Last night, the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, hosted a lecture by one of my teachers, Rabbi Neil Gillman on the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Doing Jewish Philosophy”. Near the end of the lecture he noted that Conservative Judaism does not have a philosophy as does the other movements at the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. When he took questions, I asked him, “In your opinion, why doesn’t Conservative Judaism have a philosophy?” Rabbi Gillman replied that he thinks there are a number of reasons. First, we are a pluralistic movement and there are a wide number of philosophies that are included in our movement; and second, when we tried to spell out a philosophy in the now seemingly forgotten book, Emet v’Emunah, after years of discussion, it came out like a menu rather than a single philosophy.
I immediately recalled another book, by one of my other philosophy teachers, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who wrote about Conservative Judaism and noted that there were at least four different groups within our movement with four different approaches to Jewish Philosophy. They ranged from traditional to Reconstructionist tendencies. Given these assessments, it is a wonder that our movement has not ruptured and fragmented as most movements seem to be doing these days. Young Jews can’t seem to understand what motivates their parents to join Conservative Synagogues and we see them starting their own “minyanim” that operate in a very different style. Rabbis in our movement argue all the time over the issue of whether we follow Halacha or not. Lay leadership of Conservative congregations is begging Rabbis to just tell them what they need to do to be good Jews and all they get is a menu of options. Canadian congregations and communities in Israel don’t think that Conservatives in the United States are traditional enough. Conservative Jews in the United States don’t seem to care what the Canadian or Israeli communities think of them.
So, who are we? What is it that binds us together as a movement? What do we Conservative Jews believe?
As usual, I believe we are looking for faith in all the wrong places. As Rabbi Gillman said, you can ask that question to a Reform or Orthodox Jew and get a coherent, definite answer because they are on the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. Our movement is in a large grey area that lies between them and thus it defies the kind of definition that comes with the certainty that lies at the ends of a spectrum.
As Conservative Jews, we believe that certainty is the enemy and that questions are the lifeblood of our movement, even if they don’t always have definitive answers.
As Conservative Jews we believe that God is unknowable and beyond our understanding but we feel the divine presence in both the secular and religious aspects of our life.
As Conservative Jews we believe that God is found in the struggle between tradition as received and the world as we experience it.
As Conservative Jews we believe that a good Jew is judged first of all in the way we treat our fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike.
As Conservative Jews we believe that we can grow in our observance and that until the day we die, we can still be struggling to understand the best way for us to live a spiritual life. But our uncertainty does not make us bad Jews.
As Conservative Jews we believe that science informs our understanding of scripture and ritual but the importance of both is not found in scientific accuracy, rather in the moral and ethical lessons that each have to teach us, lessons that are beyond the purview of science.
As Conservative Jews we are always learning about the philosophy, history and legal tradition of Judaism in the constant search for a better understanding of the meaning of our life and the life of all humanity
As Conservative Jews we believe that Jewish Law, Halacha, needs to be understood in a historical context and while it is primary to our faith, it is not the only consideration we have to weigh in our quest to live a faithful Jewish life.
As Conservative Jews we weigh carefully the needs of the community and our individual needs, understanding, as Hillel taught, If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am for myself alone, what am I, and if not now, when?
As Conservative Jews we allow that not everyone believes as we do and that does not make them bad Jews; it makes them interesting if we can learn from them something that will inform our own beliefs and practices.
As Conservative Jews we believe in the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and we are committed to improving civic and religious life there as we work to secure Israel’s future.
As Conservative Jews we don’t know what will happen after we die, but we believe that what we do here in this world will have an impact in how we will experience whatever may come next.
As Conservative Jews we understand that a Messianic Age, an age in which good will triumph over evil and life will triumph over death, will only come if we will work for it through the actions we perform every day.
Maybe everyone will not agree with me on every point above, but that is nature of our movement, to weigh, discuss (civilly) and always to grow.