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".
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.
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