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Conservative Identity & Halacha (RH2 5767)

Each of us is an individual, but we don’t do well in isolation; we are social beings. We are at our best when in relationship to other human beings. Martin Buber went so far as to say that God is found in our relationships. We have an innate desire to be a part of a group – families, friends, professional associations, and congregations. Belonging is very important to us. It helps us define our sense of self, to figure out who we are by the associations we make.

We are in synagogue today because we are Jews. We are part of the group – Jews. Defining “Who is a Jew” is not easy – different groups use different definitions and we are not a unified people, there is no one universally accepted definition. The Israeli government uses one definition and the Israeli rabbinate uses a different one, consequently, there are people who immigrate to Israel under the law of return as Jews, but who are not registered as Jews once in Israel by the office of the Chief Rabbinate. We are a strange people indeed.

In this country, we Jews are divided by our movements – there are people who would be welcomed as Jews at Temple Beth Tikvah that would not qualify as Jews here in our shul. There are Jews in this room that would not be accepted in the Orthodox world – it would be nice to think that we are one big happy family, but life is much more complicated than that. There is talk these days that we are moving towards a period of postdenominationalism or trans-denominationalism that the Movements of the past generation no longer apply, but as far as I can tell movements are still the way most American Jews identify themselves.

In the 2000 census of the Jewish community they used self-definition to determine who is a Jew and which movement, if any, one belonged to – each person decided these things for him or herself. In many ways this would be the simplest solution to the ‘Who is a Jew’ debate – anyone who thinks of him or herself as a Jew would be Jewish; that would jibe nicely with our American individualism.

Each of us has our own hopes, fears and dreams; each of us is unique, there is something about us that is different from everyone else. As Americans we celebrate our differences; we have the right to be our own person, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, to march the to the beat of a different drummer. We live in one of the most tolerant and permissive societies in history. While we are blessed with this reality it has not always been this way and it is not like this in other more repressive parts of the world. Free speech is not valued in every society. Some communities demand more conformity, others less, but even here in our great nation, there are limits to our freedoms. In our society you can do as you please as long as you don’t violate the law.

The Jewish community also has laws, but it is a very different situation, for Judaism is not a sovereign nation. You have the freedom to follow halakha, Jewish law, or to ignore it. Halakha defines a Jew as any person born of a Jewish mother or formally converted to Judaism. But my focus today is not in defining who is a Jew, but rather what does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? After all, you could be at any synagogue service on this Chag, but you came to Shomrei Torah, a Conservative synagogue. Who we are as a movement and what we stand for has been the topic of much debate recently.

Originally, we were not so concerned with definitions. Conservative Jews were those in the middle – if you were not Reform and you were not Orthodox, then you were Conservative and the phrase “Tradition and Change” was accurate; we were the movement that wanted to preserve or conserve the same time accepting that new times and new places require change. So while most of us pair conservative with liberal, our use of the term is more along the lines of conservation.

However, in the 20th century as Jewish pride grew, we didn’t want to be defined negatively by what were not, but rather to hold our head’s high as Conservative Jews, however, every attempt to define our movement met with failure. In part because it is much more difficult to define the middle ground of any group or movement and partly because we were and are the “Big Tent” group – we seek to be open and accepting of as many different types of Jews as possible, to fit everyone under the same big tent so to speak. Every time you say, “this is what we stand for” someone says, “Wait-aminute, I don’t feel that way, perhaps I’m in the wrong place”. This inability to clearly articulate our unique beliefs and practices, led to the identification of the next great core value of Conservative Judaism – we are pluralistic.  This means that we accept many different beliefs, views and practices as al being legitimate expressions of Judaism within the boundaries of our movement. Our pluralism may be the most confusing core value that we possess. It is the reason that we do not have one set position on most topics.

At this last year’s USCJ Biennial Convention that I attended with, Mary Sheydwasser and Harvey Miller, who was President at the time; there was a debate on the value of egalitarianism. There are those who felt that egalitarianism was such a core value that to allow non-egalitarian congregations in our midst was wrong. I tell you there are not many nonegalitarian synagogues left in our movement, but they do exist, just take a ride over to the Paramus Jewish Center to see one in action in our own back yard. Do we really want to write them off and tell them that they no longer belong in our movement? I pleased to say that the value of pluralism won the day – we allow congregations to be egalitarian or non-egalitarian, there are those that have women rabbi and cantors and those that refrain from hiring women clergy; there as some RA rabbis who use women as witness on religious documents like a ketuba and others that do not – pluralism in action.

If you have been reading the Jewish press lately, then you know that the new hot topic facing our movement is homosexuality. There are those in our movement that feel the time has come to reject the traditional Jewish view that homosexuality is an abomination. I should be more specific in my statement. The Conservative movement is on record as accepting gays and lesbians as members of our congregations and communities; however, the policy has been not to admit openly gay and lesbian individuals to become clergy nor to sanction our clergy performing same-sex commitment ceremonies to sanctify homosexual relationship as we do for heterosexual couples. Both sides of the debate are passionate in their beliefs.

As a pluralistic movement that seeks to maintain the big tent, we could and perhaps should affirm both positions. Officially, we follow the halakhic process – she’alot, questions, are asked and teshuvot, responses, are written; it is a process that our people has been using for hundreds of years. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards fields these questions for us and handles the authorizing of teshuvot. There are currently four teshuvot under consideration that are expected to be voted on at the December meeting of the CJLS. Two of the papers support the traditional ban on homosexuality and two of the papers would liberalize our stance. It is anticipated that more than one paper may be approved and perhaps even conflicting papers at that.  The CJLS is made up of 25 voting members – a paper that garners six votes can be an accepted position of the Movement. Six members may not sound like very many, however, when you consider that this very diverse committee represents of our movement, then six is a quarter of the whole – a sizable minority.

So what will it mean for us if both positions are affirmed? Besides that many people will be confused and not be able to figure out what we stand for. It will mean that we continue to stand for pluralism – that for members of both camps in this debate there is a place in the Conservative movement.  The traditionalists need not feel abandoned by the movement and those working for equal rights for gay men and lesbians can feel validated by the movement. The big tent will remain open to many. 

So, it seems to me that we’ll not be able to answer the question what does it mean to be a Conservative Jew from the macro level, we’ll have to look to the micro level – start by asking yourself – why are you a Conservative Jew?  We know that as a movement we are shrinking all we have to do is look at the numbers. We do a good job of educating and raising committed Jews, but not committed Conservative Jews. We see the most knowledgeable and involved of our teens – those who attend Camp Ramah, are active in USY and learn at a Solomon Schechter High Schools – leaving the movement as young adults because they can’t find knowledgeable, committed, passionate, observant Conservative synagogues to join – we made them into our ideal, but provided no place in reality for them to live as we taught them. So they join modern Orthodox congregations where they find people to share a kosher Shabbat meal with them on Shabbat. Many more of our young people are products of our Hebrew Schools, many remain unconnected after Bar/t Mitzvah; as young adults, they are joining Reform congregations – their Judaism is important to them and they want to be synagogue members and to send their children to Hebrew School too, but they want a Judaism that is easier, that fits better into the chosen lifestyle – after all that is what we taught this group. So who is joining our Movement? Statistically, no one – we are the graying movement, we maintain our adherents, but we’re not seeing much growth. Is this a problem – maybe; Judaism evolves and changes over time, but the Jewish people remain.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the now retired Chancellor of JTS was criticized for his scathing attacks on the movement and its other leaders first at the RA convention this last year and then again at JTS’ Ordination ceremony.  While I disagreed with his conclusions, I think that his analysis was right on the money. The basic argument as I see it is that Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement are not committed to halakhic observance, while Conservative Judaism claims to be a halakhic movement. The Chancellor’s thesis is that every halakhically observant person has an aggadic philosophical underpinning and that most members today don’t have one – so you have no reason to be halakhically observant. Halakha and aggadah are two sides of the same coin. Halakha is Jewish law, aggadah is Jewish lore – it is our stories and legends.

Chancellor Schorsch argued cogently that for the halakhic philosopher Moses Maimonides, philosophy was the aggadah that was the basis of his halakhic observance; and for the halakhic mystic Joseph Caro, mysticism was the aggadah supporting his halakhic lifestyle. And for the founders of Conservative Judaism, critical scholarship of the Bible was the aggadah that gave life to their halakhic lives and believe me our movement predecessors were all followers of Jewish law in their personal lives. So what changed? Critical Bible scholarship ceased to be a motivation for us. The current issue of Conservative Judaism, available on newsstands now, asks this very question and is devoted to essays proposing what new aggadah could be found to help us return to halakhic observance.

Jewish traditions, hence the term Conservative Judaism, while at

As I look around this room, I’m not sure that there is anything that would make you into halakhically observant Conservative Jews. You allocate your time based on what you find meaningful, so unless you find meaning in daily Jewish living you’re not going to participate. Perhaps, those calling for a new aggadah are correct that they have to find that which will speak to you in today’s language. I find that my observance gives meaning to my life and I have to believe that meaning is something that we all seek.

I find great meaning in my Shabbat observance. Before I was Shomer Shabbat I was under the misconception that it was only a day of restrictions – don’t do this and can’t do that – it was only after I began to incorporate Shabbat observances into my life that I discovered that this magical day had so much to offer me. Imagine that you are standing outside with the hustle and bustle of daily life surrounding you – it is only when you find a quiet moment that you’ll notice the song of a bird in a tree, the babble of a nearby brook, the sound of the wind in the leaves – sounds that are lost in the cacophony of sound. It is only by slowing the pace of daily life, that we can appreciate the beauty of Shabbat.

Rosh Hashanah is about the ability to change who we are and how we behave; the Jewish way is to try something and to learn about it – na’ase, we ll do and we will seek to understand. Action comes first, v’nishma then comprehension. So here is my challenge to you – Shabbat – add some aspect of Shabbat to you life. Start small – do something next week for Shabbat; then try to keep it up for a month; then let’s talk! To assist you in  the endeavor, I will do one Shabbat workshop a month on a Sunday morning during Religious School hours. Come, learn, try; perhaps together we can change ourselves and in doing so change the world.


Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780