How Unconservative Are You?

Allen: Aron, we’ve now both had the chance to flesh out our different opinions on a pretty wide range of religious issues, including God, prayer, religious observance, and study, to name a few. Based on what we’ve laid out, though, one could make a fair argument that we’ve misnamed our blog. For example, the influential Reform thinker Eugene Borowitz pushes the model of an “autonomous Jewish self”: that is, modern Jews as individuals should reverently yet critically engage with the traditional sources and practices we find religiously meaningful. That sounds an awful lot like what we’ve been doing on the blog. So why not UnReform?

On the flip side, consider that we kept a kosher kitchen at our apartment– a practice held by 83 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews and only 31 percent of Conservative Jews, according to the Pew survey. We also attend services at least once a month– as do 81 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews and 39 percent of Conservative Jews. Some sectors of Modern Orthodoxy seem to be inching toward toward a more inclusive “partnership” model in line with modern values. Finally, there are voices like those of my JTS professor Steven Bayme, who once told my class that he affiliated as Modern Orthodox, despite ideological scruples, because he wanted to make sure his grandkids would grow up Jewish.

Put simply: in what sense, if any, do you consider yourself a Conservative Jew?

Aron: I think an important starting point here is the fact that the major denominations of American Judaism — Reformism, Conservatism, and Modern Orthodoxy — are becoming less meaningful delineations each year. I’d wager that Borowitz’s ideology of the “autonomous Jewish self” — a concept at the heart of Reformism — is a more accurate description of most Conservative Jews than Solomon Schechter’s “Catholic Israel.” The boundaries between the two movements are breaking down, catalyzed by the modest growth of Reconstructionism and Renewal. Meanwhile, the left wing of modern Orthodoxy — Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, etc. — is drifting ever closer to the Conservative Judaism initially articulated by Schechter, pulled inexorably closer by the nondenomational institutions, like Mechon Hadar, that are bridging the gap.

We could just as easily ask, “In what sense, if any, does anyone consider themselves a part of any denomination?” but that would be dodging your question.

As much as I critique Conservative Jewish institutions, I don’t feel comfortable in any of the other movements. I don’t accept the premises — or conclusions — of Orthodoxy; Reformism, despite brilliant theologians like Geiger, Baeck, and Borowitz, has veered too far towards full-fledged neo-Kantianism;  neither Kaplan’s theology nor his understanding of halacha appeals to me; and Renewal, despite having some important insights, seems to be more of an approach than a movement, per se — I’m not clear on what distinguishes it from non-denominationalism.

There’s my non-answer. What’s yours?

Allen: Well put. I largely agree, with a few qualifications. For all its attractive qualities, Modern Orthodoxy is a non-starter; with all due respect to Avi Weiss, I’m not interested in turning ideological backflips for another fifty years to explain why my grandmother can read from the Torah. Besides, that movement’s facing a demographic crisis of its own, pulled on one end by its would-be progressives and to another by its newly emboldened right wing. I’d pick liberal Judaism’s tsuris any day.

I don’t share your beef with Reform’s “full-fledged neo-Kantianism”; arguably, Reform has the clearest ideology of the three major denominations. My issue is less theoretical than practical: I’m still invested in salvaging traditional practice more or less intact, whereas the warm and intimate Reform communities I’ve spent time have forged a more innovative path. Sympathize though I do with their project, it’s not really mine. The old ways can still speak to us if we listen closely enough. As Chesterton remarked somewhere, it’s not that tradition’s been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and left untried.

That leaves Conservatism and non-denominationalism of various forms. Insofar as independent communities live thoughtful and ethical Jewish lives, I’m all for them. (My past two congregations have been independent.) But JTS as a center of liberal Jewish scholarship and Ramah as a model of caring Jewish community can’t be beat. These institutions– for the most part– earn my support. Conservative Judaism is something of a cantankerous grandparent. For all its idiosyncrasies, I’ll still keep visiting it in assisted living. Instead of “tradition and change,” my own affectionate motto might read: “Conservative Judaism. Because it could be worse.”

Closing reflections? Alternative motto suggestions?

Aron: I didn’t say that straight neo-Kantianism isn’t clear, just that I don’t find it compelling. It’s quite difficult to make a cogent argument for the traditional practices you value from that sort of framework. It’s easy to see how the ideology of some prominent Reform thinkers — primary among them Hermann Cohen — could easily veer into secular humanism. The weakest part of Cohen’s argument is his explanation of why we should bother with the idea of God at all.

That said, there have been plenty of Reform thinkers who weren’t pure neo-Kantians. Leo Baeck, a 20th century reform rabbi who walks the line between deontology and existentialism, is my favorite theologian. I’m not sure what degree of influence, though, those thinkers exert on the movement as a whole at this moment.

A dry, but apt, metaphor for Conservative Judaism is that of the chain novel (a series of novels written by different authors), an analogy that was originally proposed by Professor Ronald Dworkin to describe legal theory but later applied by Professor Joshua Berman to Judaism. In a chain novel, different authors write consecutive books in a series. Each author imbues their book with its own style and plot, but that book has to make sense in the context of the over-arching plot and style of the series.

Conservative Judaism follows a similar logic: we have a significant amount of freedom to express our own ideologies and theologies, but those beliefs need to be grounded in knowledge of and conversation with Judaism’s texts. An underlying premise of the movement is that we can’t really know what we believe about Judaism unless we’re fluent, so to speak, in Judaism. This overlaps to some degree with Kaplan and Neil Gillman, whose seminal work — Sacred Fragments — we’ll be reviewing next week.

Allen: What a cliffhanger! Stay tuned.



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