At convention, Conservative Jews wrestle with movement's identity
By Sue Fishkoff
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BOSTON, Mass (JTA)—There were two separate minyans at this week's biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: a large egalitarian minyan, where most of the women as well as the men wore kippas, that prayed with gusto three times a day in the main conference hall; and a much smaller, heavily male, non-egalitarian minyan that davened more soberly down the corridor.
The dual prayer services may symbolize a movement in crisis, split by divergent opinions on key issues such as the role of women, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and the status of non-Jewish family members in synagogue life.
But they also demonstrate that the Conservative tent is large enough to encompass a variety of views and practices, and that the leadership is willing to take a certain amount of flak from members that want it to take a stand one way or the other.
"The United Synagogue is neither egalitarian nor not egalitarian; we are pluralistic," Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue's executive vice president, told the 560 delegates at a plenary session, responding to criticism that conference organizers should not have scheduled space for a non-egalitarian minyan.
"It's not a sign of ambiguity or weakness to say we're respectful of divergence," Epstein said. "We have two equal services at the convention because we believe both are equally valid, both are equally authentic, both should be respected and both should be cherished."
The Conservative movement may have lost its pre-eminent position on the American Jewish scene, but instead of the breast-beating one might have expected at this convention, there was a lot of serious introspection and confidence, if not celebration.
Movement leaders unveiled a detailed plan for keruv, or outreach, to intermarried families and new converts, and speakers and participants spent a great deal of time talking about what they want from a movement to which most remain deeply committed.
Words like passion, sensitivity, openness and honesty were used liberally throughout the four-day gathering in Boston, which was devoted to deciding where the movement is headed and rolling out a more proactive approach to integrating intermarried families into Conservative congregational life.
In Monday's keynote speech, Rabbi Neil Gillman, a philosophy professor at the movement's Jewish Theology Seminary, urged Conservative Judaism to "abandon its claim that we are a halachic movement," which he called "irrelevant to the vast majority of our lay people."
Gillman proposed a new definition for the movement based on "living with ambiguity," which he said more precisely describes a movement that may be guided by halacha, or Jewish law, but evolves according to aggada, or changing social and cultural norms.
"Our approach to halacha is a sublime example of living with tension," said Gillman, positing that Conservative Judaism continually re-evaluates its concept of the God-human relationship. "The hallmarks of our belief are relativity, uncertainty and tension."
Gillman's examination of the movement's theological wrestling act resonated with many conference participants, but some said they did indeed see their movement as based in halacha, and most laypeople interviewed said the constant struggle with tradition gave Conservative Judaism an intellectual honesty they liked.
"I believe we're a halachic movement," said Linda Tillinger of Savannah, Ga. "The rules are there for a reason."
In a closing-day speech, outgoing JTS Chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch hotly defended the Conservative movement's traditional emphasis on "emet and emunah," or truth and faith, as unambiguous and urged the movement not to change its positioning.
"We are the only Jewish group that has the courage to struggle with the polarities of emet and emunah," he said, contrasting that stance with "our friends to the left, who lack emunah" and "our friends to the right who are threatened by emet."
Giving up either polarity means, he said, "we cease being Conservative Jews."
While the Conservative movement long has walked a fine line between adhering to halachah and embracing a less traditional approach to Jewish observance, Schorsch—who is retiring this summer after some 20 years at the Seminary's helm—has often come down on the side of tradition. In 2003, for example, he questioned the Conservative movement's 1950 decision to allow driving on the Sabbath to encourage synagogue attendance.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement 20 years ago, agreed with Gillman's proposal to embrace ambiguity, but admitted, "it's a message many in the movement do not want to hear."
She suggested that "what we need is a unifying aggadic vision, a narrative. I would prefer we think of ourselves as God-wrestlers, standing with God face-to-face, arguing, protesting, loving, embracing." That understanding, she said, would be "a radical change from the positivist" claim of being a halachic movement.
There was no formal discussion at the convention of the hot-button topic of whether or not to ordain openly gay rabbis, a decision that will be made by the movement's Law Committee or by the next JTS chancellor, and not by the United Synagogue.
But that didn't stop people from talking about the gay ordination issue. Most said it will and should happen—and, as University of Judaism Rector Rabbi Elliot Dorff put it, "it won't split the movement" the way the decision to ordain women did.
Even two decades after the movement began ordaining women, egalitarianism remains a touchy subject in some corners of Conservative Judaism, notably the corner of this downtown Boston hotel where the non-egalitarian minyan was praying. The men in that group said they felt marginalized and "humiliated" by conference speakers who proclaimed egalitarianism one of the movement's central values.
"Just because I favor a non-egalitarian, traditional Judaism doesn't make me immoral and a misogynist," said Sheldon Serota of Richmond Hill, Ontario. "I was taught the Conservative movement had room under its tent for all forms of Conservative Jewish expression."
Warning that a closer embrace of liberal values "will cost the movement congregations," Rabbi Philip Scheim of Toronto said that "without halacha we are lost. If we want to be sustained by ambiguity, we have no future."
Many people described their attachment to Conservative Judaism in aesthetic terms, such as the "musicality" of Conservative services or the fact that most prayers are said in Hebrew. They feel such touches give Conservative Judaism a more authentically Jewish feel.
"I prefer services in Hebrew and I keep a kosher home, and you don't find that in Reform," said David Brotman of Westfield, N.J.
Judy Gatchell of Portland, Maine, was one of several women laying tefillin during morning prayers. She said she'd like to see the movement focus on turning congregations into warm communities
"There's a real hunger among people to find communities," she said. "We tend to stay in our own home and space and not reach out as well as we could."
David Brotman of New Jersey wants to see a greater emphasis on ritual observance, but says that has to come from a place of understanding and education.
"I'd like to see the leadership reignite a commitment to religious practice among Conservative Jews of my generation," he said.
Rabbi Dorff agreed.
"We have to do much more work on worship," he said, picking out Hebrew literacy as an area for the movement to focus on.
In general, though, the main reason most participants gave for affiliating with Conservative Judaism was familiarity.
One elderly Louisiana woman who declined to give her name said she didn't understand all the fuss about trying to come up with a new definition of Conservative Judaism: It's just where she feels right.
"It's what I grew up with, and it's just where I go," she said firmly. "I think most of the people here feel that way."