Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, October 14, 2002
Nice little article by Alan Mittleman in First Things on the subject of Conservative Judaism, Jewish acculturation and Jewish advocacy of the "naked public square." The article provides me with a pretext to muse on these subjects myself.

It is striking to me to think of a time when Conservative Judaism appeared to be the future of Judaism in America. From where I sit, Conservative Judaism is the movement most likely to go extinct; Orthodox and Reform Judaism are far healthier and far more self-confident than Conservative Judaism is. Why do I say this? Why do I think this is so? And why, given the foregoing, do I consider myself a Conservative Jew?

Let's start with the last question: why am I a Conservative Jew? There are a number of reasons, but the bottom line, simply, is that I believe Conservative Judaism to be true. That's not the kind of language that Conservative Jews tend to use, and that fact has a great deal to do with why Conservative Judaism is endangered.

What is distinctive about Conservative Judaism to me? Historically, Conservative Judaism is a reaction to Reform Judaism, which in turn was an effort by German Jews of the era of Emancipation to rationalize and modernize Judaism in accordance with the best thinking of the Enlightenment. Reform Judaism was utterly unlike the Protestant Reformation, which was an attempt to return to first principles and pure revelation, not an attempt to impose rationality. It bears more resemblance to the emergence of Unitarianism out of the Protestant ranks. In any event, the Conservative reaction was, in turn, nothing like the Conter-Reformation, because Conservative Judaism accepted the basic premise that Judaism needed to be made more Enlightened, but disagreed that this meant jettisoning all of Jewish law.

What Conservative Judaism wound up affirming was the notion that Jewish law existed, and had normative power. However, they denied that this law was entirely self-contained (what might be termed the formalist position) and they denied to established precedent and custom the force that it historically had within Judaism. In effect, they gave to the living body of the rabbinate vastly more power than was the case in traditional Judaism, and consequently diminished the authority of the decisions of dead rabbis as embodied in the Jewish codes of law and associated commentaries.

I agree with both of these propositions. I do not believe that the law interprets itself; as a committed pragmatist (there's a contradiction in terms!) I reject formalism as a philosophical position. And I reject the notion that precedent cannot be overturned even when its premises have been undermined. Because of these heresies, I would have a very hard time fitting in as an Orthodox Jew, even if my observance were up to snuff (which it isn't).

Here's an example of a Conservative reversal of longstanding precedent: granting women a formal role in the prayer service. Very long-standing precedent, deeply rooted in the Jewish religion, mandates that only men are counted in a prayer quorum; that only men can serve as witnesses; that only men can lead a prayer quorum; that only men can read aloud from the Torah in the synagogue; that only men can be rabbis; etc. The question therefore becomes: is it permitted to change these precedents? The Orthodox view would be: no. Even among liberal Orthodox, where there has been a concerted effort to provide new roles for women (as exegetes and advocates if not decisors; as leaders of their own prayer services if not the leaders of official (male) quorums, etc.) there is a universal agreement that these traditional restrictions cannot be changed. But the basis for at least some of these restrictions is the fact that, at the time of the decisions, women were not full masters of their own fates in law, but were subject to external authority (of father or husband), and were, moreover, expected not to be publicly assertive as a matter of modesty. Since these are matters external to the law, if these external conditions change one would expect that the law could change - not that it must change, but that it would be permitted to change if the community saw it as appropriate. This is what Orthodoxy says is not permitted, but Conservative Judaism permits.

The problem is that, in practice, the Conservative rabbinate has tended to ratify the errors of the people rather than ratifying what it thought was right. So, for example, with driving. Most Conservative Jews drive on the Sabbath. For that matter, most Conservative Jews are not Sabbath-observant in any meaningful sense. And it is because of the latter that the Conservative rabbinate decided to allow driving to synagogue on the Sabbath in spite of the fact that there is no plausible legal rationale for the practice, which is a prima facie violation of the Sabbath laws. (I should note in passing that, while I generally walk to synagogue, I am not Sabbath observant myself.) The rabbinate had a choice. They could either uphold the traditional view, and face the consequences, which would include flagrant disobedience on the part of the majority of congregants and continuing battles with congregants over such matters as building parking lots at the synagogue (which might encourage driving). Or the rabbinate could break with tradition, and endorse what the congregation was doing anyhow. The rabbinate chose the latter, and the only definitive result is the loss of respect for the rabbinate, which has shown itself to be willing to be swayed by popular opinion. Sometimes, it is better to be hypocritical, to turn a blind eye to blatant violations of the law rather than to say that the violations are legal.

And now, with the next generation of the Conservative rabbinate, the chickens have truly come home to roost. The last generation already rejected the fundamental bases of the faith in divine revelation. They did not need to do this in order to justify their authority, but they thought it was enlightened to do so, and so they did. Now the next generation has absorbed this lesson, and the lesson of corruption: that the law is suited to the needs of ideology or philosophy that come from without, and has no integrity of its own. And so the next generation is ready to remake the faith entirely in line with their prejudices. As an example, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary caused a scandal when he argued that unmarried rabbinical candidates should not be cohabiting. This should have been an utterly uncontroversial statement; such behavior is, even if widely practiced, inconsistent with Jewish sexual ethics, which these candidates, once given smicha (rabbinic ordination) will be expected to uphold. It should be no more controversial than to expect rabbinical candidates to be Sabbath observant or to keep kosher. Nonetheless, it caused quite a ruckus, because these young men and women followed the mores of the times and saw nothing wrong with prevailing sexual ethic of cohabitation as a prelude to marriage, and felt it hypocritical to be told to uphold a standard in which they no longer believed.

These rabbis will increasingly be drawn closer to a Reform Judaism that, in turn, has done much to move in the direction of Conservative Judaism. Where once Reform Judaism was a dedicated soldier of the Enlightenment, determined to wipe out such medieval vestiges as the Hebrew language, kosher and Sabbath laws, and ritual articles like tallis and tefillin, now Reform is dedicated to a new and more post-modern understanding of these same things. Hebrew is coming back; so are kashrut and the Sabbath and ritual objects. But they are now approached with a certain alienation, as objects of a lost civilization appropriated by that civilization's conquerors. Reform Judaism refers to the Jewish tradition as a resource that each individual can use to make something useful of. There's no concept of normative law because every individual is autonomous. It's a very enticing picture, in its way, and very appearling to your average Bobo in paradise; it's a relation to Judaism very similar to the his other lifestyle choices, a Judaism of personal growth and cultivation through consumerism. It's even enticing to me; it bears a family resemblance to Franz Rosenzweig's notion of an existential Judaism, where the force of law as normative derives from the subject experience of being under divine command, a notion which I find highly appealing. And it is particularly enticing for believers used to being pandered to by their rabbis; at least now the pandering is over, and responsibility is placed squarely on the shoulders where it has truly rested for some time, those of the laity.

Conservative Judaism is in crisis because those who accept that the law is normative and has its own integrity will be inexorably drawn to Orthodoxy, which takes these ideas very seriously indeed, while those who buy into postmodern relativistic morality will increasingly be drawn to Reform Judaism, with its radically autonomous individuals. Conservative Judaism could stake out a vigorous claim of its own, to defending the integrity of law and the moral capacity of living Jews - as it has done, for example, in Israel, where it suffers under the contempt of the rabbinic establishment. But then it would need more self-confidence than it has demonstrated, more willingness to decide what the law is and to demand faithfulness to it.