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Burning issues threatening to split the Conservative Movement, such as the ordination of homosexual and lesbian rabbis, the sharp drop in the number of young members and the challenge of intermarriage will be raised this week during a two-day conference in Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute entitled "Conservative Judaism: Halacha, Culture and Sociology."
"This will be the first time that an institution not associated with the Conservative Movement will devote a scholarly conference to Conservative Judaism," said Professor Naftali Rothenberg, Jewish Culture and Identity Chair at Van Leer.
"And this is happening on the backdrop of a major crisis that the Conservative Movement is undergoing, in which members of the religious Right and Left in the movement are headed in opposite directions."
Leading figures in the Conservative Movement who represent diverse opinions will attend.
These include Israel Prize-winning Prof. David Halivni, who left the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary to protest the ordination of women; Chancellor of JTS Prof. Arnold Eisen, who is fighting to stem dropping membership; Rabbi Prof. Joel Roth, head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who resigned from the Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards in 2006 to protest a ruling favoring the ordination of homosexual rabbis; Rabbi Dr. Avram Reisner, who ruled that rabbinic restrictions on homosexual conduct were inconsistent with human dignity; and Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, president and rector of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, who represents a more right-wing position in the movement.
Academic researchers not affiliated with Conservative Judaism will also be participating.
Prof. Avinoam Rosenak, academic chair of the conference, said that one of the most controversial issues facing the movement in coming years will be intermarriage.
"I believe the controversy in 2006 over [ordination of] homo-lesbians sets the stage for movement's future response to mixed-marriage couples," said Rosenak, a lecturer in Jewish thought at Hebrew University.
"It brought to the forefront the fact that in reality there are two distinct movements that make up Conservative Judaism today. One is rabbinical and is connected with the JTS in America and Schechter in Israel, and the other is what happens in the communities."
Rosenak said that the two sub-movements were pulling in different directions. While the rabbinic leadership was striving to maintain a traditionalist approach there were grassroots elements pushing for change.
According to Rosenak the split between the two started with disagreements on matters such as the rabbinical ordination of women and driving to synagogue on Shabbat. But it reached an apex with the issue of the ordination of homosexuals and lesbians.
"The main challenge to the movement now is mixed marriages," said Rosenak.
"In theory, it is difficult to see how they will not go in the same direction as the Reform Movement," he added.
Rosenak was referring to the decision by the Reform Movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1983 to recognize as a Jew a child whose father is Jewish, even if the mother is not, if the child attends a Jewish school and follows a course of studies leading to "confirmation."
The conference will take place Tuesday and Wednesday and will end with a session entitled "Halacha and the Limits of Openness," in which Eisen, Roth, Golinkin and Reisner will participate.
Other sessions include "Challenges Posed by the Conservative Movement to Other Movements" and "Halacha, Meta-Halacha and Philosophy."