Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Great Divide: Conservative Judaism in the 21st Century.

So ... Shabbat Shalom, friends.

I've sort of taken on a, well, academic endeavor into Conservative Judaism. I realize that I have slowly floated away (more or less) from Reform Judaism, in which I converted. Now, I have to give the precursor that the Reform Judaism that I converted into in Lincoln, Nebraska, in my mind, is nothing like the Reform Judaism I have found anywhere else. The Reform Judaism there is filled with people who are active in the shul, everyone knows each other, the same people go to services every week, it's just very close-knit. I mean, not everyone keeps kosher or davens daily or anything, but it felt more genuine. Like the people were there because they believed in Judaism, not necessarily Reform Judaism, but Judaism itself. It never felt like church. It never felt like the Protestant Reform Judaism that I've witnessed elsewhere. I went to shul, it was shul.

But as I grow, and as I learn and explore what it means to be religious or observant or devout in Judaism, I realize more and more that what Reform Judaism is (with the exception of that which I came into, which is always the sweetest) is not the kind of Judaism that I practice or want to practice. I don't mean to offend, and I know I have Reform readers. But in my mind, it has become all the more clear that it -- in my mind, once again -- is insincere, it's like, a show. A repetitive, droning show that no one really wants to be at. The b'nai mitzvah celebrations are benign and the kids -- it would appear -- are not having to learn much of any Hebrew to become b'nai mitzvah. The people look bored, except when they're noshing at the pre-oneg or scarfing desserts afterward at the oneg. It's more about socializing than anything. It's like, belonging to a club. A club where you see people and you say hi and then you listen to some guy speak and it lasts way too long and then you go home and that's that. It feels like church to me anymore. It doesn't feel passionate. And I know that it depends on the shul, but I've been to shuls in Denver and Washington DC and New York and Nebraska and Chicago. And save for the one in New York and my home shul, I'm just not getting it. It's so suburban and benign. And the idea that I keep "somewhat" Kosher or -- G-d forbid -- go to shul every week or study the Torah portion or want to go INTO Judaic studies just astounds many of my Reform/Secular friends.

So as time has pressed forward, I have found myself more and more leaning toward Conservative Judaism. But then I realized, I really, truthfully, know nothing about Conservative Judaism except that it was birthed as a middle-ground, to keep the shtetl Jews who wanted to Americanize but keep their traditions. Reform was too lazy, Orthodox was too crazy. So what is Conservative? What does it say? What is its function? What is it all about?

And so I found a paper by Jack Wertheimer, "The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism." I read this paper with great interest last week on the train ride home from work. I often find it incredibly difficult to focus on reading anymore on the train, but this had me glued. I'll admit, too, that the "lazy" and "crazy" lines are taken right out of his paper, because his comments on the issue of what Conservative Judaism strives to achieve really struck me and actually are what made me realize that what I know about the movement could fit on a single page of paper. Says Wertheimer,
"In religion as in other areas of life, disunity and disorganization can be symptoms of a deeper confusion. A wag once memorably classified Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism as, respectively, 'crazy, hazy, and lazy.' The 'hazy,' at least, is not inaccurate."
At this point I realized that what I didn't know and now did know made sense. You have this middle-ground movement that is losing members left and right to, well, the left and right -- Orthodox and Reform. Why? Because of the hazy. Conservative Judaism, it would appear from this paper and other documents I've poked at, doesn't know what it's doing with itself. In its beginnings the rabbis had things one way and the lay community had things another way. I also didn't realize that there is no defining body of Conservative Judaism, but rather the body of rabbis and then the organization for the synagogues. What's more, Orthodox and Reform leaders predict the movement will go defunct in the next 10 to 20 years, for lack of membership.

It makes sense, of course. I am sure there are those within the movement who keep strictly kosher and walk to shul and edge on Modern Orthodox, but perhaps who grew up in the movement with parents or grandparents who came to the states and vowed to not maintain orthodoxy. And then there are those who go every now and again, enjoy a nice pork chop, but appreciate the services with their bounty of Hebrew or perhaps simply grew up in the movement. So what do these individuals do? Over time, they shift, one way or the other. It's only a natural progression, nu?

So here I am. I have a few books here from the library, including "Conservative Jewry in the United States" by Goldstein (which surveys the demographic and trends among the community), as well as "Conservative Movement in Judaism" by Elzar, which is, well, what you would expect. Avi has suggested some texts to me off the Conservative movement's website, and, well, we'll see if I can't pick those up locally or up in Skokie and then go from there.

The thirst for knowledge is strong in this one, believe that folks. I just want to understand what the movements have to say -- while knowing, of course, that within every movement are a million microcosms of different ideals and beliefs and systems of living the law. Then, perhaps, I can figure out why I feel as though I'm in this weird dimension of floating around, feeling like I don't necessarily fit anywhere, but at the same time craving the organized chaos of a Sabbath service. I mean, I feel fine at the Conservative shul. I love it, I really do. But if there is this tension and confusion that I don't know about, I'd rather be prepared than hit head-on when people start defecting to the other movements en masse. I feel like "Jews in Space" or something. Trying to find a planet that will accommodate my specifications, if that makes sense.

So with all that in mind, Chavi shall search for a place to land that has more to offer than simply oxygen and challah.

Be well, and Shabbat Shalom.