Someplace in my online classes on the Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy, I mentioned that I would like to give a similar class on the Conservative movement. Well, someone who listened to the series invited me recently to give the talk. So I was looking at some recent Conservative religious thought and here are some thoughts, specifically relating to Orthodox matters. They are not the content of my talk – they are are observations that loop back to things discussed here. These thoughts are impressions of an outsider and maybe over generalized.
For those who want some decent reading of where things are at and going- here are some good links. Arnold Eisen’s March 2010 vision for the movement, an assortments of current pulpit rabbis giving their important sermons (lots of good stuff in there), and the 2007 short visions for the movement.
The first thing I noticed is that the phrase Covenantal approach to Judaism has been gaining traction in the last three years. Covenantal meaning that there is an ongoing relationship with God and hearing God’s word. The traction is not in the name of the movement but in the thinking about applying tradition.There is a subtle shift from “tradition and change” or any legal theory of change to a relationship model. Many of the pulpit rabbis use the phrase to describe the uniqueness of the movement. Eisen speaks of going beyond the sovereign self to the broader commitments of covenant, mizvah, and community. In the debate between emphasizing the head or the heart, the winner seems to be emphasizing people’s lived narratives.
Orthodox should not be projecting legal theory from prior eras onto contemporary Conservative rabbis. Human dignity and ongoing relationship with God is cited more than Catholic Israel.
Second, I noticed that the big tent is not spoken about anymore. Rabbi Alan Silverman, one of the short list of candidates to be the new chancellor mentioned the need to going back to being a big tent that embraced the full spectrum of positions. That is distinctly absent from out Arnie Eisen’s rhetoric. Eisen did visit Hesder Yeshivot in his preparation year but did not go that route. I have also noticed a hesitancy about Talmud as a discipline from some of the speeches. Originally, the Conservative movement was focused on peoplehood with influence of Ahad Haam, Dubnow, and others. Someone started calling the movement halakhic in the 1980’s , (I suppose to compete with Centrism’s recent use of the term)That rhetoric has now shifted more to covenantal. I am speaking about those official statements- those fellow travelers who do not affiliate are more likely to use the term- halakhic.
It is interesting that spirituality is tolerated but not part of anyone’s agenda. The bigger news is that everyone seems to now have caveats on the value of wissenschaft. Pure research in Jewish Studies is left for the university. Now, scholarship has to be balanced by concern for people’s everyday lives.
Once upon a time, Marshall Sklare was the best analysis of the Conservative movement. It was a practical and pragmatic need to care for the masses of Eastern European immigrants guiding them in their Americanization and then suburbanization. There was nothing overly ideological about the movement. Sklare pointed out the lack of theory, consistency, or roots to Europe. Mordechai Waxman in his Tradition and Change also had a pragmatic understanding of the movement. One of the critiques that Orthodoxy had about the Conservative movement was that it was non-ideological and solely a pragmatic logic. Now, Orthodoxy invests the Conservative movement with an anachronistic heavy ideological mission from the first day. It seems that the debates between Reform and Orthodoxy in the 1840’s have been projected onto the Conservative movement. (I assume everyone has read Sklare and Waxman already).
But just as Reform and Orthodoxy were at their nadirs in 1970, I assume that Conservative movement will regain their traction after retooling. But the biggest question today that keeps coming up in discussions is that the best and brightest, those most committed to Torah study, prayer, and community work are not officially affiliating with the movement. There are many independent minyanim doing well, many political action groups, many dynamic young rabbis, and places like Hadar. Yet, there is a trend not to want to affiliate with the movement. The movement has an image of still too much old time suburban synagogue of the cantor leading everything, responsive reading, no spirit, no learning and still has a post WWII feel. But there is a new active generation.
When I compare this to Centrist Orthodoxy, the moment of alienation was eclipsed by writing the past off. Back in the early 1980’s, the majority of Orthodox synagogues meant old synagogues in the Bronx, hundreds of small town synagogues in New England and the Midwest, synagogues in declining neighborhoods. Centrist Orthodoxy basically wrote them all off and focused on 10-12 major communities of professionals who send their kids to day schools and have possibly spent a year in Israel. Orthodoxy went from Shapiro’s wine to Cabernet Savignon, from clerks to physicians, and from old time Jews to the new heroic halakhic Jew. Yiddish, nostalgia, and looking backwards were jettisoned. Even synagogues where the former rabbis were important rabbis were ignored if they were in declining neighborhoods. The past was effaced and the word modern was temporarily dropped to be Centrist. No one had a problem doing this because the new generation was frum, learned, and correct in a way the old-timers were not. No one in the creators of Centrism had a problem with ignoring the old Jews in the old shuls. (They also ignored most of the West coast, allowing the vacuum to be filled by Chofetz Chayim, Chabad, and Ner Israel- but that is another story.)
To return to what I see, as an outsider, in the Conservative movement. The movement is still holding on to its old haunts and habits in Long island and North East so that the new generation has a disconnect. It still projects Chaim Potok more than contemporary novelists and artists. The movement has everything to gain by embracing all these new dynamic leaders, but they have no need to return to decay of the movement. So things appear less than the sum of the parts. As several of their leaders have noted there is no central organization for seeding and directing social planning. One thing we learned from watching the decline of the mainline churches is that any Church with valuable property like Episcopalians did better than Methodists with their suburban property. Carved Stone buildings in the city are more stable socially than modest wood buildings in the burbs. The movement has inertia.
Finally, the rise of websites like Kosher.com that delivers kosher food to anywhere, allows congregations to exist in communities without kosher butchers, bakeries, or kosher delis and pizza shops. Will that change the observance levels in way out of town communities?
As someone with small town roots, there is no doubt that Centrist Orthodoxy has focused on self preservation from the twin evils of kids going off the derech and flipping out, while Charedi yeshivos and community kollelim as well as Chabad have become the forces to be reckoned with in projecting Orthodoxy beyond the citadels of MO. It is indeed a shame that MO has essentially forfeited its right and duty to project its message to the unaffiliated and unlettered masses of American Jews.