Just over two years ago, Commentary published an article by Rabbi Clifford Librach entitled "Does Conservative Judaism Have a Future?" Rabbi Librach predicted the gradual merger of the Conservative and Reform movements.
That process, he argued, was made possible by a Conservative movement tumbling down a slippery slope "away from the norms of law and tradition, according to an agenda increasingly dictated by an unlearned laity, and by greater receptivity within Reform to aspects of traditional ritual."
Rabbi Librach pointed to the decision by Gerson Cohen, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to fully involve the laity in the 1983 decision to ordain women as an example of the former trend. He noted that many observers expect the Conservative movement to follow Reform, "after a lag of years for decency's sake, on such issues as the ordination of homosexuals, sanctification of homosexual marriage, and growing tolerance of intermarriage."
A handful of letter writers challenged Rabbi Librach's thesis on intellectual grounds. No one called him a hater of Jews or resorted to ad hominem attacks. In fact, the president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly cited the article as a subject for continuing review and debate.
Last month, Moment magazine published an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran entitled "The Conservative Lie."(The title was forced on the author by the editors of Moment; his choice was "Time to Come Home.") The article included many of the arguments previously raised by Rabbi Librach from a different perspective.
Rabbi Shafran argued that the Conservative movement cannot be called, halachic (based on Jewish law) for two reasons. The first is that Conservative legal standards are too frequently outcome-determined and designed to legitimize the practices of the laity.
Supra-halachic principles, citations to modernity, and policy considerations result in, responsa diametrically opposed to the codified Halachah, such as the decision to permit driving to synagogue on, Shabbat. Already in 1955, Marshall Sklare, the leading sociologist of American Jewry, wrote, "Conservative rabbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership."
Rabbi Shafran's second point was that Conservative Judaism has failed to instill its followers with any awareness of Halachah as a binding system of law. He cited the Conservative movement's own statistics on the very low levels of observance (even according to Conservative standards) of even the most basic, mitzvos — e.g., Shabbat, kashrut, and the laws of family purity.
Howard Singer, who left the Conservative pulpit for the world of public relations, explained the extremely high rates of job disaffection among his former colleagues: "If we talk of God or Jewish law, [our congregants] act as if we breached a tacit understanding"("Rabbis and Their Discontents,"Commentary, May 1985).His attitude toward Halachah as non-binding has apparently infected rabbinical students at JTS as well, only half of whom view halachic observance as central to their role as a Conservative rabbi.
The number and vehemence of the responses to Rabbi Shafran's article was unprecedented in Moment's history.
In stark contrast to the response to Rabbi Librach, none of Rabbi Shafran's critics treated him as having made an intellectual argument. Rather Rabbi Shafran himself became the subject. He was denounced as a fundamentalist troglodyte and a nasty hater of Jews.
Ironically, the venom spewed at Rabbi Shafran proved one of the points that both he and Rabbi Librach made: the growing congruence between Reform and Conservative. What explains the different response to Rabbis Shafran and Librach? Only that Rabbi Shafran is Orthodox and Rabbi Librach Reform.
Conservative leaders and laymen treated Rabbi Librach as someone on their side of the fence, while Rabbi Shafran was by definition the "other."
The charge of not loving his fellow Jews cannot stand against Rabbi Shafran. He was scrupulous, as always, to confine his criticism to an ideology.
I know Avi Shafran well, and there is no one who better exemplifies, ahavas Yisrael in word or deed. He once worked alone under a blazing sun to place the final earth over a Reform rabbi with whom he was friendly rather than leave the task to an earthmover. His book, "Migrant Soul,"describes his long relationship with an intermarried, interracial couple.
Reading a letter in a Reform publication from an 11-year-old girl wondering why the Orthodox hate her, he called the girl personally on the phone to disabuse her of that idea. (Unsuccessfully, as it happens, her rabbis had taught her the opposite.) This month, when a pluralistic high school near Philadelphia made it a class project to blast his article on the Moment Internet site, he wrote offering to come speak to them. The students were eager, but the administrators vetoed the idea.
Even pluralism has its limits.