One of the books that highlights this frustrating struggle is the new "Observant Life," written by various members the Rabbinical Assembly. As Jonathan Marks (no big admirer of liberal Judaism) writes, the Observant Life purports to try to show the rich spectrum that is Conservative Judaism today:
...it is aimed, in addition to Conservative Jews, those “in a liberal Orthodox environment and a more traditional Reform environment, and people who are outside the denominational world but are interested in the question of observance. This is also for those interested in the big picture [of how observance] functions when you look at it all at once.”
...“The Observant Life” is also respectful of, even charmed by, folkways and traditions that are not specifically Orthodox, halachic or Conservative, but meaningful in any case, such as the post-Shabbat Melave Malka, or the custom of men immersing themselves in the mikveh before Shabbat.
...The book makes it clear that to these more than 30 authors (some writing more than one chapter), halacha is more “than an endless list of rules.” As the book explains, alongside Conservative theology there is always the human dimension, meaning the law doesn’t always have the last word: “The mara d’atra [the synagogue’s rabbi and/or halachic authority], ideally with the support of the lay leadership, will define the halacha of the synagogue by balancing the law with a community’s customs, values and vision.”
Therefore, intermarried Jews or gays, for example, may be called to the Torah and be welcomed to serve as synagogue leaders (in non-religious “role model” positions), despite their halachic status being still subject to debate, because “very few, if any, synagogues within the Conservative movement require strict halachic observance as a condition for honoring people during worship.”
Nevertheless, despite these and other liberal opinions, readers may be intrigued to learn from “The Observant Life” that Conservative Judaism can be more conservative than some might think. For example, “no halachic authorities regard abortion as a Jewish woman’s right to exercise at will. … Absent extreme circumstances, abortion is usually forbidden.”
...The book doesn’t shy away from such complex halachic riddles, even if cases are obscure or esoteric. While many halachic situations are presented as an ideal, there is another ideal, that “rabbinical restrictions are conditioned on the public’s ability to meet their stipulations.”
Even more of an overriding principal, says Rabbi Cohen, is that halacha and observance are not in one realm while ethics and relationships are in another. Loving God and loving other Jews are of a singular piece, he says, as are ritual laws and the ethical ones. “The Observant Life” draws on both these heavenly and earthly considerations to the extent that it becomes clear that there never really was a boundary between the two.
“To be an observant Jew,” he says, “you need to embrace both.”
That's all well and good, but one of the things Mrs. Yid and I noticed while thumbing through our copy was that in the midst of trying to convince themselves of how halachic they are, the authors of the Observant Life seem to be missing a larger point: I don't object to nitty-gritty, but for me, the book fails to answer some big picture questions like why should one be Jewish, and more to the point, why should one want to live within a halachic framework, much less the Conservative one, specifically. While the concept of trying to create one text to represent the perspective of Conservative Judaism on contemporary issues is nice, ultimately the result winds up feeling unwieldy and rambling rather than relevant. I think the project would have been much improved had the editors taken the book's three sections and instead published a series in three parts: one focusing on Conservative prayer and ritual, one on Conservative approaches towards modern society (such as the secular justice system, commerce, and intellectual property), and the last one on modern Conservative thought involving questions of Jewish identity, specifically focusing on descent, marriage and sexuality. Instead the book comes across as a bloated exercise in minutiae, leaving some of the more immediate questions of the day, such as intermarriage, patrilineal descent and LGBT Jews to get lost in the shuffle alongside whether Jews should be nice to animals (yes), if Messianic Jews count as Jewish (no) and if file sharing is ok (also no). If someone is just dying to find out about the Halacha of Napster, how about putting together an online database/wiki of random responsum? Young Jews in your synagogues have some actual pressing issues that need addressing, and you're dickering around answering questions no one's asked!
As an intermarried Jew with LGBT Jewish friends and patrilineal family members, I have several stakes in this. Not only are young Jews intermarrying at greater numbers than any generation previous, but lots of them are also trying to figure out what this means in terms of their eligibility to be part of a Jewish community. Ditto for many LGBT Jews. Part of the reason clarification on these points would be helpful, as Marks' fellow Jewish Week writer Julie Weiner points out, is because at present the movement's positions seem to be clear as mud:
when it comes to intermarriage, the Conservative movement is ambivalent if not outright schizophrenic. Its rabbis are forbidden even from being guests at interfaith weddings, let alone officiating at them. On the other hand, well aware that most Conservative synagogue members (not to mention the rabbis themselves) have many intermarried friends and family members — and that intermarried families will soon outnumber in-married ones in the larger Jewish community — most Conservative rabbis seek to welcome intermarried couples after the wedding.
Two books out this year highlight the movement’s split personality: “The Observant Life,” a compendium of “Conservative Jewish wisdom” published in April by the Rabbinical Assembly, and “Intermarriage: Concepts and Strategies for Families and Synagogue Leaders,” to be released later this month by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.
“The Observant Jewish Life” addresses a range of contemporary topics, each chapter penned by a Conservative rabbi. It is scholarly and just a bit forbidding...When it comes to intermarriage, the book cites a range of opinions; however, it clings to the view that intermarriage should be discouraged, even if it cannot be prevented.
“Concepts and Strategies,” by contrast, starts from the assumption that, in the words of journalist (and Conservative synagogue member) Jeffrey Goldberg, “The war against intermarriage is over and intermarriage won.” Goldberg is quoted in the book’s preface, by Harvey Braunstein and Stephen Lachter, the founding lay leaders of FJMC’s Keruv [outreach] Initiative. Braunstein and Lachter argue that “our Conservative movement has not moved forward quickly enough and is now faced with a critical need to adapt to the changing world or become irrelevant.”
In essays written by Conservative rabbis, lay leaders and some voices from outside (although not to the right of) the movement, “Concepts and Strategies” (107 pages) offers suggestions ranging from “shifting the conversation from marrying Jewish to raising Jewish children,” to explicitly welcoming interfaith families on synagogue websites and publications, to offering alternative aufruf ceremonies for interfaith newlyweds and a “non-Jewish gentleman’s drinking club” to enable supportive gentile husbands to bond with the rabbi.
Meanwhile, the RA’s “The Observant Life”... urges a more cautious tightrope walk. Membership, notes Rabbi Craig T. Scheff (Orangetown Jewish Center in Rockland County) in a chapter on “synagogue life,” should be “restricted to the Jewish spouse,” while at the same time, the non-Jewish spouse should be “welcomed warmly and made to feel like part of the larger synagogue community.”
Elsewhere in the volume, contributors voice their opposition to intermarriage, while at the same time discouraging people from antagonizing the intermarried. In a chapter on marriage, Rabbi David J. Fine (Temple Israel in Ridgewood, N.J.) writes that “studies have shown conclusively that intermarried couples overwhelmingly do not raise Jewishly committed children,” and notes that “Conservative Judaism endorses the ancient Jewish prohibition of intermarriage.”
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky (Manhattan’s Ansche Chesed) writes that “we must lovingly invite” interfaith families that maintain a strong commitment to Judaism “into our communities and not ignore them, but their example does not negate the overwhelming evidence that intermarriage correlates with weak Jewish commitment.”
Rabbi Scheff cites papers and responsa from the 1960s through 1980s forbidding intermarried Jews from leadership roles, key staff positions or “special honors” at synagogue, but notes that in recent years “dissenting views” have been heard. “Today most synagogues value above all other concerns the need and wish to draw all Jews to synagogue life without subjecting an individual’s desire to serve the community to harsh or exclusionary standards,” he writes.
As for hot-button issues like non-Jewish spouses participating in lifecycle rituals or synagogue newsletters acknowledging intermarriages, Rabbi Scheff writes that Conservative opinion on the former “ranges from absolute permission of such involvement to absolute prohibition,” while practices on the latter “vary from synagogue to synagogue.”
A survey conducted recently by the FJMC confirms the diversity on these hot-button matters — and finds that, in yet another indicator of Conservative ambivalence vis-à-vis intermarriage, even congregations that are inclusive and flexible on ritual matters do not advertise this fact in their newsletters and websites.
...“Almost all of the congregations are more welcoming to the non-Jewish spouse and intermarrieds when it comes to bima choreography than they communicate through their websites,” Rabbi Simon notes in an article (not in the book) about the survey.
What it seems to come down to is that at the end of the day, there is a split between where the Conservative leadership is and where its congregants are. To the rabbis' credit, on a day-to-day basis many of them act as true mensches, welcoming couples and families who may not fit the typical mold and encouraging them to be part of their communities. That should be honored and celebrated. At the same time, however, the fact that the leadership of the movement seems to not want to acknowledge what its synagogues are doing leaves one with the feeling of a cognitive dissonance that seems neither healthy nor desirable. The website issue seems to be a microcosm of the same dilemma: "On the one hand we don't really care if you're gay or intermarried or whatever because we really just want to have more people joining the shul, and if you're a good congregant it doesn't really matter to us. But god forbid we put that on our website because who knows what people might think?" Frankly, I don't think I'd be able to stand belonging to a shul like that. Part of what makes Beth Elderly work for me and Mrs. Yid is that there's never been any pressure on us and people there live out their values of inclusiveness: one of the prominent Young Guard members is intermarried. He's also on the Board. The former President of the shul was intermarried; after 20-plus years of being part of a welcoming, non-judgmental Jewish community, her husband converted. Every time we go to services, we see plenty of faces in the pews that don't look like us. Many of those people converted. Some haven't. All are welcome, and all are valued. This is what it looks like when a Conservative community decides to show its values instead of hiding them because it's worried about pissing someone off.
I'm not sure who the Conservative movement is trying to kid or look good for but it seems like a huge waste of time and energy. Instead of pretending that it's an Orthodox-lite, how about growing a spine and openly proclaiming that, following Conservative principles and the modern-day needs of Conservative Jews, its understanding of halacha has evolved-- just like it has for driving on Shabbat or any other number of issues.
The Conservative movement keeps talking about how it wants to stay relevant and appeal to young people. The way to do that is to address the key issues they care about. The rabbis don't necessarily need to agree with them on every point (after all, not all young Jews-- even on the liberal spectrum-- agree about all of this). But you have to at least show us that you're working on it. Otherwise, all you're really doing is showing us that you're too wrapped up in your own issues and priorities to notice ours.
The bottom line is that while ideologues are wringing their hands over what people to their right might think if they admit that their rabbis welcome intermarried or gay Jews, those same Jews (and their kids!) are feeling tired of the double-speak and the subtle suggestion that they need to stay in the closet. If the movement doesn't get its house in order, there's a good chance some of those wonderful, talented and engaged people will go elsewhere-- either to other shuls, or potentially, no shul at all. Instead of cranking out a phonebook of Conservative halacha, how about focusing on the key points that young people are most concerned with-- and then working on creating a culture of transparency so that individual congregations who are more liberal than others don't feel like they need to hide it?