Orthodox or Conservative?

Conservative ideology advocates channeling our focus into leading humanity toward the pursuit of justice and a sense of responsibility toward different populations.

Hands (photo credit: Thinkstock)
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
This article was submitted together with the article ‘I Believe,’ which was published in the June 22 edition of the ‘Jerusalem Post Magazine.’
When an Israeli learns that I am a Masorti/Conservative rabbi, the inevitable query soon follows: “What is the difference between Reform and Conservative?” The very question conveys a glaring lack of knowledge about the philosophical underpinnings of those two streams of Judaism. It also speaks to the failure of the Conservative Movement to clearly communicate the principles of its ideology.
The more accurate question is, “What is the difference between Conservative and Orthodox?” Except for my preference for egalitarian tefilla (prayer), were someone to observe my daily life, hear my belief about God’s active presence in the world and even my belief in the origin of the written Torah, that person would think that I was an Orthodox Jew.
It is a critical commentary on the state of Conservative Judaism that an observant Jew is assumed to be Orthodox.
Conservative ideology mandates halachic observance no less than Orthodoxy does.
Despite legal decisions of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which reflect more aggressive reconciliations of our tradition with contemporary times, the overwhelming percentage of non-observant Jews labeled “Conservative” has given an inaccurate face to the ideological definition of the term.
A modified version of Conservative ideology best reflects Judaism’s historical tradition – that is, the way that Judaism developed and varied for nearly 3,000 years until the “codification” (sadly, read “ossification”) of the legal compendium known as the Shulhan Aruch (17th century).
And it offers the best model for helping Judaism follow that 3,000-year path of being organic in order to help Jews and the world reach our potentials.
CONSERVATIVE IDEOLOGY differs from current Orthodox ideology as follows:

• Emphasis of actions over belief system
Conservative does not require that its adherents espouse one common, singular belief in the origin of Torah. Whether it was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai by God’s hand, or written by Moses, or authored by various prophets, or divinely inspired by founding elders, or whether it serves as the historical record of the early Israelites, or is the literary chronicle of how a small band of people attempted to be in relationship with an ineffable God – it does not matter how one finds meaning in the Torah, but that one finds the Torah meaningful.
In other words, it matters most that a person is engaged and observant of Jewish practice regardless of the motivation to do so, be that motivation any of the following: being commanded by God; being commanded by Jewish Peoplehood; wanting to feel part of a community; believing that it helps to refine character; wanting to be part of the chain that links past to future generations; because it stimulates intellectual passions; because one finds it psychologically, emotionally and physically sensible and worthy; because it provides a vehicle for societal improvement; because one’s grandparents were observant; and so on.
Accordingly it does not matter why one is observant, but that one is observant.

• Embracing the human desire to question
It is not taboo to question traditional assumptions, theological claims or halachic positions – inquisitiveness is desired and welcomed, and challenges to assumptions and the status quo are neither punished nor impugned nor ostracized.
Scholars make halachic decisions, but the right – and even the responsibility – to raise the questions belongs to the community of practitioners.

• Social responsibility without borders
Traditional communities are wonderful about caring for their members’ needs, whether for food/material goods, health, education, comfort, solace or celebration.
As the Western world has changed in a way that allows a greater platform for Jews, Conservative ideology advocates channeling some of our focus into leading humanity in the direction of the pursuit of justice and a sense of responsibility toward different populations.

• The halachic nexus between tradition and modernity
Conservative allows for a robust interface of Jewish tradition with modernity to utilize the elasticity of Halacha and ensure its evolving appropriateness – a flexibility that was the hallmark of Judaism until the 17th century and that has nearly disappeared in the mainstream Orthodox world. This interface finds form in areas as relevant as kashrut, the role of women, human health, the environment, modern technologies, engagement with all the world’s populations, political and social policies.
This element of Conservative ideology is grounded in the understanding that the Oral Law – the how and what of understanding the Five Books of Moses – is the partnership of the Sages with God’s written law, who employ the tools God gave to humans – the instruments of intellect, emotion, psychology, wisdom, understanding, experience, precedence, skills of argumentation and of observation, the powers of analysis and of empirical evidence – and apply them to the Torah to decipher what God is telling us of how to be a Jew in the world. For this reason, unlike mainstream Orthodox colleagues, I will stand in public and proclaim that God gave the Written Law at Mount Sinai with the instruction of necessitating and requiring that there be an accompanying Oral Law whose ongoing process remains intact for every generation (precisely in keeping with Rashi’s elucidation of Deuteronomy 17:9-11; with the “Oven of Achnai” episode in Baba Metzia 59b; with Moses’s visit to Rabbi Akiva’s class in Menahot 29b; and volumes more).
IT IS my belief that the most effective transformational power of Judaism on the self, family, congregation and global community contains the synthesis of unwavering fidelity to halachic observance and the courage to incorporate the four elements delineated above.
Curiously neither the majority of Conservative nor modern Orthodox Jews claim this position as theirs. Perhaps the truly most appropriate question is: Why not?

The writer is the rabbi at Congregation Moreshet Yisrael, the Masorti/Conservative synagogue in downtown Jerusalem.