A Reform Rabbi Observes Changes in Conservative Judaism

Sermon delivered January 5, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

When I was a child, I was taught that being a Reform Jew is much more difficult than being Orthodox. The theory was that Orthodox Jews simply perform Jewish rituals as they are told. Reform Jews, on the other hand, must study the tradition, and make informed choices about which Jewish observances to follow, on the basis of commitment and knowledge. The argument is self-serving, and I doubt that it’s true, at least in practice. If we are appropriately reflective, we will acknowledge too many Reform Jews among us simply dismiss a vast proportion of mitzvot, without any thought. Conversely, many Orthodox Jews do deeply contemplate the reasons they observe Jewish law.

Be that as it may, the most challenging branch of our faith today is Conservative Judaism. Like Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews believe that the Torah, with all its statutes and ordinances, was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Therefore, both Conservative and Orthodox Jews believe that they must observe Jewish law, which is known in Hebrew as halachah. Orthodox Jews believe that halachah was given, once and for all at Mount Sinai, never changing. Conservative Jews, on the other hand, are taught that God always intended that halachah would develop over time.

Therefore, today’s Conservative and Orthodox Rabbis are equally charged with the time-honored duty to continue interpreting God’s teaching, in keeping with the tradition of study adopted by the Rabbis of old. Conservative Rabbis, though, have the additional task of wrestling with the wisdom of the modern world. They may conclude that a given law, as traditionally interpreted, was meant one way for the ancient world and another way in the modern world, equally in the eyes of God.

Examples will elucidate the challenge. Permit me to begin with something that won’t sound controversial to anybody here, and which was decided decades ago. We may better understand the challenge and the process if we aren’t thinking about an emotionally charged issue.

As most people know, Orthodox Jews will not travel on Shabbat. Riding in a car, or any other conveyance, is considered prohibited activity on the Sabbath. Conservative Jews also understand God to have prohibited travel on Shabbat. However, all Jewish movements teach that we are to observe Shabbat both at home and in the synagogue, both individually and as a community. For Orthodox Jews, the need to observe the Sabbath at shul must be performed without riding, or one must stay home.

Some years ago, though, Conservative Rabbis made a different ruling. They observed that, in the ancient world, people lived in close proximity to one another. For example, I have visited a site in Israel, which archeologists believe to have been a city of some 25,000 people. The area is much smaller than many subdivisions in north San Antonio. Observing Shabbat with community never required our ancestors to travel. However, in our modern world, we often live rather spread out, even within one community. Some cannot afford to live near the synagogue, and other considerations often affect the choice of where an individual or family may live. Therefore, the Conservative Rabbinate ruled, many years ago, that a Conservative Jew may travel to the synagogue on Shabbat.

Not all Conservative Jews take advantage of this permission. Rabbi Bitran, for example, made sure that his family purchased a home that would be close enough to Congregation Agudas Achim for him to be able to walk to and from the synagogue on Shabbat and Holy Days. Still more Conservative Jews disobey the ruling: They travel to many places on Shabbat – the mall, for example – and engage in activities that their movement deems inappropriate. Some Orthodox Jews do the same. And, needless to say, many Reform Jews don’t hew to the teachings that we should all observe Shabbat, at home and at Temple, in some meaningful way. Nevertheless, we all transgress these standards, knowing that we are not in line with the observances of our own branch of Judaism.

Greater complications faced the Conservative Movement in 1983, when it decided to admit women to the rabbinate. Reform Judaism had embraced women as Rabbis since 1972, and the Reconstructionist Movement wasn’t far behind. Conservative leaders faced a great challenge. They seemed to agree that admitting women to the rabbinate was the right thing to do. However, they knew that several of the Movement’s leading scholars did not believe that Jewish law, or halachah, could ever accept a woman in such a role. At the same time, they knew that some congregations, more traditional in their leanings, would not accept a woman Rabbi.

With respect to women Rabbis, the Movement accepted a principal it called “pluralism.” What that meant was that a congregation or Rabbi – or any Conservative Jew, for that matter – could accept or reject the authority and leadership of a female Rabbi. By contrast, at least officially, Reform congregations have long been forbidden to discriminate on the basis of gender when selecting a Rabbi.

Such a practice is open to sharp criticism from both sides. Traditionalists claimed that Conservative Judaism had broken with halachah – and worse, with the weight of Jewish history – by accepting women Rabbis at all. Liberals argued that Conservative Judaism was violating its own principals, by allowing congregations to continue discriminating against Rabbis who had been rightfully ordained by the Conservative Movement.

Twenty-four years later, women Rabbis are no longer novel in Conservative Judaism. One no longer often hears the call for “pluralism” on this issue. A break-off from the Conservative Movement over women Rabbis basically failed. Now, though, most recently, Conservative Judaism faces another, perhaps more explosive, challenge.

Pluralism is on the front-burner again, as the Law Committee of Conservative Judaism has ruled that Conservative seminaries may, if they choose, ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis; and that Conservative Rabbis may, if they choose, officiate at same-sex union ceremonies. By contrast, Conservative Rabbis lose their membership in their Rabbinical Assembly, if they officiate at an interfaith marriage.

Actually, the decision of the Law Committee was even more complicated than what I described. Three rulings were accepted, only one of them permitting gay and lesbian Rabbis and rabinically-sanctioned commitment ceremonies. I read that the issuance of conflicting responses was in keeping with the Talmudic habit of recording majority and minority opinions. However, in the Talmud, contradictory legal opinions coexist only with a clear indication of which is the majority opinion and the only one to be recognized and observed. Issuing several contradictory positions is unique to Conservative Judaism, and may represent a particular strength of that Movement.

In order to understand fully, we must examine the reasoning behind the ruling that adopts a more liberal approach to gays and lesbians. The Rabbis who authored that opinion believe that ancient Jewish laws forbade something different from what we in the modern world understand to be homosexuality. God, they believe, never meant to withhold leadership positions or sanctified relationships from people who are, by nature, homosexual, and who have no choice with regard to their own sexuality.

In the meantime, once again, folks on both the right and the left are unhappy. Some Conservative Jews feel that their Movement has fundamentally broken with Jewish law. They threaten to leave Conservative Judaism, on the grounds that the Movement has lost its way and is indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. Others, finding religious grounds for firm opposition to any discrimination against gays and lesbians, are unhappy that seminaries and congregations may decide not to accept gay and lesbian Rabbis. By contrast, the Reform Movement, since 1990, has specifically endorsed ordination of openly gay and lesbian Rabbis, and congregations are not permitted – and here let me emphasize, at least officially – to discriminate in the selection of a Rabbi on the basis of sexual orientation. Reform Rabbis may, however, choose to officiate at same-sex weddings or not to do so.

As I reflect on these struggles within Conservative Judaism, my first, easiest, and least enlightening response is that I’m glad I’m a Reform Jew. The issues with which the Conservative Movement struggles today are settled matters for me, and I feel blessed to be part of a Jewish Movement that understands these matters to be non-issues.

Upon deeper reflection, these struggles lead me to ever greater admiration of Conservative Judaism. One can not easily remain true to the laws of Moses, while also striving to practice what one believes God wants in a modern world. Without a doubt, the greatest challenge in our faith today is to be a Conservative Jew.

Recent studies show the Conservative Movement to be in decline. While Reform Judaism remains strongest and Orthodoxy is growing, Conservative Judaism has been steadily losing numbers and favor with younger Jews in recent decades. Some blame Conservative Judaism’s slide on its being slow to change. Others argue that it has changed too much. I would argue, instead, that we live in a world where people prefer to avoid tough choices. Conservative Judaism, at least institutionally, does not avoid confronting tough issues.

I am a Reform Jew, not because Reform Judaism is easy, but because I believe in the basic teachings and foundations of our Reform tradition. Nevertheless, I admire each of the major Movements in Judaism, as each remains true to its own principles. My prayers join those of every Jew who hopes for a strong and meaningful future for Conservative Judaism, at Congregation Agudas Achim here in San Antonio, and around the world.