Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Shevat 5761 - January 31, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two kinds of Jews affiliate with the Conservative movement. Some do so out of simple discomfort with the alternatives. They have no interest in observing the dictates of halacha on which Orthodoxy is based and perceive the Reform movement's approach as unsatisfyingly "anything goes." They are Conservative Jews, essentially, by default.

There are other Conservative adherents, though, who are sincerely determined to respect and observe halacha, who believe that their movement represents the future of Judaism in America, and that its commitment to Jewish religious law is real. Many, if not all, of these Jews will come to be disabused of those notions -- sooner, perhaps, than we think.

A large number of once-Conservative Jews are already in the Orthodox camp as a result of their close examination of the record and claims of their erstwhile movement. Many of us know such people, and rightfully regard them as shining examples of honesty, idealism and persistence.

But others too will increasingly come to realize, as those Jews did, that the Conservative movement is a stunning failure.

To be sure, the endowments and dedications continue unabated; construction projects, rabbinic programs and Jewish Theological Seminary chairs are still well funded. But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment -- to inspire Jews to Jewish observance -- not only remains unrealized, but recedes farther from the realm of likelihood with each passing year.

Failure to Provide any Halachic Model

That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The Conservative leadership has done all it can to set less demanding standards for Jewish religious observance.

But even the movement's radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of its laity. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29% of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat; only 15% consider themselves Sabbath-observant (even by Conservative standards); and no more than 3% observe Jewish fast-days like Taanis Esther.

While Conservative leaders tried mightily to put a good face on the findings of another effort, the Pew Charitable Trusts sponsored study of their congregants conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary's Dr. Jack Wertheimer in 1996, that survey made all too clear as well that the movement was utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled by that study indicated that "it was all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths."

And nearly 3/4 of Conservative Jews said that they consider a Jew anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a Gentile -- the official Reform position, rejected by Conservative leaders as non-halachic. Tellingly, only about half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were even kosher, again by any standard.

Those of us who have always regarded the movement's core philosophy to be every bit as rejecting of the Jewish mesorah as the Reform (only less honestly so) are saddened but not surprised at those statistics. But imagine the reaction of Conservative Jews who had sincerely believed their movement to be a legitimate heir to the Jewish tradition of the ages. They must now confront the reality of its failure, and of its fundamental dissembling.

For it is no longer arguable: Conservatism simply has no concern for halacha or for the most basic underpinnings of what has been called Jewish belief for three millennia.

To be sure, some of the movement's leaders still talk the talk. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Executive Vice President Rabbi Jerome Epstein, for instance, recently proclaimed that his movement "regard[s] halacha as binding," and added, admirably, that "to be committed to halacha means to live by its values and details even when we don't like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient." But the facts tell a very different story.

Facts like how one of the most important decisions of Conservative religious law was made by a commission comprised largely of laymen. The tale is recounted in a book about -- and published by -- the Jewish Theological Seminary itself, Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS, 1997). Realizing that the institution's Talmud faculty -- those most knowledgeable about the pertinent halachic sources -- opposed ordination of women rabbis, the then-head of the Seminary, Gerson Cohen, created a commission to decide the issue. Only one of its 14 seats was assigned to a Talmud staff member. Dr. Cohen is quoted as having confided to friends his intent "to ram the commission's report down the Faculty's throats" (vol. 2, p. 502).

More recently, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, acting dean of the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, admitted, in Conservative Judaism magazine, that "the Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda." That approach may be pragmatic, even democratic; but it is not even arguably halachic.

No Reverence for Halacha

What is more, tragically, only half of Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical students polled in the 1980s said they even consider "living as a halachic Jew" to be an "extremely important" aspect of their lives as Conservative rabbis ("The Seminary at 100," Rabbinical Assembly and Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987).

And more recent happenings should force all but the most heavily blindered among the movement's defenders to admit that halacha receives, at best, lip service from the Conservative leadership. In late 1997, for instance, the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school, facing the wrath of outraged students, reassessed a letter he had written them proscribing immoral relationships. It had been, he insisted after the uproar, only a "personal statement, not a matter of policy" (Forward, November 7, 1997).

As it happens, Conservative leaders' attitudes toward the Torah's code of morality are a particularly timely and telling window into the movement's true feelings about halacha.

Though there is an undeniable halachic prohibition, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, has admitted that "there has always been a group within the RA that has been consistently agitating for a change in halacha" regarding practices that the Torah calls "to'eiva" (New York Jewish Week, April 9, 1999). "Changing" a posuk in the Torah, most reasonable people would admit, is as blatant an abandonment of halacha as might be imagined. In fact, though, that process has already begun.

And so, at the same time that Conservative leaders and teachers are waving the banner of "halacha," they are effectively trampling it. Conservative claims of fealty to traditional Jewish religious law seem little more than figurative fig leaves strategically positioned to prevent the exposure of the movement as but a more timid version of the Reform.

Defining Halacha Down

Tellingly and without exception, every single Conservative "reinterpretation" of Jewish law has entailed permitting something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was driving a car on the Sabbath, "egalitarian" services or the biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the "re- evaluations" have all, amazingly, resulted in new permissions. That is a clear sign of not objectivity but agenda, of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah wants from us, and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool for promoting one's own feelings and desires. Whatever merit such an approach might have to some, it is unarguably and strikingly diametric to what our mesorah considers the truly Jewish response, what our ancestors declared at Har Sinai: na'aseh venishma.

The movement's disconnect from halacha, moreover, has been readily admitted by honest Conservative intellectuals. Ordained Conservative rabbi and respected scholar David Feldman put it succinctly in the Fall, 1995 issue of Conservative Judaism magazine: "Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold Halacha as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort."

Rabbi Simchah Roth, who has served as a member of the Halacha Committee of the Conservative movement's Israeli affiliate, Masorti, has referred to its American counterpart's acceptance of Jews driving vehicles on the Sabbath as "untenable sub specie halakhah." At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner put it even more bluntly. "Is the Conservative movement halachic?" he asked. His answer: "It obviously is not."

A Crossroads

Those developments -- and future ones that will flow from them -- will undoubtedly have a profound effect on many members of Conservative synagogues.

For those Conservative Jews who, regrettably, have no interest in halacha, the Reform movement will likely become an increasingly attractive and logical option. It provides the license they seek, and without any discomfiting talk at all of religious law.

Those, though, who truly wish to be part of a Jewish community that maintains an honest dedication to halacha and the Jewish religious tradition will increasingly be forced to face the uncomfortable but manifest fact that their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals.

They will then face a crucial challenge, to consider becoming part of the only Jewish community that actually does espouse their ideals: the Orthodox. To be sure, the challenge will be formidable. After years, in many cases lifetimes, of Conservative practice, halacha-conscious Conservative Jews will not find it easy to enter what will surely seem at first a somewhat alien world. Its unfamiliarity, however, will only be a reflection of just how far the Conservative movement has drifted from truly halachic observance over the decades.

The open-minded and determined, however, will come in time to understand and accept that the truly Jewish time for sitting with one's family is -- as it has been among Jews for millennia -- at the radiant Shabbos table, and not while praying. Most importantly, they will have confronted the fact that Hashem tells us what He wants of us, not the converse.

There is much reason to be optimistic that such sincerely tradition-minded Conservative Jews can successfully meet their challenge. Many, as noted, have already blazed that trail, and we would do well to remember that having the courage to recognize misjudgments and set them straight is an inherently Jewish trait (according to Chazal, it lies in the very root of the name "Yehudah," with which we Yehudim identify ourselves).

What We Must Do

But an attendant and equally daunting challenge will at the same time emerge to face all of us in the Orthodox world: to be ready to warmly welcome once-Conservative congregants into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is not only a well-blazed trail but much cause for optimism.

After all, while many of those who come to halachic observance by way of non-Orthodox groups have had to overcome considerable obstacles in becoming fully integrated into the Orthodox community, most feel that they were welcomed with open arms and hearts.

At the same time, though, there is a common perception that many Orthodox Jews, in the words of Professor Samuel Heilman, "look down their noses" at other Jews.

Such perceptions cannot be allowed to persist. Orthodox Jews who regularly and actively reach out in friendship and ahavas Yisroel to Jews estranged from the Jewish religious heritage must redouble their efforts.

Those who, busy with their own lives and personal responsibilities, have given only passing thought or effort to outreach must reconsider their achrayus toward our disillusioned, seeking brothers and sisters.

And those -- if they exist -- who may think that there is no hope for the non-Orthodox, that outreach efforts toward them are pointless and that only a handful of such Jews will ever have the ability to perceive the religious bankruptcy of the movements with which they affiliate, must realize how terribly wrong they are.

With the implosion of Conservatism can come an explosion of new ovdei Hashem. Whether it indeed takes place or not is entirely up to us.

Note: A different version of this article appears in the current issue of Moment under the title: "The Conservative Lie."

Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America.

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