No Consensus at Conservative Meeting

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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BOSTON — The highly optimistic motto at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism this week was “lighting the way.” But as delegates debated a variety of hot-button issues, it was clear to many who attended the gathering here that Conservative leaders do not have a consensus vision for which direction the movement should go.

The five-day conference focused heavily on the future of the movement and the United Synagogue, which represents about 800 Conservative congregations. By midweek, the nearly 700 delegates had addressed a variety of controversial topics, including how much to reach out to interfaith couples and whether the movement should drop its ban on the ordination of gay rabbis. Speakers at the convention also focused on broader theological and philosophical questions, such as whether the movement’s ideology is ultimately grounded in rabbinic law and whether it should seek ideological pluralism or greater cohesiveness.

“It’s a very liminal time,” said David Lerner, rabbi of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass. “We’re standing at a threshold as the Conservative movement moves from one room to the next, and we’re not exactly sure which room we’re going into.”

On Tuesday, the United Synagogue’s longtime executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, urged delegates to move from focusing merely on “welcoming” non-Jewish spouses into congregational life to actively promoting conversion and the raising of Jewish families.

“We must begin aggressively to encourage conversions of potential Jews who have chosen Jewish spouses,” Epstein said in a speech. “And if conversion is initially rejected, we must continue to place it on the agenda.”

Epstein’s remarks echoed those made by the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, at his organization’s biennial convention last month. In a Sabbath address on November 18, Yoffie told the 5,000 delegates gathered for the Reform biennial that “by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, [perhaps] we have sent the message that we do not care if they convert.” He added, “The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions.”

Like Yoffie’s speech, Epstein’s remarks seemed aimed at provoking heightened awareness of the importance of conversion rather than at changing specific policies. Coinciding with the address, the United Synagogue’s Committee on Congregational Standards released a “road-map” for dealing with intermarried families, which reaffirmed Conservative Judaism’s current restrictions on non-Jewish spouses and children — even as it suggested strategies for more effective outreach to these people.

Titled “Al Ha-Derekh,” or “On the Path,” the document reaffirms rabbinic rulings that restrict non-Jews from participating in religious rituals, becoming official members of synagogues, serving on many synagogue committees, and being buried in Jewish cemeteries. At the same time, it encourages congregations to embrace intermarried families through targeted outreach — including the use of other interfaith families who “should be employed to encourage study and to help overcome resistance to conversion.” Congregations are also encouraged to help fund the participation of children of intermarriages in synagogue youth activities.

Even as leaders based their discussion about how to approach intermarried families on their understanding of what is permissible under rabbinic law, the very nature of Conservative Judaism’s ultimate commitment to rabbinic law was questioned by one of the convention’s keynote speakers.

On Monday night, Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, argued that Conservatives have long been “fudging the issue” of whether or not the movement is truly based on Halacha — “possibly because of our fear that it will justify our laypeople’s generalized casualness about ritual observance, or possibly because of our fear to be identified with Reform.”

Instead, Gillman argued, it is “the right and responsibility of later human communities to revisit the contents of Torah in light of their ability to reflect these later communities’ own perception of God’s will for them.” He proposed that the Conservative movement, which he characterized as “in crisis,” define itself by its tolerance for tensions and ambiguity, despite the lack of a “pithy slogan” to crystallize that idea.

During a panel discussion in response to Gillman’s speech, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., applied Gillman’s argument to one of the movement’s longer-standing social controversies: gender egalitarianism. Creditor, who earlier this year initiated a movement among clergy to support the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, condemned non-egalitarian services as “immoral” and “misogynistic,” and called for the movement to embrace gender equality as one of its core values.

During the past three decades, most Conservative congregations have slowly moved to abandon their restrictions on women’s participation — especially after JTS began ordaining women rabbis in the mid 1980s. But a small minority of these congregations continues to block women from leading services, reading Torah or reciting an aliyah blessing over the Torah reading.

Creditor’s remarks drew ire from delegates representing this “traditionalist wing of Conservative Judaism” which is strongest in Canada and some areas of the Midwest. By Tuesday morning, one officer from a nonegalitarian synagogue in Toronto — who did not want his name used — was wondering if he should even bother attending the remaining sessions of the conference.

“Many of us are wondering if there’s any place for us in the movement,” he said.

But Judy Gatchell, a congregant from Temple Beth El, outside of Portland, Maine, recalled being laughed at for donning tefillin during services while visiting another Conservative synagogue. She said she supported the substance of Creditor’s remarks, if not the antagonism they had caused.

Several of the movement’s leaders — including United Synagogue’s incoming president, Raymond Goldstein — responded to the controversy by stressing pluralism and diversity among congregations as a hallmark of the movement.

“We as a movement have to be clear that the issue of our movement is not egalitarianism — we are not egalitarian, and we are not non-egalitarian,” Epstein told the Forward. “Pluralism has got to be the watchword of our movement. Being in the center means that there’s got to be room on all sides. We need to focus on drawing people into Jewish life, and if that’s egalitarian Judaism, great, and if nonegalitarianism Judaism inspires them, great.”

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