Criticism of Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism propagates religious understanding based on 'middle road' between seeming opposites

One reader wrote to me with words which reflected a rather bitter criticism of Conservative Judaism (CJ). Since this person said that they were in a Conservative congregation it seemed to me to include a kind of embarrassment about being connected with CJ. The words which gave me this impression were words like: "religious schizophrenics"; "don't do too well on either count"; "denomination of convenience".


When I talk about CJ, I would prefer talking about the inherent difficulty in propagating a religious understanding based on a "middle road" between seeming opposites. For example, we are serious about both the individuals’ free choice and at the same time their concomitant responsibility to the community. We base our understanding of Judaism on both scientific (objective) studies of sources together with passionate (subjective) commitment to living life according to those sources.


Indeed, the words I received reflected a tension between a "positive" description of CJ and a "negative" one when referring to the issue of feminism. It was written that CJ "waffled, soul-searched, and struggled". Each word describes the dealing with opposite values, but the difference between waffling and soul-searching usually depends on who is describing the process. In my opinion, soul-searching and struggling, which CJ is definitely loaded with, show that this philosophy is the opposite of "convenience".


It would be much more "convenient" to either accept any new trend, because it was fashionable, or to reject it, because it was not 'geschriben', i.e. did not SEEM to be written in any previous halachic work. The CJ approach of searching halacha, using arguments to probe and come to a decision of what is right and just, even if not clearly written before, is the classic way that halacha worked, at least until the modern period.


Therefore, I think you are wrong in saying that the question must be decided "ultimately on the basis of non-Halachic considerations". What are non-halachic considerations? Is moral feeling or a sense of injustice one? Is taking into account what Jews want, and to what extant they will observe a given decision one? Is survival one? If you look at the history of halacha we find all these considerations in the most classic sources.


It is a misrepresentation of halacha to so easily divide up non-halachic from halachic. Part of the historical awareness of CJ teaches us that such a simple division is not so easy. I recommend studying Prof. Halbertal's book "mahapekhot parshaniyot be-hithavutan" (Magnes Press, 1999) or Prof. Sagi's book on "yahadut: bein dat la-musar" (ha-kibbutz ha-meuhad, 1998) for plentiful documentation of my claims here.


My writer inferred that CJ was influenced by the modern conception of “rights” when it came to egalitarianism. My approach is not to phrase the issue in that way, but rather as one of conferring on women "equality of obligation" as Jews. It is only a matter of "rights" from the Jewish perspective, that is, a Jew’s most precious "right" is to fulfill the Torah. "Ratzah ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu le-zacot et yisrael lachen hirbah la-hem Torah u-mitzvot", “The Holy One wished to confer rights on Israel, so God gave a bountiful Torah and many Mitzvot”. Being equally obligated means having equal rights.


I think that the answer is clear. It is theologically correct to say that women and men have equal responsibility to serve God. It is morally correct as well. In the past those two thoughts may not have been acceptable, but today for CJ they are both true. Therefore, halacha should reflect our theological and moral truths. It is too reductionist to place the whole inclusion of women on survival alone. It is much more compelling than that, being based on major principles of our faith. There are certainly enough mechanisms of interpretation and even emendation (takkanah) in the halachic system to afford us the opportunity for change. Since including women increases the pool of obligated Jews, perhaps it is actually playing by "obligational" rules.


Finally, there is the question of reality. My writer claimed that attendance at services does not dramatically increase because women are equally obligated to attend. I do not think that this one item is the test of whether we are "succeeding" more or less. How many people are studying? How many homes are celebrating Jewish ritual? I think more in both categories because of women's involvement. In my own congregation in Omer, all of the mitzvot are being observed by more Jews, including attendance at services, because of the egalitarian approach. More Jews are learning to lead services, and read the Torah etc., because many women are taking these obligations seriously. In the long run, more study, more awareness, and more commitment is the best thing for the Jewish people.


Rabbi Michael Graetz, Rabbi Emeritus in the Masorti congregation 'Magen Avraham' in Omer, is one of the Founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel, its first director and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. He is past winner of the prestigious Simon Greenberg Award and past member of the Israel Law Committee. 


פרסום ראשון: 09.03.09, 19:37
 new comment
This will delete your current comment