Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 27 March 2008

When the Only Rule is That There Are No Rules

The middle ground is always the hardest ground to hold. Extremism on either side is quite often far more logical, at least on a superficial basis. While either end of a spectrum can claim a uniform and consistent set of views, those in the middle must often justify why they accept a bit of both ends and what their justifications for each view are. Some groups can do this well. Others inevitably slide off in one direction or the other until they become nearly identical to one of the extremes that they once stood apart from.

This is the story of what has afflicted Conservatism in recent decades. Whereas once they were the largest so-called denomination of North American Jews, in recent years their numbers have slipped behind Reform as their members slowly bleed away to the right and left. Those interested in a serious Torah lifestyle inevitably choose to become Orthodox which those who don't care about having the authority of halachah in their life become Reform. What used to work for them, a strong liberal philosophy combined with a perceived respect for halachic limits, is now seen as a liability as the Torah observant portion of North American Jewry grows more influential. If one is interested in eating like a Jew, why keep only partly kosher? If one believes in the sanctity of Shabbos, why only observe only certain rules? And if one isn't interested, why do anything at all? When given the choice between complete individualism and authoritative communitarianism, few people will decide on the identical mix of the two.

Yet as Conservatism slid slowly to the Reform side of the spectrum, it continued to loudly assert that it was somehow different. Perhaps it was the ritual part of things that the movement still observed in a semi-traditional fashion as opposed to Reform's free-for-all. Perhaps it was the insistence, despite all laughter to the contrary as well as the assertion of one of its major figures, that Conservatism was still "halachic".

What really ended the movement's distinction from Reform was the change in policy to hold that homosexual intercourse was no longer a sin and that people engaging in that practice were no longer acting contrary to Jewish law. Although the change was made through the official process that the Jewish Theological Seminary uses, this only highlighted the foolishness of their claims to halachic legitimacy. The rule was also passed in typical Conservative fashion:

The movement's legal authorities adopted conflicting rulings on the status of homosexuality in 2006. One permitted the ordination of gay rabbis, another upheld Judaism's longstanding ban on homosexual intercourse.

All this came to mind when I read this article on the recent controversy surrounding the first anniversary of the ruling allowing the "ordination" of Conservative students. This decision has proved to be far more polarizing than the previous major decision that the movement made, that of giving women the title "rabbi". In that case, both sides to the disagreement were able to move beyond the initial conflict, reassured by the fact that nowhere in the written text of the Torah are women prohibited to hold such a position. The decision regarding homosexual rabbis is different. It's one thing to reject the Oral Law as a fanciful invention of old rabbis who didn't speak English (so what did they really know?). It's quite another to have spent decades taking about the importance of the Written Law and then go and defy it with crazy explanation of clear cut rules. By doing so, Conservatism has essentially removed any fundamental different between themselves and Reform. The only real contrasts between the two are window dressing. If there was any doubt of this, then the position held by the group - and articulated by Einat Ramon, dean of the Conservative's Schechter Seminary - that does not accept the legitimacy of homosexual rabbis proves this beyond all doubt:

Ramon is a well-known critic of the liberalizing tendency toward gays within Conservative Judaism. She has said she views homosexuality as a choice and, in a speech last year to a conference in Israel, reportedly said the family is endangered by gays with an agenda who seek to destroy it.
Ramon said further that the Conservative movement must protect the family against these homosexuals, who already have succeeded within the Reconstructionist movement.

Despite her more "conservative" position, Ramon shows she is ignorant of one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. The laws of the Torah were not given for reasons that make sense to us in every age and place. We do not perform mitzvos because of perceived gains or relevant social benefits. Mitzvos are fufilled by a Jew to fulfill the will of the Allmighty God who commanded them. To oppose the ordination and marriage of homosexuals because of considerations regarding the nuclear family misses that point entirely and proves that Conservatism is merely Reform with a different logo on the official letterhead.


Anonymous said...

The basic premise of the article, about walking the middle path, has merit. But it's not realistic in its portrayal of Conservative Judaism (except in a brief turn of phrase: "so-called denomination").

Most Conservative Jews are am-ha-artzim who know very little about Judaism, even about Conservative Judaism. I know -- this is how I grew up. Maybe the basics of kashruth and holidays and that's it.
Only a small minority of Conservative Jews are the real thing -- that is: they take Conservative halacha seriously, go to conservative yeshiva, learn and daven and put on tfillin, etc. The vast majority simply want to join a big shul with a good operatic cantor, a moving or interesting sermon, and a service that is roughly like Orthodox -- because this feels like religion to them.

The real reason that Jews are moving from Conservative to Reform is that Reform is adopting more traditional-looking "rituals", to look more like a religion. Combine this with the fact that Reform theology is closer to the theology of the masses, and presto, you have a winning strategy.

This is nothing more than the latest chapter of the domino effect caused by the dumbing down of Orthodoxy stemming from the increased use of standardized halachic codifications (Mishnah Torah, Shulchan Aruch, etc.).
Codifications habituate people towards rule-based thinking rather than trying to understand the interaction of values as parameters in a matrix of parameters to consider when making a decision.
In my opinion, this phenomenon is also responsible for the increasingly culty behaviour of "Kiruv Orthodoxy" as well as our generation's trend towards "Machmirism".

Garnel Ironheart said...

A few years ago I spent some time working in a Conservative summer camp and I observed that there seemed to be four groups of people:
1) The unwashed masses - they knew very little about Judaism other than the really obvious and/or fun stuff, and cared about having a good time for themselves and little else.
2) The anti-Orthodox - they knew a great deal about Conservative theology but were guided by their hatred for Torah Judaism. One of their "rabbis" walked around during the Nine Days playing a guitar in public to protest the rabbinic "invention" of the 3 weeks and their restrictions.
3) The "real deals" - they were actually really nice. They truly believed that Conservatism was a legitimate form of Torah Judaism. They learned on a regular basis, prayed with all the sincerity they could and wants to engage in "intrafaith" dialogue.
4) The hidden frummies - kids who were Modern Orthodox but for one reason or another loved the camp and their friends there so they came up and made quiet compromises.

As Anonymous noted, the first group was the vast majority of the camp. So as Reform moves a little to the right and Conservatism hurtles to the left, there will be an eventual merger.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I fully agree with the comment about the dumbing down of Orthodoxy today. We live in "the Artscroll Generation" where a book written by someone you otherwise know nothing about can determine your approach and philosophy to Torah observance. Why? Because it's so much simpler than grappling with the depth and complexity of Torah.

Garnel Ironheart said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
evanstonjew said...

I have no real disagreement with your prediction or descriptions except for one thing.These unwashed masses, these am-ha-aratzim are not dumb people. They are as intelligent, as productive, as decent on average as any other group inside Conservativism or even Orthodoxy. For the most part they are not interested. Some Jews are just not interested in religion. I don't know that this makes them less as people, less competent professionals or less imaginitive artists and scientists.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I guess the expression "unwashed masses" is more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. I certainly agree that it is their lack of interest in religion that I'm referring to and no other part of them. Certainly they are not less in anything else they do.