Which Way Conservative Judaism
Jan 24 2015
Two weeks ago, the Torah portion mentioned the famous bush that burned but was not consumed, which has become the symbol of Jewish Theological Seminary and through it what we call Conservative Judaism. Last week, I recalled my experience at the Seminary with one of its best known luminaries, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel .
It gave me an opportunity to think back to some of my experiences there as a student, and from that, to give thought to what we mean by “ Conservative “ Judaism, a topic that I began to speak on some weeks ago.
So I will start with some of the oddities of the institute for Jewish learning that has been so instrumental in shaping American Judaism.
When I was a student in undergraduate studies, JTS had an exceptional Outreach program for college students to immerse themselves in one month intensive Jewish studies and earn college credit at same time. One young man there, staying in the dormitory, was exceptionally good looking and all the young women at the Seminary were giving him the eye. But all was in vain.
First he wasn't Jewish. But second, even if he were Jewish, had it somehow been possible, it wouldn't have helped; his name was Brother Jorge of the Order of the Servants of Mary, and he had taken a vow of chastity. He couldn't return the interest, even if he had wanted to.
It was very typical for the Seminary; an academy dedicated to conserving Judaism did it best by dishing it out to non-Jews. Brother Jorge was one, Jacob Tashima, son of the founder of the Japanese Mikuya sect, was another example.
Then, there was the faculty itself
I spoke last week of Rabbi Heschel. Yet another dear teacher was Prof. Moshe Zucker, the world's foremost authority on Islamic philosophy in the middle ages and its impact on Jewish thought and the influence of Jewish philosophy on Islam. Whatever I know about Islam, I learned from a Talmud scholar!
Yes, Talmud scholar because that is how he saw himself. Recall that after Bible, Talmud defines Jewish observance and belief. The great scholars, such as Zucker, had full visual memory of Talmud (19 volumes, the fine print when you look at the commentaries). He would never open the Talmud when teaching. This made the students very uncomfortable, since they could just barely understand what was written. “Please, “ the story goes,” bring a volume of the Talmud, so we won't feel so embarrassed.” Sure enough, the next day, he opens his “masechet”, leads the discussion and everybody feels good. He finishes, gets up, look at the cover, and says, ”Oops-I brought the wrong book. “ He had never looked at the pages.
He was very caring. I spent a year in Israel and stayed at the Seminary’s dormitory in Israel. My roommate was an Israeli Kibutznik, who would from time to time be called up to military reserve service as a paratrooper.This was at the height of the war of attrition, a war of day to day fighting between Egyptian and Israeli forces along the Suez canal, a war that was bleeding the Israeli side. Prof Zucker , who was spending a Sabbatical year, took a personal interest in his well-being and he and his wife always brought him a treat when he came back from service.
He took a personal liking to me because my grandfather and his father, it turned out, had been in business together in Vienna before WWII.
There is a saying-“Kinat Sofrim marbeh hochmah”. Envy between scholars increases wisdom.
He was in competition for the publishing of a correct edition of the philosophy of Rav Saadia Gaon, Judaism's first philosopher of the new Islamic world who was also a Rabbinic authority (c year 900). His competition was a known Rabbi of Yemenite origin, Rabbi Yosef Kafach. Yemenite Jews had access to some of the best preserved texts of Rabbinic scholarship and were masters of Hebrew and Arabic, and meticulous in their grammar.
.Lo and behold, I introduced him and his wife to my wife, Ofra, shortly after we married, and I announced, quite proudly, that she was the niece of his rival, Rabbi Kafach. “Oh my”,he asked her,” How did you land one of our best young men.!” To this, his wife, Manya, turned to him and said,” Why don't you ask him how he landed one of Israeli's best young women!”
I want to return to my original thought, of how comprehensive my Rabbinical school intended itself to be, encompassing the spectrum from a Catholic Monk seeking to learn Judaism to an Orthodox Jewish scholar who was an expert on Islam. The same for politics; if Rabbi Heschel represented the anti-War movement, one of my other teachers, Prof Seymour Segal, was an early Jewish neo-Con, and gave the blessing at the inauguration of President Nixon.
The Conservative movement, as a whole, is just about as broad, a big tent.
My faculty could easily be divided into two camps by their academic specialty and their dinner preference, the Bible Camp and the Talmud Camp.
The Bible faculty used critical method to pull apart Bible texts and focus much on Talmud. The Talmud faculty didn't focus on academic study of Bible, but would pull apart Talmudic texts with modern critical methods.
They were divided into which restaurant they would eat in. Bible faculty would eat at V&T's Italian Restaurant-Cheese pizzas, eggplant parmesan- cheese & tomato sauce only of course. The Talmud faculty would eat only in JTS cafeteria, Glatt kosher, of course.
The Dean of the Faculty and Rabbi of the Seminary Synagogue was the great Talmudist, Prof.Saul Lieberman. In the US, he would describe himself as Conservative, but in Israel, he would describe himself as Orthodox. It was not unusual in a historic perspective. At one time the lines were very blurred. The founder and first president of the Seminary, Sabato Morais, was also Orthodox and also served on the examining board of Hebrew Union College, the flag ship of Reform in America.
Because of this intentional diversity, the debates within the Seminary and the Conservative movement could get very hot.
. The Talmud records a claim made by two contemporary sages. Each one said “ Whatever judge does not follow my opinion is not a judge.” The nature of debate has been so inbred in Jewish history that, at one point, the Talmud records that it was assumed that the debates must have been about two very different Torahs!
Nevertheless “Elu velu divrey elohim Chayylm,” This one and this one also speak the words of the living God. What was true of Talmudic discourse is true about Conservative Judaism as well.
There were always distinct strains from the very founding:
There were those who felt the Reform had gone too fa, for example, Benjamin Szold, whose daughter, Henrietta Szold went on to found Hadassah Hospital and the women’s movement. When the first graduation of the Hebrew Union College (note the name ‘union’ intended to indicate a union of differing camps ) was feted with shrimp at the banquet, that ended the ‘union’ and drove these away.
There were those within the Orthodox camp who felt that in order to preserve keeping all of Jewish observance and belief, some cosmetic changes were needed, such as English sermons or decorum in the service.
That tension still existed in my day in the Rabbinical school, which used an Orthodox prayer book, and women sat separately from men ( but side by side, not behind a curtain).
.For all the divisiveness there are certain central points that all Conservative Thinkers share, as was formulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan back in 1947, himself representative the more liberal branch of the movement ( before he went on to found his own Reconstructionist movement, while still being part of the Conservative movement:
Love of Eretz Yisrael, as a central point of inspiration in Jewish history. The movement never had the anti-Zionist bent that characterized both Reform and Orthodox a century ago.
The primacy of religion as the expression of Jewish collective life. We could not suffice with cultural Judaism or socialist Judaism or Yiddish culture alone.
The maximum plenitude of Jewish content( a mellifluous phrase for sure) which meant to get Jews to do more, or as much as possible, within the context of a secular society .
With this came the emphasis on retaining the core format of Jewish worship, mostly in Hebrew, and an emphasis, then, on the knowledge of at least rudiments of Hebrew reading and key terms.
The scientific approach to higher learning. We could not be afraid to take a magnifying glass to any aspect of Jewish wisdom and question it.
Today, this movement has great challenges ahead, but the challenges themselves are a result of the movement’s success. Reform Judaism has to a great extent adopted many elements that were heretofore associated with Conservative, and the Orthodox, certainly in what is called the modern camp, have adopted critical approaches to halakhic texts, if not to Biblical texts, to solve issues in contemporary life.
Our bottom line, however, is still this: the center, broad as possible, is essential in creating a vital and vibrant Jewish life in America, in Israel and wherever else Jews make their home.