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Good idea, bad packaging: Conservative Judaism

The American Whig Party collapsed in 1856. The Republican Party was its most successful successor. The party’s infrastructure and the loyalty of voters to the party disappeared, but its former members and “Whiggish” ideas didn’t vanish into thin air. President Abraham Lincoln had been a Whig, many in his administration were, many of his protectionist policies were, and three more presidents after him were also former Whigs.

“Going the way of the Whigs” is often employed as a way of saying some group is taking its final breaths of relevance. I apply the phrase to my own Conservative Movement in Judaism. In exactly the same way as happened historically. What I mean when I say this is that the infrastructure, the institutions of Conservative Judaism in the United States do seem to be collapsing, but its people exist and its ideas remain relevant and even essential to a healthy Judaism for our times.

Here on Long Island, news of another Conservative synagogue closing was days ago passed to me. This follows the ending of a successful week-long camp program for Conservative youth group members at Ramah of the Berkshires, historically a bastion of Movement success. I can go on. There is a much heralded shortage of rabbis for Conservative synagogues. My own rabbinic alma mater, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles is now homeless as the AJU is selling its campus to become a largely virtual endeavor.

All that points to institutional failure to me.

We see the rise of alternative paths for rabbinic study such as Hadar, and successful synagogues like B’nai Jeshurun in NYC or IKAR in LA, all of which, like Lincoln’s administration, are full of Conservative trained leaders.

This to me looks like ideological success. And I could go on from there. Ideas of learning truth from wherever it may appear because all truth is from God, even when that truth might originate outside of Judaism (something like, I don’t know, science, is an example). Thinking about the developing notion of God’s revelation to us, as revealed in our tradition by rabbis over time. Taking an intellectually curious approach with critical question asking and the willingness to tolerate differences of opinions and even differing forms of practice.

All these are Conservative Judaism. And when you say they appear in other parts of the Jewish world, that, I would argue, is because Reform, Reconstructionist and Modern or Open Orthodoxy share similar attitudes. They didn’t necessarily derive them from sources within Conservative Jewish institutions (though look at leaders and members of Open Orthodoxy and the founders of Reconstructionism and you’ll find plenty of former Conservative Jews!), but that’s because such ideas weren’t created in the 20th century in New York or Los Angeles.

No, it’s because those ideas go back to the very core of what Rabbinic Judaism is. In that way, the ideas of Conservative Judaism are the truest expression of Jewish thought, even if the boxes in which they have been delivered lately show up late and damaged.

The Sages of the Talmud thought Conservative Jewish thoughts. They were willing to acknowledge when the Romans had truth to offer (Shab. 15b). They instituted takkanot to essentially abrogate aspects of Torah law (Shab. 33b), showing that revelation developed over time. As we also see in the famous oven of Akhnai story (BM 59), and they tolerated differing practices, such as the alternate understandings of lighting the menorah between Hillel and Shammai (Shab. 21b).

Does the Talmud contain passages with which you, dear reader, might refute my arguments? Actually, such ideas only support it – the fact the Talmud might contradict itself is an idea championed by Conservative Judaism.

So even after the last summer camp closes, even after the last seminary shuts its doors, even after the last synagogue erases “Conservative” from its sign, I have no fear. The Judaism God wanted us to practice, a middle of the road path, will still be a path many will tread, others will use as an aide to navigation, and it will always lead closer and closer to God.

About the Author
Aaron Benson is a Conservative rabbi on Long Island, serving at the North Shore Jewish Center. He is the current president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Suffolk County Police Department.
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