Live from the International Conference on Conservative Judaism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem


VanLeer_image The headline for this post — "Live from the International Conference…" is somewhat misleading.

Reporting "live" implies there is breaking news, something really interesting happening.

Alas, that's not the case. For those of us who follow the Conservative movement closely, there hasn't been a lot "new" presented here.

There was a fair amount of "buzz" leading up to the conference.  "Isn't it exciting, an independent institution is doing a conference on us!"  I think it made a lot of people feel like the fact that this was an academic conference by an independent organization gave some kind of "validation" to us.

That attitude indicates the relatively low self-esteem the movement is feeling at the moment.

Something like a fourth of American Jews self-identify as Conservative.  With as few Jews as there are in the world, that means if you are interested in the sociology of Jews, you can't ignore Conservative Judaism.  Groups much smaller than us get subjected to academic scrutiny as PhD candidates scour the world looking for suitable dissertation topics. Having an independent conference about CJ does not mean anything beyond we have enough followers to be worthy of scrutiny.  It doesn't mean the academics admire our approach or think we are right, or any such thing.

Some comments about the conference.  Note that I have not attended every session, so this isn't going to be an exhaustive report of what has been discussed.  It's just some impressions from what I have heard — and some thoughts about what I haven't heard.

This is an acadmic conference — the speakers are almost all professors, PhD's, etc. It's not aimed at solving any of the problems the Conservative Movement faces, and in principle the aim is academic and descriptive, not prescriptive.

Even with those limits, I have been somewhat disappointed by the conference. As mentioned above, for those of us who keep up with what's happening in the movement, there hasn't been a lot new.  But I'm also disappointed with the selection of speakers, for they don't represent a "balance" of views within the movement.  The discussion are heavy on Kaplan and light on Heschel.  The halachic views are overwhelmingly from the right wing of the Conservative movement.  Speakers include:

  • Rabbi Einat Ramon (who I'm listening to as I write this), former dean of the Schechter Institute (the seminary for Conservative rabbis in Israel), who opposed following the seminaries in New York and Los Angeles on the matter of ordaining gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi David Golinkin, considered the leading halachic authority in Conservative circles in Israel, widely considered to be on the right wing of the movement, was also opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards based on the committee's passing a teshuva allowing for the ordination of gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi David Halivni, who left the movement over 20 years ago over the issue of the ordination of women.

Of all the rabbis from the movement speaking about halacha, only Rabbi Avram Reisner would be considered a representative of anything center or left.  The leading voices of the more liberal views on halacha — rabbis such as Elliot Dorff, Gordon Tucker, or Daniel Nevins — are not here.

Yesterday's discussion of theology — which followed the session on sociology — seemed more a continuation of the discussion of sociology than than a discussion of theology.  The concepts discussed had more to do with the relation between Jews and "the tradition" than with our relationship with God.  As I said above, heavy on Kaplan, light on Heschel.

I suppose it's not surprising: scholars are attracted to a scholarly approach, and Kaplan certainly took a very intellectual approach. And it's true, that for many years, the Conservative movement has been more about intellect, more about Wissenschaft, and definitely more influenced by the intellectual Kaplan than the mystical Heschel. So as an academic exercise, I suppose focusing on the intellectual approach is not surprising.

And as an intellectual institute, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has certainly done a magnificent job. Rabbi Halivni spoke about why all the leading Jewish scholars of his day went to JTS.  And it was because learning clearly took priority over everything else. There is a teaching that "the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth."  And if you labor to reveal the truth, if you draw close to the truth, you draw close to God.

There has been an interesting discussion over on the Shefa list about the conference. A rabbinic colleague commented: "whatever other intellectual and theoretical value the Van Leer conference will undoubtedly have and whatever discussion and debate it will undoubtedly provoke, it will not be a balm for what ails Conservative Judaism."  And that's true.  Of course, as an academic exercise, it's not intended to solve the problems of the movement.  And for those of us who care about this particular approach to Judaism, we do need more action and fewer conferences.

One of the other interesting things I heard was Professor Steven Cohen — definitely a supporter of the movement, and as a sociologist, a consultant to the movement — say that over the last ten to fifteen years, the Conservative movement has created some of the best Jewish social entrepreneurs in the world.  Alas, the movement has not only failed to nurture and support them, but in many cases actively drove them away.  He cited an example of the problem: he was talking to the rabbi of a large synagogue, and asked him: "so, in a few years, what will you do when a group of 15 or 20 of your most dedicated, knowledgeable congregants come to you and say 'we want to have our own minyan, here in the building, but we want to do our own lay-led service.  A 'library minyan.'"  The rabbi responded, "it's not going to happen in a few years –it already happened a few weeks ago, and we are struggling with it."

The fact that it's a struggle shows one of the problems we have. The "top down" model doesn't work for a lot of our best congregants.  Tell them "we don't want to split the minyan, we want to have one community" and they'll just leave and hold their minyan elsewhere.  The proper reaction would be "great, how can I help?"  We need to welcome initiatives from our people, not feel threatened by them. We need to define Conservative Judaism by our theology and our approach to halacha, not by membership in our institutions, which are often perceived of as insular and behind the times.

In the discussion on Shefa, there was a call to action–several people commented we need action, not conferences.  I shared that with my wife Lauri, and her response was:

"You guys need to stop hanging out at rabbi camp like a bunch of eternal geeky teenagers and go out and DO something.  Organize a march to the Wall of 1000 women wearing tallitot;  have 20 lawyers march along in case they get arrest
ed, and a bunch of El HaLev women with black belts for security.  Sue the Israeli government until they fund your rabbis and your shuls here and recognize your marriages and conversions — stop acting like peons and 90 pound weaklings — remember, WE have more money than THEY do (or at least our US congregants do)!  Do active outreach to the haredim and the secular if you think you're so cool.   Pick a serious world problem and SOLVE it.  Open the kind of one-stop public services center I suggested — no one else is doing it.  Start a PAC and decide what to put your money behind.  Start an Israeli political party. Back a Masorti rabbi for public office, starting with the Jerusalem city council  — the orthodox have plenty of rabbis in the government.

Chabad FEEDS and HOUSES and EDUCATES orphans and runs hospitals.  Reform shuls tend to be much more politically active.  What have you guys ever done for the planet other than kill trees for your publications and hand out tote bags with your logos on them?

Everything "the movement" does seems like whining combined with eternal naval gazing and random bickering. And your navels and fights aren't the least bit interesting to the rest of the world.  You need to be ABOUT something other than not being orthodox or reform if you want anyone to "join" you."
OK, I'll go out and do something.  But I still want to stay and hear the debate about "Halakhah and the Limits of Openness."  :-)
Reb Barry, live from the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem
A session on "Challenges Posed by the Conservative Movement to Other Movements" is just wrapping up.  Rabbi Reuven Hammer gave a very nice response after the speakers.  Dr. Aviad Hacohen talked about how Conservative is between the "Orthodox hammer" and the "Reform anvil."  R. Hammer eloquently spoke about one of the reasons many of us are davka associated with the Conservative Movement –because it's important for us to live in the tension.  And at the end of the day, with all of our kvetching about our demographic problems, our bureaucratic institutions, etc., it's good to have the reminder of why we (personally) are still here and why we care: for many of us, on the level of our personal theology, there's simply no where else for us to go…

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