Recently, I’ve been in an ongoing dialogue with a committed Jewish layman affiliated with the Conservative movement. He and I have argued on any number of occasions, and some might be very surprised to see me publishing his words with an expression of open agreement and admiration. Nonetheless, a recent contribution of his to a mailing list prompted a very positive dialogue about the importance of learning Torah. I was going to (and still plan to) post about the challenges of promoting Torah study outside Orthodox circles, but first and foremost I commended him for “getting it” — for realizing that Torah study is the highest priority for our Jewish future.
Here is his response. Having decided that it was best to let his words speak for themselves, I’ve identified the author only by first name.
Yes, it is quite Ok to quote me. I do feel strongly that you mention that many in the leadership of Conservative/Masorti Judaism “do get it”. In the past their concerns and actions were local and not very effective. However, in recent years they are openly stressing to their congregations and students that Conservative Judaism can only be reinvigorated with serious Torah study and emphasis on the observance of mitzvot. Major conferences of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism openly deal with this issue.
I haven’t seen any signs of Masorti/Conservative Judaism changing its view on accepting the methods or results of higher biblical criticsm, but they finally are changing their emphasis. The particular method by which any book of the Bible was edited is less important than teaching our students that the Bible is the word of God, and our oral law is the Jewishly authentic way of understanding the Bible, and of understanding how to live as Jews.
Most of the leadership openly admits now that their emphasis on textual scholarship was fine for a scholarly elite, but was ineffective and not compelling for the masses. For instance, how can producing a new critical edition of a midrashic manuscript help teach the average child or young adult about midrash in general? How can a historical survey of the development of halakha substitute for actually sitting our kid down and teaching them classes based on the Mishneh Torah?
We want our children to love Torah study and observance, yet the culture of many non-Orthodox synagogues does litle to create this reality. As such, the non-Orthodox are finally waking up to the fact that they need to change the very culture of non-Orthodox Judaism, to stress the study of Torah lishmah and the observance of mitzvot.
Even among the Reform some (a minority, to be sure) have come to this conclusion. In my previous congregation in Bronx, New York, we had a Reform rabbi who became Shomer Shabbat, and taught about mitzvot as commandments, not as “good deeds” or “folkways”. The Reform community, however, has a much steeper hill to climb, as most of their leaders and rabbis still openly dismiss or denigrate halakha. (I’ve been very disappointed by some letters and articles I have read in the CCAR journal. Many Reform rabbis and leaders still hew towards classical German Reform, which views most of halakha as outmoded or even embarassing.)
The big question, of course, is whether Conservative Judaism can develop a committed cadre of leaders and teachers who enthusiastically promote what needs to be promoted, and who can transfer these ideals to the next generation.