Wednesday, March 6, 2019

( 1970 -original paper for Dr Moshe Davis-written c 1980, during debate on acceptance of women at JTS- abridged and published in Jewish Spectator, 1982)

Proposal for a Conservative Mechanism for Creative Adaptation

The Conservative Movement has come to a cross-road since the tabling of resolution on the ordination of women as Rabbis by the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary. At stake, even more than the issue of women's status within Judaism, is the purpose and meaning of the Conservative Movement: what is to be the rational for adhering to tradition or to change, what is to be its process for decision making, and what its direction for the future.

It is the contention of this paper that the mechanism of direction be kept as open and flexible as possible as to allow a maximum of responses to the needs of Judaism entering the Twenty First Century. The following is a discussion of the nature of change within Judaism in modern times, the question of making projections into the future, and a methodology for coping with the task. Hopefully, this will serve as a stimulus for healthy debate within the Movement that will lead to a clearer self-understanding.

The most recent "earthquakes" of Jewish consciousness have been the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. To these events, no formal theological or halakhic response has seriously developed, not only within the Conservative Movement, but in American Judaism as a whole (Viz Robert Hammer, " Not to Mourn " Conservative Judaism,  Vol.25, Summer, 1971).

Mordecai Kaplan, in his the symposium of Response,of Winter, 1970, suggested that Judaism was still reeling from the impact of the Emancipation, some two centuries ago. Similar thoughts have been developed by David Rudavsky in Emancipation and. Adjustment, and Jacob Neusner in Judaism in a Secular Age.

The crisis of modern Judaism must be traced back even farther; the sense of "gevalt"„ which has become in our generation a reflex, can be seen to be rooted in early modern times as early as the late 15th and 16th centuries. Certainly that is the case of European Jewish history. One can say that since the Spanish expulsion, the Jewish people have been faced with constant internal challenge to the fundamentals of belief. The past centuries have seen the rise and demise of .radical Lurianic mysticism, the Sabbatian movement, the Frankists heresy, the anti-intellectual revolt of Hassidism; all of this preceded the modern developments of Reform, Haskalah, Neo-Orthodoxy, and so forth.

The solution. of the "Jewish problem" was an issue long before the Zionist theoreticians began to speak of its resolution, or before Hitler's perversion of the issue.

At no point, from early modern times till now, is it possible to speak of a "normative Judaism"; the early Reform is as Jewish a model as is Habad,, and both are less radical than their Sabbatian predecessors.

To be aware of having been in a state of continued crisis is insufficient; there must be an adequate response at each step that meets the needs of the generation in each case. Toynbee proposed that a civilization must constantly meet new challenges and respond to them in order to survive.

We may question if, indeed' in modern times, we are above the laws of history (or sociology or economics.)  With each response in each age, we may have lost some of the resiliency of the preceding era. Early Reform was a. response to the Enlightenment and Emancipation; Conservatism in America, a response to the dislocation, socially and spiritually, of East European immigrants; Zionism, a response to the revival of nationalism and the death of universalism in the 19th and 20th century. Each response was sufficient in its time for the needs of Jewry. Yet each may have left Jewish civilization weaker than before.

As new challenges arise, will any of the various bodes, movements organizations create a form of Judaism or forms of Judaism that will have vigor and. vitality to maintain the Eternal People? Will the Conservative Movement, which lays claim to having inherited the mantel of 'normative" Judaism, be able to come to grips with the future? As much as we are affected by the past Emancipation or Holocaust or the rebirth of Israeli we are even more directly affected by developments of the Present. Our Weltanschaunq changes as rapidly as the Paris haute contour change designs. A summary glance of the "relevant issue" that have the front pages of popular media and attention over the past several years is sufficient: the race to the moon; Civil Rights; domino theory;counter culture; Death of God; the imperial Presidency; the Great Society;the Limits of Growth; Born again Christianity.

The list can go on extensively. Each theme becomes, in its moment, the regnant concern of all educated, sophisticated people, and then spreads to the public at large by the time the. "cultural elites" have moved on to new outlooks.

Life-styles change as quickly as the ZEITGEIST. The flight from the city became a flight from suburbia; gratification from a two- car garage has become gratification from a small gas-saver.The study of science as a popular avenue -of academic studies has been replaced by an emphasis on the Master of Business Administration.

The American Jew dwells in the mist of a maelstrom.
Whether it is ideology that determines the structures of society, or the machinery of production that determine our beliefs can be left to Engel or Marx for debate. Certainly, the number of factors, each of different weight and direction, that affect the American Jew are legion. The open society makes possible a breakdown of familial and community identity and the destruction of traditional bonds, while "Holocaust" and "Israel" serve to strengthen the Jewish identity. A strong Jewish identity, at the same time, is no longer incompatible with inter­marriage, even when the other partner remains a non-Jew.

What approach shall the Conservative Movement take in such an era?

Many have proposed "agendas” for Judaism, such as Eli. Ginsberg's Agenda for American Jews. Jacob Neusner suggested a better defined, more unified Conservative Movement to be able to play a significant role in a fragmented Jewish community ( Judaism in a Secular Age, "Agenda for Conservative Judaism , pp.I41 ff)
Can there be an agenda? The unified field theory proved elusive for the genius of Einstein; I fear that a unified agenda may also be elusive.

Prophecy has progressed from the ecstasy of Saul dancing and singing to Isaiah’s majestic poetry to its modern form, charts and statistics of the "think tank". The procedure is not to deliver the "ultimate word", but to establish multiple possible and probable scenarios. Such was the approach of a book, The Year 2000. a project of the Hudson Institute (Kahn and Weiner). Looking back over the past millennia, they discerned thirteen trends in Western Civilization, among which are the accumulation of scientific and technological knowledge. population growth, urbanization, literacy, and an increasing tempo of change.

Given these thirteen trends, it was difficult for them to project definitely for even a few decades; they proposed instead„ plausible alternatives. First, a Standard World, based. on fairly unchanging. continuation of present trends; secondly, eight. Canonical variations, subdivided into three groups. In addition to this, they suggest the possibility of scientific developments unforeseeable. at present. that could radically alter all predictions, - and even offer some nightmare scenarios.

The Conservative Movement must be able to deal with all eventualities,  especially those that touch upon the core of Jewish existence , ­the decline of traditional religion and the regeneration of religious inquiry. Both are not future eventualities, but realities occurring simultaneously, with which we must be able to come to grips.

A Methodology for Conservative Judaism.
Given a multi-faceted picture for the coming decades, it will be difficult, if not impossible for the Conservative Movement to adopt a strong, clear - cut position on any issue that will be acceptable to the Movement as a whole. By the time that all the various branches and wings of the Movement have fully taken size of situation and need, approached a degree of unity and agreement, and undertaken an organized response to the specific issue, that issue may itself have disappeared, been replaced by another issue radically different, or, have come to such a point that the Conservative stance, by the time it is achieved, is irrelevant or ignored.

Turn -abouts in public thought and interest can occur in five year cycles, (or even shorter); the Conservative Movement judging by the contents of Mordecai Waxman's Tradition and Change is still debating many of the same issues of fifty years ago. The question of the status of women has been an issue for many years now; attitudes toward mixed marriages, a makat medinah for a decade, are yet being formulated. Israel has been a State for over thirty years, and only recently has there been an attempt to create a Conservative Zionist Movement; The Holocaust has yet to elicit a specific development from within the Conservative Movement. (Both topics are mentioned in passing in Seymour Siegel's Conservative Judaism and Jewish lay) published by the Rabbinical Assembly.)

Nevertheless, the Conservative Movement has become the largest of the major variants of American Judaism, despite its lack of ideology or resolution (or perhaps because of it). Marshall Sklare promulgated his well-known contention that the movement grew because of a fortunate social and economic development in American Jewry ( Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement)

We must take it seriously, with the realization that the current forms of Reform and Orthodox are equally products of American society. Each Rabbi and his (or her) congregation has, in Conservative Jewry, developed a working ideology that has fit the needs of the particular congregation at its particular moment in history.

We bear burden, as a consequence, of appearing parve, neither Reform nor Orthodox, and feel apologetic, as we express "What is Conservative Judaism" to those wishing to learn while standing on one leg. The very strength and hallmark of Judaism, which we are proud to flaunt - namely its openness to ideas and development - becomes, in terms of Conservative Judaism, it appears, its shortcoming,

We need a new conception of Conservative Judaism to fit the reality of our movement. Our uniqueness is our being "holistic" a more contemporary term than "Catholic Israel" we deal with the entire being of Judaism. Jewish Community Center and Federations can only deal with the body; Jewish intellectualism ( a la New York Jews.) Jewish secularism, Yiddishism, can deal only with the mind, as can an only academic approach to, Judaism; the classical Reform and today's left wing Reform on the one hand, and Baalei Teshuvah Yeshivot, the Hasidic: and Yeshivah movements concentrate on the heart.

 In our terms, as Rosenzweig postulated, "Nothing Jewish is alien." Herein is our hallmark; Peoplehood; a faith in one God; a commitment to expressing that faith in life of mitzvot.

Reform originally denigrated peoplehood, and has not, today, developed a commitment to that which has held true throughout Jewish history: an expression of the faith through a pattern of life. Orthodoxy, in its various manifestations has peoplehood: faith, and the commitment to a life of mitzvot but this is at the cost of mind - at the expense of bifurcating critical thought from Judaism: of a split mentality. All developments within Conservative Judaism ,in all its manifestations, are reflections of these fundamental characteristics; hence, of all expressions of modern Judaism, secular or religious, only Conservative Judaism can claim to be not a "sticking to ritualism" nor a watering down of Judaism" but rather to be the most legitimate of all Jewish developments in our time. Such self-surety must stand at the base of Conservative Judaism.

Within these considerations, all variations of Conservative Judaism are not only tolerated, but welcome. Rather than being a sign of organizational weakness, vacuity, or lack of purpose,.,. this reflects the true "attire of classical Judaism. It is the Essence of Judaism.."

At the beginning, I posited that since early modern times, the fabric of Jewish life has been sorely worn; however, even in the best of times, the Jewish outlook has been a variegated as Joseph's -"coat of many colors." We are only now discovering that instead of the unitary image presented by the Mishna and Talmud of Judaism in the time of the Second Temple and thereafter, there was a highly dynamic religion of many different trends. Even within the forerunner of classical Judaism, Pharisaism, there is the divergence between the schools of Hillel and Shamai; the Talmud records,"Elu ve Elu",both are of divine authority. The Conservative Movement is oft described as the Pharisaic movement of our day, and we must recognize, then, that within ourselves, there are many legitimate schools of thought, and Elu ve Elu , all are right, and must be given free room to develop. If, in Temple times, there was a Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, so, in present structure of the Conservative movement, legitimization must be made for a Beit Mordecai,Belt Heschel, Beit Shaul, and the structure must be arranged to enable each to flourish, unimpeded by the other.

A variety of possible constructs comes to mind. One could, for instance, consider certain central planks, to which, in general, the different Batim of Conservative Judaism could assent, with liberty to interpret the implications of these planks left explicitly open. One could take Mordecai Kaplan's four areas of agreement (see Waxman, Tradition and Change, pp.214-215): 1)Eretz Yisrael, 2) The primacy of Religion, 3) The maximum plenitude of Jewish content, 4) The encouragement of scientific learning.

Under the plank of Eretz Yisrael, one could find a group which considers Israel to be the effective exclusive, legitimate center of the Jewish people; one could also accept a group which would see Israel as an equal focus in the Jewish ellipse with American Jewry as the other focus. Under primacy of religion, there could be a wide variety of theological schools: pantheistic, naturalistic, trans-natural, existential, traditional. Under maximum plentitude, one could conceive of groups for whom Halakha is the central concern, to be relatively unchanged, to those who would make extensive changes but only in accord with traditional methods of exegesis, to those who would remake halakha entirely, based on contemporary conditions. In the area of scientific inquiry, there could also be a range from limited acceptance of scientific criticism on the Bible, to acceptance as "written under divine inspiration" to an understanding of Bible as the expression of human yearning for the divine.

An alternative model for the structuring of Conservative Judaism could be derived from the philosopher Wittgenstein who suggested that, in search of the understanding of groups, one should not look for universal characteristics:
“We see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. . .   "family resemblances". "An example of his concept is to picture a set with the features ABCDE, with members in that set, edcba„ each of which have four of the five features, with one missing in each member. Thus                                         .
(from Wittgenstein, The Philosophical investigation, Edited by.George Pitcher, pp.188-189)

Under such a format, we might posit many positions, most of which would have to be accepted by each Bayit within the Conservative Movement. For example, one might place on one plane, all possible concepts within Conservative Judaism (only a few are listed herein):
God as spiritual being
God as power for salvation
God as I-Thou
Torah as revelation of God
Torah as search for God
Torah as binding
Torah as guiding
Halakha with moderate change
Halakha reconstructed

One can conceive of a Bayit which would include A,E,G, and I; their platform could be: "We conceive of God as a spiritual entity which elicited from the Jewish people the Torah, a guiding source of authority, and in recognition of this, a Jew follows the Halakha as revised extensively to meet the changed needs of modern society."

Or Bayit BEFH-: "We see God as the power that makes for salvation, and the Torah as the search of the. Jewish people for God. The Torah, as the product of the Jewish People, is binding in authority, and Jewish law, as the expression of the people, shall be followed with only slight modification."
The possibilities are legion.

Such a structure exists, informally, in that the members of the Movement, and their various bodies, are of radically different dis­positions. This is particularly so of the hard core of the Movement, the members of the Rabbinical Assembly, who can best serve as the leaders of the movement, by being both learned and in touch with the realities of American Jewry. By providing a structuring to give expression to this great variety, confusion can be changed to direction and action.

It would be possible to produce a multiple of Battim in the style of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, along several parameters: strictness or liberalness of interpretation of Jewish law; traditional philosophical, Rabbinic, or non-traditional theology; ethnic or universal oriented; high synagogue or low synagogue (Havurah) oriented; rational or mystical. For example, along three-dimensions of observance, theology, and ambience (religious - mystical or ethnic-secular), one can see the following grouping

The old demarcation - Left - Right .- Center - is of no validity in such a structure.

There is no canonicity to this grouping; many more or fewer division could be accommodated according to various modalities; some could closely be aligned with others and some could be at variance with every other one. Such a structure would be flexible enough to allow for creative development in several directions at once. Certain Battim would increase in backing with time, others might shrink or be merged, yet, given the rapid changes facing the American Jewish community, could regrow or be revitalized to match a new reality.
The individual Jew, at present lost in attempt to define for himself what it means to be a Conservative Jew, would then have specific "concepts", tendencies, "trends" to identify with and chose as meeting his/her Jewish needs and beliefs.

To structure and co-ordinate such an organization would require administrative ingenuity and talent, which can easily be found in the Rabbinical Assembly. An example might be taken from American Orthodoxy, which, according to Charles Liebman (Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life; AJYB 1965 ), although splintered into many small groups, has been experiencing a revival and is thriving despite predictions of immanent demise made a few decades ago.

We could not afford, however, to leave things to the will of heaven and structural anarchy; the roof organization would be vital. Jewish educattion is too costly a venture to split, as goes for the training of Rabbinate, or the machinery for placement position papers and policies vis a vis the rest of the Jewish community or the general public.

This multi-formed approach should be better able to coordinate the varied institutions that are now growing in American Jewry within, or independent of, formal synagogues. A new United. Synagogue would. then be commissioned to reflect the divergencies, and house under one roof, the following types of Betei Knesset:

1)    The standard large synagogue/Hebrew school/ center complex which would meet the needs of people who are looking for either the programming variety possible in such a large institution, or who are looking, admittedly, for a less intense Jewish involvement -suffice with a pleasant service, a good school, and some pleasant social gatherings. This should not be scoffed at, as through these, we reach the great bulk of the Jewish community.

2)    The large standard synagogue, with all the above facilities, coordinating, as its main aspect, or in addition to its regular programming, Havuroth, as is the case in many large synagogues today. The different Havuroth could give expression to the different manifestations of Conservative Judaism, while all sharing the same central facilities.

3)    Independent Havuroth, which succeed in drawing people into Jewish life who would otherwise remain untouched by more traditional Jewish structures. Since the Havurah has started to become a movement of its own, with a national convention, it would be vital for the Conservative Movement to be able to work through this vehicle.

4)    Stiebel complex. In Jerusalem, there are many buildings which house several services, simultaneously, or in succession, of different colorings -Hasidic, straight davening, Yekish. Each one reflects the different mood, traditions, and backgrounds of the worshippers gathered therein, yet they are all brought in proximity and fellowship by being under one roof, constantly intermingling upon entering, leaving, and just milling around. Some synagogues have several services in recognition of different needs of the congregants; rather than be considered a sign of lack of cohesion, it should be a source of pride. Under one roof, there could be a highly traditional service ("orthodox"), a standard Conservative service, of choir, Cantor, and Rabbi, cum sermonis; an alternative service emphasizing variation in music, creative readings, different formats for seating; a purely meditative service, of as yet unimagined format, since it is better to .meditate in shul, than in ashram. All could run simultaneously, with all members entering together, and following services, rejoining for a joint Oneg Shabbat or Kiddush, wherein would be preserved the atmosphere of a congregation and community.

5)         Jewish outreach centers. We are embarassed by the drive and success of those most committed to avoiding the. Twentieth Century in being able to reach out to people who have had no traditional background. Both the Baptists and Habad put us to shame. In Houston, there is a Main Point, a joint outreach project of the local Southern Baptist churches; in this facility, every program and course is offered to the young person, especially the single, with no strings attached, with no membership fees, but with a lavish helping of religion. Habad has done equally well in attracting Jewish students who had no previous Jewish connection. Not everyone is searching for the intense authoritarianism of a Habad„ but many young adults, singles, or senior adults, are waiting for someone to reach out to them. Half of all Jews belong to no synagogues, yet most Jews, in surveys call themselves "Conservative"; they have to be pulled in with an open arm, not a call for dues.

Under such an approach, Conservative Judaism will be able to legitimately be viewed as normative Judaism, reflecting both the histor­ical pluralism which has been Judaism's intellectual hallmark and the will to expressing Jewish faith accordingly. This will allow freedom of conscience, not _only for. those who feel that certain categories of.halakhka are immutable but also for those who believe, as well, that halakha must be adjusted where necessity demands; one need not close out the other. Under such an approach, those within the Reform movement, who "lean" towards Conservatism will find, within it, a body of like-minded colleagues among who will feel entirely at ease; Reconstructionism could, with full intellectual integrity, reunite, keeping it’s own identity; those among the Orthodox, who have recognized the intellectual arguments of modern criticism, will find the way open to aligning themselves within those groups .in the Conservative movement whose attitude to halakha is similar, without feeling themselves involved with colleagues who, in their eyes, would be too radical. Sitting in the center and opening to new blood in both directions, the Conservative Movement could serve to become the Sanhedrin for mainstream variants of Judaism in the Twenty-first Century.

 " We are one" would not be a slogan for the mindless melting of ideology and surrender of principles, but instead, the practical meeting of creative bodies for common goals. Chancellor Gerson Cohen, in referring to the tabling of the proposal to ordain women has offered hopes of seeing the time when we shall be able to tolerate differences within our ranks. To adopt such an outlook would be to concretize that hope. It would be revolutionary, and be justifiable, as in the words of the previous Chancellor: "Revolutions can be justified in only one way, by being successful."

Article as published in Jewish Spectator, summer 1982

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