Sunday, March 2, 2008

Finally finished: Conservative Movement in Judaism

So I finally finished "Conservative Movement in Judaism" by Daniel Elazer and Rela Mintz Geffen. It only took me forever. I'd been doing well, then I happened to just stop reading on my way to and from work out of an inability to focus. So I'm going to attempt to concisely go through some of the things I flagged as I was reading that caught my eye. My favorite bit of text from the book is probably the following statement about the concentric circles when you map American Jewish affiliation, with a small mass at the center and circles that get larger and larger until the outer circles are self-loating Jews or those who do not know or understand their affiliation because of intermarriage or assimilation:
"This is the condition of American Jewry and, increasingly, of all diaspora Jewry: a magnet at the core pulls those who contain within them the iron fillings of Judaism closer to the center, more or less according to the degree of their iron (i.e., Jewish) content."
+ "As recently as the 1950s, Louis Finkelstein, the then Chancellor of the JTS, was quoted as saying privately that, 'The Conservative Movement is a gimmick to bring Jews back to authentic Judaism.' "

+ "Some mitzvot ... have been ignored altogether, neither accepted nor advocated."

+ "Another dimension of Conservative religious observance was the transformation of the worship service into a programmed production rather than a spontaneous experience. This trend has been characteristic of non-Orthodox movements since their inception over 150 years ago. ... This has not happened in all congregations, nor at the same pace, nor to the same extent, but the trend was widespread and powerful."

+ (In reference to the idea of the elite -- rabbis/observant Conservative Jews -- and the mass -- the general lay community who doesn't adhere to traditional observance.) "One of the reasons the havurah movement attracts elites is that many among the masses do not want a synagogue that requires efforts on their part; they want a "service station."

+ "... 89 percent of those currently Orthodox were raised in Orthodox homes." -- Amazing!

+ "Israel offers a great challenge to the Conservative Movement, since in our times any Jewish movement that does not have a strong presence in Israel will never be part of the overall Jewish picture in a serious way. Today, the Masorti Movement in Israel is still struggling. It is not getting the support that it deserves from its big brother in America, yet it is making strides."

+ (In a list of ideas for what the Movement can do to bolster its hopes of survival.) "The change of the Movement's name to Masorti has several advantages. In the first place, it is a Hebrew name and thus can be comfortably used by Jews affiliated with the Movement and others worldwide. Having a Hebrew name, also gives the Movement a certain advantage."

+ (The crux of my "problem" with the movement.) "In the present situation, there seems to be a great ambivalence towards halakhah. The Movement is indeed 'Conservative,' in that it wants to conserve its halakhic commitments and responsibilities, but m any of its members and some of its leaders are not really prepared to face up to the implications of those commitments and responsibilities in its day-to-day affairs. In short, it presents a public face as a halakhic movement, but with much private inconsistency." -- Note, the author goes on to offer several solutions, citing that the Movement must commit to something, either strictly adhering to the halakhic face that it fronts or even acknowledging that there are varying degrees of halakhic observance and embracing these camps of observers among rabbis, lay community, teachers, etc.

+ "Conservative Judaism cannot be both halakhic and responsive to every politically correct demand of contemporary liberalism. It must place the requirements of Jewish law and tradition and Jewish peoplehood first and foremost. This does not mean becoming Orthodox with a different name. There is or should be a place in the world of traditional Judaism for those who do not accept the contemporary Orthodox view of humrot (stringencies), that is, who measure Jewish fidelity by making Jewish observance more difficult."

And finally ...
"A Conservative Judaism that properly embodies a firm attitude toward the Torah as a sacred constitution, along with a flexible attitude toward its codes, will be in a position that will enable the Movement to maintain genuine halakhic demands as norms and boundary setters for its members.
This shall strengthen the Movement in the long run. Evidence from scientific studies of religion points clearly to the fact that in matters religious, the greater the demands, the more faithful and dynamic are the adherents who accept them. We believe that the Conservative Movement will become stronger as it becomes more demanding, even if it has to be come somewhat smaller in numbers in the process."
Note: I fully intend on elaborating why I chose these specific points to share, but I will do this later. I think that in essence, the author pegs the problems and answers pretty accurately. The struggle of not knowing where the central "power" in the Movement in is one of the most catastrophic aspects of the situation. Additionally, the idea that the Conservative Movement arose out of a desire to maintain tradition but in a modern construct needs to change. This stance of "what" Conservative Judaism was worked well for the first and second generation of Conservative Jews, but it no longer applies.

In essence, the Movement needs to become worldwide, defined, and represented in order to thrive and sustain itself.