The ‘Middle’ Movement Affirms, Updates Its Middle Path
Ten years in the making, ‘The Observant Life’ charts a course for between ancient wisdom and say, Internet file sharing, for Conservative Jews.
05/07/2012 - 20:00
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What does it mean to be an observant Jew in the 21st century? The question sounds deceptively simple, but the answer takes more than 30 rabbis and nearly 1,000 pages in the massive volume being published later this month by the Rabbinical Assembly of Judaism’s Conservative movement, “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.” That’s nearly twice the length of the book it updates, Rabbi Isaac Klein’s 1979 “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.” Has the world — or Judaism — changed that much in the 33 years in between the appearance of those books?

What both volumes share is a firm grounding in Jewish religious law, known as halacha. That word comes from halach, the Hebrew word for “to walk” or “to go.” But the path the newer book sets out goes beyond the rituals and regulations detailed in Rabbi Klein’s guidebook. And that is why comparing the two isn’t really fair, says Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, senior editor of “The Observant Life”: because despite the overlap of some of their contents, the books’ goals diverge.

“The Observant Life,” says Cohen, “goes places where many contemporary Jews would be surprised to find there is an aspect of Jewish observance. It combines a code of law with a code of etiquette — and most of all, a code of behavior and conduct befitting someone who wishes to, in the words of the prophet Micah, “walk humbly with your God.” 

Indeed, “The Observant Law” traverses far outside the walls of the synagogue to explore the challenging territory of ethics and morals of daily life. Reading it is like embarking on a journey into how to apply and translate into concrete, everyday behavior traditional Jewish values of “acting justly” and “deeds of lovingkindness.” Chapters thus confront such thorny areas as sex (including same-sex issues) and family life (such as intermarriage), as well as business issues (from negotiating fairly to the halacha of advertising to dealing with contracts that abrogate basic human rights) and the ever-more complex medical dilemmas with which modern medicine presents us (or will soon enough, with stem cells and cloning). Not to mention such current issues of concern as the environment. Modern technology is not below the radar, either: One entire chapter is devoted to intellectual property, touching on such issues as Internet file sharing, downloading and copying.

“These are all issues that the modern world has presented to us,” says Cohen. The ancient sages could not have anticipated them, he says. But there are insights from tradition that can help guide us in our thinking today. 

The book — which took 10 years to compile — is a monumental undertaking. The list of more than 30 rabbis who contributed chapters reads like a contemporary greatest hits of Conservative Judaism, including Gordon Tucker, Elliot N. Dorff, Jane Kanarek, Nina Beth Cardin, David H. Lincoln, Cheryl Peretz, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, to name but a few. In some ways, it can be seen as a modern-day continuation of Maimonides and his codification of Jewish law and ethics. But there is hope, no doubt, that it will appeal to a new generation of observant Jews.

See, for instance, the chapter on being single in a sex-suffused culture. There’s no question, in the pages of this volume, that being observant is fully compatible with equality between men and women. The volume’s openness to confronting the fact that changes in the modern world challenge us to change further serves as a way to distinguish the Conservative movement from the other branch of Judaism based on traditional halacha, the slower-to-change Orthodox movement (which does not allow the rabbinic ordination of women, for instance) — as well as from those branches, such as the Reform and Reconstructionist, that have broken from strict adherence to halacha.

“The Observant Life” arrives at a pivotal moment for the Conservative movement, as it has lost adherents and is seen by skeptics as floundering, and lacking a vision. Is “The Observant Life” an attempt to address that perception? In her preface, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, puts it this way: “As the Conservative movement moves from the first to the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are reaching a turning-point in our approach. … This book is called ‘The Observant Life’ because we remain steadfast in belief that observing Judaism — that is, practicing mitzvoth — is the pathway to uncovering the full richness of Judaism in our lives.” The book reflects the fact, she continues, that the Conservative movement is “unequivocally committed to allowing thoughtful change in order to promote eternal values. … We embrace the realization that, if we are ‘commanded’ or obligated to perform the mitzvoth, that commitment applies to the ethical precepts as well as the ritual ones.”

“The Observant Life” also seems to point to (and derive from) larger trends within the Jewish community as a whole: a divergence of trends, really, with affiliated Jews becoming more observant, even while there are greater numbers of unaffiliated Jews who follow little or no observance. Those trends play out a bit differently in each of the movements, for somewhat different reasons. For instance: The past years have seen any number of Orthodox rabbinical rulings that further restrict foods acceptable to kashrut (from greens that might have microscopic bugs to certain kinds of fish). But particularly problematic is the reluctance if not refusal of the Orthodox movement to recognize Jewish conversions if not performed by an Orthodox rabbi.

Sociologists have suggested that one reason for reaching towards more extreme interpretations is not just competition (“I’m more observant than you”), but differentiation from the outside, secular world. 

Meanwhile, the Reform movement, which from its beginnings eschewed many traditions and rituals, from keeping kosher to conducting services mostly in Hebrew and wearing yarmulkes and tallit  — it bases its precepts not on halacha but on ethical ideals of social justice — now incorporates much more Hebrew, many of its rabbis and cantors wear yarmulkes and tallit, and several years ago it published a new prayer book that reflects the congregants’ desire for more connection and spirituality through ritual. So if “The Observant Life” is a reflection of the desire to figure out the “how to” of observance, it is of particular interest that one of the book’s publicity blurbs comes from Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of the Reform movement.

Which brings us back to the Conservative movement, which is seen by many Jews as being in between the Reform and the Orthodox — to paraphrase like Goldilocks: not too strict, but not too secular. “The Observant Life” is one way to rebrand the movement for the public, to be seen and identified as a pathway towards a life that is religiously and spirituality committed while also living in the secular world (hence all those chapters about ethics in personal and business life). I think part of the value of “The Observant Life” is that it recognizes that the complications of modern life and culture and technology make it all the more perplexing to find ways to find a pathway that respects the push-pull of both spheres of life. It’s no small feat to interpret in a contemporary context ancient laws and rulings and tractates. But the rabbis take the task seriously, and I think not just Jews but anyone seeking to find a pathway towards just conduct would do well to dip into a volume whose heft is warranted by the value of its content. 

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Conservative is truly the sick man of American Judaism. Not only are both Reform and Orthodoxy far outstripping it, but also, there is now a growing liberal movement within Orthodoxy, which is obviating the very need for there to even be a Conservative Judaism. Unlike Conservative, this movement, called Open Orthodoxy, has a clearly defined theology and halachic parameters within which to organize their movement. They make it so women can participate in religious services as far as is halachically possible. They are open to Biblical scholarship. They have a peer model of rabbinic leadership as opposed to the top-down approach favored by the ultra-Orthodox, and they pursue an open-door policy toward conversions.
With all of this in play, Conservative in America is in deep trouble.

So, what you are saying is that progressive elements in Orthodoxy are starting to see the wisdom of the Conservative approach, right? As for "outstripping," I am not sure exactly what this means. Demographics account for 90% of Conservative population decline, and the other 10% is largely economic in terms of synagogue affiliation. Reform Judaism has been equally hurt by these trends. Though helped greatly by high birth rates, Orthodoxy as a theology is bankrupt, as evidenced by increasing numbers of young Orthodox seeking a lifestyle that embodies the historically Conservative Jewish approach to Halacha, and a more authentic historic sense of am-ha'aretz. Just don't use the big "C" word! Shhhh! The Rovian accounts of Conservative Jewish demise are getting pretty predictable now. Just because you say it three times doesn't make it true. Remember, many Orthodox synagogues were considered dead in the water just 30 years ago, so numeric trends don't always tell the whole story. If anything, the "main street" Judaism promoted by the Conservative movement is more relevant than ever.

I was a Hillel director from 1980-87. A gentile woman came to me to discuss converting because "she wanted to." But I knew she had a Jewish boyfriend and wanted to convert to make his parents happy. She said she wanted to become a Conservative Jewess. So I gave her Isaac Klein's book, told her this was the Bible of Conservative Judaism and asked her to come back in a week. She called me after a couple of days to say she didn't want to become "an ultra-Orthodox Hasid." I do not know in the end if she found a Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbi who could/would sprinkle holy water on her and lo and behold, she would be a Conservative Jewess.
I suspect this woman and her boyfriend were/are typical of so many who think that being Conservative means accepting a title without any meaningful change in one's life (certainly, that is the reality for most non-Orthodox conversions). Does Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, the book's senior editor, really think it is going to have an impact on the average lay or wanna- be Conservative Jew?

Having studied Jewish History, it is clear that what we predict about our people's future does not always pan out. Just as the Conservative movement was thought to be "the movement" of the later 20th century and on in America,
while the Orthodox movement has grown, so too, one cannot be sure what changes will occur in the coming years. Many young people( including the observant) reject the notion of denominations and do not define themselves by labels. It 's most important, in my opinion, that we produce serious Jews who desire to affiliate with the community, who understand the sense of "being commanded" and that subjective definitions do not always "make the man or woman". In other words some Conservative Jews can be more observant than some Orthodox Jews. I like the Israeli connotation "Shomer Mitzvot" and since no one can observe all 613, especially if they are living in the Diaspora, this term is at least more inclusive, and not as divisive. Let's hope that we can still remain Am Echad!

I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

Bottom line: only one sector/stream of Judaism is growing - and is doing so by leaps and bounds: Orthodox. The rest, tragically, are eroding at a frightening pace. And Orthodox Jews are involved in every possible industry and field of eneavor, so any implication that we reject or ignore "modernity" or can't sufficiently contend with "the complications of modern life and technology" doesn't reflect reality. 1,000 pages or 1,000,000 pages won't change the fundmental truth that a departure from a fully observant (i.e., Orthodox) life leads within a generation or two at most to a departure from the faith altogether. I can give you the answer in one sentence: "If you truly care about the continuity of your family as Jews, raise them Orthodox". Sure you may not be attracted to - or may even be turned off by - some aspects of Orthodoxy - hey, we all make choices, we all compromise: the question is what you really want at the end of the day. If continuity is paramount, there's only one choice. Anything else may make you feel like you're having it all, but you're setting yourself up to fail.

You are absolutely right about keeping kids Jewish by teaching them all of Orthodoxy's precepts. From the point of view of Jewish continuity, the more extreme the Orthodoxy, the better. Unfortunately, there is also that little matter of honesty. Can we honestly teach our children that G-d created the world in seven days (even metaphorically) and that he gave the Torah to the Jews at Sinai, when we know that the Universe is billions of years old; that there are billions of galaxies and stars and probably planets with many of the planets having life, some perhaps more intelligent than our own; that life on this planet evolved and will continue to evolve, and that even our religion has evolved even in its forms and tenets; if every Orthodox Jew wants to think that Moses wore Talis and T'fillin in the desert? What did G-d give to the creatures on other planets? Did He give them a separate Torah? Well, it's tough to teach your children Orthodoxy in the conviction that Orthodoxy will keep them Jewish, when the basic tenant of Orthodoxy--that the world was created in seven days and that God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai is unbelievable. That is the problem with teaching one's children only Orthodoxy.

dear Annonymous- i agree with your sentiments completely, but to be fair - if someone wants "continuity" couldn't they also consider Aliyah without becoming Orthodox since Jews in Israel are also increasing? Doesn't the American Jew who cares that his or her grandchildren will be Jewish really have two options? becoming Orthodox OR making Aliyah? You wrote "only Orthodox" while theologically you might think that way from a purely sociological perspective you have to admit that to keep one's descendants Jewish there are really two options- Orthodoxy OR Aliyah (assuming one's children stay in Israel).

Somehow Conservative Rabbis as a group FAILED to make Judaism exciting, meaningful and spiritually relevant to their congregants for decades...
Why is that the case? Why couldn't the Rabbi's make their services more meaningful? Why did camp Ramah work? Orthodox services work? but Conservative services fail to be inspiring?

If it isn’t the Conservative Rabbis fault who were leading these synagogues over the past 50 years- or more- than whose fault is it?

The Conservative Rabbi in my synagogue when I was growing up – kept himself at a distance from his congregants, after all he was the "Rabbi". He tried to give very clever speeches… but he didn’t offer anything sincere in spirituality. The services were sooo stiff. Most of the conservative synagogues I went to sounded like they are dying when they are singing Aleynu at the end and that’s when it’s most crowded since most of the people come at the end!
I long left it and moved to Orthodox, many of my peers from back then married non-Jews and moved to Reform… but my point is- if you are claiming to hold on to Tradition as Conservative do- then you have to back up your claim with services which have at least some spirituality- but not what I saw. I never encounted the concept of "growing spiritually" in the Conservative movement, only when i checked out Orthodoxy did they speak of growing spiritually.
Do other readers share my feeling that a large part of the demise of the movement was the fault of the Rabbis?

Good luck with this "monumental" effort. The problem is that the sheep escaped from the pen long ago. Very few in the Conservative movement give a fig for observance any longer and even fewer are going to give this work a serious look. Of course, it'll give the dying Conservative movement a few more pumps of oxygen and make it feel likes it's really relevant, but those in the know, recognize that the differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism are negligible. Both movements features a near majority of non-Jews who claim to be Jewish but care little about Jewish values and the rest is history. Darn shame too. I'm Conservative, but at least I'm honest. My kids couldn't care less about Conservative Judaism and I tried my darndest.

it's 1,000 pages and worth every word!

1000 pages?

Your reviewer goes off the deep end writing, "In some ways, it can be seen as a modern-day continuation of Maimonides and his codification of Jewish law and ethics." While it is unclear how many truly "observant" Conservative Jews there are (Shabbot? Kosher? Family purity laws?), hopefully none of the many contributors to the reviewed volume would seriously compare their efforts to that of Maimonides!

Would not "kippot," a Hebrew word, be a better choice than "yarmulkes," a Yiddish word for skullcaps?

Yarmulkes are still more widely known as yarmulkes rather than kip pot.

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