Conservative Rabbi Offers 'Trial Balloon'

The movement should think about first accepting converts, and then teaching them.

03/04/13
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When one of the country’s leading Conservative rabbis states publicly his discomfort with a major policy of the movement, it warrants attention and consideration.

In his Shabbat morning sermon last weekend, Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, offered up what he called “a trial balloon,” sharing his thoughts about conversion, interfaith relationships and the status of non-Jewish family members in Jewish families, at times waxing eloquent, and at times speaking bluntly.

“The most significant reason I don’t like our policy [on conversion] is that it doesn’t make sense in my gut,” he said, while first making clear that no policy change at the synagogue was planned and that he was, essentially, thinking aloud with his congregants.

Rabbi Cosgrove said he has seen during his rabbinate that love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.

At present, Park Avenue, like many Conservative synagogues, has an active conversion program where the non-Jewish partner completes a yearlong course of study before going to mikveh or having a modified brit milah, and then is permitted to wed as a Jew. But the rabbi feels couples see it as putting obstacles in their way.

He observed that while the Orthodox take a strong stand against intermarriage and set “a high bar for conversions,” and the Reform, since 1983, say that the child of a non-Jewish father and Jewish mother is considered Jewish if raised in a Jewish home, the Conservative camp is, not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle. That means Conservative rabbis advocate in-marriage and do not officiate at intermarriages, but encourage conversion after the fact.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple. … I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

He likened it to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

He readily acknowledges that there are flaws, unanswered questions and risks with such a bold plan, not to mention halachic issues to resolve.

“It is fair to ask if Judaism as a whole is not cheapened by making conversion so easy.” Still, he told The Jewish Week “there were no guarantees for Hillel, or for rabbis today.

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other clergy to marry them.

“It weighs heavily on me,” acknowledged the rabbi, who sees his suggestion as a way “to shift the conversation to one of muscular embrace.”

What’s clear is that the current system isn’t working. A full discussion and debate on how best to ensure the continuity of Jewish life is in order, and Rabbi Cosgrove should be commended for broaching the difficult topic.

gary@jewishweek.org
 

Last Update:

03/14/2013 - 16:18

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Rabbi Cosgrove may be focusing on this because statistically, most members of his Congregation have a child, or sibling, who are intermarried. Sitting in shul and listening to a Rabbi condemn the actions of loved-ones does not make for a good experience or strong synagogue. Conservative Rabbis are responding to the reality of the movement. One could argue that a stronger public stance against this in the past may have stemmed the tide of intermarriage, but that time has long gone.

I do not believe Rabbi Cosgrove's positions will enhance Jewish life, I actually believe the opposite. But i do believe they refelct the current situation in the Conservative movement and understand his desire to be relevant to all his congregants.

Why all the hate towards the Rabbi?

He makes some valid points, as do some of the commenters.

I don't think the gym analogy nor the commenter's medical school analogy are right. They are both the extremes.

I was raised as an observant Jew, but I'm turned off by Judaism these days, mostly due to what I see as divisive and exclusive behavior in many Jewish communities.

To the people that think that if you're not 100% "Torah observant", then you're not really a Jew:

We all pick and choose what rules to follow, including you.

Stop being such hypocrites.

All should be welcome in Judaism (and other religions). The same people who wouldn't accept certain converts to Judaism wouldn't accept me renouncing my Judaism since I have a Jewish mother. It's what you believe people, not just how you were born or raised.

Religion and religious affiliation, unlike homosexuality, is a choice.

This matter is on my horizon, as the non-Jewish partner. I am excited to go through the year, or whatever may be required, and so is she. Honestly, albeit possibly naively, I would not think of doing otherwise. If, in the end, the best that happens is to be accepted by Jews of every kind as righteous, then that will be more than sufficient.

For the present, this study and sincerity will please my beshert, and that is all that matters.

Until Conservative and Reform conversions (and ALL Orthodox conversions) are recognized and accepted in Israel, it doesn't matter.

The child of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother has always been considered Jewish by all streams of Judaism. Beyond that Yosef and Karen said it well. Life is about choices and choices always have consequences. We can soften them but not eliminate them.

I can feel the likes of Rabbi Harry Halpern and Rabbi Saul Liberman and their chevra of 50 and 60 years ago roll in their graves over this white flag coming from Rabbi Cosgrove and his camp. These Conservative rabbis from way back when knew of the problems that would come for those who underwent Conservative conversions in their era as well as the problems that their progeny would go through in later generations including today once these converts wanted to take on more observance and naturally move into the Orthodox world. Rabbi Cosgrove and his supporters are doing a terrible disservice to many today that had family go through Conservative conversions by these giants of the past but who cannot now be considered truly Jewish by Orthodox rabbis today who are always scared of what would happen should they ignore their right wing thought police. But hey, if this is an attempt for Reform and Conservative Judaism to be considered by even more people as having no differences then kol hakavod. This helps that cause.

I don't understand why this is being treated as an Editorial. Take out the last paragraph and it is an interesting article on the thoughts of one rabbi. If the JW has an opinion they should state it.

When my fiance and I wanted to marry we faced the dilemma posed by Rabbi Cosgrove. We did not wish to wait a year to marry. My fiance (now wife of 26 years) wished to convert to my faith and we found a Rabbi (conservative congregation) who asked her to take one short class and gave her books for independent study. The conversion process went quickly and we were married in a Jewish ceremony. We have since raised our son in a Jewish home, given him a Jewish education and a bar mitzvah and have been very active in our synagogue. My wife had her own bat mitzvah three years ago. This would likely not have happened if the conversion process had been lengthy and difficult. The best chance for a positive outcome will occur when the clergy and the synagogue community are actively engaged with the couple both before and after the conversion.

I read with interest and amazement your editorial regarding Rabbi Cosgrove's comments about conversion. Although he was only "thinking out loud" one has to wonder what he was thinking? Was this "trial balloon" to let us know what the Conservative Movement is planning to promote as a standard for observance and conversion? As a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly he must certainly be aware of any discussions on this topic. And what was he thinking in the analogy he suggested regarding gym membership? This is sophistry at best. Is inclusion into Judaism something we sign up for? Perhaps a better analogy would be allowing someone who wants to be doctor to start to practice medicine and then attend medical school; or perhaps (not to be political) allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote and then allowing them to study for citizenship. Congregants might not see these analogies in the same way as gym membership.

Rabbi Cosgrove seems to miss an important message in the story of Hillel's openness to a convert. Regarding Hillel's acceptance of a convert prior to studying Judaism, Hillel does teach the prospective convert what he considers the principle of Torah that includes all others. Only after the prospective convert accepts this overriding principle of Torah is he accepted and expected to learn both the written and oral law. (Included in the same story in the Talmud).

When Rabbi Cosgrove bemoans the fact that prospective intermarried couples often don't return to see him, after he advises them of the process of conversion, may reveal how unimportant Judaism has become to the Jewish partner in the relationship. As the standard for Jewish observance is reduced further, and the importance of Judaism reduced with it, so too the need to comply with our standards disappears too.

Also, one must consider if it benefits the Jewish community and synagogue community to have non Jews, appearing as Jews, who may not ever decide to become bona fide members of the faith as accepted participants in Jewish communal life.

As the Conservative movement tries to cling the "observant life" what will separate the Conservative from the Reform Movement in the years ahead as the Conservative movement moves to closer to Reform if this idea on conversion is adopted.

Yosef Mordechai

New Hyde Park, NY

Can a person make an informed decision without first knowing what they are getting into?

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