Baltimore — What do an expert on Buddhism, a Christian theologian and a former Reagan administration bureaucrat have to say about Jewish spirituality to a room full of Conservative rabbis? That was the question here this week when all three addressed several hundred rabbis and guests at the 99th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization representing the world’s 1,500 Conservative rabbis.
Nearly 500 rabbis from as far away as California, Florida, Argentina, Canada and Israel assembled for the five-day event near Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor to schmooze, discuss the future of their movement, and gain pointers about dealing with lay leaders and negotiating their contracts with noted baseball agent Ron Shapiro.
But issues not found on the official agenda were perhaps more interesting than the scheduled seminars.
There were no sessions on some of the major hot button issues affecting the Conservative movement including: gay ordination, the recent barring of intermarried congregants from lay leadership positions, the lack of affordable Conservative day schools to serve the nation’s 1.5 million members.
Assembly officials insisted there was a strong desire to keep controversial issues off the table, hence the withdrawal of a formal resolution by gay advocates to prohibit job discrimination against openly gay members.
RA executive director Rabbi Joel Meyers said there was no need for such a resolution because the organization’s policy already bars discrimination.
But he said because of misperceptions and the emotional nature of the issue, he will submit clarifying language on the RA’s policy at June’s executive council meeting. The written statement, which has been drafted by gay advocates, affirms that all RA members in good standing are entitled to all privileges of membership, including job placement.
Other controversial issues missing or given only a cursory nod were the pluralism battle in Israel, where the Conservative movement is fighting for religious equality against the Orthodox establishment, and education.
RA members interviewed appeared not to have the stomach for any contentious debates at this year’s gathering, instead expressing their need and desire to spend the time confiding in one another as lonely professionals beset by unending congregant demands.
“We lead incredibly lonely lives and this is an opportunity to sit with colleagues once a year in person and grapple with the same problems, which is enormously validating and incredibly satisfying,” said Rabbi Martin S. Cohen of British Columbia, Canada.
Others explained the lack of debate this way: “We are in an era of good feeling in the Conservative rabbinate,” said Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, head of the Maryland/Washington region of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm.
But one group was not feeling so good, and expressing dissatisfaction in whispers. Women rabbis, who might have been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the movement’s historic decision to ordain them, were instead wondering how much they had really achieved since 1984.
Their discontent has been exacerbated in recent weeks by the demotion of Jewish Theological Seminary Vice Chancellor Anne Lapidus Lerner, perhaps the most prominent women role model in movement’s hierarchy.
Lerner’s duties were handed to other male JTS officials as a result of a restructuring of the organization, JTS officials said, and she will return to teaching.
“There’s a real current of dissatisfaction,” with the movement, said one woman rabbi. “[Women] are unhappy with the roles they get in the RA. There’s a feeling of a glass-ceiling issue.”
There are about 100 women rabbis in the RA, and several said they wanted hard data on how many women have been placed in pulpits and what kind of salaries they are offered.
Lerner herself said that her demotion sends the wrong signal to young women in the movement.
She said when JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch appointed her several years ago, he sent a message about what women could achieve. “When you remove the person you’re also sending a message,” she said.
Rabbi Schorsch could not be reached for comment.
But while many of the rabbis, dressed informally in multicolored polo shirts and kippot, jeans and sneakers, may have been trying to avoid strong words, they were confronted by noted Jewish historian and Baltimore native Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who admonished them to stop being corporate honchos dealing with fiscal matters and union problems and get back to the basics of teaching Torah. “If you wanted to be CEOs you should have gone to Wall Street,” said Rabbi Hertzberg. “You had better return to being ‘the rebbe’ of your congregations that sets the example of teacher, preacher and Torah.”
For their next lesson, the RA reached outside the movement.
One of the more interesting sessions brought together Rodger Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” Elliot Abrams, author of “Faith or Fear” and former Reagan Undersecretary of State and Christian theologian James Fowler, to discuss how and whether the national obsession with spirituality and the search for God fits in with Judaism.
Abrams and Kamenetz clashed over the value of the personal search for spirituality.
“Virtually all of the talk about the need for more spirituality in Conservative Judaism seems to me to be baloney — to be a product of some of the worst trends in modern American culture,” declared Abrams, a Conservative Jew and president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington, D.C.
“I am impatient when people in my own synagogue tell me we need more spirituality in the service, when my own ability to achieve it during the service is limited because they never stop socializing and chatting,” he stated.
He cited unnamed polls showing that “most Jews admit they do not observe rituals, do not attend synagogue, do not give much time and money to Jewish causes, and are very, very satisfied with themselves.
“Judaism should not be used to make them feel even better, which is what I think is often behind this call for more spirituality,” Abrams said.
Abrams asked whether anyone knows what spirituality really means. He charged that many Conservative congregants want their synagogues “to be more like the rest of American culture: easy, relaxed, no standards, new lifestyles,” stressing self realization and journeys of discovery.
“To coin a phrase, to all of this let’s ‘just say no,’ referring to the famous slogan of his former boss’ wife, Nancy Reagan.
But Kamenetz countered that spirituality and meditation is already inherent in Judaism and doesn’t need to be added.
More importantly, he said, the quest for a personal spiritual journey and the need for community are not mutually exclusive.
“I’ve been accused of promoting ‘feel-good Judaism.’ What’s the alternative, ‘feel-bad Judaism?’ ” Kamenetz asked. “God forbid the synagogue becomes hostile to people with spiritual questions. I find that incomprehensible.”
Rabbi Avis Miller, of Adas Israel in Chevy Chase, Md., said the panel superbly captured the increasing problems Conservative rabbis face from congregants demanding more personal, spiritual services.
“There is a struggle between the desire for personalization in the synagogue and the structure of ritual and mitzvah,” she said.
Panel moderator Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that ultimately, “tension is the healthiest thing we have. It’s the eternal fight.”