiscuity the contemporary norm? Or does contemporary to Ismar mean the 19th century?

  10. Your articles, especially on C Judaism are great. You have become my first resource for news on the Jewish world. Please find and post the Schorsch speech. Maybe someday you can find and post the Gillman “halacha doesn’t matter anymore” speech he gave at the USCJ convention last year. God forbid a Conservative Jewish website would provide the masses with these juicy tidbits. Conservative Jewish websites are a good reflection of Conservative Jewish life for the most part. They suck. The only part of the movement that seems to work is Camp Ramah.

  11. From my understanding, the design of Etz Hayim tore apart any halachic basis for the Conservative movement (by attributing authorship of the Torah to multiple authors), which, in effect, destabalizes the need for the Conservative movement at all. So if I was a leader of the movement, I would think it sucks too.

  12. Um, Mr. Squad?
    Numerous Bible professors (if not all of them) at JTS attribute the Torah to multiple authors. Schorsch has been overseeing this institution for 20 years, so I am fairly sure that he is more than aware of this.
    The notion of Torah Min Hashmayim has not been the basis of the Conservative belief in binding halacha.

  13. While I may (and would) argue about the propriety of it (and I do disagree with some of his criticism – I like my happy clappy singy minyanim, provided they are in a halakhic community with knowledgebale Jews and do the full liturgy), given that he made it, we should ask ourselves “Is he right?” If not about all of it (as I said, I think he’s wrong about some things — although I have nothing against the academic criticial scholarship stuff, rabbis do have other stuff they need to know), but about some or any of it. If he’s right about any of it (and I fully agree with him about the halakhic stuff… though my halakhic theory is in line with Rabbi Joel Roth’s, a teacher of mine), what is next and what should we do to fix the ailing C movement — not for the sake of the movement (I don’t give a damn about any movement but I do care about Torah and holy yidden) but for the sake of the American Jews that look to it for guidance or affiliation and for the unaffiliated (and R and O and just Jew) Jews that can learn from it.

  14. I disagree with those who blame Schorsch because he was the boss. Being the head of a school and/or movement doesn’t guarantee that your views or policies will be carried out. He wasn’t the king, just an elected official. I suspect that he spoke out of years of frustration dealing with donors, board members, students, and others who probably wouldn’t listen to him. My own conversations with rabbis and others who deal with congregants and boards yield lots of discussions about what to do with the majority of Jews who can’t or don’t want to study, and who get their attitudes about Jewish tradition from the mainstream media and from Christians. Good for Dr. Schorsch for letting loose with both barrels.

  15. d. smith…
    Theology aside…when’s the last time you davened in a Conservative shul? Unless things have drastically changed since ’98, it was like hanging out with the Golden Girls and Boy’s Club from the Catskills. You might as well have a EMS parked outside, stretches waiting…
    The Con Movement is a graveyard…with 1960’s church like buildings and rabbis who still believe people care about the intricacies of Heschel and Rosensweig.
    Remember Emet V’emunah? Didn’t think so.

  16. “Let everyone else dismiss these remarks as the paranoid, nostalgia-driven rantings of an insulated and bitter old man. How clear-eyed of you to see through the obfuscation; it only hurts cause we all really know it’s TRUE, and the truth really stings.”
    Yawn. No one is contesting the validity of his analysis, on which wise minds may differ. What makes this bizarre spectacle worthy of note is that THE GUY DOING THE BITCHING IS THE GUY IN CHARGE OF THE WHOLE %^&* THING.
    Granted Schorsch is famous for his tin ear, which causes him to stick his foot in his mouth on regular occasions (anyone remember his calling for “dismantling” the Israeli chief rabbinate, since it had “not a scintilla of moral worth,” another shining moment in which he came out looking like a jerk). Even when there’s more than a kernel of truth underlying his concerns, he’s such a rhetorical troglodyte that he inevitably sets back whatever cause he’s championing just by opening his mouth. Not a good sign for an institution that is supposed to be turning out figures who can inspire from the pulpit. If it’s not too late maybe he can sign up for the Summer School class in Remedial Homiletics.

  17. I was present as a Grad School graduate and was quite taken aback by this speech. Not only did they let him make it, but according to his opening comments, all but begged him to make it when he suggested they get someone else. My parents, who are totally unaffiliated with the Movement and were visiting JTS for the first time were a bit confused about the speech, not knowing any thing about the specifics, but sensed it was in extremely poor taste and not terribly complimentary to those who were suppose to be being honored. If such outsiders could sense this, it should have been crystal clear to those involved intimately in the institution and movement. The night before at a dinner for Grad School graduates he had talked about how little attention the Grad School got considering it was the mainstay and most important and impressive part of JTS.
    I too am trained as a historian and I agree that we are suppose to learn from the past and not seek to return to it in an unaltered form. I also agree that if one finds such fault in an institution that one is in charge of, one must first look inward, not outward for causes. I agreee that there are many issues with the Movement and with JTS. I went for my interview for Rabbinical School unlike streimel and was told that the fact that I wanted to “help people” as opposed to just studying Talmud for the rest of my life made me unfit for the Rabbinate and that I should be a social worker. I was told by a Rab School student that if I applied again “I want to study text” was the correct answer to all questions in the interview. This seems totally out of sync with the needs of the members of the Movement – all of whom at my shul were totally shocked that I was not accepted and found the reasons absurd. We need much work in the Movement but I don’t think that a return to the late 19th century is what we are looking for.

  18. b.m.b.d.s.– you mean the rabbanut HAS a scintilla of moral worth?
    there’s a movie you should watch. . . called Mekudeshet. (I forget the English title).

  19. anyone remember his calling for “dismantling” the Israeli chief rabbinate, since it had “not a scintilla of moral worth,”
    Wow, I agree with Schorsch on something!

  20. Please note that the quoted critique of the Etz Hayim isn’t that it was critical apikorsus; it was that the critical apikorsus of the JPS commentary was watered down!
    Which is quite funny, because one of my critiques of Ismar’s Conservative movement is his failure to embrace the Conservative scholars that JTS couldn’t afford to have on staff — and foremost among them would be the authors of the JPS Commentary (and also Anchor Bible commentaries) Sarna, Milgram, Levine and Tigay.
    Along those lines, let me point out that Ben Yehuda Press has acquired rights for Understanding Exodus by Moshe Greenberg, originally published by the Seminary’s Melton Institute, and plans to republish it in the fall.

  21. Doesn’t seem like the best way to say goodbye and he was the head honcho, but I don’t disagree with a lot of what he says. In summation, conservative Judaism is lame and fading and lacking in spiritual inspiration.

  22. Wow,
    this is from the guy who’s the biggest ganef in modern academia.
    Wasn’t he responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of $50 million?
    Does anybody know Elliot Spitzer’s phone number?

  23. > Wasn’t he responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of $50 million?
    Apparantly simply due to p***-poor financial management, not malfeasance.

  24. I wasn’t there for the commencement, so I can’t comment on a lot of this. But he did give a similar speech (at least, certain aspects of it) at the Rabbinical Assembly convention a few months ago in Mexico City. I heard that one, and I was very proud that he said that the unique gift of the Conservative Movement was our critical study. I had never thought of it that way, and it made a very strong statement that what we should be about is “Truth,” not popularity. There were,of course, rabbis who were pissed off at him and his dissing of ‘spirituality,’ but I think he was presenting a powerful idea.
    It’s sad to me that people who are talking on this blog don’t seem to be acknowledging that they want him to be all things to all people. An academic, head of an institution, head of a movement, responsible for all Conservative pulpit rabbis do and say, responsible for the atmosphere at every Conservative institution for the last 20 years, etc.
    I think we should cut him some slack. I was a senior rabbinical student 20 years ago. He’s much improved over the 20 years. And I think that what he said in this address (as reported in this blog) has an important truth: people ARE getting lazier in their study. I see it all the time. I think that part of it has to do with the steep decline in reading in the general culture, or perhaps the ubiquitousness of the written word on the internet, where there are so many mistakes ‘published’ that people just don’t value text very highly. But if we allow that tendency to grow without trying to buck it by placing value on textual scholarship as there was in the past, this generation and future ones will lose the ability to access thousands of years of Jewish vitality.
    That’s not just a problem in the Conservative Movement. After all, look at how Artscroll has sucked the richness and the truth out of orthodox thinking!
    Etz Hayim (or however it’s spelled) is a symptom of this, because it takes a step back from the critical scholarship that the Hertz Humash brought to the fore. And the writing in the commentary does seem very pareve, to me. I would love to have seen a ballsy, gutsy, edgy and risky commmentary, but that’s not what committees (especially ones that feel they have to satisfy and “represent” a movement) are apt to produce.
    Anyway, I think both Schorsh and rooftopper rav (and even streimel!) are after similar ends: Jews who are committed, learned and deep people who have a burning desire to perpetuate traditions AND to live a true expression of what it means to be Jewishly connected to God.
    It’s how we get there that’s tough, and what do we do with a “movement” cobbled together from a cadre of mostly dedicated leaders and a laity that often defines itself as uncommitted and uninterested in those same things.
    It gnaws at me and keeps me up nights. I’m glad to see that it affects the chancellor similarly.
    Ad Kan

  25. Here’s the problem: He’s a whiner, not a do-er. Which is fine if he was running a blog, not an institution. And whining at graduation is just babyish.
    Don’t like Etz Hayim? Write a critical critique when the draft comes out. Run a contest for students to improve the draft.
    Better yet: Run a regular symposium on how the work of the critical scholars can increase spirituality.
    I miss the days when miserable failures would have the dignity to put themselves out of their misery.

  26. I wasn’t present at graduation, but I have to agree with Dr. Schorsch that we younger folk are lazier academically. I saw it all through my education (kindergarten-ordination). We don’t have the singular focus that earlier scholars did. There are simply too many ways to be pulled and too many responsibilities. However, I was always impressed with the integrity, compassion, and work ethic of my classmates while I was there. We just didn’t have the time after working, caring for kids and saving time for our spouses to pore over a specific paper. I’m sure that, in my class with him, I did nothing but contribute to his poor regard for our scholarship.

  27. “We don’t have the singular focus that earlier scholars did. There are simply too many ways to be pulled and too many responsibilities. ”
    Ain’t that the truth? It was much easier to spend 16 hours a day studying when you had a wife to do all the work around the house as well as probably a good portion of it to support the household. Modern life is complex and full of things that require our attention. I also don’t think that a modern Rabbi needs to do nothing but study text. They need to be able to connect to people, provide pastoral care, programming for a wide range of audiences among a plethora of other things. While students at JTS are usually taking a heavy course load, working/interning, volunteering, on a committee or two, and trying to have a modicum of a personal life as well. I personally worked my posterior off for my Master’s at JTS and can’t imagine getting through Rab School without doing the same or more. I think that much of the problem is that what it takes to be a Rabbi has changed and that is being met with resentment by older Rabbis who feel that what they studied was good enough for them and should be good enough for today as well. Having had the priveledge of being the congregant of a Rabbi who was great at studying text but basically had the interpersonal skills of an avocado and now have a Rabbi who is younger and more warm as well as no slouch academically- I say change is a good thing.

  28. I agree that change is a good thing. I like the personal warmth of many of my colleagues. But you have to ask, “what are we missing.” We need to be both. Certainly, with a decade more study, we will be more learned than we are today. But it’s not enough. We need an intellectual core to continually innovate and renew. Many of us young Rabbis simply don’t know enough and we are paying for it: in embarrasment when we don’t know something, in disservice to our congregants who we don’t offer enough substance to, in inabiliity to articulate the tradition we’re tasked with bringing to people. I feel inadequate pastorally as well. This comes with being young in a profession where you could easily need 20 years preparation. One of the things that’s been discussed often is the need for funding so students can concentrate on their studies. It should be emphasized that this is good for the student, but also good for the movement. We need to create Rabbis who are as good as they can possibly be. (if you know a good donor…)

  29. It’s pretty simple. The mainstream of Conservative Judaism as a movement today is hardly distinguishable from the Reform movement. The difference is that while Reform does what it does out of its long-standing belief that Halacha is not at the center of Judaism, Conservative Jews do what they do as part of movement that does not have Reform’s philosophical underpinning, and thus the question arises: if Conservative Judaism is simply another version of Reform Judaism, what is its reason for existence?
    It is somewhat amazing that Schorsh stayed in the job as long as he did, given that his views have been at odds with the views of the students for a long time, virtually since he started his Chancellorship.
    I would have to agree, given what I’ve heard about JTS, that the social work is considered far more important than the text study, though depending on what kind of Rabbi you’re going to become, that’s not necessarily the worse thing in the world. Shul ravs need to be social workers sometimes.

  30. Anyone interested in collaborating in a rap about Leviticus 20:13? I’d be glad to help select, summarize and rhyme scholarship on the issue in Biblical and Rabbinic texts. Someone else would have to supply sense of rhythm, melody, and samples of Schorsch.

  31. Does anyone have an actual link the actual speech. Yes, I know it is Shavout and believe it or not I feel guilty about asking for this today.

  32. Schorsch rebukes the “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms.” No one in the JTS family could deny who the man is referring to. Surely it is those married professors at JTS who have slept with their students. We all know who they are. Schorsch chose to avert his eyes to this outrage, but perhaps he is now doing teshuvah to the scandal. Inwardly, of course, through hints. Yet he never took any action, because these faculty members are some of his favorite people. For shame!

  33. Without going into the detail of Schorsch’s speech, it’s the opinion of many folks I know who are now or have been members of Conservative Synagogues that the “movement” is in big trouble. I have tended to place the “blame” if there is any on previous generations of professional leadership who seemed to have given up on Conservative Judaism. It’s been my impression that at least some of the more recent JTSA graduates are significantly more committed to leading lives as Conservative Jews and bringing others into the fold. So for this I thank JTSA and have optimism for the future. This doesn’t speak to the issues of scholarship, etc that Schorsch voices concern about but I hope that his speech does not discourage the Rabbis and Cantors going out into the real world to build Conservative Judaism; we need you and you can do it.
    Chag Semeach
    R. Lee Smith

  34. It is difficult to comment on a speech without having heard it or seen it in print, yet it strikes me that Rabbi Schorch must feel very sincerely and extremely strongly about the negative things he said about the Conservative Movement since he has been at its head for twenty years. He was essentially admitting his own failures. One only does that when one is saddened about one’s inability to have changed those things he felt required improvement. The Conservative Movement has tried to be all things to all peoples (it’s expensive to run a full service religious Movement that brings in new customers all the time) and has consequently struggled to be the analytically critical while halachically committed approach to modern Jewish thinking that its founders hoped it would be. Sad but not surprising.

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