Regarding Rabbi Gillman's polemic at the 2005 Biennial (in case you weren't there, it was moments later that Menachem proclaimed that any congregation that was non-egalitarian should be excluded from the USCJ community – was a remarkable session that was!): he was on a roll not about the process, but about his contention that we were "a Halachic movement, except when we weren't". He citing the number of rabbis who ate coked dairy food and fish at non-Kosher restaurants and a number of nearly universally ignored Halaḥot. He argued that although we call ourselves a Halachic movement, we don't behave like one; too few of our members had the first clue about Halaḥah and how it should inform our lives and our congregational rabbis make little effort to change that situation. He must have repeated the "we are Halachic except when we aren't" perhaps a half-dozen times between each illustration of where nearly universal practice is at odds with Halaḥah. Using this as his basis for his next argument, he suggested that perhaps it's time to stop identifying ourselves as a Halachic movement. Keep in mind his context. He was sharing the podium with Rabbi Roth. My take home from Rabbi Gillman was that either we need to figure out how to inspire our people to embrace Halaḥah, or we should give up the ruse.
The fact is that the dynamic is similar in most Orthodox communities, except that the nominally Orthodox folks who pick and choose what to observe and what to ignore at least know what the expected norms are (i.e. what Halaḥah is). Rabbi Gillman's point is that most nominally Conservative Jews don't know what the norms are. When I visit with congregational leaders I've started advising them that the fundamental question with which the leadership must grapple is "why Torah?". I argue that unless the leadership (rabbi as teacher, laity as the governance body) take ownership of Torah and can articulate how Torah guides their communities vision and norms, they can't possible create a Kehilla Kedusha that will attract actively engaged members. I don't promote any particular set of norms – we all know how large a tent we have within the Halachic perimeter defined by the CJLS – but do advise them that they need to study and debate our Halaḥah in order to be able to articulate who they are as a sacred community. I believe that the rabbis have an indispensible role in turning ownership of Jewish life back to the congregants, but at the same time, they have to stop living as the representative observant Jew who also is the lone arbiter of Minḥag HaMakom.
That's a tall order and one of the reasons that independent Minyanim are flourishing. These Kehillot understand that it's up to the members to study, debate and decide who they are as a community. They may turn to rabbis and other scholars for guidance, but they never abdicate personal responsibility for their community norms. This, I feel, is what will make or break CJ moving forward.
As I probably say and write too often, it's one thing to drive 55 mph in a 35 mph speed zone when you don't know the speed limit and another to do it when you do know the speed limit. Too few dues paying Conservative Jews know that there are speed limits. Making those speed limits the focus of our congregational conversations inspire some to become more engaged and others to look elsewhere. Until we are ready to take that risk, we will continue to fade into irrelevance.
The reason that there is nothing uniquely Conservative in the essays – I suspect – is because there is little other than the contemporary rabbis whose responsa we respect include in our Halachic studies are not generally acknowledged as Poskim by our Orthodox friends. Consequently, Halachic options available to us are not available to folks who belong to the various Orthodox movements. Considering that even within the Orthodox world each community accepts the Teshuvot and Tanaḥot of some rabbis but not others, this makes the difference between CJ (on paper) and Orthodoxy very subtle. In an ear in which people want quick, sound bite answers, this is another interesting challenge for us within CJ.
BTW, someone recently commented about the Shefa Network; mentioning that he found the Shefa conversation to be much more meaningful than those he's been following on other, putatively similar Listserves. It's encouraging to know that there are non-posters following the conversations and finding them to be thought provoking.
So how was your first year in the joint program?
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.
* * *
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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