On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
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Facing the Need for Women Rabbis
By Jacob Neusner
Judaism stands at the parting of the ways. Whether
it will flourish or wither away depends on what people now decide. When Conservative Judaism offered an alternative,
within an essentially traditional framework, to Orthodoxy, it flourished. When it claimed to be little more than another
Orthodoxy, a copy, it withered. From the
1920s to the 1960s, it flourished. From the
1960s to the present time, it has declined.
In its heyday, Conservative Judaism offered the Jewish community a traditional approach to Judaism, one clearly distinguished from Orthodoxy. How was it different in the generation from World War I to the 1960s? Women sat next to men. Rabbis gave sermons, taught, and reached out to the congregations. Discourse was intelligible, critical, and interesting. And Orthodoxy? Women sat apart. Rabbis were remote and distant. There was no pretense at scholarship in Western modes. People loyal to traditional ways found a home in Conservative Judaism.
But today Orthodoxy presents the community with rabbis interested in the life of the people. Conservative Judaism enjoys no monopoly on scholarship. Modern Orthodox. scholars represented, for example, by those around Isadore Twersky at Harvard as well as some at Yeshiva University, speak compellingly on scholarly issues. Certainly the Conservative movement no longer exercises intellectual leadership without significant competition from Orthodoxy, particularly in the modern mode.
But what Conservative Judaism, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has wanted to present to the community is simply another form of an essentially Orthodox approach to things. It just will not work because no one needs it.
In its age of leadership, Conservative Judaism engaged the larger Jewish community in the great issues of the day: Zionism from the 1920s to the 1950s, to which the Orthodox were indifferent and much of Reform hostile; the incipient organization of the Jewish community as we now know it; outreach to the unaffiliated Jews; the building of a whole system of Jewish education all of these achievements of the second and early third generations belong (if not exclusively) to Conservative Judaism.
The Movement Is On The Sidelines
by contrast, the three greatest movements in the inner life of American Jewry bypass
Conservative Judaism. Having been engaged
early on with each, I can point to the failures.
And where has Conservative Judaism been? The Federations -- in many cities run by Conservative Jews -- are ignored. The havurah movement, brought to its richest expression in Conservative and Reform synagogues, might as well have happened on the moon. The professors of Jewish studies in universities -- many of them JTSA alumni -- are declared non-persons by their alma maters.
The age of renewal must come. American Jewry cannot accept only a single route to the tradition of Judaism, the one supplied by Orthodoxy. The same reasons that called forth the formation of Conservative Judaism explain why. Reform Judaism serves valiantly, but not universally. Two (if not more) roads into the traditional framework of Judaic living and thinking must remain open. One of them, the Conservative, sorely demands repair.
Conservative congregations must now restore the vitality of the center in two senses: first, the center of Conservative Judaism at JTSA; and second, the vital center of American Judaism that Conservative Judaism has marked out for itself.
In my view, the road to renewal has taken a minor detour, in the Rabbinical Assembly's rejection of a woman as a member. The wave of the future is now. It is the attainment of complete equality for women in the traditional sector of Judaism. That can be accomplished solely by Conservative Judaism. It will be the centerpiece for the renewal of the vital center.
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