Live from the International Conference on Conservative Judaism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem

VanLeer_image The headline for this post — "Live from the International Conference…" is somewhat misleading.

Reporting "live" implies there is breaking news, something really interesting happening.

Alas, that's not the case. For those of us who follow the Conservative movement closely, there hasn't been a lot "new" presented here.

There was a fair amount of "buzz" leading up to the conference.  "Isn't it exciting, an independent institution is doing a conference on us!"  I think it made a lot of people feel like the fact that this was an academic conference by an independent organization gave some kind of "validation" to us.

That attitude indicates the relatively low self-esteem the movement is feeling at the moment.

Something like a fourth of American Jews self-identify as Conservative.  With as few Jews as there are in the world, that means if you are interested in the sociology of Jews, you can't ignore Conservative Judaism.  Groups much smaller than us get subjected to academic scrutiny as PhD candidates scour the world looking for suitable dissertation topics. Having an independent conference about CJ does not mean anything beyond we have enough followers to be worthy of scrutiny.  It doesn't mean the academics admire our approach or think we are right, or any such thing.

Some comments about the conference.  Note that I have not attended every session, so this isn't going to be an exhaustive report of what has been discussed.  It's just some impressions from what I have heard — and some thoughts about what I haven't heard.

This is an acadmic conference — the speakers are almost all professors, PhD's, etc. It's not aimed at solving any of the problems the Conservative Movement faces, and in principle the aim is academic and descriptive, not prescriptive.

Even with those limits, I have been somewhat disappointed by the conference. As mentioned above, for those of us who keep up with what's happening in the movement, there hasn't been a lot new.  But I'm also disappointed with the selection of speakers, for they don't represent a "balance" of views within the movement.  The discussion are heavy on Kaplan and light on Heschel.  The halachic views are overwhelmingly from the right wing of the Conservative movement.  Speakers include:

  • Rabbi Einat Ramon (who I'm listening to as I write this), former dean of the Schechter Institute (the seminary for Conservative rabbis in Israel), who opposed following the seminaries in New York and Los Angeles on the matter of ordaining gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi David Golinkin, considered the leading halachic authority in Conservative circles in Israel, widely considered to be on the right wing of the movement, was also opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi Joel Roth, who resigned from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards based on the committee's passing a teshuva allowing for the ordination of gays and lesbians.
  • Rabbi David Halivni, who left the movement over 20 years ago over the issue of the ordination of women.

Of all the rabbis from the movement speaking about halacha, only Rabbi Avram Reisner would be considered a representative of anything center or left.  The leading voices of the more liberal views on halacha — rabbis such as Elliot Dorff, Gordon Tucker, or Daniel Nevins — are not here.

Yesterday's discussion of theology — which followed the session on sociology — seemed more a continuation of the discussion of sociology than than a discussion of theology.  The concepts discussed had more to do with the relation between Jews and "the tradition" than with our relationship with God.  As I said above, heavy on Kaplan, light on Heschel.

I suppose it's not surprising: scholars are attracted to a scholarly approach, and Kaplan certainly took a very intellectual approach. And it's true, that for many years, the Conservative movement has been more about intellect, more about Wissenschaft, and definitely more influenced by the intellectual Kaplan than the mystical Heschel. So as an academic exercise, I suppose focusing on the intellectual approach is not surprising.

And as an intellectual institute, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has certainly done a magnificent job. Rabbi Halivni spoke about why all the leading Jewish scholars of his day went to JTS.  And it was because learning clearly took priority over everything else. There is a teaching that "the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth."  And if you labor to reveal the truth, if you draw close to the truth, you draw close to God.

There has been an interesting discussion over on the Shefa list about the conference. A rabbinic colleague commented: "whatever other intellectual and theoretical value the Van Leer conference will undoubtedly have and whatever discussion and debate it will undoubtedly provoke, it will not be a balm for what ails Conservative Judaism."  And that's true.  Of course, as an academic exercise, it's not intended to solve the problems of the movement.  And for those of us who care about this particular approach to Judaism, we do need more action and fewer conferences.

One of the other interesting things I heard was Professor Steven Cohen — definitely a supporter of the movement, and as a sociologist, a consultant to the movement — say that over the last ten to fifteen years, the Conservative movement has created some of the best Jewish social entrepreneurs in the world.  Alas, the movement has not only failed to nurture and support them, but in many cases actively drove them away.  He cited an example of the problem: he was talking to the rabbi of a large synagogue, and asked him: "so, in a few years, what will you do when a group of 15 or 20 of your most dedicated, knowledgeable congregants come to you and say 'we want to have our own minyan, here in the building, but we want to do our own lay-led service.  A 'library minyan.'"  The rabbi responded, "it's not going to happen in a few years –it already happened a few weeks ago, and we are struggling with it."

The fact that it's a struggle shows one of the problems we have. The "top down" model doesn't work for a lot of our best congregants.  Tell them "we don't want to split the minyan, we want to have one community" and they'll just leave and hold their minyan elsewhere.  The proper reaction would be "great, how can I help?"  We need to welcome initiatives from our people, not feel threatened by them. We need to define Conservative Judaism by our theology and our approach to halacha, not by membership in our institutions, which are often perceived of as insular and behind the times.

In the discussion on Shefa, there was a call to action–several people commented we need action, not conferences.  I shared that with my wife Lauri, and her response was:

"You guys need to stop hanging out at rabbi camp like a bunch of eternal geeky teenagers and go out and DO something.  Organize a march to the Wall of 1000 women wearing tallitot;  have 20 lawyers march along in case they get arrest
ed, and a bunch of El HaLev women with black belts for security.  Sue the Israeli government until they fund your rabbis and your shuls here and recognize your marriages and conversions — stop acting like peons and 90 pound weaklings — remember, WE have more money than THEY do (or at least our US congregants do)!  Do active outreach to the haredim and the secular if you think you're so cool.   Pick a serious world problem and SOLVE it.  Open the kind of one-stop public services center I suggested — no one else is doing it.  Start a PAC and decide what to put your money behind.  Start an Israeli political party. Back a Masorti rabbi for public office, starting with the Jerusalem city council  — the orthodox have plenty of rabbis in the government.

Chabad FEEDS and HOUSES and EDUCATES orphans and runs hospitals.  Reform shuls tend to be much more politically active.  What have you guys ever done for the planet other than kill trees for your publications and hand out tote bags with your logos on them?

Everything "the movement" does seems like whining combined with eternal naval gazing and random bickering. And your navels and fights aren't the least bit interesting to the rest of the world.  You need to be ABOUT something other than not being orthodox or reform if you want anyone to "join" you."
OK, I'll go out and do something.  But I still want to stay and hear the debate about "Halakhah and the Limits of Openness."  🙂
Reb Barry, live from the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem
A session on "Challenges Posed by the Conservative Movement to Other Movements" is just wrapping up.  Rabbi Reuven Hammer gave a very nice response after the speakers.  Dr. Aviad Hacohen talked about how Conservative is between the "Orthodox hammer" and the "Reform anvil."  R. Hammer eloquently spoke about one of the reasons many of us are davka associated with the Conservative Movement –because it's important for us to live in the tension.  And at the end of the day, with all of our kvetching about our demographic problems, our bureaucratic institutions, etc., it's good to have the reminder of why we (personally) are still here and why we care: for many of us, on the level of our personal theology, there's simply no where else for us to go…

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

5 thoughts on “Live from the International Conference on Conservative Judaism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem

  • December 30, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Lauri is absolutely correct. And her suggestions are exactly what we should focus on. Count me in! Barry, when’s the march?

  • December 30, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    When I read Rabbi Andy Sacks’ blog -Masorti Matters on the Jerusalem Post web site I humbly but honestly think that he writes as you state, “Everything “the movement” does seems like whining combined with eternal naval gazing and random bickering.” He complains about some issue with the Orthodox establishment in every entry. I don’t think I ever read anything he writes in the blog about Masorti Matters. Reb Barry: Can’t you and/or your peers do something about this? It appears to me that Rabbi Sack’s blog does a terrible disservice to the movement because to have the one Masorti rabbi that is given a soapbox by the JPost use that platform to never write about Masorti Matters hurts the Masorti movement. Are you cool with his blog? I’m not down with his approach. Sincerely, Jonathan Loring, member Congregation Beth Shalom – Pittsburgh PA and MA JTS ’96

  • December 31, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for writing.

    First, a “disclaimer.” Rabbi Sacks is a friend of mine, so I may not be the most objective person to ask.

    I would like to differentiate between what Rabbi Sacks writes and what he does. As you quoted Lauri, the movement seems to do a lot of whining: at the same time, I have to say that of the people the movement has here in Israel in an official capacity – Rabbi Sacks is the executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly here – he actually DOES more than about anyone else. He is frequently in court defending Conservative converts being hassled by the immigration authorities, he was at the two marches Masorti participated in recently – the “take back Jerusalem” march, and the recent gathering at the Kotel with Women of the Wall. He does a lot to get people involved, etc. At the same time, I can certainly see how you might get the impression that much of what he writes is protesting the Orthodox establishment (they do, of course, give us a lot of stuff to protest about!). Other than whining, I think he’s a gifted writer and occasionally brings some real insights or tells a good story (and that’s the best most of writers can hope for – the occasional “flash of brilliance,” none of us, not even Thomas Friedman, is brilliant all the time).

    I will pass on your message: less whining, more about things we are actually doing!

    B’virkat Shalom,

    Reb Barry

  • December 31, 2009 at 4:30 am

    Jonathan Loring writes: “When I read Rabbi Andy Sacks’ blog -Masorti Matters on the Jerusalem Post web site I humbly but honestly think that he writes as you state, “Everything “the movement” does seems like whining combined with eternal naval gazing and random bickering.” He complains about some issue with the Orthodox establishment in every entry.

    Let me first thank Barry Leff for coming to my defense.

    Let me also add that most of what I write is letters to the Interior Ministry, the Jewish Agency, and many others to attempt to obtain justice for those denied.

    I view my blog has an avenue for social criticism. I was asked to write a column for Ynet but turned it down as I wanted the freedom to rant and not have an obligation to be a mouth piece for the Masorti Movement. I am a spokesperson most of the time. I use my blog for other purposes.

    The number of hits I receive is enormous. Usually higher than Alan Dershowitz and Ed Kotch. This means I am striking a nerve.

    I often intend to write about Masorti and then a Hilul HaShem occurs which I find revolting. I feel the need to react.

    But as for the statement:
    “I don’t think I ever read anything he writes in the blog about Masorti Matters.He complains about some issue with the Orthodox establishment in every entry”.

    I guess you have not read my current blog which should answer your charge.

    Andy Sacks

  • January 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    This is sort of an inside perspective as a former Conservative congregant. My husband and I were married and happy in an established Masorti shul in California…..then four things happened. One was positive: a lay-led more traditional Friday night minyan got started; the other three were negative: we got a new rabbi who spent a lot of time bashing Orthodox Judaism and we got flooded with “temporary members” from the larger Reform congregation who signed up for two years so their kid could have his/her OWN bar/bat mitzvah date; Hebrew school was overcrowded and “cookie-cutter” and lacking in both depth and compassion–which was especially noticeable for my son, who was special needs.

    If I want to listen to Jew-bashing, I’ll go sit in a Catholic church on Good Friday–I walked out of the synagogue in disgust the day the rabbi gave a sermon on basically “we’re better than THEY (the Orthodox) are.”

    This was MY shul–people who are committed to it should not be pushed aside for two year floaters from the Reform congregation looking for an open bar mitzvah date, especially since once they joined, we had kashrut problems in the kitchen and a push towards more Reform-style services. If I wanted to be in a Reform congregation, I would’ve joined one. Our leadership just surrendered and after a couple of years the two congregations were virtually indistinguishable (except for the Hebrew, and our “visitors” even complained about that).

    We moved to Chabad. It was closer to start with; it was warmer, more accepting, less competitive, more interested in educating congregants in areas the congregants wanted to know about. My son was the recipient of a much higher level of Jewish education and because of his disabilities, teachers and rabbis made a special effort for him. Virtually everyone at Chabad was a Conservative refugee looking for a more traditional minyan, a sense of tradition and belonging that had been lost in our former-now-super-nearly-Reform-shul.

    Lauri IS right. You need to do what Chabad does — outreach, nonjudgmental acceptance, education, and offer what is the BEST of Conservative Judaism rather than being the perennial compromise between Reform and Orthodox.

    One thing we should all be working for: a change in the distribution of money for congregations. Government funding should go to the communities which can then VOTE on which kind of congregation they want to have–Bnai Brak will obviously want a haredi rabbi and shul; Ramat Aviv might want Reform; Raanana and Modi’in might have people who want to start a Masorti congregation. Money should NOT go to the Rabbinute and Councils to continue their monopoly of hareidi-only Judaism.


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