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October 25, 2014 / 1 Heshvan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Conservative Judaism’

WoW Miss their Chance for Equality at Kotel Priestly Blessing

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Tens of thousands of Jews prayed at the Western Wall Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot, and received the traditional priestly blessing of dozens of Kohenim, but no Women of the Wall tried to join.

Kohenim are of the priestly tribe traced to the Biblical High Priest Aaron.

The Women of the Wall have campaigned vigorously the past year to pressure for the same religious standing of men to read from a Torah scroll and wear tefillin at the Western Wall. They have succeeded in winning the right to pray as they wish at the southern section of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch and not adjacent to the more widely-known section of the Wall.

So why didn’t they try to prove again that “equal” mean the “same” and presume they are Kohenim. Don’t Reform Jews deserve their blessing?

The Reform movement generally maintains a policy of “equality” and rejects the distinctions between Kohenim and other Israeli tribes, but some Reform and Conservative prayer groups allow the daughter of a Kohen to perform the Priestly Blessing.

The same prayer groups also call a daughter of a Kohen to the reading of the Torah, in place of the traditional recognition of a Kohen for the Torah portion that is chanted in Israel on the Sabbath, holidays, Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the month and on Mondays and Thursdays.

The Kohenim were active in sacrifices in the Holy Temples, and Reform and Conservative thought concludes that since the Temples have been destroyed and there are no sacrifices today, the designation of a Kohen is either out of date or is not restricted to men. The Conservative movement is split with two opposing opinions on whether a daughter of a Kohen can perform the Priestly Blessing.

Most Reform and Conservative congregations omit the Priestly Blessing, which in Orthodox congregations in the Diaspora are performed only on the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The blessing is recited toward the end of the additional Musaf prayers. Reform Jews usually don’t bother themselves with praying too much, and they delete Musaf.

Reform Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser posted on a website “More liberal communities, those that insist on thorough gender equality, do not observe the distinction of Kohanim and Levi’im at all.”

Reform Jews, with their 11th Commandment of equality, declare that all Jews are equal in their functions as Jews. All of us are the same. Everyone is a priest, everyone can wear tefillin, everyone can read from the Torah, and everyone can do pretty much as he or she pleases.

That begs one question: If all are equal, if Jewish law rejects the Torah as the living law of today, and if every Jew can understand the Torah as he wants, why is there such a thing as a Reform “rabbi”?

So much for equality.

Keeping Jews Jewish

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

I recently attended the wedding of a wonderful ba’al teshuva couple whose parents are Conservative Jews. One of the honored guests was their parent’s Conservative Rabbi. Although the mesader kedushin (the officiating rabbi) was Orthodox, the Conservative rabbi was quite involved with various Halachic minutia throughout the course of the evening (…none under the hupah). Without getting into details, I have to say that I was impressed. The rabbi was very knowledgeable in Halacha and insisted that it be followed. If one did not know that he was a Conservative rabbi, one could have easily thought he was Orthodox… and not especially left wing either.

I happen to know that this rabbi came through the ranks of the Conservative movement. He was not one of those Orthodox “sellouts” who took a Conservative shul for the money. He came from a committed Conservative home and his primary Jewish education was through the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he was ordained. His shul is fairly large and I would guess consists mostly of non-observant (by Orthodox standards) Jews.

This got me to thinking about the origins of the Conservative movement. I fully believe that the founders’ intent was to ‘conserve’ Judaism… from the inroads of Reform that was sweeping the country in those days. Those founders wanted to produce a rabbinate that was in harmony with American values and American culture… in order to better relate to the melting pot mentality of those days.

Although the movement has since undergone changes whereby questionable theologies have become acceptable… I do not believe that was part of the original equation and did not become so until the late Mordechai Kaplan advanced his radical ideas about the nature of God and the Jewish people. Although radical views are not required in Conservative Judaism, they are now accepted or at least tolerated.

I don’t know the theology of this rabbi. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he believed in Torah MiSinai. In any case, I think one can fairly say that Conservative rabbis like the one at the wedding are observant and see themselves in many ways like kiruv professionals for their members. Not that they are able to get their members to observe Shabbos. But that they try and get them to be as observant as possible without alienating them from the shul.

Oddly enough, this is the philosophy of Lubavitch. Although their primary focus is on making as many Jews as possible religious Lubavitchers, they do things one step at a time and often do not succeed beyond merely making non observant Jews merely Lubavitivch friendly. They will say that we all fall short of perfection and that we should all try and improve in our observances… even those of us who are shomer Shabbos!

I think the Conservative rabbi sees himself and his role in the same way. I further believe that he would be overjoyed if any of his congregants become Orthodox via Chabad or any other Orthodox Kiruv group. Indeed he was effusive with praise for this young couple who were going to spend their first year of marriage in Israel with the husband spending time in a yeshiva.

I realize of course that not all Conservative rabbis are like this. But I’ll bet that there are a lot more like him – that actually live up to the original Conservative credo of trying to conserve Judaism.

I bring all this up in light of an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner. She too was critical of her own columnist Jay Michaelson for considering Haredism to be the single biggest existential threat to “fabric of American Jewish Life”…. And castigated him for demonizing and alienating one group when there is another threat that is “just as potent.”

Her point was that the many unaffiliated Jews are increasingly opting out of their Judaism. From the Forward article:

As the UJA-Federation of New York’s recent population survey highlighted, the growth of the “unaffiliated” has equally profound and worrying consequences for the future of the Jewish community. Compounded by the shrinking middle — that mixture of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who are, with some notable exceptions, throwing a party fewer and fewer people want to attend — we have a community that is ceding ground to an extreme form of Judaism largely because many of its members don’t care enough to maintain any other form.

The statistics that Ms. Eisner quotes in her editorial are illustrative of the problem. The trend is towards the growth of Orthodoxy and the shrinkage of everything else. It isn’t too hard to predict the future of heterodox movements.

But instead of being triumphalist, I think we Orthodox Jews are better served by reflecting on this massive attrition by so many Jews from Judaism… and seeing if there is anything we can do about it. To my mind it is tragic that we are losing so many Jews to an assimilation that sees any and all religion as archaic and useless.

It is all too easy to write everybody else off and say, “That’s life”! We can’t really do anything about it. Let us therefore concentrate on ourselves – to make our lives holier and re-build Judaism’s numbers by our own propagation. Thankfully there is Chabad and other Kiruv organizations that do not feel this way. But the people they reach are all a drop in the bucket compared to attrition numbers.

Which brings me back to the Conservative rabbi I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The fact is that if there was some way we could work together with people like him, I think our attempts at outreach would be far more successful. Altruistic Conservative rabbis like him I am sure would be eager to do that.

I am convinced that any and every non-observant Jew that becomes Orthodox would be a success story for him – if he were in some way involved with an Orthodox Kiruv movement – even it were nothing more than steering teenagers to NCSY and through them they became observant, that would be considered a victory for him.

I’m not saying that it will be easy to accomplish that. I realize there are restrictions involved because of issues having to do with validation. These issues are real. Virtually all the Gedolim of previous generations, including Rav Soloveitchik, forbade any religious collaboration with heterodox rabbis for fear of giving them tacit recognition.

One may argue that conditions are different now and since these movements are in decline there is little danger of our legitimizing them in any meaningful way. And that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs a now archaic public policy. But it is way below my pay grade to over-rule these giants.

That those on the left wing of Orthodoxy have done so – even if for these very reasons does not make it right. Besides – joint public prayer ceremonies and the like do not really do all that much for outreach anyway, in my view. There is a difference between working with them behind the scenes – and standing in a public arena and thereby by inference endorsing them.

I believe that we should work with them. Those who are sincere about mitzvah observance, like this rabbi, desire to keep Jews – Jewish. And they now realize that their past leniencies like permitting their members to drive to shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. And exactly counterproductive to their goals of preserving Judaism. They have instead created a path out of it… and their movement is now in serious decline.

I don’t know how to co-operate with them in ways that will not violate the will of the rabbinic giants of the last generation. But I’m sure it can be done. The devil – I know – is in the details. But at this point in time – it is worth taking the time to figure it out. There is too much at stake and the time is short. Before long there will be no Conservative Jews to work with. If not now, when?

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

The Outreach Revolution

Friday, April 26th, 2013

I think I’ve said this before – or something like it. Jack Wertheimer is one of my favorite Conservative Jews. A recent article of his in Commentary Magazine could not be more positive about Orthodox outreach. In fact I think he is even more supportive of it than many Orthodox Jews.

Why would a prominent Conservative Jew be so supportive of Orthodox kiruv? I suppose that he believes in the values of Torah and mitzvot. Despite popular notions to the contrary, Conservative Judaism is not opposed to doing mitzvot. They actually support it. At least on paper. How they define mitzvah observance is where the problem lies. Another problem with Conservative mitzvah observance are the percentages of those who actually observe…

My guess is that the percentage of Conservative Jews who observe Shabbot in any meaningful Halachic sense – is very small. I believe that Professor Wertheimer is a part of that minority.

Theological differences exist too. But those problematic views are not mandated… and thus surmountable in an individual. That they are tolerated by the movement is beyond the scope of this essay.

Professor Wertheimer has done an excellent job of studying and analyzing Orthodox kiruv – in virtually all of its incarnations. He discusses its history, financing, appeal, and examines why it flourishes. He credits the Lubavitcher Rebbe for starting this revolution. And he correctly notes that many non-Habad kiruv workers have learned from Habad.

From Habad; to Aish HaTorah; to Torah U’Mesorah; to community kollelim; to Modern Orthodox kiruv… he lauds it all. He even concludes that Orthodoxy underestimates its own success. Success that he views with a very positive eye.

He also notes the friction created between Conservative rabbis who lead synagogues and kiruv workers. The claim is that Habad (for example) will set up shop and undermine the Conservative shul business structure by offering smaller friendlier shuls with little or no synagogue dues. They also offer to provide Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies without any minimum shul religious class attendance requirement (typically 3 years). Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are a drawing card for membership. True to form, it seems that Professor Wertheimer has no problem with Habad doing that.

The realities of 21st century life in America have caused lofty kiruv goals of bringing Jews to full observance to be lowered. One of those realities is the massive attrition of Jews from the Conservative movement into secular lifestyles. The pool of Jewish kiruv targets from there has been diminished. Conservative Jews tended to give their children at least a minimal Jewish identity making them more receptive to kiruv. Those who have left it to become completely secular makes it much harder for them to be attracted to an observant lifestyle. I agree with him.

That the expectations have been lowered and that the Lubavitch model of linear success is increasingly becoming the model for non Lubavitch kiruv. Any increase at all in their level of commitment is now viewed a success. As such Professor Wertheimer contends that Orthodox Kiruv is having far more impact on American Jewry than anyone might imagine. Those who have come into contact with Orthodox outreach programs but do not become Orthdodox themselves take that knowledge and impart it to other non-Orthodox Jew is their shuls. These Jews might never come into contact with Orthodox outreach. Thus there is a sort of multiplier effect.

Professor Wertheimer has the highest praise for Habad. They seem to be the most successful and the most organized. For example he points out their JLI program:

Of particular note is the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), by far the largest internationally coordinated adult-education program on Jewish topics, offering the same set of courses at hundreds of Chabad locations around the world, all on the same schedule. This means that Jews who are traveling can follow the same course from session to session, even if they find themselves in a different city each week. In the fall of 2012, nearly 14,000 American Jews were enrolled in JLI courses, and overall close to 26,000 participated in Chabad’s teen- and adult-education programs.

The Chabad network is striving to create a seamless transition, so that young people who attended its camps or schools will gravitate to a Chabad campus center when they arrive at college and later, as adults, will join Chabad synagogue centers. No other Jewish movement offers this kind of cradle-to-grave set of services. The participants in these programs, needless to say, range in their Jewish commitments, but with the exception of a small minority, all are drawn from the ranks of the non-Orthodox.

But he also notes the explosion of non-Habad Kiruv organziations as well – including the far more insular world of Haredim. There are about 50 or so community kollelim that do outreach. My only real quibble with Professor Wertheimer is that these kollels are really more about in-reach than outreach (although they do outreach too). They tend to reach the already observant world and raise the level of observance and limud Torah. There are drawbacks to this too which I have discussed in the past but are also beyond the scope of this essay.

Is Sabbath Observance Enough?

Monday, March 18th, 2013

The David Brooks article in the New York Times about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn has stirred up a lot of controversy. This time it is a complaint in the Forward from an unlikely source – Jordana Horn, an observant Conservative Jew. I say unlikely – not because it is unlikely that she would complain, but because of her identification as an observant Conservative Jew. And by observant, I mean Shomer Shabbos. It is that particular Mitzvah that has in the past always been definitive of observance. At least in America I suppose that’s because it was so difficult to keep Shabbos during the great influx of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There were plenty of Jews that immigrated to this country then who were observant in Europe and wished to stay observant. But because of the work ethic of the times, many of them succumbed to the pressure of working on Shabbos – even while keeping the other Miztvos (like Kashrus)to the best of their abilities. Many Jews felt that it was either working on Shabbos or starving.

That concession cost them greatly in their children. In many if not most cases their children abandoned the ritual observances of their parents in part because of the melting pot spirit of the times… but perhaps equally as important, because they saw their fathers working on Shabbos. They considered it hypocritical of their fathers to insist on their children keeping Shabbos when their fathers worked on that day.

I am not judging that generation. Times were tough. These are just the sad facts of reality. We lost a lot of Jews of the subsequent generation to assimilation back then. Of course this is not the only reason we lost them. The utter lack of any meaningful Jewish education in those days had something to do with it too.

On the other hand there were a lot of Jews who toughed it out and did not work on Shabbos. They kept getting fired from their jobs when they didn’t show up for work. Or they somehow found jobs that did not require working on Shabbos even when it meant lesser pay. They were in the minority. But their kids for the most art stayed Shomer Shabbos too – as well observant of other Mitzvos.

Others may differ but this is why I think Shabbos is the defining characteristic of observant Judaism. Which brings me back to Ms. Horn. She is observant. She is Shomeres Shabbos. She admits that this is a relative rarity in the Conservative movement and although there are more than a few like her – I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of Jews in the Conservative movement are not Shomer Shabbos.

She complains that Mr. Brooks ‘waxed rhapsodic’ only about Orthodox Jews. …that her observance of Judaism is just as legitimate as in that of Orthodox Jewry.

The obvious question is, what makes her Conservative if she observes Shabbos? That is a very good question. In fact, if there were no labels like Orthodox and Conservative… we would all just be Jews with different levels of observance. (This is the way Sephardim live. This is one of the things I am envious of about them.)

Alas, there are labels. Labels that identify ideologies. In some cases those ideologies contradict Halacha and Mesorah. The problem I have with Ms. Horn is that she sees egalitarianism as an essential feature of her life. So much so apparently that she cannot imagine Judaism without it. She believes that equality of the sexes in all areas of life including religion is so important that Halacha can be changed to accommodate it. And she has found a movement that agrees with her and even encourages that kind of thinking.

The Conservative movement has done away with all Halacha that does not bow to egalitarianism. They have changed the entire nature of the Halachic process from one of adhering to Halacha as laid down before us by the sages as recorded in the Talmud and finalized in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries… to one of changing it to fit with the spirit of the times. Egalitarianism drives Halacha in the Conservative Movement – instead of Halacha driving egalitarianism.

Lapid: Let Conservatives and Reform in

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Yair Lapid, chairman and founder of the Yesh Atid Party, which ended with a surprisingly strong second place finish in the Israeli election Tuesday, had his first and only major appearance in the United States at last year’s convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. In May 2012, Lapid addressed the Atlanta convention of the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.

During his address to the RA, Lapid focused on the need for increased religious pluralism in Israel, as can be seen in this online video excerpt of his remarks.

The full video of


Lapid’s entire remarks is also available. Highlights can be found at the following points:

9:00: “This is really important because I believe that Jewish identity is in danger, and you are the gatekeepers … You are part of the last line of defense that believes that Judaism shouldn’t be the jailhouse of ideas, but the liberator if ideas. Judaism should not be the disintegrator of people but what gets people together. And Judaism shouldn’t be subordinated to small politics because it answers a higher rule.”

19:34: “I’m going to do whatever is necessary, whatever is in my power, to make it feasible to women, Conservative or Reform, to pray at the wailing wall, wearing their prayer shawls.

“Why? Because Israel cannot be the only country in the Western World that has no freedom of religion for Jews. This is just wrong.”

20:20: “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that there are going to be civil marriages in Israel.

“The total dominance of the Israeli Rabbanut over marriage and divorce in Israel is an insult to every free man. This is just wrong. “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure the equality of all movements of Judaism in Israel … in conversion, in budgets, in the eyes of the law.”

21:45: “The majority of Israelis are actually Conservative, they just don’t know it. “The majority of Israelis want a pluralistic, sane, welcoming Judaism; they are just not aware of the fact that there is such a thing.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/lapid-let-conservatives-and-reform-in-loosen-rabbinates-control/2013/01/24/

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