Over the past days, the Jewish media (including Facebook) has been abuzz over suggestions by three Conservative rabbis, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Ben Hoffman, and Daniel Stein to embrace intermarriage (Lau-Lavie and Stein) and patrilineal descent (Hoffman). Having watched the trajectory of the Conservative Movement over the past five decades, I am sure that both positions will be adopted, despite the stated objections of the head of United Synagogue. The reason I say this is that such a development would be consistent with the underlying philosophy of the Conservative Movement.
From the days of Solomon Schechter, Conservative Judaism has been guided by the principle of “Catholic Israel.” In its original sense, the phrase was a take-off of the words of Hillel upon his investiture as head of the Sanhedrin that one can “rely upon Israel. If they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets” (BT Pesahim 66a). In other words, the religious integrity of the Jewish people (itself a legitimate traditional category in the area of custom and practice) provides a source of religious authority which can counter (or sometimes override) the literary tradition of the Written and Oral Law. As time went on, Conservative Jews internalized deeply the values of liberalism, radical individualism, and univeralism, while failing to maintain any credible form of Jewish literacy (in English, much less Hebrew). Such literacy might have succeeded in balancing these with a deep reverence for the “wisdom of the past,” with a sense of obligation thereto and a readiness to sacrifice part of one’s personal happiness or comfort for the survival of Judaism and of the Jewish people. However, since that did not occur, Conservative Jews (like our Reform and unaffiliated brethren), organize their lives around a principled structure of contemporary liberal values. Where Jewish values and tradition clash with these, it is the Jewish values that become a problem.
Into this situation, enter Conservative rabbis, who were raised on Schechter’s “Catholic Israel.” However, the “Catholic Israel” that he lauded was nothing like the community that developed subsequently. The community he envisioned was one whose intuition was largely traditional and possessed a profound sense of ethnic identity and loyalty. (It was, after all, no coincidence that Conservative Judaism was aggressively and proudly Zionist from the first.) Today’s Conservative community’s intuition, by way of contrast, is based on deeply held liberal principles. Its inner logic, then, demands that its desires and convictions be normative in defining Judaism, as they see it.
This is eminently possible, because, since Schechter, the regnant idea of Judaism in many Conservative circles has been deeply affected by a merger of the naturalism of Mordechai Kaplan and the thoroughgoing historicism of Gerson Cohen. (The latter once said “Jewish history is Torah, as we know it.”) In the absence of a belief in a God who commands, alongside the rejection of the idea of a law that transcends time, Jewish tradition has become infinitely pliable and adaptable to any and all request or desire. In the present Conservative Jewish epistemology, Jewish tradition has become a way to meaningfully decorate and adumbrate liberal values. It does not have a life, or integrity, of its own. As my late mother ע”ה (herself, for many years, the president of the sisterhood of a prominent Conservative temple in Boston) once observed: ווי מאן ווילט, קען מיר רעדען. “You can argue any way you wish.”
Reading these articles deeply saddened me. My own study of Jewish history, added to the history of my own extended family and the Pew Report of a few years ago, leads me to the ineluctable conclusion that such initiatives are paving a path to oblivion. First, in the assimilationist dynamic of the contemporary West, they facilitate the disappearance of vast numbers of Jews. Second, they mortally wound the profoundly particularist, ethno-national element of Jewish identity. They turn Judaism solely into a religion (and, more frequently, into nothing more than a delightful type of folklore). Third, and equally important, they deepen the already chasm-like schism between Israel and the Diaspora. For here in Israel, the traditional definitions of Jewishness and of national Jewish identity are not only vibrant, they are growing stronger. (This is what the Forward/Haaretz likes to call right-wing and nationalist). Nevertheless, the development was probably inevitable. I well recall, over 40 years ago, how the then-executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, urged his colleagues to merge with the Reform movement as the two were, effectively on the same trajectory and shared the same values. Kelman was a very astute observer of the American Jewish scene, and was prescient on many issues.
I was asked yesterday why all this bothered me. After all, it was partly because of this dynamic that I left the Conservative Movement 45 years ago. There are a number of reasons that it bothers me. I am sad to see the community in which I was raised, and which provided me with an education that I could not have received elsewhere, is losing its last vestiges of deference to the Torah. I am sad to witness anything that advances the dark vision of the Pew Report. I am particularly sad to see the same kind of dynamic begin to burn at the edges of the Orthodox community.
Yesterday, a young Orthodox rabbi published an article which could easily have been penned by one of his Conservative colleagues. Its point of departure, like the others, is the real pain that inter-faith couples feel when they are told that they cannot be married by the rabbi of their choice, or that an unconverted gentile cannot be a member of a Jewish community. Creating such pain, argues the rabbi, is intolerable and the only solution is inclusiveness and reevaluating the Torah’s position on inter-marriage (and, I strongly suspect, Jewish identity). Indeed, he praises the approach of Reform Judaism, which both recognizes Intermarriage and Patrilineal descent, and warns that unless Orthodoxy follows suit ‘Judaism risks nearing its extinction date.’Significantly, the rabbinical seminary where he was ordained, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, immediately responded with a statement forbidding its rabbis from performing intermarriages, acknowledging both the severe halakhic prohibition against intermarriage, and the “grave danger” it poses to Jewish continuity.
Traditional Judaism maintains a delicate balance between opposites: Universal/Parochial, Individual/National, Timely/Timeless, Spirituality/Law and others. Generally, as both Rav Soloveitchik זצ”ל and Prof. Isadore Twersky ז”ל noted, the second element of each dyad sets the outer boundaries of the first. Orthodox Jews, as pre-modern Jews before them, believe that the these limits are rooted in God’s Word, as interpreted by the sages whose authority is rooted in that Word. Granting that the Torah endows its interpreters with a certain degree of interpretive freedom, there are limits beyond which one may not go and legitimately affirm one’s fealty to Orthodoxy. That is because we maintain that the underlying principles of God’s Torah are timeless: they possess transcendent integrity, even as they interact with changing circumstance.
There are many corollaries of this simple truth. One of them is that one must admit that there are situations wherein the Torah demands that one surrender to the Will of God. Free will is granted to all, but one is expected to take responsibility for one’s actions. In the case of an interfaith couple, the option of a principled, valid conversion to Judaism exists and should be made available to the degree possible. Empathy and caring must be part and parcel of the encounter with interfaith couples. However, that cannot come at the expense of the integrity of the Torah or of the future of the Jewish people. Sometimes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So, while I can fully understand the initiatives by the above-noted Conservative rabbis (even as I think them deeply misguided), there is no credible place within Orthodoxy for similar initiatives or proposals.