Right of Reply: The difference between us

The Conservative movement maintains that religious norms need to be rooted in Halacha.

reform 88 (photo credit: )
reform 88
(photo credit: )
Once upon a time there were two six-year-old friends, a boy and a girl, one Reform and one Orthodox. To the dismay of at least one of their parents, they were inseparable. "He's different from us," they said to their daughter, "we don't want you playing together." "No he's not," she insisted. "We're exactly the same." One day when the two were out exploring in the woods near their homes, they came to a stream and wanted to cross it. "But our clothes will get wet," said the little boy. "Our parents will get angry." "We could take them off," said the little girl. And they did. Holding their clothes aloft in one hand, and one another with the other, the two made their way across the brook. Only when they emerged on the other side did the little girl look down. "Oh," she said, wide-eyed. "Mom and dad were right. We really are different." I love this story. On the one hand, what the friends discovered about their differences had nothing whatsoever to do with what was of concern to their parents. On the other hand, it had everything to do with it. Stripped down to their essence, there is a fundamental distinction between the Reform and Orthodox that it would be silly to try to ignore. On the other hand, both are Jews, just as our two children are both human, and no amount of protest is going to alter that. David Forman's proposal, published in these pages on February 27, that Reform and Conservative Jews should "declare themselves a separate religion from Orthodoxy" disregards this inconvenient reality. It also raises a number of fundamental questions. THE FIRST AMONG THEM: If a Conservative child were to have joined the two friends at the river bank and laid himself (or herself) bare, to whom would he (or she) have appeared the same? To Rabbi Forman, who has argued before that the Reform and Conservative movements should meld into one, the answer is clear. But that is because he stubbornly continues to discount a major difference between us, measuring the two movements by the observable behaviors of clusters of their committed adherents in Israel, rather than on the basis of their essence. His dismissal of the Conservative movement's claim "to be halachically based, that is until sociological realities force it to alter Halacha" is more than unfair; it also obscures a fundamental precept of Conservative Judaism, which - unlike Reform Judaism - does not ascribe to the individual the right to decide what is permissible in terms of religious and ethical behavior. This it leaves to our rabbis who together, and in an agreed-upon fashion, engage in discourse that always makes recourse to Halacha. Is their interpretation of that Halacha also influenced by sociological realities and modern sensibilities? I certainly hope so, just as rabbinic disputation has always been. Eilu v'eilu divrei elohim hayim is not an adage invented by the Conservative movement. "Both of these interpretations are the words of the living God" is an elemental principle of talmudic conversation. There are many ways of understanding Jewish law, and as long as a legal ruling is arrived at by those who have the authority to elucidate the Torah, then it, too, is legitimate. It can take generations until one or another of those interpretations becomes the norm, but like our Orthodox coreligionists, and unlike our Reform colleagues, we in the Conservative movement maintain that that norm need be established by the collective and not the individual, and that it must be rooted in Halacha, which we recognize not only as a source of enlightenment but also as an obligation. Second question: Just what name would Forman give to his new religion? I rather doubt that the Orthodox he castigates will surrender their claim to the name of Judaism for the religion they hold by. Would he? This is neither a rhetorical nor a trivial question; neither is it a matter of semantics. Judaism through the ages has meant so many things to so many people, and has managed to be inclusive of them all, that it is dismaying for me to think that one could so easily abandon his rights both to continue interpreting the tradition and to insist that it remain deserving of the appellation. JUDAISM IS IMPORTANT to me not only for the spiritual inspiration it offers, the social conscience it demands, and the "ethical moorings" that Forman insists constitute our quintessence, but also for the collective memory with which it provides me, and for the way in which it connects me to my forebears and their own tales of God-wrestling. I would be severing myself from all that if I were to declare myself part of a religion called anything but Judaism, and I am not prepared to disengage from 6,000 years of history because of six decades of frustration. Last question: Why does Forman assume that "such a dramatic move [as declaring non-Orthodoxy to be a separate religion] would most likely marginalize Orthodoxy," would lead to the relaxing of its rigidity and the loosening of its stranglehold on the political system? I would assume just the opposite. The multifaceted religious establishment that the Reform and Conservative streams have been fighting would declare victory and point to our lack of tenacity as a disclosure of our inauthenticity. No longer challenged by those to their "left" who had heretofore claimed to speak in the name of Judaism, the many voices of Orthodoxy would continue competing with one another for ascendancy but nevertheless manage to unite just enough to stultify any attempt by us "enlightened" Jews - a present-day sect of self-proclaimed Marannos - to reassert ourselves in the future. In the meantime, those Israelis that Forman predicts would begin joining our ranks in droves would do just the opposite. Those who are eager to find a meaningful and genuine Judaism in a noncoercive, pluralistic and tolerant atmosphere are already finding their way to our wide-open doors; those who are seeking a stamp of approval and an entree into Israeli society will not feel that a certificate from Forman's separate religious sect will offer them that. And I wouldn't blame them. Perhaps I am missing the point, and Forman was only trying to make one, not really intending that we take his preposterous idea seriously. Nonetheless, I believe his arguments to be not only spurious but dangerous. Don't misunderstand me. I oppose, as does he, the continued existence of the Chief Rabbinate, the religious establishment's meddling in our private lives, the unconscionable and cynical abuse of the political system by the religious parties and, yes, their "blasphemous perorations which hold Judaism up for ridicule in the eyes of the majority of people in the country and throughout the world." Furthermore, I have every intention of continuing to play and explore with my Reform friends, cooperating closely as we traverse streams together, hand in hand. God knows (and I use the term intentionally) that there are numerous obstacles that we must resolutely face together in our struggle along the path toward equality in this country so that it might indeed become worthy of its designation as "the Jewish state." But as I do so, I will not forget who I am and what I believe in. I will also continue reaching out to and forging alliances with my fellow travelers who are Orthodox (knowing full well that there are others who will always reject me), and I will never relinquish my entitlement to claim that what I am doing, living, breathing and transmitting is indeed authentic Judaism. The writer is the international vice president of Masorti Olami, the worldwide association of Conservative communities, and a former chairman of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.