Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Sacred Center

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Sacred Center

Article excerpt

How should Conservative Judaism face the challenges of the twenty-first century? The answer is to articulate the movement's principles, embrace its inherent pluralism, and inspire its constituency.

Articulating the Ideology of the Movement

It has not been easy to define the ideology of the Conservative movement, as is evidenced by the fact that its statement of principles, Emet Ve-Emunah, appeared fully seventy years after the establishment of the United Synagogue. Some have argued that the decision not to articulate clearly where the movement stood during those years was a source of its strength, for it allowed people who might otherwise (if only they realized it) more appropriately situate themselves in the Reform or the Orthodox camps to find a home within the Conservative Movement.

Now, however, both Orthodoxy, on the one side, and Reform, on the other, are strong, confident--even triumphalist--movements. (Reconstructionism, though numerically much smaller, is also growing, and is justifiably confident.) In this environment, inertia is not likely to draw one toward Conservative Judaism. On the contrary, it is necessary to articulate strong reasons why Jews should resist the pull to the right--the sense of authenticity, as well as the seriousness, piety, and strong communal spirit within Orthodoxy-or for others, the equally compelling pull to the left: the value accorded personal autonomy, the low entry-level threshold, the openness to those on the margins (both Jewish and gentile) seeking to engage, and the ruach (spirit), enthusiasm, and self-confidence that characterize Reform today.

What are such reasons? Notwithstanding its strong emotional appeal, Orthodoxy requires intellectual compartmentalization for those whose hashkafah (religious outlook) has been enlightened by critical historical scholarship. Reform, on the other hand, grants too much authority to personal autonomy and is just not loyal enough to the chain of Jewish law and tradition. Reconstructionism, though its theology is not necessarily incompatible with one's identity as an observant Jew, has similarly firmly diverged from traditional Jewish practice.

There will always be Jews who are, on the one hand, committed to the continuity of Jewish tradition, yet who have minds fully open to the intellectual insights to be gleaned from modern historical scholarship, as well as the moral insights (such as feminism and egalitarianism) that are the products of modernity. Such Jews will not, I believe, feel fully at home anywhere other than in the Conservative movement.

One major reason it is difficult to explain Conservative Judaism, as Chancellor Ismar Schorsch has argued, is that it is difficult to explain Judaism. Judaism is an intellectually demanding, text-centered cultural system that can't be condensed into "sound bites." As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out fifty years ago, Judaism embraces polarities--e.g., halakha and aggadah (law and lore); notions of God as both transcendent (wholly other) and immanent (present in the world); Jewish existence in both the Land of Israel and the diaspora, to take a few examples. To define Judaism's focus too narrowly (as, for example, "law" or "faith") is to distort its core as an evolving religious civilization-to employ Mordecai Kaplan's term. Moreover, from the outset, Conservative Judaism has defined itself as both loyal to tradition and open to change, a position far more difficult to convey than the stances of other movements. But the effort to define and explain the movement is vital, for its values and principles are the basis of its appeal; not knowing what they are, it is difficult to generate much support or enthusiasm for the movement.

Fortunately, we now possess several successful statements that articulate where the movement stands. Chancellor Schorsch has provided us with The Sacred Cluster, a short pamphlet itemizing seven values at the core of Conservative Jewish identity. …

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