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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Losing Conservative Judaism
By Paul Plotkin
When I was a young boy growing up in a Conservative congregation in Toronto, Canada, I was taught about the history of the Conservative Movement. It was explained to me that it was not a movement in reaction to Orthodoxy, but rather to Reform; that it was devised as an attempt to "conserve" tradition, to "conserve" observance and practice, to redirect Judaism in a direction which would conserve the traditionalism that Reform was seeking to eliminate while still confronting modernity. As I grew up and became more sophisticated in my awareness of the Conservative Movement, through exposure at Ramah and USY, I learned there was a game that everyone played and that we all accepted -- the rabbi was our vicarious, totally observant Jew, while the laymen were at all different levels of observance.
The one commonality of the laymen was the bond of the synagogue with which they were affiliated -- that, and the fact that they expected their rabbi to be the observant one for them. While they went out and ate non-kosher food or hot dairy food in a non-kosher restaurant, they expected their rabbi to eat only in kosher restaurants. While they drove to synagogue on Sabbath, they expected their rabbi to walk. While they did not keep Shabbat, they expected the rabbi to be meticulous in his observance. And I must admit that as a teenager, and even to the point in college when I decided that I would apply to the seminary, I was prepared for a career in the rabbinate under those rules.
At Every Opportunity
What I was not prepared for, and what I still have great difficulty with, was the fact that the rules would, imperceptibly at first, but quite dramatically and quite rapidly, change across the country. We went from having a rabbi keep all the observances for you, to having a rabbi who would "not observe -- just like you. Part of this was aided and abetted by us Conservative rabbis ourselves who, through Law Committee decisions over the years, reflected on what I would call "the Koola (compromise) Factor." Whenever possible, a decision that could make a question in Jewish law easier for the people, regardless of other considerations, was adopted. Soon it became the accepted and often even the maximal level of behavior. Laws pertaining to driving on the Sabbath or laws in different areas of kashrut are but two areas. For example, rather than having the anticipated benefit of more participation in synagogue and Jewish life by allowing people to drive, and rather than having more kashrut observed at a wider level by allowing certain compromises in terms of fish, the opposite has been achieved -- not only for the layman who is often not observing in the first place, but for the rabbis as well.
There are now numbers of Conservative synagogues across the country, congregations in good standing of the United Synagogue, where, if a rabbi is not prepared to drive on Saturday, he may not even apply for the position. The decision pertaining to driving intended that if absolutely necessary, then it was permitted to drive to the nearest Conservative synagogue and back. I know of rabbis in Conservative congregations who pass two or three other Conservative congregations on the way to their congregation. The "Koola Factor" has struck. The location of affordable housing has become the primary consideration, not its proximity to the Temple. I've heard of another congregation which, as one of its early pre-screening questions of candidates, asked, "Were they prepared, on coming down for an interview, to go out for a fish meal?" If the candidate were to choose the higher level of kashrut, if the rabbi would choose not to compromise on that point, the congregation in essence told him that he was not a suitable candidate to even apply, for his decision not to exercise a "koola," a compromise, a diminution of standards, made him totally unacceptable to that congregation.
Kosher Pizza Parlors
The Koola Factor has had other negative implications as well. Thank G-d, there are still percentages of Conservative Jews who keep kosher -- larger percentages [than would be expected] if one defines kosher in the widest of latitudes. Most Conservative kosher Jews feel comfortable walking into any pizzeria around the country and ordering a cheese pizza. Leaving aside the question of suitability of cheese, there are still countless problems in the preparation of such a hot food product: the non-kashrut of the pots and pans, stoves, the proximity of pepperoni and other meat products, the possibility of the mixture of non-kosher meat with cheese pizza, etc. And yet, with the rather wide application of the Koola Factor with regard to eating hot dairy out, eating regular pizza has become an acceptable and normative activity amongst kosher-keeping, Conservative Jews. That in itself would not be so problematic were it not for the fact that one wonders how many more "totally kosher" pizzerias would be available that a community could support where the quality of the pizza would be every bit as acceptable, but the kashrut would be unimpeachable. Yet we have allowed the viability of such outlets to rest solely in the hands of the Orthodox neighborhoods.
Recently, I understand, the Law Committee has been discussing the question of the acceptability or non-acceptability of mono-diglycerides. As of this writing, I am not aware of any decision having been rendered. But the raising of the question allows another opportunity for the Koola Factor to enter. Let us say that there were legitimate halachic and chemical reasons to decide that mono-diglycerides of animal origin were to be deemed acceptable. This would theoretically open up many now forbidden products to the Conservative kosher consumer. Surely that is the intent in raising the question, but the practical result would be to further lessen the market for supervision of products and to discourage companies from seeking a heksher (rabbinic approval). Now the more subtle questions of the equipment used or the source of other questionable ingredients will go unanswered and unsupervised. What then have we gained from our decision? The Koola Factor will have triumphed again.
Higher Morality And The Minyan
One of the attractions that Conservative Judaism had for me, both prior to my coming to the Seminary and during my studies there, was the intellectual discovery and the intellectual honesty practiced. It was shown to us how Judaism has always continued to evolve using the flexibility implicit in the oral traditions, but that there was both a boundary to the change and a specific modus vivendi of change. As long as the changes in Jewish life brought about through an interpretive method could be justified within the parameters established, Judaism remained both true to its Torah source, yet flexible enough to accommodate the necessary changes in society.
It was in the area of the "women's issue" that a flagrant exception was blatantly manifested by some members of the Rabbinical Assembly. The issue of women counting in a minyan, after being debated back and forth by the Law Committee, was finally conceded to be one in which the halachah allowed no room for re-interpretation vis-a-vis its definition of who would constitute a minyan. Therefore, the Law Committee went outside of the established boundaries of interpretive Judaism as perceived through our historical analyses and, instead, began to legislate new rules based on a "higher morality" outside of the traditional mode. The thrust in the Rabbinical Assembly pushing for the change, in essence, said that "if the tradition does not allow for an adaptation, we will discard the value system implicit in the traditional halachah and we will superimpose our own value system which we deem to be of a higher ethical level and we will change Jewish law accordingly."
This, in terms of my understanding of Jewish tradition, is a radical departure from all that we have stood for in the movement of "tradition and change." The casuality of such actions will not be the immediate decision rendered one way or the other but, it seems to me, the entire integrity upon which the Conservative Movement is built.
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