A Word From the Pews

By Norman Levin

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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The news that the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, has announced his plans to retire has naturally created a lot of attention in the seminary community.

There is far less commotion within the lay community — and that is as it should be.

Jews don’t have a pope whose presence or absence defines a principle or an ethos. The departure of one individual, even someone as erudite and contemplative as Schorsch, does not affect the Conservative Jewish community in the same way that the departure of a Catholic bishop or Hasidic rebbe impacts those constituencies.

Yet this is an important time for Conservative Jewry, and Schorsch’s retirement can give the community a vital opportunity to evaluate its stand on a number of crucial issues. In particular, it allows the community to consider what qualities it might want in its leadership.

Regrettably, most Conservative Jews will have neither the opportunity to weigh in on this matter nor the privilege of being involved in the decision. This reflects not only the inherent divide in the relationship between the Jewish Theological Seminary and the lay community, it illustrates the fundamental tension facing the Conservative movement.

I suspect that the seminary leadership would be surprised that the laity would even have an interest in being consulted about Schorsch’s successor. They see all too well the community’s lack of interest in what goes on within its walls. What they may not understand is that such reluctance was grown amid the ivy that Jewish Theological Seminary’s academic aloofness covers.

The seminary constantly reminds the Conservative Jewish community, through its mailings and solicitations, that it is the key source for rabbinic leadership in the movement. But the laity is left with the impression that we should just send money and stay out of the way.

The concentration of the seminary as a seminary per se — as an academic institution that only incidentally generates pulpit rabbis and educators — has made its purpose irresponsible, if not irrelevant.

We need to be very cautious around the term “culture.” The familiar sense of culture is often used dismissively, as when we lament our secular culture of greed and trivia. But by Jewish culture, we mean the values that are the basis of our commitment and that add a spiritual dimension to our lives: a commitment to chesed, tzedaka and tikkun olam, to righteousness, charity and repairing the world.

Its learned faculty is committed to the study of Torah as the very fulfillment of their Jewish soul. For most of them, Halacha, or rabbinic law, is the expression of that soul. For the general Conservative Jewish community in North America, however, the essence of Judaism is Jewish culture.

For this constituency, Torah is an important part of our culture — but it isn’t, so to speak, the whole megillah. Many Conservative Jews would make the case that in the sea of life, Torah is our sails. But it is not the ship. At best, our lives are guided by Torah but expressed by mitzvot, by actions that reflect our finest values. Yet we hear our rabbis and educators insist that by observance, one ought to mean observance of Halacha as the most appropriate manifestation of those values.

Admittedly, many Conservative Jews are lax about observance. Many shop or work on Shabbat. There are many who “eat out,” to borrow that willowy euphemism for eating nonkosher meat or seafood. And the study of Torah among the laity is appallingly negligible.

But I believe that the typical Conservative Jew would respond not with an embarrassed apology, but with an accusation of his or her own: that there is a way to be authentically Jewish that includes other principles. Observance is not the same as commitment. It is possible to be authentically Jewish, meaningfully Jewish, in a vital way in which the Jewish Theological Seminary is woefully out of sync.

For many Conservative Jews, the study of Torah Lishma for its own sake is an abstract irrelevant to the crises in which the world finds itself. As but one public example, look at the agonizing issue of agunot, “chained women” who are unable to secure a religious divorce from their ex-husbands. Our Orthodox brothers have struggled with this dilemma but find themselves so rooted in halachic intricacy that they see no way out.

Conservative leadership has been more adroit. But the fundamental issue — rabbinic law used as a vehicle by which to crush a woman’s spirit as well as her future — is still not confronted by either denomination. For serious Conservative Jews, our ethos demands that rabbinic law be not just outmaneuvered but overridden.

Whether committed Jews are involved with Israel or with the Jewish community locally, whether with Jews or with the general population worldwide, our commitment to the cooperative effort to expand the human spirit is a Jewish value. While its source is the Torah, its purpose is to make life better for all.

Conservative Jews have chosen as the basis of their allegiance love, rather than fear, of God. Many rabbis will disagree with that assessment and bemoan, “If only it were so.” But this is the foundation of the discourse that committed Conservative Jews regularly have.

Many of us who consider ourselves serious Conservative Jews are convinced that the inherent lessons being taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary have prioritized Torah scholarship over Jewish ethos. Though noble, that is not the priority of the lay community. Until such a divergence is acknowledged and then addressed, the division between the seminary’s administrators and its ultimate constituency will continue to widen.

Norman Levin is a former president of Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn.

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