Hillel Halkin and the Drift of Conservative Judaism

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Hillel Halkin concludes an interesting memoir of his teenage years in the current Commentary Magazine with a line about his father, who was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary to the effect (quoting from memory): It would be another year before my father would confess to me that he had absolutely no belief in the G-d to whom he prayed so fervently three times a day.

That statement reminds me of a story — perhaps apocryphal — told at JTS about a student who asked one of the great luminaries of the place whether it was permitted to ride in a an elevator on Shabbos. His teacher told him it was forbidden. When he finished climbing up five flights of stairs, he saw his teacher exiting the elevator. The professor told him, “You asked whether it was permitted.”

These stories, particularly Halkin’s, may go a long way to explaining the drift of Conservative Judaism. Those who do not believe themselves are obviously going to have a very hard time instilling belief in anyone else.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer once received a letter from his Talmud Torah rebbe critical of Agudath Israel. He arranged to meet the man, and found him eating bare-headed. Rabbi Sherer thanked him for having answered a question that had been bothering him for years: Why had he alone of the Talmud Torah class remained religious? Now he knew the answer. Because the rebbe himself was not a believer.

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30 Responses

  1. L.Oberstein says:

    Erev Rosh Hashanah
    i have found Cross Currents to be an interesting discussion group . The topics chosen are exactly what I am interested in. It is like an on line bull session, as we called it in the olden days. Keep up the good work in the new year and try to find more than the same writers and responders, widen the group.
    The demise of the Conservative Judaism that I grew up with could have been predicted long ago. It is tragic because most Jews are not orthodox and orthodoxy is not a normative life style choice for most people. Would that there were a way to be a little bit frum and still have Jewish grandchildren.

  2. Retlops says:

    There is a very similar story you tell about the JTS professor in Eli Ginzburg’s memoir of his father, Louis.
    Now there’s a talmid chacham JTS professor who was not Orthodox!

  3. Harry says:

    Ori, your hypothetical story is good and does convey an account of how things might have happened (of course there is the possibility the all those involved in writing that first Torah would have actually recalled everything as it was in the original format). But, to answer your question: I might be inclinced to study, but reverance would be out of the question. I would not stand if someone brought the Declaration of Independence into a room in which I was seated. I do not try to kiss the Bill of Rights (though some might do well to at least close enough to do so). Liewise, I do not rise when someone brings in a book of Tehillim or Nevi’im.

    But in a more practical sense, would you apply yourself to learn Torah via talmud et.al. if as its basic assumption you felt that all the Rabbis in the talmud were lying about the origin of the Torah? how could you abide by observing the more odd mitzvot (no work on Shabbat, Kashrut) where there is no logical human need when the dictates of these laws is from people who were perpetuating a lie (i.e., the Torah is from G-d and is exactly as the way it was when presented to Moses). Indeed, the Talmud is very specific that anyone who denies this assumption is a heretic.

    In my experience, I have found that you cannot get people to agree on anything if they hold some facet of the issue at hand as different from their belief. Those people on your island would have had to hold their tongues (you ever know of Jew who could do that?) for generations until all who knew the intial secret were dead and those who knew those people were dead for generations to come. The truth about human behavior is that at least 3 of those first ten survivors would have held secret meetings with family and friends to tell them “the way things really went down.” People do not keep secrets taht well, especially when one is addressing a theology.

    So, would I study that historical book? Yes, but I would not lead my life by it or hold it to be Holy. besides, the problem still stands regarding how do people with these disparent views have a conversation about Torah?

  4. Bob Miller says:

    If Torah is studied or Judaism is practiced according to the model Ori Pomerantz described above (#23, 26), there is no such thing as a commandment. Everything is taken provisionally based on a guess as to its authenticity and a human judgment as to its social utility. This is Bizarro-Judaism, not Judaism as practiced by serious Jews.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Harry, I’d like to answer your question: “why learn Torah if you don’t believe that it is complete and authentic” with a hypothetical story. Two hundred and fifty years ago a ship carrying immigrants to America went down in a storm. Most immigrants drowned, sadly, but ten Jewish men, along with their families, managed to get to a previously unknown island. All of them were observant and Orthodox, but none of them were great scholars.

    After taking care of the basics for survival on the island, everybody got together and decided it was time to ensure the survival of Judaism.

    They slaughtered a few of the wild goats in the island, made vellum, and started to write a Torah scroll. None of them had ever memorized the Torah, so the version they got had a lot of missing pieces, and some Midrashic stories that they mistakenly thought belong in the Torah itself.

    As imperfect as their Torah was, it was still better than the rest of their Tanakh (except for their Tehillim, which they got almost completely right). They also reconstructed the Mishnah, Talmud, and Shulchan Aruch as best they could, which wasn’t all that great.

    Now, ten generations later, this island has a thriving Jewish community. There are three synagogues and one large Yeshiva. If you had grown up on this Island, would you have gone to this Yeshiva, to learn the word of G-d as best you could in your circumstances?

  6. L.Oberstein says:

    I was raised Conservative and agree that most observance is cultural and that belief is secondary as a reason for observance for most traditional Jews.Some of these belong to orthodox synagogues,but they are there because they like the environment. I first met “believers” when I started attending a yeshiva high school. It really is a different expression of Judaism, worried about minutae, coming up with new chumros, denigrating average people as “baalebatim”. As much as one may not like it, however, it is these “believers” who are reproducing. The type of cultural Jew that I knew are not able to get their children to have the same nostalgia for a way of life not grounded in religious belief. That is why we just don’t have much kosher style Judaism any more, it is passe. So, I came to the realization at a very young age that if I wanted my children and grandchildren to be Jews, i had to join the club of the strict constructionists. I just don’t see any alternative.

  7. Harry says:

    “the Heterodox believe is that the Torah as we have it today is not an accurate description of what G-d said – that human beings lie and make mistakes, and that the Torah that we have today had been transmitted by human beings.”

    I admit my lack of familiarity with this branch of Judaism, but the question would have to be “Why have a Torah?” Would you stand when the ark is opened? Would you kiss it as it passed by? For my part, I could not hold as sacred anything that has at its core a lie. Furthermore, if one held that the Torah is a lie (it’s the only discription we have of what G-d said) then all scholars who have built the theology and practice of Judaism based on it have been committing the single biggest fraud humanity has ever known (seeing that the other major religions of the world base themselves on the Torah). The challenge seems to be, “how can Jews relate to one another (beyond obvious civility) if they cannot agree on anything after the existance of G-d? Certainly the Torah no longer is a touchstone, as the various movements will view it in very different ways (lies, truth, patchwork, misguided approximations of some hallucinagenic experience). On a more microcosmic level, why would anyone spend time studying the Torah or its related texts?

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    G-d that lies sounds about as self contradictory as G-d who becomes a human being. What the Heterodox believe is that the Torah as we have it today is not an accurate description of what G-d said – that human beings lie and make mistakes, and that the Torah that we have today had been transmitted by human beings.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    “Why JTS went off the right path is a good question”

    Why those named in Comment #21 taught at a JTS that had gone off the right path is a better question.

  10. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Hillel Halkin’s father, Prof. Abraham Halkin, taught Jewish History at JTS. All the teachers of rabbinics and Talmud of the past generation at JTS: Rabbi Profs. Shaul Lieberman, Hayyim Dimitrovsky, Dov Zlotnik, Israel Francus, Shraga Abramson, Avraham Sofer, Jose Faur, David Halivni-Weiss, etc. were (are) great talmidei Hakhamim, maaminim, and strictly halakhic Jews. Why JTS went off the right path is a good question, but simplistic answers don’t help.

  11. Harry says:

    I find some of these comments interesting and eye-opening. There is an issue that seems to be missed in all of these comparrisons between the three major movements: While they all have a belief in G-d (despite individual differences, one cannot remove this belief from the overall movement). However, the G-d they follow is different. The movements that hold by a multiple author theory for the Bible/Torah believ in a G-d that lies (every instance of G-d said to Moses would be a lie in the multiple author theory). How can people from a movement that does not believ this position look at those who do hold this position and accept their approach to Judaism? To be sure, there should always be a respect for people, but one cannot expect such a significant difference to be overlooked. The Orthodox would say the Conservative movement is violating a basic tennant of faith, while the COnservative movement would say the Orthodox are living in a fantasy of bedtime stories. For my part, I have always felt that two Jews could have a meaningfull discourse, as long as they agreed on a basic premise: G-D. But when that is not a commonality, you cannot have a meaningful discussino about religion.

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Leibel Black, the Christian denominations only recognized each other as valid when they were too tired to keep fighting after the thirty years’ war. Before then not only did Catholics claim Protestants to be heretics and vice verse, but they tried to kill each other. Think about the problems between early Chasidim and Mitnagdim, except with less mercy and more armies.

  13. Ahron says:

    “If, according to the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative “movements” the belief in G-d and the Mesorah is not basic to Judaism, what then is?”

    Frankly, at this point: “Being-a-good-person”, Leftism and other forms of fashionability.

  14. Sammy Finkelman says:

    While Halkin went to Ramaz, his father taught at the Jewish Theological seminary, so I don;t know that he identified as Modern Orthodox. His parents also opposed the idea of going to the Talmudical Academy. He saw his mother omnce relight the blech on Shabbos (guests were coming)

  15. Leibel Black says:

    Throughout its history, Christianity developed a variety of denominations, and despite their differences, each one is considered a “legitemate” form of Christianity because each one adheres to the basic tenets of that faith. In contrat, until there was a Reform movement, there was no such thing as “Orthodox.” Until then, people behaved and believed in varying degrees of compliance with Halacha, but everyone knew what “Judaism” was. If, according to the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative “movements” the belief in G-d and the Mesorah is not basic to Judaism, what then is?

  16. Bob Miller says:

    A side point on NYC high schools way back when:

    I entered Stuyvesant HS as a freshman in 1962, after graduating from day school. Freshmen normally came from Jewish or Catholic schools (mainly the former), since public school students normally entered as sophomores from junior high.

    At an orientation assembly for freshmen and parents, a speaker from the administration (or maybe faculty) announced with some glee that we could now take off our tzitzis.

  17. Joe Schick says:

    “These stories, particularly Halkin’s, may go a long way to explaining the drift of Conservative Judaism.”

    I’m quite sure that Halkin’s father identified as modern Orthodox, and that Halkin was raised MO. So I don’t know if this explains Conservative Judaism, or, more plausibly, the move away from religion by the majority American Jews generally during that era.

  18. dilbert says:

    Interesting post only because of the number of assumptions it makes about Conservative Judaism, none of them proven or even backed by evidence. The plural of anecdote is not data. So, we have one JTS professor who has no faith in God, one perhaps apocryphal story about a JTS professor, and a story about a Talmud Torah teacher, who is not identified as a Conservative Jew. And this information ” may go a long way to explaining the drift of Conservative Judaism. Those who do not believe themselves are obviously going to have a very hard time instilling belief in anyone else.”

    Excuse me for a second. Where is the data that Conservative Jews dont believe in God? Or that non-belief is part of the Conservative platform? As far as I know this is not so. Or, is the issue non-belief in Halacha? The point is not clear. All in all the post is a confusing collection of perhaps true(or maybe not) stories, and conclusions that cast aspersions on fellow Jews, with no data backing up those aspersions. Doesn’t seem like a good elul post to me either.

  19. G-Man says:

    “Those who do not believe themselves are obviously going to have a very hard time instilling belief in anyone else.”

    True, but it applies to all groups, including Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has a teenage dropout problem and the Baal Tshuva movement attracts only paltry numbers, especially relative to the number of outreach workers in the field. Modern-day Orthodoxy is built on culture and lifestyle; the true believers are far and between, IMHO.

  20. JZ says:

    Shmuel B- From an agnostic’s point of view what’s wrong with motzei shem ra?

  21. Shmuel Bergenfeld says:

    I sure hope you’re not implying that anyone critical of the Agudah will end up a non-believer. Are Modern Orthodox Jews who are critical of the Agudah all nonbelievers?

    Shame on you, Rabbi Rosenblum, for even hinting at such motzei shem ra!!! Is this what you do right before Rosh Hashanah?! If anything, your caustic statement will itself cause nonbelief through its implicit sinas chinam.

    I am, by the way, an agnostic, despite living a chareidi lifestyle on the surface.

  22. DMZ says:

    “So why did it take the meeting many years later to make his lack of observance clear to R’ Sherer?”

    Because kids are perceptive, but don’t always fully understand what they see? I mean, if the guy fooled the administration, expecting his class to tell him he’s a hypocrite is a bit much. Same thing for parents – their kids may or may not get what they see, but a lack of belief on their part is going to transfer over in some way.

    Is there a source for this story? It feels a little apocryphal, albeit believable.

    -DMZ

  23. Joel Rich says:

    Micha,
    So why did it take the meeting many years later to make his lack of observance clear to R’ Sherer?
    KT

  24. Ori Pomerantz says:

    S., I’m writing this as heterodox Jew who is intermarried, and whose wife drives to a Conservative synagogue most Shabbats (she’s a better driver than I am).

    It would be unreasonable to expect an Orthodox blog such as cross-currents.com to not bash heterodoxy. The reason is not that they don’t like us, as individuals. It is that they believe that we should all be Orthodox. For an Orthodox Jew to accept Conservative Judaism as a legitimate alternative path to Judaism would be akin to a doctor accepting smoking and obesity as legitimate alternative pathes to good health. Furthermore, for an Orthodox Jew not to mention that heterodoxy is bad when s/he thinks it is called for would be a violation of Halacha, which requires to rebuke fellow Jews in certain cases.

    On the same level, there is nothing wrong with “Orthodoxy Bashing” as long as it is facts based and not malicious. In fact, a lot of what you see on this blog is precisely that – people saying that certain behaviors, that Orthodox Jews engage in, are bad. I bet very few Conservative and Reform Jews ever pray on an airplane in a manner that cuases a disruption, for example.

    While people have innate value and are worthy of respect, movements and organizations are not. Of course people who think differently will disagree with them.

  25. Yaakov Menken says:

    S., If we were interested in speaking internally to Orthodox Jews, and discussed the Conservative movement’s foibles as extensively as you suggest, I might agree with you. You can find a Reform news digest like that, it’s called IRAC. The purported mission of IRAC is to promote religious pluralism — not collect articles about how bad the haredim are — but the collected articles on its web site struggle to balance between the two.

    Cross-Currents is, of necessity, driven by the news, and we are not interested in speaking only to the Orthodox. The recent flurry of articles about the change of the Conservative movement’s position on homosexuality, and the Slate article about Ismar Schorsch, both made the Conservative movement’s affairs — and its mistakes — unusually newsworthy.

    The last time this question was posed was in early April, at which point I wrote a post explaining my reasoning for discussing the movement. That, incidentally, was the last post “about how krum Conservative Judaism is” until August 29, following the appearance of the article in Slate.

  26. Micha says:

    Reb Joel,

    I think R’ Rosenblum’s point is that he can’t help but betray his lack of observance to the class. It takes a very good actor to fool an audience for 10 months. Little things slip through in body language and tone of voice. Students in particular are good at smelling hypocricy.

    I think that’s true.

    -mi

  27. S. says:

    There are currently four posts on the main Cross Currents posts about how krum Conservative Judaism is. While I didn’t count, my impression is that this is about average at any given time.

    Why is this necessary? Wouldn’t we all agree that a Conservative blog with approximately four posts on how krum Orthodoxy is at any given time is in fact Orthodox-bashing?

  28. Henry Frisch says:

    At first, as a fellow Bronx Science person with a religious struggle waged decades ago, I was very much enjoying Halkin’s memoir. However, when the writer’s loss of observance (by the end of high school he was eating pork) became clear, I felt a sadness at his fate in the 1950’s. When I attended the school in the 1960’s it was possible for my friends and me to defy the Hebrew teacher at the school who told us not to wear our yarmulkas. That public act together with a commitment to Jewish study after school led me on a very different path. Later I spent thirty-three years teaching literature at the school, all that time wearing my yarmulka. In his memoir Halkin seems to delude himself into thinking, even at this late date, that a life dedicated to Torah values and to American life were mutually exclusive.

  29. Joel Rich says:

    Rabbi Moshe Sherer once received a letter from his Talmud Torah rebbe critical of Agudath Israel. He arranged to meet the man, and found him eating bare-headed. Rabbi Sherer thanked him for having answered a question that had been bothering him for years: Why had he alone of the Talmud Torah class remained religious? Now he knew the answer. Because the rebbe himself was not a believer.
    ======================================
    How many students were in the class? Had the teacher ever betrayed his lack of observance to the class (apparently not)? To what did R’ Sherer ascribe his ability to not be affected versus the rest of the class?

    KT

  30. Michoel says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum,
    Respectfully, I had to read the last paragraph a few times. It would be much more easy to understand, had you written “why had all his classmates become irreligious”.