Aaron Starr
Rabbi, Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Instiitute

Why I became a Conservative Jew

I recently read Jesse Arm’s blog post, Why I’m Now a Former Conservative Jew. Like Jesse, I too grew up in Metro Detroit and I too have the University of Michigan on my resume. Unlike Mr. Arm, however, I grew up in the Reform movement. I received rabbinical ordination at the Reform movement’s seminary, and served as a Reform rabbi for four years. I am a husband and father. I chose to become a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi, and I believe that Conservative Judaism holds a key to the survival of liberal Judaism in the 21st century.

I became a Conservative Jew because Conservative Judaism provides a philosophy and practice that is intellectually rich and spiritually fulfilling. Adaptations to modernity are made only after careful thought and study. We are proudly egalitarian and open to gays and lesbians within our community. We are also proudly observant of the mitzvot and committed to the halakhic process.

Furthermore, as our tradition teaches, we respect each and every individual. Yet we also affirm that there are times when the preservation of Judaism trumps the desires of the individual Jew. As such, Conservative rabbis are educated and empowered to halt liberalisms when they pose a true threat to the Jewish future; the Rabbinical Assembly’s prohibition against intermarriage and the affirmation of the traditional definition of who is a Jew are two such examples.

I became a Conservative Jew because it demands of us a journey toward a Torah-observant life that incorporates the wisdom of scientific discoveries, just as Maimonides taught a thousand years ago. Conservative Judaism sets for us a path toward a meaningful, joyful life of expressing deep gratitude for life’s blessings and of fulfilling our obligations to make this world a better place.

I also became a Conservative Jew because I want the very best for my children: I want them to be conversant in traditional Judaism while open to the rigorous historical study and modern interpretation thereof. I want my children to lead a life of meaning, spirituality and purpose, guided by mitzvot, while fully functional in the modern world. I want my children to recognize that sometimes we have to sacrifice aspects of our autonomy for the sake of strengthening community, and that everybody is richer when we give of ourselves. And, more than anything, I want my kids to connect to God with the passion with which USYers davven; to study sacred Jewish texts with the fervor with which those teens learn; and to care for each other and the world the way the USYers do.

USY: Imperfect, perhaps; Significant, for sure.

Recently, the youth leaders of Conservative Judaism decided to re-write the articles governing the ethics of dating for USY regional and international officers. I agree with Mr. Arm and others that the new language, like that of all constitutions, is indeed sufficiently vague so as to require interpretation. It is no surprise to me that some understand the new language to permit inter-dating, a behavior previously prohibited by the teens themselves.

The new language of the USY constitution proclaims that the youth leaders, as dugma-ot (role models) to the entire USY membership, “will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).” I wish that the authors of the new constitutional language simply would have stated: “These (that is, the healthy Jewish dating choices) include recognizing the importance of dating Jews …” I wish they would have been clearer, but in the positive language they so desire, that they are maintaining their stance against inter-dating.

After all, while many of us know anecdotes to the contrary, the statistics on intermarriage are clear with regard to its impact on Jewish practice, Jewish identity, and the future of the Jewish people. Inter-dating leads to intermarriage, and intermarriage threatens the future of the Jewish people. [See this, for example.] As a rabbi, I openly share this information with my teens – not to frighten them, but to make them aware of the potentially devastating consequences of the choices they (might) make.

Thus, certainly the expression “dating within the Jewish community” will require the current leadership to communicate with the future leadership exactly what that means. It will also allow or even force the future leadership to define for itself what the terms “dating” and “Jewish community” mean. Is the relationship of a matrilineal Jew with a Jew of patrilineal descent (who is not “Jewish” according to traditional Jewish standards) considered acceptable? How does one define “dating?” These and other questions will require explication and the continued wisdom of USY’s adult, and especially rabbinic, advisors.

But the additional language within the clause on inter-dating is significant. Given the complexities of dating in the 21st century that result from “sexting,” the misuse of Facebook and other social-media sites, and other complicating factors of being a teen in the 21st century, I am thrilled that our teens will strive for “healthy dating choices.” Such decisions will encourage teens to find other teens who are committed to making appropriate physical, spiritual, and moral choices, thereby reinforcing positive behavior that will, God-willing, create “healthy” Jewish families down the road. It is a credit to our youth and adult leadership that Conservative Judaism seeks to educate our children as to behaviors that will keep them protected and safe.

Moreover, demonstrating the Conservative movement’s belief that Jewish values can and should impact every aspect of our lives, our teens also set the goal of treating every individual “in the image of God.” Interpersonal relationships matter; how we treat each other matters; and Judaism is clear on this point. Yet, it is interesting that the traditional Jewish world is quick to criticize those who “weaken” observance of the mitvot ben adam l’makom (ritual commandments), but for some reason we are willing to accept those who fail to practice the mitzvot ben adam lachaveiro (commandments governing how we treat other people). Conservative Judaism affirms that just as kashrut and observance of Shabbat are important, so too is the commitment to treating each person with the recognition that the divine sparks are present in all of us.

Similarly, our teens affirmed a commitment to avoiding lashon hara (gossip and slander), as well as a zero tolerance to bullying. The teens re-affirmed their commitment to Shabbat observance, regular attendance at worship services, kashrut, and avoiding alcohol and drug abuse. In their commitment to the ethical and ritual commandments and values of the Jewish people, the teen leaders of USY are not only dugma-ot to their fellow USYers, but to all leaders within the Jewish community.

A Bright Future for Conservative Judaism

A couple months ago, my synagogue—Metro Detroit’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek—hosted a regional USY kinnus (convention). The teens, males and females together, prayed and danced with ruach the full Shabbat liturgy: evening, morning, and afternoon. They studied various aspects of Torah and rabbinic literature in depth. They kept kosher. They cared for and supported each other. Moreover, they sought to bring tikkun (repair) to our world and to uplift all those who are in need.

Unfortunately, USY’s stance toward interfaith dating may now require further explanation. We all ought to bear in mind though, that after all, it was teens who wrote the language. However, after watching those same teens not long ago, my belief was reaffirmed that USY is an organization of which I would be proud and supportive if my young children were to grow up to be leaders therein. It is also no surprise that, with USY as well as the Ramah camping system, Conservative Judaism has and will continue to produce some of our country’s greatest Jewish leaders — because of the movement’s commitment to Judaism and to modernity, and because of its rabbis’ stance toward intermarriage and its definition of who is a Jew. To put it simply: USY, Ramah and Conservative Judaism are good, and are necessary, for the future of the Jewish people.

In fact, such ruach, Talmud Torah, and commitment to kavod and tikkun olam are values to which every sacred community should aspire. That we have it, right here, in Conservative Judaism is exactly why I became a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi, and why Conservative Judaism has a long, bright future.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is author of the books, "Don't Forget to Call Home: Lessons from God and Grandpa on a Life of Meaning," "Taste of Hebrew," and "Because I'm Jewish I Get to ...".
Related Topics
Related Posts