Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Catholic Israel.

So if it weren't for the fact that The Blackwell Companion to Judaism cost more than $150.00, it would be on its way to me right now. I happened to stumble upon the text (which I hoped was available online, and it is, but U of C doesn't have permissions to view it) while searching for writings about Solomon Schechter's "catholic Israel."

It's important -- and I realized this after the fact -- that we emphasize the little "c" here as I begin this conversation as it relates to my discussion about Conservative Judaism as I explore what it is and how it works and whether it's what I'm "looking for." So we're not talking Catholic Church, we're talking simply the word, "catholic."
catholic: Etymology: Middle English catholik, from Middle French & Late Latin; Middle French catholique, from Late Latin catholicus, from Greek katholikos universal, general, from katholou in general, from kata by + holos whole
In essence, what I gather from Solomon Schechter's position is that "the whole of Israel" (i.e. the Jewish community) should make decisions on Jewish law -- not rabbis or sages or scholars. Now, in his time, Jews were much more observant than they are today. I can understand possibly how such a statement and/or idea could be within reason in the late 19th, early 20th century. But to have such an idea espoused today is sort of ridiculous. Robert Gordis, a leading Conservative rabbi of the 20th century suggested that the idea of "catholic Israel" is completely feasible, but must be reinterpreted so that "the whole of Israel" is instead the whole of Jews who try to observe Jewish law. This seems to me to defeat the purpose, then, of "catholic Israel." Gordis writes in the 2003 version of The Blackwell Companion to Judaism (which I can view nicely on Google Books, btw):
Speaking to the very nature of Conservative Judaism, [Schechter] wrote that contemporary American Jews "accept all the ancient ideas, but they want modern methods, and this, on the whole, may be the definition of Conservative Judaism."
But Schechter's notion that the Jews who made up the nascent Conservative community "accept all the ancient ideas" may have been one of the gravest miscalculatoins of his career and of the movement's founders in general. ... But [the community] did not accept or deny the "ancient ideas" -- indeed, they differed from Schecter and his colleagues in that the worldof ideas was simply not what animated their Jewish lives. ...

The leaders of the movement seem to have intuited this tension early in the movement's history. Whether consciously or not, they assiduously avoided articulating with clarity what they meant by "Catholic Israel," a phrase that Solomon Schechter had introduced when he wrote that "the centre of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body ... the collective consciousness of Catholic Israel. ..." This implicit decision left open the possibility that a largely non-halakhically committed community could still be a legitimate partner in the emerging project called Conservative Judaism.
I've been told that the idea of "catholic Isreal" is still actively espoused among the Conservative community, and it just adds to my derivation of a movement so very confused about what it wants and hopes to be. On this note, it seems that even Schechter perhaps didn't have a firm grasp on the community or how it might change -- or was already changing.

Now. There are 5.9 million Jews in the U.S. (according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey), and according to estimates from a variety of sources, Conservative Judaism claims 1.25-1.5 million individuals who identify themselves as Conservative. It must be noted, though, that of those million plus, the amount that claim synagogue membership is likely half to three-quarters. On that note, Daniel J. Elazar and Charles Liebman "have estimated that there are no more than 40,000-50,000 that live up to the standards of Conservative Judaism as defined by its leadership and who see themselves as Conservative Jews" (from "The Conservative Movement in Judaism," 2000).

Schechter claimed that those who would be members of the movement would most assuredly accept the ancient ideas, and merely want modern methods. But if this is so of "catholic Israel," then why is it that there is the division of the elite and the mass -- the people expecting the rabbis and their families to be more observant than the lay community? Why is it that Elazer and Liebman's figure is so minuscule compared to the larger picture of the Conservative community? If this is true, and if the community, the whole of Israel were to decide on Jewish law, then -- in all honesty -- Jewish practices of custom and halakhic standards would fall entirely by the wayside ...

So, I guess what all of this means is that I disagree entirely with Schechter and his idea of "catholic Israel." I'm not sure what I think alternatively, but I know that Schechter sort of had a pipe dream going on, there, with no anticipation of the extent of assimilation and acculturation. But regardless? Disagreement abounds.

Any thoughts are welcomed, of course. I look forward to comments and considerations! Likewise, if I'm completely off-base in my interpretation of "catholic Israel" or have misunderstood what Schechter was going for, feel free to sock it to me!