MY DEBT TO MARSHALL SKLARE
By Yonoson Rosenblum | MARCH 28, 2023
Why my wife and I decided to extend our honeymoon by another 44 years
MYfeature story this week on three generations of the Sklare family ("Twists, Turns, and Truth" in the Longreads section) brought me back to one of those decisive moments in my life and my wife's when our entire future trajectory flipped. That is what attracted me to the topic of the feature in the first place.
The two decisive figures in that change of direction were Rav Nachman Bulman ztz"l, who figuratively held our hands during the summer of 1979, and, in a strange way, Marshall Sklare, whom we never met.
My wife and I came to Israel on our honeymoon in late June 1979. After practicing law for two years, I was headed to a rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) that fall. I was supposed to spend the summer in Israel in a preparatory program. But I did not find the program serious enough, and my wife and I soon decamped for Ohr Somayach, which in those days had both men's and women's branches.
One of my wife's teachers was Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, who had been scheduled to begin law school with me, but had spent the intervening six years in Jerusalem finishing half of Shas instead. I, by contrast, had still never opened a Gemara.
Reb Beryl invited us for Shabbos, and arranged for me to "bump into" Rabbi Bulman, then the mashgiach in Ohr Somayach, on the way back from Shabbos morning davening at Ohr Somayach. Both the Gershenfelds and the Bulmans then lived in Sanhedria Murchevet. Though Rav Bulman had undoubtedly been well-briefed in advance, in response to his first question about what I did, I responded only that I was an attorney, and left my rabbinical aspirations out of the conversation.
Eventually, however, he pried my plans out of me — as I said, I had been set up. The first thing he told me was that being a rabbi was a miserable job: A rabbi is like a dog running ahead of its master; the dog appears to be leading, but all the time it is waiting for its master's whistle. (Rav Bulman had a profound impact on communities in both Danville and Newport News, Virginia, and later in Far Rockaway, and was not, I think, describing his own experience.)
The second thing he told me was to read Marshall Sklare's book Conservative Judaism, particularly the chapters on the Conservative rabbi and on Conservatism as an ideological movement. He said nothing more, but left it to me to draw my own conclusions as to whether the Conservative rabbinate was really how I wanted to spend my life.
His insistence on letting me draw my own conclusions was one of the most brilliant psychological ploys I have ever witnessed. He trusted that the portrait drawn by Sklare of the Conservative rabbinate and its minimal impact on congregants would not appeal to my idealistic dreams of "doing for the Jewish People."
While working on this week's feature, I had the opportunity to reread those two chapters, and I fully understand why my wife and I decided to extend our honeymoon by another 44 years, and how much I owe to Marshall Sklare's complete honesty about a movement with which he was closely identified.
At that time, the Conservative movement was still the largest segment of American Jewry by synagogue affiliation, though a decade later it would begin to implode. And Sklare detailed its rapid growth, as American Jews left the cities for the suburbs.
At the same time, he repeatedly emphasized that Conservative synagogues are completely controlled by the laity. And that laity has no clear definition of itself, other than as some kind of "halfway house between Orthodox and Reform," or as one Conservative youngster described his parents' level of observance — "between something and nothing."
Many of those synagogues had an affluent membership, and might pay their rabbi a handsome salary. But that salary had nothing to do with respect for the rabbi's expertise in Jewish law, which few, if any, congregants could even judge. Even when congregants asked their rabbis questions in Jewish thought or about a point in halachah, more often than not, the question was asked out of curiosity or to make conversation, not with the intent of implementing the rabbi's response.
As a consequence, Conservative rabbis, wrote Sklare, had little incentive to continue their Talmudic learning beyond the smattering they picked up at JTS, since such learning was not necessary for their job, which consisted primarily of pastoral duties — counseling, visiting the sick — giving sermons, and supervising the synagogue's social activities. Nor was Torah learning a source of respect in the eyes of their congregants. By and large, the congregational rabbis knew that their former teachers at JTS viewed them as little more than glorified social workers.
Conservative Judaism, in Sklare's assessment — and this in a work generally considered a paean to the rapid mid-20th century growth of the movement — has proven "an abysmal failure in promoting religious growth among the laity," which had completely broken with halachah as a binding legal system. Due to its "compromise character," Conservatism was ill-equipped to "integrate into its structure individuals with compelling religious urges."
Having discarded revelation as a source of legal obligation, Conservative rabbis found themselves at a loss for any ideological principles to which they could look for guidance or legitimization, or which could provide them with any sense of representing "a defensible system of ideas." The absence of a coherent ideology little troubled the Conservative laity, who regarded differences in levels of observance as "matters of personal preference rather than of principle." But it took a heavy toll on Conservative rabbis, who felt delegitimized by its absence.
Even when Conservative rabbis engaged in what appeared to be traditional rabbinic tasks — discussing classic sources with colleagues, participating in the debates of the movement's Law Committee, or issuing "takkanot," such as that permitting driving to synagogue on Shabbos, they were acutely aware that they were operating less as halachic decisors and more in the role of taking polls of their unlearned laity.
As one prominent Conservative rabbi, quoted by Sklare, lamented, not five in 100 of our congregants observe Shabbos, not five in a 100 observe the dietary laws, and not one in 100 cares about our "halachic decisions."
The truth is that even before reading the assigned chapters in Conservative Judaism, I had found Conservative theology incomprehensible. At my interview for JTS, I had told the interviewer that I would really choose to be Orthodox, but felt I was too far behind, having never learned Gemara, to become an Orthodox rabbi at my age. He replied that he wanted to scream every time he heard an applicant say he was more comfortable with Orthodox theology.
And it is likely that I would have lasted no more than a few months at JTS before returning to the practice of law. Rabbinical students at JTS are supposed to lead congregations too small to afford a full-time rabbi on the High Holidays. The chances of my doing that, given my lack of relevant background, with the possible exception of sermonizing, and total absence of any musical abilities, were roughly equivalent to the proverbial pack of monkeys typing War and Peace by randomly pecking at the keys.
But Marshall Sklare made clear that my misgivings were not just a reflection of my own lack of clarity, but were intrinsic to the entire movement. And as soon as I read those chapters, I knew that I could not go forward with my plan.
That decision, however, thrust my wife and me into a quandary about our future. But it was she who provided the perfect answer: "If Judaism is going to be the center of our lives, shouldn't we spend at least another year around people for whom it is the center of their lives?"
Rereading Marshall's chapters with a full life as Torah Jews behind us, and without any of the anxieties triggered by my first reading, only provided unmitigated satisfaction with the choices we made then and how well they have worked out.