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Conservative Rabbi, in Swan Song, Warns Against Liberal Shift

MEXICO CITY — In a final address to his fellow Conservative rabbis as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Ismar Schorsch accused his liberal colleagues of undermining the movement’s historic commitment to faith, intellectualism and rabbinic law.

Speaking Sunday in Mexico City at the annual convention of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Schorsch defended his vision of biblical scholarship as a main path toward spirituality and fidelity to rabbinic law, or Halacha. He rebuked those who have suggested that the movement no longer should view itself as being bound or defined by the halachic process.

“We are in no need of another motto,” said Schorsch, who is set to retire as chancellor in June. “What ails the Conservative movement is that it has lost faith in itself. Internally, we have already become Reform, and it will only be a matter of time before [externally] we appear like Reform.”

In a subsequent interview, Schorsch criticized what he described as the movement’s “deconstructionists” — chief among them the rabbis and activists pushing to overturn the movement’s opposition to same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay clergy. Those pushing for change on the gay issue, he said, are employing scholarship to overturn Halacha rather than to build appreciation of it.

“If the Conservative movement chooses to do something at the expense of the halachic system, then it’s going to pay the price down the road,” Schorsch told the Forward in a reiteration of his longstanding opposition to lifting the ban on homosexuality. “The erosion of our fidelity to Halacha is what brings us close to Reform Judaism.” He added that he still believes, as he has said in the past, that if reform is passed, some clergy and lay people will leave the movement.

Schorsch’s speech comes as both JTS and the Conservative movement enter a period of transition littered with potential conflicts and upheavals.

For more than a century, JTS served as the center of Conservative Judaism, but now it increasingly faces competition from other seminaries and arms of the movements. Schorsch’s successor, whom movement insiders expect will be announced in the next few weeks, will determine how JTS will balance its roles as an academic institution, rabbinical training ground and potential bully pulpit.

Whoever is chosen will assume the leadership of a movement that was once America’s largest synagogue denomination but has been overtaken in the past two decades by the Reform. In addition to the fight over homosexuality, Conservative leaders are debating wider existential questions about the movement’s dedication to Halacha and a pluralistic approach to rabbinic law. Such issues were reflected in the sessions at the convention in Mexico City, with titles like “What Is Conservative Judaism, and Where in the World Is It?” and “What Should It Mean To Be a Movement in the Center?”

In Mexico City, movement leaders from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly answered such questions by affirming the view of Conservative Judaism as a pluralistic “big tent” — even on issues that many rabbis view in moral terms, such as the status of women and of gays and lesbians.

At the convention’s opening panel, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, condemned the push for ideological purity on both the right and the left. “We ought to be the anti-denominational denomination,” he said. In response to a question, he added, “It’s often said that we are not a movement” but “I think to some degree, what looks like a lack of organization is a function of our diversity.”

Schorsch offered the most specific articulation of the meaning of Conservative Judaism during his speech Sunday. Conservative Jews, he argued, are primarily distinguished by a commitment to Emet V’Emunah — truth and faith — an embrace of critical Torah scholarship coupled with a view of Halacha as a binding, albeit evolving, process.

“The Orthodox surely have Emunah,” Schorsch later told the Forward, “but they don’t accept critical scholarship. And the Reform certainly have critical scholarship, but they don’t accept the legitimacy of the halachic system. We’re distinctive because we are trying to wed both.”

In contrast to what he called the spirituality of “kitsch,” Schorsch argued that for Conservative Jews, deep study and critical understanding should be viewed as key ways of deepening faith and the commitment to observance. Schorsch stressed that, in his view, intellectual engagement with Judaism is meant to enrich spirituality and observance, and that it is the task of the rabbi to translate intellectual insight into religious meaning.

The remarks were essentially a defense of the long-held JTS tradition of viewing rabbinical training as primarily academic and intellectual in nature — even as some rabbinical students and rabbis in recent years have called for a greater emphasis on pastoral training and other approaches to Jewish life and texts.

Some pulpit rabbis at the convention, particularly those among the younger cohort, said Schorsch’s focus on intellectualism was not compelling to them.

“I was really disappointed with his talk,” said Rabbi Micah Caplan, the 29-year-old leader of Bet Shira Congregation in Miami and a graduate of the Ziegler School.

“We are not touching people of my generation. In my opinion, we are 20 years behind the Reform movement on a number of issues,” he said, adding that Schorsch is “not my chancellor — he’s the chancellor of one school, and that’s it.”

Rabbi Ari Greenbaum said that as a rabbinical student in the JTS class of 1997 — the last class shaped by former dean Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a top movement liberal and a rumored finalist for the chancellorship — he had been inspired by Tucker’s more holistic approach to rabbinic education. Tucker, who has helped lead the effort to change the movement’s position on homosexuality, is widely believed to have been pushed out of the seminary over his liberal approach to a range of issues.

Greenbaum said that out of his class of 20, only two students were raised in observant homes. Many were drawn to the rabbinate in order to become activists and spiritual leaders rather than academic scholars. Only two of the 20 had come to the convention in Mexico City — which generally skewed heavily to older, male rabbis.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the seminary and one of five faculty members on the search committee charged with finding a new chancellor, said he agreed with Schorsch that the seminary must maintain its scholarly rigor despite the challenges of bridging academic and theological instruction.

Though Gillman parts ways with Schorsch by arguing that ultimately the movement should not feel bound by rabbinic law, the two agree that maintianing academic standards at JTS is vitally important.

“The mandate for the search committee is to choose someone who will continue the tradition of keeping the seminary’s academic reputation intact, and that’s very much at the top of my mind, the top of my priorities as it is with everyone on the committee,” Gillman said.

Others at the convention saw the possibility for Conservative Judaism to remain true to the halachic process, even while embracing radical change. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the rector of the University of Judaism and the author of a pending legal opinion that would sanction homosexual relationships, told the attendees of his Monday morning seminar that Jewish law is like the average person: It changes radically over time in ways both subtle and sudden, but keeps its identity through history and memory.

Schorsch also appealed to history, in arguing against change on certain fronts.

“In the final analysis, our worldview is an extension of our biography,” he told the Forward. The son of a prominent scholar-rabbi, Schorsch was forced to flee Germany with his parents before World War II.

“So much of my worldview is informed by where I came from,” Schorsch said. “I’m very mindful of my past, and I’m not prepared to discard it so lightly.”

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