Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservative Judaism

The Diaspora’s Stake in Conservative Judaism

Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

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Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

It is true that in ancient times, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai issued widely divergent rulings and yet retained their standing as partners in a unified Jewish people. But back then there were only “two Torahs,” and adherents of those schools lived in integrated communities. Such ancient precedents have little relevance to the religious and demographic complexity of the contemporary Jewish world. Although I am sympathetic to the Conservative movement’s attempt to invigorate halakhic practice within the best tradition of talmudic jurisprudence, I don’t see how that can be responsibly executed with an eye toward the unity of the Jewish people and of Judaism itself.

Golinkin, a Conservative rabbi, responds that Conservative Judaism’s struggles have less to do with the prominent role of common law and more do to with an inability to strike the right balance:

In my view, one of the reasons for the contraction of the Conservative movement in the U.S. lies in its overemphasis on change and underemphasis on tradition. …

I personally am committed to expanding the roles of women in Judaism via organic halakhic change. I have taught the subject for over 30 years and have published two volumes of responsa on the issue, one each in Hebrew and English. Even so, I think that Gottleib’s critique is correct. The Conservative movement has focused so much on changes in halakhah that it has forgotten to stress the observance of halakhah. It is perfectly permissible to change certain laws and customs using the tools and methods of halakhah, provided that you are fully committed to halakhah and the halakhic system. I have advocated for years that Conservative Jews must be committed to tradition and willing to make changes within that halakhic tradition. Both are needed for a healthy legal system.

The challenge for someone like Golinkin, of course, is that once halakha becomes subject to cultural norms increasingly out of step with Jewish tradition, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that so much of that tradition is optional. To put it another way: what’s the use of stressing tradition if the community is empowered to break with that tradition? Any aspect of it deemed relevant doesn’t need to be encouraged, and any part deemed obsolete will be rendered as such with the imprimatur of the community’s rabbinic leadership. Further, doesn’t such a situation invert the historical relationship between rabbi and congregation?

That is the question Conservative Judaism must answer: what is sacred and untouchable? To the Orthodox, everything is sacred. To the Reform, nothing is untouchable. Can Conservative Judaism offer both without undermining them? The demographic trajectory of Conservative Judaism suggests the answer is no.

If that’s the case, what do we, as American Jews, lose? More than we seem willing to acknowledge, I think. The pluralist spectrum of American Jewish life—the mosaic—has historically played two roles that distinguished it from the rest of the Diaspora. The first is that it eventually grew to offer a menu of options uniquely American in its comprehensiveness. Whatever your particular religious disposition, American Judaism, like America itself, had a place for you in its theological marketplace.

The second was that this array of options meant each was near its closest variant on either side. It may sound contradictory, but this had its own kind of unity to it. Haredim may not have much, if anything, in common with Reform Jews, but Haredim do understand, say, the modern Orthodox. Modern Orthodox Jews have a fair amount in common with the now-rare “Conservadox”—right-leaning Conservatives—who in turn share their customs with mainstream Conservative Jews. Those mainstream Conservative Jews are theologically close to their more liberal Conservative congregants, who in turn aren’t far from practicing Reform Jews, and so on and so forth.

What happens when the center contracts, then, is that it puts distance between Jews of differing observance. It also forces a choice on many Jews, since the nuances of American Jewish life have faded. That choice sometimes results in a person choosing Orthodoxy—a result to be celebrated for its obvious contribution to Jewish continuity. But when there is no longer a stepladder to observant Judaism, and instead only a leap, that leap may be too far for some. If it’s all or nothing, then nothing will be a more viable option.

Perhaps this oversimplifies the issue, but if so, not by much. If Golinkin is right, and a renewed focus on halakhic observance and tradition can revivify Conservative Judaism, American Judaism itself will be revitalized. If not, more will be lost than Conservative synagogue membership dues.

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The Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

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Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.

But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.

No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.

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Paying for Religious Pluralism

A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.

The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.

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A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.

The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.

For all of the ongoing controversy about defining Jewish identity in Israel, the real source of friction there is not so much one of “who is a Jew” but who is a rabbi. And any country where rabbis are in effect employees of the state, as priests or imams are in other nations, is one in which the assignment of rabbinical status is inherently political. That means the debate about recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel is not really one of competing doctrines as it is a scramble for government patronage.

Seen in that light, it is no mystery that the Orthodox political parties, who can count on the support of a large share of the Israeli electorate and whose influence is magnified by a system of proportional representation in the country’s parliament, have zealously defended their stranglehold on the state-financed religious bureaucracy. Nor is it imaginable, even with the best of wills on the part of Israel’s political leadership, that this monopoly will ever be broken up until the distant and perhaps unattainable day when Reform and Conservative Judaism commands the support of a sizeable electoral constituency of its own.

It is possible that a scheme of electoral reform that will make it harder for niche parties to win seats in the Knesset — something Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current grand coalition could pass if it wanted to — will diminish the influence of the Orthodox. But so long as the synagogue that even most secular and non-religious Israelis choose not to go to is Orthodox, there will be no groundswell there for equal rights for the rabbis of religious streams with little popular backing.

A far more urgent issue for most Israelis than the discrimination against Reform and Conservative rabbis is the oppressive nature of the taxpayer-financed official religious authority that is the bailiwick of ultra-Orthodox officials who have the ability to make an application for a marriage license the equivalent of a visit from the Spanish Inquisition. Like much of the structure of the Israeli bureaucracy, the whole idea of state-subsidized religion (and it should be specified that all faiths including Christianity and Islam are also given government support in Israel — the only reason non-Orthodox Jews are left out is because they refuse to register as being separate faiths that are distinct from traditional Orthodox Judaism) is the core of the problem. Until Israel fixes that, Diaspora Jews will continue to complain about the lack of religious pluralism and to largely misunderstand the source of the problem.

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