Bashing Conservative Judaism
Here we go again. Yet another Rabbi thundering away that “calling Conservative Judaism a halachic movement is intellectually dishonest,” and pointing out that there’s not much standing between the commitment to observance of your average Reform and Conservative Jew. Oy. Clearly, these “highly inflammatory” remarks, this “nasty diatribe,” merely represent a “strident voice” that we must marginalize.
Ah, but there’s the rub. This time, the author wasn’t an ultra-Orthodox fundy like Rabbi Avi Shafran, or even a radical Reformer like David Forman, but Conservative Jewish historian, philosopher, and JTS Professor Rabbi Neil Gillman, offering his keynote speech at Conservative Judaism’s biennial.
Larry Levey contributes frequently to our comments, and sent me the following with permission to publish:
In an article scheduled for publication in this week’s upcoming (NY) Jewish Week, Rabbi Neil Gillman, a leader in the movement and professor of philosophy at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, severely undermined those of us who have attempted to defend that movement as being halachic and gave credibility to the criticism long voiced by such Orthodox spokespersons as Rabbi Avi Shafran. An excerpt from that article follows:
Responding to perceptions that Conservative Judaism is spiritually listless and on the decline, a major thinker in the movement called this week for it to acknowledge that it is not bound by halacha, or Jewish law.
In calling for a new vision at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial in Boston, Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, argued that calling itself a halachic movement is intellectually dishonest and has failed to inspire increased religious commitment of congregants.
“We have to be open and honest, and try to project a religious vision, a theological vision,” Rabbi Gillman told The Jewish Week.
Conservative Jews should instead distinguish themselves from other liberal movements by their liturgy, their ritual practice and their loyalty to Conservative Jewish institutions, he said…
Rabbi Gillman said there is little difference between the religious practice of Conservative and Reform Jews outside the synagogue, and that “if we are a halachic community, it has to be because we want to be, not because we have to be. Then we have to explain why we want to be, and we have done neither.”
That does about say it all.
There is a disconnect in what R’ Gillman is saying.
Just because most Conservative laypeople are not halachically observant does not mean that the movement should cease to be an halachic one.
Sorry to bring up the Anglo-Jewry/American dichotomy again, but it is applicable. The majority of United Synagogue (the mainstream Orthodox movement in the UK) members are not particularly observant. Does that mean that the United Synagogue is going to abanandon the halachic system? Of course not, and noone would suggest such a thing.
The Conservative movement which, like it or not, fills the role among American Jewry that mainstream Orthodox groups do in other countries, should commit itself to halacha and encouraging its membership to raise their halachic standards. It is possible to be welcoming and encouraging to the laity despite the fact that current observance levels are low, without condoning the fact.
Conservative synagogues can’t push greater observance because they’d lose their members. Most Conservative Jews could have gone to Orthodox shuls instead. They chose not to, probably because they don’t want to be told they are not sufficiently observant.
Why is this more of a factor in the US? I’m not sure – Maybe Larry’s analysis (http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2005/12/01/heterodoxy-meltdown/#comments , 2nd comment) is right. Maybe it’s that being a bigger market, there is a supplier to every niche in the US – in commodities and in religions.
For years Neil Gillman has been a proponant of that school of Conservative Judaism that said, “G-d didn’t command us to do such-and-such, but do it anyway.” On the one hand, we didn’t have to feel bound by mechitzas and non-egal davening just because our ancestors did, but we should keep kosher, put on tefilin, and keep Shabbat (to some degree) becuase that’s what Jews do and have always done. In other words, G-d didn’t command it, He doesn’t care and there is no reward and punishment and the only consequence of not living a “Jewish Life” (as defined by the C movement) is to be outside of the Jewish community, which someone who doesn’t want to live Jewishly doesn’t care about anyway. This philosophy drove me away from Conservative Judaism. Why should I not go to Red Lobster just because my ancestors thought that G-d commanded them not to and now we “know better”? My ancestors also lived in shacks in Russia, should I? Or is that like the driving on Shabbat thing? I give Gillman credit for saying what I started to believe when I left Conservative Judaism for Orthodoxy: that Conservative is essentially the right-wing of Reform. It is Reform with more Hebrew and a more “traditional” service for people that are freaked out by the idea of a lesbian cantor with guitar singing Bob Dylan passing for Friday night services.
I think we’d all agree that in the realm of communal critiques, self-criticism is given much more latitude before being labeled “offensive.” When a Conservative rabbi bemoans the (perceived?) lack of business ethics among Haredi Jews, the Orthodox community is rightly offended. When Agudath Israel of America addresses the issue, it is within an entirely different context and is perfectly acceptable.
“The Conservative movement which, like it or not, fills the role among American Jewry that mainstream Orthodox groups do in other countries, should commit itself to halacha and encouraging its membership to raise their halachic standards. It is possible to be welcoming and encouraging to the laity despite the fact that current observance levels are low, without condoning the fact.”
Orthodox synagogues should really be doing that as well. And, it’s funny, because my friends who’ve travelled to Europe tell me that the Orthodox shuls there are singularly unwelcoming in comparison to American ones.
Personally, I think the Conservative movement is reinventing itself these days, and is trying to figure out just what it wants to be. There are a non-trivial number of Conservative Jews who would happily chop off the left half (3/4’s?) of their movement if it got them back to being actually halachic again. There are a similar number on the left, I’m guessing, perhaps more, who would gladly do the same to the right side of their movement.