Real Issue for Conservative Judaism Is Authenticity

Keeping Faith With Halakha Can Stem Movement's Decline


By Michah Gottlieb

Published November 18, 2013.
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To be perfectly clear: I believe that the struggle for gender equality within Judaism has brought enormous benefits to Jewish society.

The point of my essay was to help explain why Conservative Judaism has not been able to retain its youth by reflecting on why it did not satisfy me.

When I wrote that it seemed to me that the emphasis on egalitarianism was a “distraction” from the fact that most Conservative Jews were not committed to halakha, this was because as a youth, I came to see a conflict between religious authenticity and egalitarianism.

I will explain.

In the early 80s the struggle for egalitarianism was a central focus of the Conservative movement. To be sure, the idea of civil gender equality was something that I accepted reflexively and strongly believed in. But as a Conservative Jew I also felt bound to halakha, which is not fully egalitarian.

The issue for me was whether halakha could cohere with egalitarianism. It was very important to me to I understand how this was possible.

At the time, the greatest Talmudist at JTS was Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni. He was also a personal mentor to me. Not only did he reject egalitarianism as unhalakhic — he left the Conservative movement because of it.

Ultimately, I could not understand the halakhic justifications for egalitarianism and I came to see the push for it as reflecting the Conservative movement’s lack of halakhic integrity.

I felt a divide within myself with my commitment to gender equality at war with my commitment to halakha.

Compounding matters, I could not understand why egalitarianism was such a pressing issue since I did not see women at my synagogue pressing for it which was probably due to the fact that, like most men, women in my synagogue cared little about participating in Jewish ritual.

Had I understood the halakhic justifications for egalitarianism, I’m sure that I would have enthusiastically embraced it. As things stood, I felt that full egalitarianism meant betraying halakha.

But at the end of the day, what led me to leave my Conservative synagogue was not the issue of egalitarianism. It was the fact that I felt very lonely there. I was one of the few observant youths at the synagogue and I found the service lifeless. When I came back from studying in a yeshiva in Israel I began to feel uncomfortable as many congregants made me feel that I was too religious.

Eisner criticizes men such as myself for leaving their Conservative synagogues for Orthodox ones. Should I have remained in what I found to be a spiritually unsatisfying synagogue rather than attend a more vibrant Orthodox one? There were no other Conservative synagogues in my neighborhood. My options were to stop going to synagogue or to attend an Orthodox one. I chose the latter.

I was warmly welcomed into an Orthodox synagogue where I found other halakhically-committed Jews and intense Torah study. Because of this experience, I have remained within Orthodoxy at its liberal wing, seeking greater gender inclusivity within a halakhicframework.

Eisner cannot understand my attending an Orthodox synagogue, which she finds appallingly retrograde, writing that women in Orthodox synagogues don’t teach, have leadership roles, can’t participate in the service, and sit behind a mechitzah.

While there are synagogues where this is the case, at the Orthodox synagogue that I attend, we have had female presidents, female teachers and scholars in residence, women hold services where they read Torah and lead davening, and they sit parallel to men with a low mechitzah. While I myself would like to see even more inclusivity in the service, it is important to recognize that there are Orthodox synagogues trying to balance gender inclusivity with loyalty to halakha. This is in no small part due to the efforts of those who struggled for gender equality within Judaism.

If a synagogue does not create a compelling religious space, it cannot expect people to attend simply because it is egalitarian.

Michah Gottlieb is an associate professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. His book “Jewish Protestantism: Translation and the Turn to the Bible in German Judaism” will be published by Oxford University Press.


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