Wednesday, June 1, 2011

RE: [Shefa] Fwd: "Peoplehood"--Now on JTS's New Conservative Judaism Blog


Dear hevreh,

Fred - see the second paragraph, first sentence, also posted here.

"Unlike other modern Jewish streams, Conservative Judaism for much of its history did not regard itself as a "movement" in the normal sense of the word. It has not aimed to distinguish its adherents from other Jews on the basis of religious practice or belief so much as to safeguard—and creatively carry forward—the life of the Jewish people as a religious civilization. A strong bond to Jews of every generation, past and future, has gone hand in hand with a sense of connection to all Jews alive today, regardless of ideological commitment or level of observance. Pluralism has been and remains basic to this vision of Judaism in a way it is not to any other. The leaders and teachers of Conservative Judaism have recognized that there is more than one way for serious Jews to join engagement with the Jewish past to engagement with the societies and cultures of which we are a part, even while believing that Conservative Judaism was the best way of doing so. Jews have always differed in our understandings of Torah and likely always will. The unity of kelal Yisra'el despite those differences, we believe, is essential to the fulfillment of Covenant."

To answer Marc, no, we cannot have it both ways. I have been rethinking my stances of late in light of conversations I've had and I've started to believe that there has to be a diversity of communities and that communities will, on the whole, behave somewhat autonomously. But there still have to be boundaries - communities cannot operate capriciously. For example, I think we can safely say that eating pork is not an authentic Conservative Jewish value. If someone told me that it was, I would ask how it became a Conservative Jewish value. Chances are that the explanation given to me would connote that the community didn't really think seriously about the implications of kashrut and treif and how we live as Jews, and I would be more likely to reject the statement. Pluralism does not mean the end of authenticity.

I very much agree with Fred. I would, however, like to clarify some of the questions raised by Rabbi Gillman's speech at the Biennial. I would say that it's not just about whether or not our normative behavior is halakhic but also about what the term "halakhic" even means. Without getting into his issues with the idea of "the" halakhic process and how we actually make decisions, I will say that (if I understand him correctly) he believes that as a result of our decision-making (as he sees it), we have not set clear boundaries or created any clear way to explain what we do to our laity, and so the term "halakhah" and the content of halakhah are basically whatever we say it means. Thus the term becomes "factually meaningless" and should no longer be used. Why? It means nothing. It's a symptom of those 70+ years that Fred talks about in which no one said that we needed to define ourselves. If you don't define yourself at least in some way (and I'm no longer suggesting a top-down process of definition), then you are "factually meaningless".

Come to think of it, none of these essays have said anything that has been uniquely Conservative, in my view. It's not that we have nothing about ourselves that is unique. It is because Chancellor Eisen just isn't talking about the things that are unique. Look for the words "rabbinic Judaism" or "halakhah" or even "authenticity". You won't find them. The biggest problem is that these essays really don't distinguish us from any other liberal stream of Judaism. The essays feel...well, "factually meaningless".

Kol tuv,
Nina S. Kretzmer
Barnard College/List College '14

P.S. For the record, I disagree with Rabbi Gillman and believe that there is some sort of process and that we don't just erase and redraw boundaries every time we make a decision. This does cause some uniqueness.

--- On Tue, 5/31/11, Fred Passman <> wrote:

From: Fred Passman <>
Subject: RE: [Shefa] Fwd: "Peoplehood"--Now on JTS's New Conservative Judaism Blog
To: "'Marc Stober'" <>,
Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2011, 10:40 PM




I must be skipping something in the essay, but I can't find the quotes to which you are referring in Eisen's blog posting/essay.


Perhaps you could copy and paste the entire relevant paragraph.


Although I agree that the leadership consciously avoided the articulation of a CJ platform, it's clear that from the days before Solomon Schechter assumed the helm, CJ has identified itself as the movement that has had the continuation of the rabbinic tradition – interpreting Halaḥah in context of contemporary life & knowledge – as its central normative principle (in theory, if not in actual practice). 


I think that the problem is not in the lack of a guiding principle that has always defined our movement, but the 70+ years that passed before our leaders agreed that it was important to articulate the guiding principles of CJ.  We all know how well Emet Ve Emunah (EVE) was received when it was published, and how integral its message has become among both the clergy and laity of our movement. 


I don't think that we can have it both ways.  By promoting and exemplifying a set of precepts – even across the broad ranges offered in EVE  (I'm sure that at least a few other Shefanicks have a copy) – we will lose people to the left.  But unless we are willing to take that risk, we will become increasingly irrelevant to those who would otherwise constitute our dynamic core.  The key challenges at the moment are real estate (too many of our communities have burdensome mortgages on buildings that don't really meet the needs of their communities) and  a buyer's market for rabbis (rabbis – many of whom are paying off substantial student loans - who ask too much of their congregants don't get their contracts renewed).    Consequently, we have communities that focus on maximizing membership numbers – sometimes at the expense of membership engagement – and rabbis who tread very lightly when it comes to observance.  Our most dynamic communities are grappling with the "Why Torah" question (per my post to the 19 May Covenant blob). After enjoying a Shabbat Kiddush conversation with a NJ rabbi, it struck me that the central question that is too rarely asked by our congregational leadership teams (profession & lay together) is "why Torah?".  Put another way: "to what purpose does our Kehilla exist?" 


It has been well documented that until well into the 1960's our movements leadership focused on building numbers.  To do that, they consciously underplayed the communication of CJ community norms.  The unintended consequence was that that today, in too many communities the professional clergy are among a tiny minority who observe Kashrut or who are Shomer Shabbat/Shomer ag. That said, there are a number of communities in which the members are moving towards increased observance and lifelong learning.  Our approach has much in common with the approaches followed by other movements, but CJ also has a number of unique attributes that distinguish our movement from the others.  This doesn't make our movement better or worse than any other movement.  It simply defines how we ask and answer the "Why Torah?" and "How Torah" questions.


Recently I've been giving considerable thought to the concept of post denominationalism.  It strikes me that to be self-identified as a post-denominational Jew is akin to being self-identified as a totally independent teenager, while still living at home and being supported by ones parents or guardians.  Who trains post-denominational scholars, teachers and community leaders?  Who defines Halaḥah for a post-denominational Jew; keeping in mind that a person who chooses to be observant, but on their own terms falls fully into the Reform Movement's articulated normative behavior.  By definition, anyone who accepts the authority of an institution like the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards is de factor a member of the movement.  Anyone whose default arbitrator of Halaah  is themselves is a de facto member of a Jewish community that is more liberal than Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. 


The elephant in  our CJ room was identified most publically by Neil Gillman at the 2005 USCJ Biennial Convention in Boston.  He asked: Is our normative behavior Halachic, or are we just pretending that it is. What percentage of our rabbi's live within the boundaries defined by Halaah?  What percentage of our dues paying members do?  What is our envisioned demographic apropos of Halaah defining normative behavior within our Kehillot?   How do we get there from here?  Is it even possible after so many years of expectation-free congregational life?  Or as another blogger commented, have we upheld the status quo for so long that there's no hope of revitalizing CJ? 


I believe that we can recover what we've lost.  It won't be easy, nor will it happen in the span of 2 or 3 years.  There won't be one single change process that will resonate with every Kehila, but there is a tremendous amount to be learned from our thriving Kehillot.  We just need to improve our ability to share success stories. 


Kol Tuv,


Fred Passman






From: [] On Behalf Of Marc Stober
Sent: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 8:31 PM
Subject: Re: [Shefa] Fwd: "Peoplehood"--Now on JTS's New Conservative Judaism Blog



I am curious as to what others think about this part:

"Unlike other modern Jewish streams, Conservative Judaism for much of its history did not regard itself as a "movement" in the normal sense of the word. It has not aimed to distinguish its adherents from other Jews on the basis of religious practice or belief so much as to safeguard—and creatively carry forward—the life of the Jewish people as a religious civilization."

It resonates with me.

However, it seems to me that some people sincerely believe that "not distinguishing ourselves from other Jews on the basis of religious practice" is the problem with present-day CJ; that we need to more specifically articulate what we stand for and practice what we preach.

Can we have it both ways?

- Marc

On Tue, May 31, 2011 at 6:11 PM, <> wrote:




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