Monday, January 26, 2009

Conservative Fractionation

The Conservative Movement is turning, from a big tent, into a bunch of squabbling factions. The latest split, where the Ziegler School (formerly University of Judaism), which split off from JTSA about 10 years ago for being insufficiently lefty, has now terminated its arrangement with Machon Schechter, such that its students, who normally spend a year in Israel, will now go to the fledgling Conservative Yeshiva.

Why? Because Machon Schechter, along with the rest of Israeli Conservative, still has some fealty to halacha, both behaviorally and as process. And I'm not even talking about the pre-1900 halachic process, but the Conservative Movement's own halachic process.

What distinguishes the Conservative halachic process? Centralization with pluralism. In theory, Conservatives are supposed to follow the Shulchan Aruch as modified by rulings of the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). In practice, actual observance is pretty weak, but that's Jack Wertheimer territory, and not our issue.

The CJLS deals with big questions by soliciting papers, more or less teshuvot, and voting on them. Any position which attains six or more votes, becomes a usable position for the movement. It is then left to individual institutions - synagogues and schools - to decide which of the approved positions to take.

They held meetings to deal with the "gay rabbis" question, and wound up approving both yes and no positions. Machon Schechter, being more traditionalist (they don't allow driving on Shabbat, because the rationale was to get you to synagogue, synagogue already becoming in 1950 many people's sole Jewish activity, and in Israel there's a shul on every corner), chose not to accept gay rabbinical students. That should be fine, within the Conservative system.

But that wasn't good enough for the Ziegler School. Because Machon Schechter will not accept homosexual rabbinical students, Ziegler no longer considered them a fit destination for any students. Ziegler now has set its stance against the Conservative halachic process - not because they're pro-GLBT, but because they have abrogated the presumption of liberty, that each institution is free, within Conservative Judaism, to practice any position approved by the CJLS.

Which brings us to this article by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School. He wrote an article in a Conservative movement magazine on "halachic pluralism" and the need for Conservative to be a "big tent" movement, that was entirely disingenuous.

First, he dismisses the Orthodox and Reform as single-idea groups, completely glossing over the wide range of ideologies that each group has, and their own internal struggles for identity and identification. He believes that Conservative is the big tent, and as such, must be pluralistic.

Artson writes:

We must be the denomination that does not impose a narrow litmus test for membership. Do you welcome gays into the movement but do so for halachic reasons? Then you are welcome in Conservative Judaism. Do you believe that the traditional prioritization of heterosexuality is the proper understanding of Torah but you demonstrate true honor to gays and lesbians? You are welcome here. Do you believe that the non-egalitarian Judaism with which you were raised – and still is practiced in many of our finest congregations – continues to be a beautiful way to express Torah and mitzvot? You are welcome in our movement forever. And do you believe that your place is best found in a congregation or an institution in which gender roles are not distinct? You are welcome as a Conservative Jew.

And yet, one of my most long-lasting encounters with an institution of Conservative Judaism was the court battle between Cong. Bnai Jacob and the Park Slope Jewish Center over membership rights in the single synagogue they had once been. The central issue? PSJC had instituted a litmus test, a loyalty oath on the membership form, that the purpose of the synagogue is to be egalitarian. The mechitza minyan that had been the synagogue until six months earlier was banished, expelled, thrown into the street on a Shabbos morning. The rabbi they hired shortly thereafter? Rabbi Jeff Marker, whom I encountered afterwards on mailing lists, who shares the militant-egalitarian view of the PSJC leadership. He has called for the Kotel plaza to go egalitarian, as it is the inheritance of all Jews. Except, of course, for the Orthodox.

So too here, Rabbi Artson calls for a pluralism, where those who don't think gays should be members of a particular institution, should be welcomed as Conservative Jews. But while the write hand dispenses chesed, grace, acceptance, the left hand dispenses din, restriction, a narrow litmus test - I may write about the acceptability of all views, but if your school doesn't accept my view, tough noogies, I'll cut off my affiliation with you.

Institutional Conservative Judaism has indeed become a big tent, one in which people set up armed camps in different corners and say "Can't admit the because the Torah they can't do what they want, much as we respect them as people, any more than we can accept the intermarried or the intentional shabbos-violator", while others say "No traditionalists here, because political correctness is all, and therefore all must be accepting of all, or we won't accept them." (Fuzzy militant-liberal thinking) Just like, say, the traditionalists vs. the autonomists in Reform, or the left-wing modern orthodox vs. the yeshivish (calling each other 'dwellers in Plato's cave' vs. 'haters of Israel') vs. the chasidim, and everyone against Lubavitch, in the Orthodox tent. Each wants the tent to itself, and push the rest out, while claiming that it's a big tent.

And when you realize that the Conservatives lost their real pro-halacha right wing 25 years ago, when the Union for Traditional Judaism split off over the ordination of women and the twisting of traditional halachic process that led there, the big tent is already not so big - everyone is just fighting over the left-most 2/3 of the tent, the right-most section being vacant.

Maybe Garnel Ironheart is right, that Conservative no longer has any claim to being halachic, but has become its own religion with a vague resemblance to traditional Judaism. Certainly its more personally-observant members are finding less and less home in their synagogues.

(hat tip: Osewalrus)


Garnel Ironheart said...

"Maybe" I'm right?
Don't take my word for it. One of the leading lights of Conservativism, Harold Kusher of "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People" fame annnounced over 20 years ago at a Conservative conference that they were no longer halachic. It's just taking some of their membership a bit longer to come to accept it.
There are no more intolerant people than those who claim loudly to be tolerant.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i was told by a reb school student at JTS who happens to be queer that they've been having debates there over the issue of Mekhon Schechter also — not because they resent their right to hold 'no gay rabbinical students', but because the head of MS justified the policy based on anti-queer cultural ideas instead of basing it on halakha. if it were a halakhic decision, it would be justifiable; but since it isn't, they just find it offensive.

(like i said, this is from a source who is נוגע בדבר, so take it as you will)

there's a similar problem in the Orthodox world, where people tend to argue "halakha" by using non-halakhic arguments (ex. "you can't be right 'cause you're a kofer") instead of actually making claims based on halakhic principles.

Anonymous said...

I think you misunderstand halakhic pluralism within USCJ. It allows each rabbi to choose the halacha for his/her congregation from within a range of positions as defined by CJLS. It does NOT mean that anything anyone WITHIN A C congregation wants to do goes. If a rabbi wants to remain non-egal, he can. If he wants no mechitza minyanim, he can do that too.

Is Artson a tad triumphalist in his rhetoric? Well guess what, so are O (including Modern O - see R Lamm) and Reform. Why should C always be carefully deferential in our rhetoric.

As for Zeigler, I can see they may have an issue affiliating with an Israel program where SOME of there students are unwelcome. Again that is their choice to make. Pluralism does not mean not making choices.