Conservative Rabbis, Their Movement, and American Judaism

By Zelizer, Gerald L. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Conservative Rabbis, Their Movement, and American Judaism


Zelizer, Gerald L., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


On the eve of its north American Centennial, the Conservative movement has demonstrated a series of accomplishments that point to its increased vitality within American religious Judaism. The National Jewish Population Study of 1990 found that the largest number of American Jews affiliate with Conservative synagogues. A shift within many Conservative synagogues away from late-Friday evening to Shabbat-morning services has been accompanied by a significant parallel increase in the number of young couples attending those services. Camp Ramah is oversubscribed. Day-school education, generally eschewed in the first hundred years of Conservative Judaism, is currently so accepted that the number of students in Solomon Schechter schools has burgeoned to 18,000 within the last decade. This parochial-school growth has occurred even in medium-sized cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Recent presidents of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA)(1) and the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)(2) are products of Conservatism's synagogues and institutions, rather than refugees from Orthodox or Reform. Remarkably, these religious and programmatic accomplishments have taken place at the same time that the Conservative movement remains hospitable to pluralistic ideological views which generate healthy, if sometimes heated, debates.

During my presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1992-1994, I confronted both the energy and problematics that characterize the Conservative movement. Four major episodes illustrated the direction of the movement at the approach of the new century. The first, "Prioritizing the Sexual Agenda," was a debate over the boundaries of authentic Judaism as defined by Conservative Judaism. The second, "Religious Authority: Lay-Rabbinic Relations," defined who determines the Conservative definition of Judaism. The third, "Reasserting RA Presence in National Jewish Politics," refined the priority mission of the association of Conservative rabbis. The fourth, "Jewish Ecumenicism: A Lost Opportunity," was an example of our search for partners in achieving portions of that mission. All four matters were played out through an intellectual and political process, with implications not only for Conservative Judaism but for American Judaism as a whole.

Prioritizing the Sexual Agenda

In the last half of the twentieth century, three issues aroused contentious halakhic debate within Conservative Judaism: the agunah ("chained" woman, whose husband would not grant her a religious divorce), during the 1940s and 1950s; women's inclusion in public ritual and rabbinic ordination, during the 1970s and 1980s; and homosexuality, during the 1990s. The fact that all three subjects involve human sexuality is compelling evidence that religion and sex often cannot be separated.

The matter of homosexual egalitarianism had the potential of fracturing the Conservative movement in the early 1990s. The issue of female egalitarianism had already split the movement in the 1980s when significant numbers of Conservative rabbis and lay people established the separatist Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, whose initial agenda was opposition to rabbinic ordination of women. My predecessor's administration produced a religious policy that disallowed the ordination of gays and lesbians, as well as the refusal of the movement to send rabbinic candidates to a gay congregation. On the eve of my installation as president of the RA, my predecessor warned me. "I fear that this question is not over and it threatens to subsume all else."

Conservative Judaism had proudly championed the slogan "Tradition and Change." The movement's debate historically on many issues concerned the proper weighing of these two influences. Again, on the issue of homosexuality, two polar viewpoints clashed. The first contended that the biblical and rabbinic delegitimation of homosexuality was the final word. Any change was beyond the parameters of traditional Judaism.

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