Sunday, February 10, 2008

Conservative Judaism??

I have been thinking a lot about Conservative Judaism lately, and I have been getting quite frustrated.

First, some background: I went to a Solomon Schechter school for an undisclosed amount of time, but let's just say it was a lot of years. I have also audited a bunch of classes at List College at various times and in a whole bunch of different subjects (Talmud, Midrash, Jewish history and philosophy, Hebrew literature, etc.). When I lived on the Upper West Side for a year after college, I occasionally went to Hadar and more often went to an actual Conservative shul that had been partially taken over by young whippersnappers. When I came to grad school, the first minyan that I attended (I now attend more than one) was Conservative in a way pretty similar to Hadar. Despite all of this, I was not brought up in the Conservative movement, so I never identified with the movement or felt it was "mine." When I was in college, the Conservative minyan was lame, so I went to the Orthodox one and found I could tolerate davening with a mechitsah. I tend to "affiliate" as Conservadox because I find it is the label that fits me best and most accurately conveys to others, in one word or less, what my beliefs and practices are.

While I was growing up, my family and I used to make fun of the Conservative movement. In our defense, my father's job brought him into contact with the Conservative movement and its officials, whom my father experienced as fence-sitting even on very important issues, such as the recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and synagogues by the Israeli government. Lo those many years ago, in the '80's, there was still a fair amount of what my friend calls, "But if we do that, what will our friends at Yeshiva University think of us?" in the movement. My teachers at school who were modern Orthodox also often made fun of the indecisiveness of the Conservatives. My fellow students who identified strongly as Conservative (often the children of Conservative rabbis) did not make too many of these jokes, and I figured that that made sense, since it was their movement.

That was why I was so surprised when I got to graduate school and the Conservative minyan that I go to, where most of the other attendees could be described as self-loathing Conservative Jews. Many were brought up in the Conservative movement but find it ridiculous, as I learned when we had a Koach (the Conservative movement's college organization) speaker for a Friday night dinner, and we were talking before she got there about whether we should mention our lack of enthusiasm for the movement. Some want to become Conservative rabbis, although usually not pulpit rabbis, but view any time they might have to spend at the Jewish Theological Seminary (to say nothing of an actual, real-life, non-New-York, Conservative shul) as some sort of purgatory. They do tell jokes about the Conservative movement, particularly about the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner homosexuality teshuvah, although they hope the new Chancellor will improve matters. At a recent Shabbat dinner, some of the more involved undergraduates were saying that they will probably not end up in a Conservative shul when they get older, unless it is a minyan like Hadar, because it will not be "frum" enough.

As a non-Conservative Jew looking at this at least partially from the outside, I often think, What is WRONG with these people? I may be yet another unaffiliated wonder, but I know lots of committed Reform Jews, for whom Reform is not a synonym for "nothing," but rather a particular set of beliefs about Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot. Although the key to this is "informed choice," and so it only involves mitzvot on a very uneven basis, these Reform Jews proudly go to Temple, attend movement conventions, send their kids to Reform summer camps and NFTY (the Reform youth group), etc. They are also pretty happy with the national movement, despite all the usual Jewish kvetching. Most of the self-loathing Reform Jews I have come across are the LEAST committed (they say things along the line of, "Well, I'm Reform, I guess, but I don't see why I should do anything, unless you, Rabbi X, can PROVE to me that I have to/that God exists, etc."). Any movement will have trouble attracting/retaining its marginal members. What surprises me about Conservative Judaism is that, from my own experience, it is the MOST committed people who are dragging themselves, kicking and screaming, to identify with the movement, rather than to become un-affiliated, post-denominational, or whatever. I think that is partially because the national movement is so fractured. USY (the Conservative youth group), JTS (the Conservative rabbinical school), and the Solomon Schechter schools teach one thing, but if it doesn't seem replicable, and not too much is being done about that fact, I see how that could be depressing.

I am less qualified to talk about modern Orthodoxy. Of course it is different from Reform and Conservative; it has a weak national movement, but people like that. Its leaders seem to have an incredible hold on some members (in the Northeast and California) and much, much less of a hold on some other members (everywhere else). I don't know if Modern Orthodoxy has much of a future in the New York area, where it's "Centrist or bust!," but in other parts of the country it seems to be doing pretty well. One can hardly underestimate the importance of NCSY (the Orthodox youth group) in attracting new members.

So, what's my point here? I guess it's that I don't know what the future of the Conservative movement is. It seems likely to break in half, with one half at least trying to hold onto halakhah, even at the expense of pretzel-ing sometimes (see, above, Dorff-Nevins-Reisner), and the other half, which has basically admitted that on some key issues it is most concerned with "meta-halakhic" issues, which is, as far as I can tell, a fancy way of saying, "non-halakhic" standpoints. With these messages coming out of New York, how can one expect people at a Conservative or sort-of-Conservative shul to realize/accept that some questions have to be answered with halakhah firmly in mind, even at the risk of hurting someone's feelings? Ideally, the halakhic types would remain at JTS, with a few decamping for Chovevei (a relatively new Orthodox rabbinical school that is to the left of Yeshiva University), which is not abnormal (just as a few students at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, over a given decade will decide they want to study more Talmud and go to JTS), and the "meta-halakhic" types would go to Hebrew College or AJR or somewhere else not-so-denominational. One of the things that metaphorically kills me is that I think that, hashkafah-wise, the "meta-halakhic" rank-and-file, if not the leadership, would be happiest in Reform congregations, where at least they might meet a rabbi who has something in common with them. But then there is the difficult issue of the wide liturgical differences between two movements whose practices are, on the ground, quite similar. Maybe the new Reform siddur will help bridge the gap, or maybe, as often happens, the folks on the ground will do EXACTLY what they have been doing for years, while bloggers like me obsess about this online for the benefit of their 12 readers.

So, what do you guys think? I am especially interested in hearing from people who DID grow up Conservative on what they think the future of their movement is, but, please, everyone, feel free to let loose. One more question: Does this sort of post qualify as Lashon Hara?

16 comments:

Shira Salamone said...

I'm going to say the same thing to you that I say to Orthodox bloggers and/or commenters who write as if every Jewish blog reader is Orthodox and/or a yeshiva graduate and speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish: Translate, please! Kindly provide links and/or explanations, or at least spell out, Solomon Schechter School, List College, Hadar, YU, JTS, NFTY, USY, NCSY, Chovevei, HUC, Hebrew College, AJR, and anything else that I may have missed. I suspect that many of your readers, especially those living outside of the New York City metropolitan area, may have no idea of the identity of at least some of the organizations that you're talking about and/or with which movement, if any, each organization is affiliated.

I grew up Conservative and still identify as such (with perhaps one foot still in the Reconstructionist Movement, from the years that I belonged to a Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue). Frankly, I'm clueless. The movement seems to be going in two directions at once, with the traditionalists on one side, the egalitarians on the other side, and the traditional egalitarians on the third side. Oh, did I say there were only two sides? Make that three, maybe four, maybe . . . As a Conservative Jew who's too egalitarian for her (local) traditional Conservative synagogue and too traditional, in some ways, for her favorite egalitarian synagogue (Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, for the record, and, for the record, I'm opposed to potluck meals in a synagogue because their kashrut can't be guaranteed, and yes, I've blogged about this), I have no idea whether the Conservative Movement is even going to survive, much less thrive.

katrina said...

I will do that, Shira. It is a good suggestion. Although I don't know if I have any readers outside the NY Metropolitan area. I hope so.

elf's DH said...

For the record: My family started out unaffiliated, went to a Reform temple for a few years, then joined a Conservative synagogue, and has stayed in the Conservative movement ever since. I went to a modern Orthodox prep school. I identify to people my parents' age as Conservative. I don't usually identify the same way to people my own age.

Conservative in a way pretty similar to Hadar.
Repeat after me: Hadar is not Conservative. They only practice Conservative Judaism.

While I was growing up, my family and I used to make fun of the Conservative movement.
Join the club.

The Conservative movement has been split in (at least) two for most of the 20th century. When Mordechai Kaplan wrote Judaism as a Civilization in the 1930's, he devoted two chapters to challenging Conservative Judaism because it represented the same two divisions it does today (he called them the right side of the Reformists and the left side of the Neo-Orthodox).

What surprises me about Conservative Judaism is that, from my own experience, it is the MOST committed people who are dragging themselves, kicking and screaming, to identify with the movement, rather than to become un-affiliated, post-denominational, or whatever.
I had the opposite impression. The least committed people stay in the movement and identify "Conservative" because it's the "middle one," or because that's how they grew up, or because that's the shul they went to 3 days a year, and the movement leaks them out to intermarriage and/or to complete disinterest in Judaism. The most committed people find no home in Conservative Judaism - which presents itself outwardly as a "learner's religion" and has no place for those who are observant to its standards - and get leaked out to the various post-denominational movements (Conservative-in-all-but-name, "Progressive Orthodox") or to the left of Orthodoxy.

One can hardly underestimate the importance of NCSY (the Orthodox youth group) in attracting new members.
Agree completely here. Conservative Judaism is particularly bad about outreach and *retention* programs. It's not just about attracting new members, it's also about keeping the ones you have. It comes out both in how national programs (KOACH, eg) apportion funding [they want to see one-time, big-name events, instead of long-term sustained programs], and in how local Conservative synagogues behave towards those who are unlikely to be paying membership dues [eg, college students in places where there is no Hillel]. Orthodoxy has an advantage here because they expect everything to occur on a local level, with little or no help from a national organization.

I don't know if Modern Orthodoxy has much of a future in the New York area, where it's "Centrist or bust!,"
I may be missing something (a lot) about New York Modern Orthodox politics, but, "Modern Orthodox" seems to have different meanings depending on where you go. NY "Centrist" is "Modern Orthodox" in other places.

Does this sort of post qualify as Lashon Hara?
It's about ideas, not a person. Why would it?

Shira Salamone said...

Indeed, Conservative Judaism is still, as Kaplan said, "the right side of the Reformists and the left side of the Neo-Orthodox" Elf's DH, you're right--Kaplan's still squarely on the money, even though he's been dead for about two decades.

I like your description of Conservative Judaism as a "learner's" denomination that "has no place for those who are observant to its standards" That's certainly been my experience, even though I'm not even quite "observant to its standards." I've complained on my own blog about having to check the Orthodox Union's website for information on observance. I can go to the OU's website and ask for a daily e-mail reminding me to do the sefirat ha-omer count. Why can't I do that with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism website? Online, the USCJ offers precious little support for actual observance, and the USCJ congregants are so varied in their observance levels that there's not always much support on the in-person level, either.

It hadn't really occurred to me that perhaps the Conservative Movement tends to specialize more in one-time events than in long-term programs. I'll have to think about that one.

I can't say two cents about how people who won't be paying membership dues are treated, as that's certainly a problem in my if-they-don't-join-we're-going-to-have-to-close-our-doors local synagogue, which, given the average age of our members, is quite literally dying. I wish our shul were more open to unaffiliated Jews in our community who are interested in doing "something Jewish," but not necessarily in attending standard religious services.

zahavalaska said...

Apparently you have a reader outside of the NY Metro area! I think it's ok not to translate (that's what google is for, but that's my opinion). I think it would be interesting to see where someone like you would land in a community with two options: Reform and Chabad. In my previous experience (in a bigger city with a significant Jewish population) the Conservative shuls seemed to be pretty similar to the Reform ones except for they ran their services using different prayerbooks. There, the philosophies and politics had seemed to match--one of the local Reform rabbis, when he decided it was time for a new job, went on to be the head of a conservative day school (in a different city). In either of these cities, there didn't seem to be much room for anything "between" Orthodoxy and Reform.

elf said...

DH said:
I had the opposite impression.
I think you misunderstood Katrina's point. She said pretty much what you said.

I had some fairly complicated thoughts on this post, so I wrote about them here.

elf's DH said...

elf said:
I think you misunderstood Katrina's point. She said pretty much what you said.
Huh? Katrina said that committed Conservative Jews want so much to identify with the movement that they are slow to leave. I said that they're eager to leave it behind. It's no accident that the leaders of a good part of the "post-denominational" trend come out of Conservative Judaism.

Sunkist Miss said...

elf's DH said:
Katrina said that committed Conservative Jews want so much to identify with the movement that they are slow to leave. I said that they're eager to leave it behind. It's no accident that the leaders of a good part of the "post-denominational" trend come out of Conservative Judaism.

You're both right. I believe those two trends that you and Katrina identified are both part of the same phenomenon. The problem is that the most committed Conservative Jews are very fed up with the movement, and therefore either (a) stick with it despite its failings, or (b) run away fast. They're both reactions to the same basic situation.

BZ said...

and the other half, which has basically admitted that on some key issues it is most concerned with "meta-halakhic" issues, which is, as far as I can tell, a fancy way of saying, "non-halakhic" standpoints.
[...]
and the "meta-halakhic" types would go to Hebrew College or AJR or somewhere else not-so-denominational. One of the things that metaphorically kills me is that I think that, hashkafah-wise, the "meta-halakhic" rank-and-file, if not the leadership, would be happiest in Reform congregations, where at least they might meet a rabbi who has something in common with them.

That's not how anyone uses the word "meta-halakhic"; i.e., no one would self-identify as "meta-halakhic" (in the way that the word "halakhic" has crept into being a descriptor of people rather than of texts or ideas).

"Meta-halakhic" just means "about halacha" (rather than "within halacha") -- talking about how halacha is determined. Examples of meta-halachic principles include אין בית דין יכול לבטל את דברי בית דין חברו עד שיהא גדול ממנו בחכמה ובמניין, or הנח להם לישראל מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין, or ספק דאורייתא לחומרא, in contrast to halachic principles such asבטל בששים, or תדיר ושאינו תדיר תדיר קודם, or המוציא מחברו עליו הראיה.

I'm guessing based on circumstantial evidence within the post that your use of this word is inspired at least in part by Gordon Tucker's teshuva "Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality". The title is apt, because Rabbi Tucker spends many pages talking about the process by which halacha is determined, rather than (as is more common) talking only about the specific halachic issue at hand. But the Roth teshuva on the same topic also contains metahalakhic (i.e. about the nature of halacha) arguments throughout. If he doesn't have to spend as much time on this, it's because his understanding of halacha as a formal system is already more common in CJLS deliberations and so he doesn't need to belabor his points, whereas Tucker had to (among other things) respond explicitly to those who characterize his position as "non-halakhic".

If you disagree with Rabbi Tucker (or whoever you're talking about, if I guessed wrong) about the nature of halacha, then that means that you each hold meta-halachic positions, and that these positions are incompatible, not that he's "meta-halachic" and you're not.

katrina said...

I don't know this for sure, BZ, but I think you disagree with me on semantics rather than halakhah. It is true that, in the technical sense, "meta-halakhic" does not mean "within halakhah." "Meta" means "beyond," actually, and I had always thought that Rabbi Tucker (whom I didn't want to mention by name in my post) meant that there were certain concerns beyond halakhah that could be used in making halakhic decisions. I would not totally rule this out, but when we're taking about la'akor davar min haTorah, I can't see how that's defensible. (Or, if it's defensible (which for example most Reform rabbis would say it is), I don't see how you claim that you're doing it halakhically (which almost no Reform rabbis would not claim they were doing).
I understand that there are certain ma'amarot Chazal that attempt to mitigate various halakhic strictures. What I object to is any twenty-first century rabbi claiming that he has the same authority as Chazal to come up with new "ma'amarot," especially when we are talking about la'akor davar min haTorah. I know that the CJLS maintains that they do, but I think that they should show a little more humility. There are many leniencies out there that already deal with day-to-day issues that Jews frequently face, and I think that all rabbis should look for as much of those as possible to make our lives easier within the framework of halakhah. But if one apportions to onself the authority to come up with new meta-halakhic arguments, or to apply old ones in ways that Chazal could not possibly have meant, where does it end? In order to play chess, you at least need chess pieces.

BZ said...

I don't know this for sure, BZ, but I think you disagree with me on semantics rather than halakhah.

In regard to my comment, that's correct. I was just commenting on the usage of the word "meta-halakhic", not about which positions are and aren't defensible.

BZ said...

(Or, if it's defensible (which for example most Reform rabbis would say it is), I don't see how you claim that you're doing it halakhically (which almost no Reform rabbis would not claim they were doing).

You claim that by having a different definition of the word "halacha". See this post as well as the comment thread of this post for related thoughts on Reform Judaism and halacha. (Sorry, just trying to avoid typing it all again.)

katrina said...

Bz, if you call it Reform halakhah in order to differentiate it from Orthodox halakhah, that means it isn't Orthodox halakhah. Halakhah is a technical term referring to what you call "Orthodox halakhah" or maybe a certain aspect of(what I called) "halakhic" Conservative Judaism. There is nothing wrong--in fact, I think it's cool--with Reform looking a different approach to halakhah, but that's not the same thing as the traditional definition of halakhah.

BZ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BZ said...

Bz, if you call it Reform halakhah in order to differentiate it from Orthodox halakhah, that means it isn't Orthodox halakhah.

Agreed.

Halakhah is a technical term referring to what you call "Orthodox halakhah" or maybe a certain aspect of(what I called) "halakhic" Conservative Judaism.

Halakhah is a term that has different specific meanings in different contexts.

In China, they don't have "Chinese food"; they just have food. Likewise, in Reform Judaism (at least the idealized one that I write about), they don't have "Reform halakhah"; they just have halakhah. Likewise, the Roth camp has its own understanding of halakhah, and the Tucker camp has its own understanding of halakhah. Does this pose problems if they're trying to coexist in a single movement that wants to have some sort of ideological consistency? Yeah, probably. It wasn't my idea. :)

But I do think it's still useful for all these different groups (Reform, Orthodox, and different flavors of Conservative) to use the word "halakhah" (at least internally; the use of this word in interdenominational dialogue just gets ugly) without qualifiers even if they don't agree on its precise definition, because all agree that it refers to the legal side of Judaism (i.e. the complement of aggadah), and all claim descent from the same tradition of halachic texts.

richardf8 said...

"but I know lots of committed Reform Jews, for whom Reform is not a synonym for "nothing," but rather a particular set of beliefs about Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot."

And now you know one more.

I was raised conservative (which seemed to pride itself on being neither Reform nor Orthodox, and precious little else) spent some time with NCSY in High School (The emphasis on theodicy unsettled me) and then visited a Reform synagogue as an adult (And it was, to borrow a phrase for Goldilocks just right. The theology fits with my hashkafa.