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Mira Sucharov

Conservative Judaism In Transition

By Mira Sucharov, March 30, 2011

Conservative Judaism is in transition. Once the largest stream of American synagogue life, it has, in recent years, been overtaken by Reform. In Canada, it still remains the largest denomination. But, Conservative shuls everywhere still struggle to remain vital among younger generations for whom shul membership feels less like an obligation and more of a choice. On top of this is the fundamental tension that the Conservative movement faces between a commitment to halacha (Jewish law) and an appreciation of contemporary values.
Long occupying the sometimes muddled middle ground between Orthodox Judaism – which adheres strictly to halacha – and Reform Judaism, which does not view halacha as binding, the Conservative movement promotes a "big tent" approach to Judaism, in which modern interpretations of halacha often set the tone. Among Conservative congregations in Canada alone, practices range widely, from the blessing of same-sex unions to excluding women from being counted in a minyan.
This balancing act has led critics of Conservative Judaism to accuse it of not standing for anything.
In a September 2007 Commentary article, historian Jack Wertheimer described the 1988 "Emet v’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism" as being “virtually incomprehensible.”
Earlier, in a February 2001 Moment Magazine article, Orthodox Rabbi Avi Shafran had written a scathing attack on Conservative Judaism saying, “Halacha receives lip service, at best, from the Conservative leadership,” and calling the movement “effectively defunct.”
Big tent movements can be difficult to read, let alone to navigate. But, by virtue of being broad and inclusive, they are uniquely poised to bring vigour and excitement to their missions.
It used to be that the biggest value-tensions between congregants and their shuls were in the areas of Shabbat observance and kashrut. It is common for congregants to drive to shul, while demanding that their clergy walk. While many Conservative Jews regularly eat in non-kosher restaurants, they might be offended to see their rabbi doing the same. But these tensions have mostly been worked out.
In my view, the biggest challenge today has to do with deeper ethical issues surrounding contemporary – namely liberal – values and ethics. The movement is closing in on this tension, even beginning to debate jettisoning the name Conservative for the more spiritual moniker "Masorti" (meaning ‘traditional,’ the name the movement uses outside of the United States and Canada.)
True, there have been growing pains.
The 2008 split from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism by four Canadian congregations to form the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues – which has now grown to nine congregations, including Ottawa’s Beth Shalom – highlights a rift in the movement between those favouring increased liberalization in such areas as women’s ritual participation and GLBT inclusion and others who are opposed. (In 2006, the Rabbinical Assembly began to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions.)
With all these crucial issues being grappled with, this is Conservative Judaism’s moment.
American Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen noted in 2008 that Jews are shifting from a normative to an aesthetic approach to religion.
“A normative approach argues that Jewish involvement is good and right, and that certain ways of being Jewish are better than others. An aesthetic approach is less judgmental and directive. It sees being Jewish as a matter of beauty and culture, as a resource for meaning rather than as an ethical or moral imperative.”
To this, I would add that for many, it is the particular aesthetic expression of Jewish practice that leads one to affiliate with a certain denomination in the first place. Long Shabbat morning services anchored by Hebrew and traditional melodies simply feel more authentic to many. But, once some of these members have signed up, their own values and ethics may get in the way of feeling truly comfortable. While this can be painful (the gay couple turned away from a chuppah; the woman who doesn’t count; the intermarried spouse who doesn’t feel welcome), it is also where things can get dynamic and interesting – if one is willing to work for change.
There are many areas where Conservative Judaism needs more voices to inject their current debates with texture and meaning: women’s role in prayer and community, full inclusion of gays and lesbians, recognizing the “unsung heroes” (what Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute calls non-Jewish spouses who help raise Jewish kids), social justice that goes beyond soup-kitchen-type social action, environmental awareness, and encouraging a deeper dialogue about Israel.
For the majority of adult Canadians who, like me, grew up in traditional congregations, there is something deeply moving and often nostalgic about the particular feel of a Conservative shul. But, now that we have grown up and are engaged in a broader world, where brittle us-versus-them divisions have proven wasteful and tragic, not all of Conservative Judaism’s current social practices resonate. We shouldn’t have to ‘check our liberalism at the shul door.’
My experience has been that we don’t have to. Only if, that is, we choose to join the conversation.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Carlton University in Ottawa

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