You Can’t Hide Your Lying Eyes

I should warn you, this is a long comment!

Matthew Housman, a commentator from Arutz Sheva, wrote a column called, “Whither Conservative Judaism” on March 9 of this year (here is the link to the whole article): ) I am tired of this kind of rant that Conservative Jews get all the time from Orthodox Jews who seem to think that we are an enemy as their Rabbis lead them down a path that separates one Jew from another. Below is the end of his article and my response.

Mr. Housman starts off with a brief history of Zehariah Frankel and the Positive Historical School in Breslau Germany in the 19th Century. He seems to think that the early history of Conservative Judaism was the reason for all the issues he lists at the end of the article. I have included below only this part of his article in bold italics and add my comments and defense in regular type in between.

Mr. Housman writes: As a consequence, and in response to the demands of an increasingly uneducated and acculturated constituency, the movement’s Committee on Law and Standards over the years has sanctioned many sweeping departures from normative halacha, issuing responsa that have strained the parameters of the law, all the while claiming to be guided by it. The conceit of this process is that it purports to be guided by halacha while clearly ignoring the law when deemed politically expedient, socially desirable or simply convenient.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), is the committee that rabbis turn to for guidance on questions that may be too complicated or too difficult for the local rabbi to address. Lay leadership is not allowed to send questions to the committee, such requests are given back to the local rabbi for a rabbinic ruling. (Disclosure here: My daughter is currently the Secretary of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.) I believe that they started to meet in 1927. They are NOT the final rule in Conservative Judaism, only a guide to local rabbis who need help in making a decision. Over the years the composition and role of the committee has changed but not its mandate. It is more inclusive of the different streams in our pluralistic movement and reflects the wide range of ages of rabbis. Just as the Congress of the United States took years to find the limits of their office and the proper track for this country, the CJLS also has a history of struggling to find the proper balance between tradition and change. The key here is “normative Halacha”. Halacha over the centuries has grown and changed in certain ways. Orthodox Halacha is an approach. The Positive-Historical school proposed a different approach, where Halacha can be decided by how it was applied in certain historical contexts. In different places, at different times, Halacha has been decided differently. Orthodox Halacha is determined by rabbis who are accepted Sages. Historical Halacha is determined by the rabbi who was faced with a local issue. Sometimes the larger Halacha validated this interpretation, sometimes it did not. The CJLS is indeed guided by “normative Halacha” but not always in the same way as Orthodox rabbis would apply it. I also should add that there are some rabbis in Conservative Judaism who think that we should ONLY use “normative Halacha”. We will see more about this later in the article.

Although the Conservative Movement still claims to be guided by halacha, it is difficult to see how its myriad of changes – starting with the official endorsement of driving on Shabbat to its recent conflicting responsa on homosexuality and the ordination of gay rabbis – can be justified or even rationalized on halachic grounds. Indeed, many of these changes fall so far outside the boundaries of the law that they are clearly motivated by external concerns and values, not halachic logic or precedent.

The CJLS is guided by Halacha. It just does not use the same guides that Orthodox Judaism uses. When appropriate, a minority opinion may be used to validate a practice. Sometimes there is disagreement over the definitions in a decision. Concerning riding on Shabbat, one of the first times the CJLS varied from Orthodox Halacha, one difference was in the definition of “riding.” The CJLS felt that cars were not the same as horses and the rules should be different. Since that ruling (which was a minority opinion) there have been Conservative rabbis who have disagreed and not held by it. Some say they would like it changed; but an opinion of the CJLS is not binding on all rabbis. It is only an opinion. There have been, actually very few CJLS opinions that vary from normative Halacha and most, at least, give halachic reasoning for the change. (There is no reason a rabbi can’t use a more liberal position rather than a strict one). One such change was the recent ruling on Homosexuality. It took years to create the position and many positions were suggested and rejected. In the end, Halacha could not help Conservative Judaism become more inclusive, and in a very rare moment, the CJLS accepted positions that were outside normal halachic processes. It was very controversial, as one might expect, and some rabbis on the committee quit the committee because of it. But in this case, opinions that said that human dignity trumps Halacha won.

Alarmingly, when attempting to justify changes in practice and observance that clearly contravene halacha, today’s Conservative rabbis often seem unfamiliar with the traditional rabbinic sources; and when discussing their movement’s evolving positions they are informed more by inter-movement politics than substantive halacha. Thus, in response to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s continuing claims to be a halachic movement, many of its critics now refer to it as “halachic style.” That is, just as “kosher style” restaurants are not truly kosher, neither is a “halachic-style movement” truly guided or constrained by Jewish law.

Conservative Judaism has never held by the opinion that the Halacha is “all or nothing”. We believe that just because we disagree on certain halachic definitions and processes that we use occasionally, does not make us non-halachic. The CJLS is very aware of traditional Rabbinic sources and also of the needs of Jews living in North America (there are different committees that rule in South America and Israel/Europe). The only people who call Conservative Judaism “halachic style” are those who disagree with our interpretation of Jewish law. We believe that Orthodox rabbis do not have a “lock” on what is “normative Halacha” and that, as we see in Israel, they too are all too often ruling based on inter-movement politics. (I would ask the Rabbanut in Israel about their recent rulings on Conversion.) Mr. Housman here reveals his Orthodox bias.

So, what are the practical consequences of this evolution? Perhaps most significant is the sense of alienation felt by people who grew up in “traditional” Conservative synagogues. Because of their observant orientation, they could not reconcile themselves with the relaxation of standards that came with the liberalization of ritual and practice – from the wholesale disregard of family purity laws to the relaxation of standards of kashrut, conversion, divorce and education. Indeed, one need only look to the small and shrinking percentage of Conservative congregants who actually keep kosher, attend services regularly or observe Shabbat to see that even the most minimal tokens of observance are no longer a priority for the vast majority of the movement’s constituents.

Unlike the Orthodox who “drum out” anyone who disagrees with their rulings (for example Rabbi Druckman of the Conversion court and Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman z’l who ruled on Agunot) Conservative Judaism has never abandoned a rabbi or lay person for being “too strict” or “too traditional”. Our movement has never ruled to “disregard” family purity laws, and as for the “relaxation of standards” referred to above, what he is talking about are standards imposed by Orthodox rabbis with whom we disagree. If an Orthodox rabbi says that it is OK for autopsy rules to be relaxed in cases of transplant, that is “normative Halacha” but if a Conservative rabbi says that a convert who is sincere and willing to learn and grow in their practice of Jewish law, should be accepted as a convert, then we are “disregarding standards”. If our laypeople are not practicing as strictly as Orthodox rabbis, that is not a flaw. There are plenty of Orthodox Jews who ride to shul on Shabbat and park around the corner where no one will see. There are plenty who do not always eat up to Orthodox Kashrut standards. Conversion and Divorce in Orthodox ritual courts is more often than not politically motivated (a member of the congregation or a child of a big donor) than based on halachic considerations. I am not saying that Conservative Judaism does not have challenges to face with our members, only that we are willing to face the challenges where Orthodox rabbis tend to ignore them.

Paradoxically, for many people born in the 1960s and later who are not personally observant, but who received more traditional education (i.e., those who came of age during the most extreme period of liberalization from the 1970s to 1990s), the intellectual disconnect between the halachic process and the movement’s evolution is difficult to reconcile; and the nagging inconsistency between many of the movement’s changes and the halacha by which it claims still to be guided is viewed even by many non-observant people as intellectually dishonest. Moreover, the concomitant rise in intermarriage amongst people reared within the Conservative fold has provided a stark realization of where less observance and education ultimately leads. And this realization has stimulated a return to observance by many, albeit in varying forms and degrees.

Observance has indeed experienced many twists and turns over the past 50 years, as it has had over the past 1000 years. The Halacha of Dutch Jews were different than eastern European Jews. Hasidim had different standards from Mitnagdim. Sephardic practice is very different from Ashkenazic practice. Orthodox Judaism before 1960 was more liberal than it is now, 50 years later. The 19th century saw three halachic guides, the “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch” which was strict, the “Mishna Berura” which was more moderate, and the “Aruch HaShulchan” the most liberal of the three. I find it intellectually dishonest that the most liberal opinions are the ones excluded from halachic discussions. The only people who claim that Conservative Jews are intellectually dishonest are those who disagree with our positions. I can’t say, any more than any other halachic authority can say, that the system is perfect. We have our problems like any other movement. Is it intellectually dishonest to say that we disagree with a ruling by an Orthodox rabbi? I think it is intellectually dishonest for a person who has no connection with Orthodox Halacha, someone who disregards Shabbat, Kashrut and family purity laws, but insists that the only “real” law in Judaism is Orthodox law, THAT person is intellectually dishonest. Someone who chooses the strictest interpretation of the Law and then says they will not follow it; such a person is no more representative of Orthodox Judaism than is the person, who has a traditional education and thinks that we are intellectually dishonest, a Conservative Jew.

In an increasingly common pattern, those who aspire to greater observance often find that they cannot live more committed lifestyles within the culture of today’s Conservative Movement. Although the movement’s hierarchy routinely trumpets the beauty of diversity in belief and practice, and claims that there is room in the tent for all levels of observance, those who hold more traditional beliefs and values are generally marginalized, made to feel unwelcome and ultimately excluded. The usual litmus test for whether one’s ritual orientation is outside of the movement’s mainstream is the acceptance or rejection of “egalitarian minyanim”, with those who do not accept the practice usually being branded as misogynists, reactionaries or extremists.

As I mentioned before, there are some, after the difficult deliberations over homosexuality in the CJLS who have removed themselves from the committee. They have not left Conservative Judaism. Far more people have been made to feel there is no room for them in Orthodox Judaism than those who feel that way in Conservative Judaism; the Orthodox have shut them out, we have not. Our ranks are filled with those who have been told there is no place for them in their Orthodox synagogue. We don’t ask anyone at any door if they are misogynists, reactionary or extremists. Our tent remains open to all. There are some who find that Orthodoxy speaks to their religious feelings and some who feel that Reform Judaism is better for their family; in the same way that there are Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews who have found a home in Conservative Judaism. The real difference here is that the leadership of Orthodox Judaism does not accept anything less than an Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. Conservative Judaism is happy to help people find their place in the Jewish spectrum; it is Orthodox Judaism that has litmus tests for its Jews (even looking in the windows of people’s homes to make sure that, behind closed doors, they are not watching TV on Shabbat).

As a consequence, many congregants have left their Conservative synagogues to search for spiritual meaning within a more traditional institutional framework. Interestingly, while many emigres from the movement still believe that level of observance is a personal matter between them and the Almighty, they are also increasingly guided by a sense of the vitality of halacha and a belief in revelation, both of which set goals to which they can aspire and by which they can measure their achievement and growth as Jews. It is difficult, if not impossible, to do that when the law is treated merely as tradition or simply as a sociological construct. It is then subject to drastic change even outside the logical boundary of its own structure, particularly when the engine for change is fueled by external considerations rather than internal process and consistency.

A legal system has its routine ways of growing and changing, and when those routines no longer work, a secular system will amend the law. Religious law, coming from God, clearly can’t be amended. Rabbis in every generation have struggled to find ways to keep the law growing and relevant within the routine of the law, but have not hesitated to make changes when needed. The logical structure of the law is not divine, it is a human construction. All changes in the law are fueled by external considerations. The Prozbul was fueled by the change from agricultural to urban settlements. The ruling by Rabbenu Gershon ending polygamy was fueled by the politics of Christian Europe. The rulings of the Hatam Sofer on the minimum standards of wine, matzah and maror in the 19th and early 20th century were fueled by the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism. The ruling by the CJLS on homosexuality was fueled by scientific changes in the way we understand the nature of homosexuality. Yes there are Jews who prefer the Orthodox style of Jewish Law, but those who do not accept Orthodox law and who feel that Orthodoxy has nothing to say to them, and who find intellectual honesty and support in the Conservative movement are also Jews who do not hold as Mr. Housman. What is striking is that we are willing to admit that there are positions in Jewish Law that sometimes are stricter than those discussed at the CJLS. Orthodox authorities do not offer us the same consideration. I ask you, my readers, who do you think is really intellectually dishonest?

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