Conservative Judaism, what else? DECONSTRUCTED, courtesy Neil Gillman

Neil Gillman’s Conservative Judaism confirmed a lot of what I suspected about the movement. In fact, it seemed impossible that he was writing from a pro-Conservative perspective until the very last chapter, in which he suddenly declares that Frankel and Schecter would be glad about where the movement was going (207), which I don’t think is true, especially since earlier he said that even Kaplan, liberal of liberals, would “scoff” at women being ordained as rabbis (82).

In any case, it highlights a definite ideological difference, one that is very elusive and hidden between the lines of Emet v’Emunah somehow. Gillman writes that the “former” Conservatism was riddled with tensions, and only when Kaplan formed his theologies did the tensions become solved (78). That tension had to do with conflicting claims of the importance of history and the importance of pluralism, and also whether history is a means to change or a means to keeping tradition, and finally the tension of competing claims by the Seminary, Conservative rabbis, and laymen. I wonder if Kaplan really did relieve this tension, but he did seem to simplify the mass of elaborate ideological incoherence that was Conservatism in its early days.

I think it’s interesting that the conclusion Gillman chooses is basically that of the layman, or rather that of Reconstructionism. (I don’t really know why Reconstructionism has to be a separate movement after reading this book.) “We can no longer speak of Torah as embodying eternal, absolute, and monolithic truth” (205). According to Gillman, this “empowers” the congregation, gets rid of the top-down approach that was actually “deliberately designed” (203). It “spells the death of any form of religious authoritarianism” (205). Although “religious authoritarianism” is obviously cast as an enemy here, Gillman elsewhere laments the relativization of religion–”if religion does not provide [absolutes], where are they to be found?” (167) The movement “flaunts its pluralism” (168), but also “rejects relativism” (166). Gillman asks: “Once we admit a human component into the shaping of revelation, how is it possible to exclude a modicum of relativism?” (167)

I was worried about Gillman’s choice of words regarding Emet v’Emunah; he says the pluralistic structure of the statement is “empowering” because it allows laypeople to “resolve which position best captures his or her feeling at the time” (168)! And then I realized, this is not a halachic movement. I had thought it was for a long time because its ideology is very hard to discern, and it still claims to uphold halacha. However, “it is the human community…that formulated the contents of [the Torah]…The implication of this position is that a modern community of Jews can introduce changes in halakhah to the extent that is wishes to do so” (158). Belief questions aside (and Emet v’Emunah focuses on practice hardly at all, and speaks more in terms of encouragement rather than principle when it does), if the movement “views Torah as a cultural document that has always responded to changing historical conditions” (157), nothing really is keeping a community from changing even a central law.

For instance, someone could, say, put a piece of bread on a seder plate to protest sexism and other causes. That sort of practice does not make for a halachic movement, for sure. No one would think the Conservative movement would endorse such a thing, and it probably wouldn’t, and if it didn’t write a responsum saying “You can put bread on your seder plate as long as it’s for a good cause,” rabbis couldn’t let their congregants do it. But if you take Gillman’s position to its logical conclusion, what’s stopping any individual community from doing it? (I suppose that to be officially “Conservative,” a congregation would have to be registered with all the necessary institutions, but nonetheless. Legalities notwithstanding, theoretically I don’t see how it would be impossible, especially since if Torah is a cultural document than delineations such as d’oraita and d’rabbanan would be meaningless, and it seems that the prohibition of chametz would enjoy the same stature as a modern minhag.)

This “always responded to changing conditions” rhetoric is central. I happen to think it’s being misused (also, the Oven of Achnai story is way overused). I wouldn’t be surprised if the examples used to support this statement were the same few, and did not parallel today’s situation at all. For instance, I’m sure that the prozbul would be used in any respectable argument, and yet I don’t suppose today’s conditions are so dire as to warrant such changes. Mostly, they are for the sake of convenience. Next, the rabbis in those times were probably not working from the belief that the Torah is a “cultural document” that would be “nice to stick to but not necessary.” That will obviously lead to different conclusions, despite what Gillman says about not being able to box in Jewish beliefs (156).

In fact, I still wonder how a “cultural document” can be binding at all. How can it be compelling? Gillman asks this question throughout without answering it (and how could you?) Next, what constitutes a “community” worthy of implementing changes? For the Seminary, it was likely the scholars. I suppose today it’s the RA teshuvot and so on. (This doesn’t really get rid of the “top-down” approach now, does it?)

I read once that although one should “follow the majority” (another argument used in conjunction with “halacha has always responded historically”), the “majority” doesn’t refer to everyday people, otherwise we’d have to all follow the majority of people who are unobservant. It supposedly refers to Torah scholars who are equal in knowledge (A.Y. Kahan), which is an explanation I like because it means that if a majority of people who happen to be ordained but aren’t worried about halacha tell me I can put bread on my seder plate, or birkat hamazon is overrated or too long, or anything similar, those aren’t necessarily the “Torah scholars” the phrase is mentioning, even they outnumber those who have more halachic knowledge and say that I probably shouldn’t put bread on my seder plate.

I also find that there is still a tension in the Conservative movement in that people believe in the “will of the community” or “Catholic Israel” and all those things, but still believe in “individual autonomy,” so that the official position that the rabbi is mara d’atra of a community, and is free to choose from minority rulings, translates to laymen as “Individuals can choose the minority opinion,” and although I can see how this would be seen as an ideal, I don’t find it a good idea in the long run to entrust laymen with little Jewish education with halachic decisions (especially communal ones), good intentions or otherwise. Maybe I’m just being a “religious authoritarian.”

Still, the driving teshuva (as Gillman mentions on p. 159), among other decisions, become much simpler to understand when viewed through Gillman’s proposed ideological filter, which I am inclined to agree with until convinced otherwise. The only confusing thing now is how Conservative rabbis would still care to use lengthy Talmudic arguments (although their method of how they use Talmud, I’ve noticed since reading this book, focuses on the historical and developmental aspects).


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