Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Muddle in the Middle

The Jewish Week, February 2005

Lately, the Conservative movement has seemed less than concerned about conserving itself. The bad news has come in droves: budget woes at the Jewish Theological Seminary; the flap over gay marriage and ordination, highlighted by the unnecessary confrontation with Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; all this topped off by declining demographics in the National Jewish Population Survey suggesting that nearly half of all those who grew up as Conservative Jews no longer identify as such.

These storm clouds have hidden from view significant events that could help return the movement to its historical centrality among American Jews. Over the past several weeks, the Rabbinical Assembly has for the first time made public online many of the key rulings of the fabled “Law Committee.” You can find these Responsa at http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/law/teshuvot_public.html. This landmark move coincides with the publication of a new book, “A Place in the Tent,” by a small group of rabbis and educators on the west coast who call themselves “The Tiferet Project.” The book posits a bold, more inclusive approach toward intermarried families, bypassing the normal channels of rabbinic debate and placing the subject squarely on the table to stimulate grassroots discussion.

The strength of Conservative Judaism lies in the creative tension that is at the core of its ideology. Given the choice, some people might prefer the “moral clarity” so in vogue, but, like most of us, Conservative Judaism lives in a real world of tough questions. It thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront imperfection: Judaism’s, society’s and our own. This muddle in the middle is an uncomfortable place to reside, but it is equally a dynamic one. So while other movements offer easy responses (which for Reform often is “Why not”?” and for Orthodoxy, “No way!”), Conservatives look for the kind of dialectic that has been central to rabbinic Judaism since Talmudic times. Synthesis doesn’t always mean compromise, but it always forces us to hear all views. There is no such thing as a knee-jerk Conservative response to anything. For those up to the intellectual challenge, it can be spiritually invigorating to wrestle with our traditions and texts rather than simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.

Amazingly, until very recently, this enriching journey was not made easily available to most Conservative Jews. Clergy and educators had it, naturally, as did many attending Camp Ramah. But the text in the pews was the Hertz Humash, which is about as reflective of the movement’s ideology as Das Capital is to the GOP. When the new Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, appeared in 2001, for the first time the laity began to “get it,” and to engage en masse in that liberating grappling with Torah. Suddenly, people felt free to ask when and how Exodus really happened. That produced oodles of bad press because the religious right was poised to attack and Conservative leaders weren’t prepared to fend it off. After all, grappling with the Exodus was nothing new to the movement’s elite; it’s something that had been done at the Seminary for generations. But someone forgot to tell those outside the ivory tower, who were busy swallowing Hertz’s spoon-fed apologetic in the pews.

And now, the next steps: the Responsa web site, public conversations about inclusivity and the demystification of the halachic process. At this site people will be fascinated to read about everything from the permissibility of stem cell research to the inclusion of the matriarchs in the Amidah. They will become less intimidated by their rabbis, who will no longer be the sole possessors of these secrets – and rabbis will have less need to give dummied-down sermons. The focus will be less on ritual correctness and more on intense philosophical debate.

Readers might be surprised to discover that even minority opinions can be valid. There is a built-in elasticity to Conservative Halacha, taking into account factors unique to each community and to every generation. This will be especially important as the Law Committee revisits the issues of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination. When that passionate dialogue becomes public, the media will once again miss the point and harp on whether the center will hold. The center will hold precisely because it will shift, as it always does, (most notably twenty years ago with the ordination of women). But with the leadership so concerned about unity and PR, the movement will miss yet another opportunity to revel in the creative tension that has spun off dynamic offspring for generations -- everything from Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, Heschel’s activism and the Havurah movement of the past century to the neo-Hasidic revivalism of today.

It is not surprising that Conservative Jews are the first to shun institutional labels, including their own. Labels are often prime indicators of stagnation and there is nothing stagnant about those who routinely struggle with life’s most gripping questions. But the movement’s leadership too often finds itself preoccupied with putting out the fires rather than fanning these passionate flames that are its very soul. Americans are craving an authentic spiritual alternative to “moral clarity.” It’s not just blue-staters who desire a few questions to go with all the pat answers.

Natan Sharansky, whom I deeply admire, has become the Administration’s standard-bearer for clarity. What we now need is a poster child for nuance. We need someone like the sage Hillel, a leader humble enough to give credence to opposing views, one who can seek truth somewhere in the give-and-take, in the muddle of the middle. If and when Conservative Judaism realizes that there is passion in that delicious ambiguity and that most Jews want to live there, it will regain its institutional mojo. It may or may not be called Conservative when it does, but it will most certainly be Judaism.

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