Religion, Uncategorized

Just a self-image problem?

I’ve heard all this before. A few years ago, a very close friend went to Limmud and there had a complicated conversation with an Orthodox attendee, in which the upshot was, “I don’t know why you Conservative Jews are so set on being ‘Conservative.’ Just call yourselves ‘creative orthodox’ or something, and be done with it. That will solve your problems.”
Now, I actually don’t think that that would be the end of it. I do think that we have a self-image problem, but I don’t think we have just a self-image problem. I think we have a self-image problem, an other-people’s image problem, along with several other problems, some of which are our own making, and others of which are not. Some of which may solve themselves, or already are, and some of which will remain problems because of the cultural milieu in which we bathe. I do think very few of our problems are about the sorts of things that Rabbi Schorsch was complaining. What are some of the problems? Well, we can spend a desert island’s stay worth of discussion time on the matter (and we have, and will), so I won’t dwell on it here.
But, nevertheless, I think that Shmuel Rosner does have a certainpoint to make, and that we would do well to quit chewing our cud and move on to doing things differerently – or even doing them the same, but doing, teaching and being faithful to God, rather than discussing this question endlessly, which really ultimately, is beside the point. And if we don’t remain the center of American Jewry? Well, so what? What’s important is that we do what we believe, through study of halacha to be true and right in serving God and being holy. And when we decide what that is, then we need to teach it and do it, even if we might lose some members in doing so.
Text below:
What’s wrong with the Conservative Movement?
A year ago, in one of the first articles I wrote from Washington, I chose to write about the Conservative Movement in Judaism. The occasion was somewhat strange: The decision by the USCJ’s public policy committee to send a letter stating that John Roberts, President Bush’s conservative nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, “is qualified to serve.”
However, this was more an excuse than a reason. What I really wanted to highlight (and I was in no way the first to do so) was the crisis within the movement. For years, “the Conservatives were at the center of American Jewry. The mainstream. What then happened is similar to what is also happening in the political world and to American Jewry in general: The flanks are getting stronger, while the center is weakening.” It was not a big scoop, but rather a pending issue on which many people commented and had an ongoing debate.
I was reminded of this piece yesterday, reading a long piece in Slate by Samantha Shapiro. “I grew up in the Conservative movement,” she tells the readers, “and my religious ideals line up with it in many ways. Yet I agree that it often misses the mark and suffers… from ‘a failure of nerve.'” Most of her article is dedicated to the farewell speech made by Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, in which he criticized the movement in a rather harsh manner (you probably heard about it before, if not, read about it here). Her conclusion: “The project of looking squarely at the demands of our time and Jewish texts is both true to Jewish tradition and badly needed at this particular historical moment, and I wish it didn’t seem to be faltering.”
So here’s what I think about this piece: It’s part of the movement’s problem, not part of the solution. As long as such pieces will be published (and I’m not suggesting this should somehow be banned), the Conservatives will only suffer from the one real problem they have – a self image problem.
This came up in a long conversation I had a while ago with Prof. Arnold Eisen, the man who was surprisingly chosen to be Schorsch’s successor. “There’s a problem with morale,” he said dryly, and then moved to highlight the “potential.” What’s the point about whining over “the crisis.” This, he said, will not take Conservatives anywhere. And Eisen believes there’s plenty to do besides complaining about the current state of affairs.
Truth must be told, he was somewhat vague when he talked about the place of Conservatives, squeezed between the Orthodox and the Reform. “There are overlaps,” he willingly admitted, “but there’s room in the middle.” A clearer message is needed in order to define the boundaries of this room for the benefit of the community members.
Since I wrote my piece about the movement a lot has changed. For once, Eisen was chosen, Schorsch has retired, the committee dealing with possible ordination of gay rabbis and acceptance of same-sex marriage is very close to completing its work (The Jewish Forward reported last Friday what was practically something everybody knew by now, that “The ordination of gay rabbis and the sanctioning of same-sex marriage within Conservative Judaism is near certain.”)
“Many challenges await a leader or leaders, as well as the committees now busy with their important missions,” I concluded last year. “The challenges can be expressed thusly: The Conservative movement definitely needs to search for its path, but at some stage it also needs to find it.” And in fact, in one tumultuous year, Conservatives did find quite a lot, they achieved some remarkable goals.
One can convincingly argue, that for the past year it was the most vibrant Jewish movement – not because its daily activities were somehow more impressive than they were in the past, but rather because the movement has acknowledged and dealt with mercurial problems, and because it was ready to enter the operation room for a risky procedure. So far so good, signs of life are still visible.

8 thoughts on “Just a self-image problem?

  1. Does anyone here believe that reform or conservative Judaism will still be here or even have the allegiance of at least 10% of world Jewry 100 years from now?
    If you don’t then shouldn’t someone ask why the eternal nation is bothering with this transitory phenomenon all the while shouting that this is the future of Judaism?
    If you do, then please tell me what evidence points in that direction?

  2. If I want to engage in traditional Jewish practice (like a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out), and be fully included as a woman, the Conservative movement is the only place I can go. Reform abridges too much, and in Ortho shuls I have to sit in the back. (Independent minyanim are mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.)
    100 years from now is not the problem. The content of my participation in Judaism right now is the problem. It’s a lot easier to sneer at the Conservative mevement if you are male.

  3. If I want to engage in traditional Jewish practice (like a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out), and be fully included as a woman, the Conservative movement is the only place I can go. Reform abridges too much, and in Ortho shuls I have to sit in the back. (Independent minyanim are mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.)
    Isn’t this tautological? If you define anything that is egalitarian with a traditional liturgy as being (unofficially) part of the Conservative movement, then of course you’ll find that (what you have defined as) “the Conservative movement” is the only place where those features are to be found.
    Cf.:
    “The United States is the only country on the planet where ______ and _____.”
    “What about Canada?”
    “They’re an informal extension of the United States, whether they admit it or not.”
    (And if a Reform synagogue did a fuller Hebrew service, would you say “that doesn’t count, they’re basically Conservative anyway”?)
    100 years from now is not the problem. The content of my participation in Judaism right now is the problem.
    Here, I agree. A better present will lead naturally to a better future.

  4. Independent minyanim are mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.)
    Isn’t this tautological? If you define anything that is egalitarian with a traditional liturgy as being (unofficially) part of the Conservative movement, then of course you’ll find that (what you have defined as) “the Conservative movement” is the only place where those features are to be found.
    I don’t think it’s tautological. Yehudit described those independent minyanim as “mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement” (which I think is generally correct, for–as she says–most”, not all, of the independent minyanim that she’s referring to); I understood her statement as indeed a description and not a definition or conscription of Not-Conservative-Movement (particularly of the Other Big 2–Orthodox, Reform) groups to the Conservative movement. The public rhetorical fight going on about what’s wrong with/has happened to Conservative Judaism isn’t, generally speaking, about the rise of independent minyanim or about post-denominationalism or how many people on the 2000-1 NJPS survey marked themselves as “Just Jewish” now that it’s been added as a category…it’s about Conservative vs. Reform vs. Orthodox.
    So yes, there are some independent minyanim (or other groups) that may be egalitarian (for some values of the term “egalitarian”) with a traditional liturgy (for some values of the term “traditional liturgy”) that one might have some reason to define as “informal extensions of” one of the other Big Movements “whether they admit it or not”…but there would be many many fewer of them (and much more subject to debate in categorization?) than the ones that are “informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.”
    Like it or not, the Big Movements are what’s on the radar screen in this rhetorical firestorm, and truly non-/post-denominational independent minyanim (if one could agree on what that would mean!) or smaller movements aren’t. So I could with some justice respond to Yehudit’s claim–
    If I want to engage in traditional Jewish practice (like a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out), and be fully included as a woman, the Conservative movement is the only place I can go
    –with an objection like “But aren’t you ignoring the Reconstructionist movement, which is gender-egalitarian and deeply invested in the meaningful nature of Jewish tradition?”
    But I don’t, because:
    1) Reconstructionist Judaism is too small a movement to register in the broad terms of this debate (which is not to say that it’s irrelevant…just that when people are arguing national politics about Dems & Republicans and who’s going to win the presidency or control the House, I’m not going to say “ah, but see, the Libertarian Party candidate…”*).
    2) Many communities do not have a permanent/viable Reconstructionist community that she could be part of, whereas many more have representative institutions from the Big Three.
    3) Yehudit’s comment gives the example of “a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out” as what she means by “engag[ing] in traditional Jewish practice.” Some Reconstructionist services hew to “traditional Jewish practice” in her sense and are not very different in liturgical content from their Conservative or Orthodox (or very completist** Reform) counterparts…and others do not. It is my experience that individual Reconstructionist services could fall along a much broader spectrum than individual Orthodox or Conservative services do, and probably more so than Reform either, though there too there’s a lot of variation. So you’re less certain of what you’ll “get” when you walk into a service billed as “Reconstructionist” than when you walk into one that pegs itself as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The same broadly applies for the rest of “traditional Jewish practice” (which we might also identify with halakha-based practice? even if we agree that different Jews will accept different halakhic authorities & rulings?) vis-a-vis Reconstructionism: some Reconstructionists follow all of halakha as they understand it (and could thus even be more stringent than some fully-observant-but-lenient Conservative Jews, depending on what rulings they hold by); others do not. So even less than in the Conservative movement can one find an externally evident peg to hang the practice & behavior of Reconstructionist Jews on vis-a-vis “tradition” in this sense.
    *In fact, I think Reconstructionism & Libertarianism are a lot alike in certain ways:
    a movement small in numbers;
    often primarily associated–rightly or wrongly–with a more influential movement to its right [Conservative Judaism; Republican Party], many of whose members have a certain sympathy for or ideological commitment to that smaller movement’s goals or ideals;
    but perhaps having more impact through their philosophical influence on the members of that Big Party (and the compelling writings of their own leading figures) than through their own institutions (and public-pundit talking heads) as a Really Quite Small Party.
    **I have avoided the phrase “very traditional Reform,” which evokes for me a mental image in exact opposition to what I actually I mean above–i.e., it evokes images of “high-church Reform,” with prayer in the vernacular, accompanied by organ and surrounded by stained glass… A Reform rabbi friend whose student pulpit was in Paducah, KY spoke (not disparagingly) of its old-school Reform approach, where 1) languages that they thought of as belonging to their Jewish community were German and English, not Yiddish or Hebrew; 2) it was decided that it was all right for their lay cantor (from a Conservative background) to go ahead & wear a kippah on the bimah…as long as my friend the student rabbi did
    not. Again, neither he nor I = saying this to mock or disparage–just to articulate that what was “traditional” to this community was the non-(and often anti-)traditional practices of the previous 100 years of Reform Judaism, not the “traditional” liturgy & practices Yehudit refers to above.

  5. [oh #@**%!, I messed up the HTML tags. Trying again below. Mods/admins, please feel free to use your Magic Powers to fix or delete the previous.]
    Independent minyanim are mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.)
    Isn’t this tautological? If you define anything that is egalitarian with a traditional liturgy as being (unofficially) part of the Conservative movement, then of course you’ll find that (what you have defined as) “the Conservative movement” is the only place where those features are to be found.
    I don’t think it’s tautological. Yehudit described those independent minyanim as “mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement” (which I think is generally correct, for–as she says–most”, not all, of the independent minyanim that she’s referring to); I understood her statement as indeed a description and not a definition or conscription of Not-Conservative-Movement (particularly of the Other Big 2–Orthodox, Reform) groups to the Conservative movement. The public rhetorical fight going on about what’s wrong with/has happened to Conservative Judaism isn’t, generally speaking, about the rise of independent minyanim or about post-denominationalism or how many people on the 2000-1 NJPS survey marked themselves as “Just Jewish” now that it’s been added as a category…it’s about Conservative vs. Reform vs. Orthodox.
    So yes, there are some independent minyanim (or other groups) that may be egalitarian (for some values of the term “egalitarian”) with a traditional liturgy (for some values of the term “traditional liturgy”) that one might have some reason to define as “informal extensions of” one of the other Big Movements “whether they admit it or not”…but there would be many many fewer of them (and much more subject to debate in categorization?) than the ones that are “informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.”
    Like it or not, the Big Movements are what’s on the radar screen in this rhetorical firestorm, and truly non-/post-denominational independent minyanim (if one could agree on what that would mean!) or smaller movements aren’t. So I could with some justice respond to Yehudit’s claim–
    If I want to engage in traditional Jewish practice (like a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out), and be fully included as a woman, the Conservative movement is the only place I can go
    –with an objection like “But aren’t you ignoring the Reconstructionist movement, which is gender-egalitarian and deeply invested in the meaningful nature of Jewish tradition?”
    But I don’t, because:
    1) Reconstructionist Judaism is too small a movement to register in the broad terms of this debate (which is not to say that it’s irrelevant…just that when people are arguing national politics about Dems & Republicans and who’s going to win the presidency or control the House, I’m not going to say “ah, but see, the Libertarian Party candidate…”*).
    2) Many communities do not have a permanent/viable Reconstructionist community that she could be part of, whereas many more have representative institutions from the Big Three.
    3) Yehudit’s comment gives the example of “a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out” as what she means by “engag[ing] in traditional Jewish practice.” Some Reconstructionist services hew to “traditional Jewish practice” in her sense and are not very different in liturgical content from their Conservative or Orthodox (or very completist** Reform) counterparts…and others do not. It is my experience that individual Reconstructionist services could fall along a much broader spectrum than individual Orthodox or Conservative services do, and probably more so than Reform either, though there too there’s a lot of variation. So you’re less certain of what you’ll “get” when you walk into a service billed as “Reconstructionist” than when you walk into one that pegs itself as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The same broadly applies for the rest of “traditional Jewish practice” (which we might also identify with halakha-based practice? even if we agree that different Jews will accept different halakhic authorities & rulings?) vis-a-vis Reconstructionism: some Reconstructionists follow all of halakha as they understand it (and could thus even be more stringent than some fully-observant-but-lenient Conservative Jews, depending on what rulings they hold by); others do not. So even less than in the Conservative movement can one find an externally evident peg to hang the practice & behavior of Reconstructionist Jews on vis-a-vis “tradition” in this sense.
    *In fact, I think Reconstructionism & Libertarianism are a lot alike in certain ways:
    a movement small in numbers;
    often primarily associated–rightly or wrongly–with a more influential movement to its right [Conservative Judaism; Republican Party], many of whose members have a certain sympathy for or ideological commitment to that smaller movement’s goals or ideals;
    but perhaps having more impact through their philosophical influence on the members of that Big Party (and the compelling writings of their own leading figures) than through their own institutions (and public-pundit talking heads) as a Really Quite Small Party.
    **I have avoided the phrase “very traditional Reform,” which evokes for me a mental image in exact opposition to what I actually I mean above–i.e., it evokes images of “high-church Reform,” with prayer in the vernacular, accompanied by organ and surrounded by stained glass… A Reform rabbi friend whose student pulpit was in Paducah, KY spoke (not disparagingly) of its old-school Reform approach, where 1) languages that they thought of as belonging to their Jewish community were German and English, not Yiddish or Hebrew; 2) it was decided that it was all right for their lay cantor (from a Conservative background) to go ahead & wear a kippah on the bimah…as long as my friend the student rabbi did not. Again, neither he nor I = saying this to mock or disparage–just to articulate that what was “traditional” to this community was the non-(and often anti-)traditional practices of the previous 100 years of Reform Judaism, not the “traditional” liturgy & practices Yehudit refers to above.

  6. [even more #^&@&@* — it’s still not right, and I’m not sure why. 3rd time’s the charm? Gentle readers & admins, please forgive. If this one also is messed up, I surrender. Is there a place I can go to test/preview comments? or to edit???]
    Independent minyanim are mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.)
    Isn’t this tautological? If you define anything that is egalitarian with a traditional liturgy as being (unofficially) part of the Conservative movement, then of course you’ll find that (what you have defined as) “the Conservative movement” is the only place where those features are to be found.
    I don’t think it’s tautological. Yehudit described those independent minyanim as “mostly informal extensions of the Conservative movement” (which I think is generally correct, for–as she says–most”, not all, of the independent minyanim that she’s referring to); I understood her statement as indeed a description and not a definition or conscription of Not-Conservative-Movement (particularly of the Other Big 2–Orthodox, Reform) groups to the Conservative movement. The public rhetorical fight going on about what’s wrong with/has happened to Conservative Judaism isn’t, generally speaking, about the rise of independent minyanim or about post-denominationalism or how many people on the 2000-1 NJPS survey marked themselves as “Just Jewish” now that it’s been added as a category…it’s about Conservative vs. Reform vs. Orthodox.
    So yes, there are some independent minyanim (or other groups) that may be egalitarian (for some values of the term “egalitarian”) with a traditional liturgy (for some values of the term “traditional liturgy”) that one might have some reason to define as “informal extensions of” one of the other Big Movements “whether they admit it or not”…but there would be many many fewer of them (and much more subject to debate in categorization?) than the ones that are “informal extensions of the Conservative movement, whether they admit it or not.”
    Like it or not, the Big Movements are what’s on the radar screen in this rhetorical firestorm, and truly non-/post-denominational independent minyanim (if one could agree on what that would mean!) or smaller movements aren’t. So I could with some justice respond to Yehudit’s claim–
    If I want to engage in traditional Jewish practice (like a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out), and be fully included as a woman, the Conservative movement is the only place I can go
    –with an objection like “But aren’t you ignoring the Reconstructionist movement, which is gender-egalitarian and deeply invested in the meaningful nature of Jewish tradition?”
    But I don’t, because:
    1) Reconstructionist Judaism is too small a movement to register in the broad terms of this debate (which is not to say that it’s irrelevant…just that when people are arguing national politics about Dems & Republicans and who’s going to win the presidency or control the House, I’m not going to say “ah, but see, the Libertarian Party candidate…”*).
    2) Many communities do not have a permanent/viable Reconstructionist community that she could be part of, whereas many more have representative institutions from the Big Three.
    3) Yehudit’s comment gives the example of “a full Hebrew service with nothing major left out” as what she means by “engag[ing] in traditional Jewish practice.” Some Reconstructionist services hew to “traditional Jewish practice” in her sense and are not very different in liturgical content from their Conservative or Orthodox (or very completist** Reform) counterparts…and others do not. It is my experience that individual Reconstructionist services could fall along a much broader spectrum than individual Orthodox or Conservative services do, and probably more so than Reform either, though there too there’s a lot of variation. So you’re less certain of what you’ll “get” when you walk into a service billed as “Reconstructionist” than when you walk into one that pegs itself as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The same broadly applies for the rest of “traditional Jewish practice” (which we might also identify with halakha-based practice? even if we agree that different Jews will accept different halakhic authorities & rulings?) vis-a-vis Reconstructionism: some Reconstructionists follow all of halakha as they understand it (and could thus even be more stringent than some fully-observant-but-lenient Conservative Jews, depending on what rulings they hold by); others do not. So even less than in the Conservative movement can one find an externally evident peg to hang the practice & behavior of Reconstructionist Jews on vis-a-vis “tradition” in this sense.
    *In fact, I think Reconstructionism & Libertarianism are a lot alike in certain ways:
    a movement small in numbers;
    often primarily associated–rightly or wrongly–with a more influential movement to its right [Conservative Judaism; Republican Party], many of whose members have a certain sympathy for or ideological commitment to that smaller movement’s goals or ideals;
    but perhaps having more impact through their philosophical influence on the members of that Big Party (and the compelling writings of their own leading figures) than through their own institutions (and public-pundit talking heads) as a Really Quite Small Party.
    **I have avoided the phrase “very traditional Reform,” which evokes for me a mental image in exact opposition to what I actually I mean above–i.e., it evokes images of “high-church Reform,” with prayer in the vernacular, accompanied by organ and surrounded by stained glass… A Reform rabbi friend whose student pulpit was in Paducah, KY spoke (not disparagingly) of its old-school Reform approach, where 1) languages that they thought of as belonging to their Jewish community were German and English, not Yiddish or Hebrew; 2) it was decided that it was all right for their lay cantor (from a Conservative background) to go ahead & wear a kippah on the bimah…as long as my friend the student rabbi did not. Again, neither he nor I = saying this to mock or disparage–just to articulate that what was “traditional” to this community was the non-(and often anti-)traditional practices of the previous 100 years of Reform Judaism, not the “traditional” liturgy & practices Yehudit refers to above.

  7. Yehudit:”100 years from now is not the problem. The content of my participation in Judaism right now is the problem”.
    Ahh, see this is where I differ from your opinion. Continuity is of major importance in Judaism. And since only the Jews can bring knowledge of G-d and Torah into this world you gotta make sure there are plenty of them in the future.
    You make not like the Orthodox on acount of their “egalitarian” policies but at least they are investing in the future. Their women may sit in the back in the synagogue but they are at the front lines when it comes to securing the jewish future.

  8. Some form of non-Orthodox Judaism will be alive and kicking in 100 years in America. It doesn’t really matter whether its denoted Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist. The active core of heterodox Judaism isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it is more vibrant and dynamic than its ever been. Serious Judaism of any stripe is replicable.
    The question is the future of mass non-Orthodox Judaism. There too, I believe there will still be a strong, vibrant, if smaller American form in 100 years. Its highly doubtful that the Reform and Conservative movements as we know them will still be around at that point. If anything, post-denominationalism is only going to intensify in the next 20 years. But the health of the Conservative movement still matters. It has tremendous institutional resources that can either be put towards a revival of non-Orthodox Judaism or left to stagnate. One hopes that Eisen has the vision to meet the challenges faced by American Judaism as a whole rather than an parochial mindset obsessed with the status of one seminary.

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