Only rarely does history provide an unambiguous answer to hotly debated issues of policy. Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, for instance, was a complete rebuttal to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's boast at Munich that he had secured "peace in our time" by ceding Hitler control over German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia.
In the 1950's, the kibbutz movement was torn apart by a bitter dispute over whether Israel should align with the United States or the Soviet bloc under the leadership of Josef Stalin. A number of kibbutzim, such as Ein Harod, split over the issue. Within a few years of that rift, Stalin "Jewish Doctors' Plot" had been revealed and the Soviet Union became the primary arms supplier and supporter of the "confrontation states" with Israel. Those who had stopped speaking to their siblings and closest friends and split their communities over Stalin were forced to live the rest of their lives with the reminder of their gross error ever before them. (By that time, the bitterness of the original dispute made reconciliation and reunification of the kibbutz movement impossible.)
The recent biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism furnished another such example of an old debate being settled once and for all – i.e., the debate over whether the Conservative movement can in any meaningful sense continue to describe itself as "halachic."
In 2001, my friend Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an article in Moment magazine in which he argued that the Conservative Movement is not a halachic movement in two senses. First, its own rulemaking procedures and rules are consistently at odds with halacha; and second, it has completely failed to inspire its membership to halachic observance. For his pains, Rabbi Shafran was denounced as a hater of Conservative Jews and subjected to all manner of calumny. The editors of Moment commented that no single article in the magazine's history had ever provoked such a heated and vociferous response.
Now, however, both aspects of Rabbi Shafran's thesis have been confirmed by Professor Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in his keynote address at to 700 Conservative clergy, educators, and lay leaders at the United Synagogue convention earlier this month. According to Gillman, it is both intellectually dishonest and pointless for the movement to continue to describe itself as a halachic.
At most, Gillman said, halacha is one of the guidelines that the Conservative movement may consult in arriving at its positions, but those positions are ever evolving "according to aggada, or changing social and cultural norms." The hallmarks of Conservative belief, he argued, are "relativity, uncertainty, and tension."
Not surprisingly, "relativity, uncertainty and tension" have not served as much of encouragement to halachic observance. Gillman conceded this point as well, noting that there is little difference between the religious practice of Conservative and Reform Jews outside the synagogue. In urging the Conservative movement to "abandon its claim that we are a halachic movement," Gillman described that claim as "irrelevant to the vast majority of our lay people."
It must be emphasized that Gillman is no fringe figure within Conservative Judaism but one of its leading lights, as his selection to deliver the keynote address makes clear. Within the movement's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, he is generally viewed as the leading theologian.
Just as Mordechai Kaplan taught an earlier generation of JTS rabbinical students to view Judaism as a civilization, in which scheme God played little or no role, so Gillman teaches them that a "binding" mitzvah is whatever a Jew decides at that particular moment is binding for him – an odd definition of obligation. Gillman reiterated this theme in his keynote address when he stressed that to whatever extent Conservative Jews follow halachic norms, it is because they want to and not because they have to.
Gillman's statements were ultimately remarkable only in their extreme frankness and candor. No open-eyed observer of the Conservative movement could, in good faith, have denied either of Rabbi Shafran's points for decades. In his largely celebratory work on the Conservative movement, Conservative Judaism, sociologist Marhall Sklare noted as long ago as 1955, "Conservative rabbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing response, but merely taking a poll of their membership." The decision in the '50s to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbos – an issur d'oraisa -- by means of a "rabbinical takkanah" was only the most obvious example.
The decision to permit driving on Shabbos, in light of the needs of Conservative congregants, who, by and large, did not choose to live in walking distance of synagogues, was at least made by the movement's Law Committee composed of clergymen. By the time, it came to the decision to ordain women in the early '80s, the entire decision-making process was largely in the hands of laypeople.
In a 1999 article in Commentary, Reform rabbi Clifford Librach argued that the Conservative and Reform movements (the latter of which has always defined itself as non-halachic) would eventually merge, as a consequence of the former's increasing slide "away from the norms of law and tradition, according to any agenda increasingly dictated by an unlearned laity," and the latter's greater receptivity to "aspects of traditional ritual." (Interestingly, Librach was not subjected to any of the denunciations directed at Rabbi Shafran two years later.)
Librach predicted that after the passage of a decent interval, the Conservative movement would eventually follow the Reform movement on such issues as the ordination of those whose actions the Torah labels an abomination. And indeed at the recent United Synagogue biennial, the Conservative movement braced for its next big decision on precisely that issue, with the trend in favor.
True, Conservative Jews, on average, tend to prefer a more traditional liturgy and to incorporate more aspects of traditional ritual into their lives. But only a small percentage attend synagogue even once monthly, or keep any level of kashrus. "Mitzvah observance" tends to be more an assertion of Jewish pride than something done out of a sense of obligation.
Thus a friend who grew up in the Conservative movement once told me how he fasted on Yom Kippur from the age of nine (before it is halachically permissible), but spent the afternoons watching the World Series on TV. One year, he wore tennis shoes to synagogue on Yom Kippur, only to drive home to change into his regular dress shoes when a more knowledgeable younger brother pointed out that the halachic prohibition is against wearing leather (of which his tennis shoes were made).
Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, described not long ago how far the movement remains from instilling any concept of halachic obligation. He related how he asked a large donor being honored by JTS at a Friday brunch about his Shabbos plans. The man replied that he intended to catch a Broadway show with friends that night and fly home the next day. What shocked Wertheimer was not so much the lack of Shabbos observance, but that an honoree of the JTS had no sense whatsoever that he should be embarrassed to openly share his Sabbath desecration with one of the Seminary's leading lights. Elsewhere Wertheimer has noted that a large majority of recently bar and bat mitzvahed Conservative youth see nothing wrong with intermarriage.
Now that Rabbi Shafran's thesis has been completely vindicated by one of the Conservative movement's leading figures, I could not help wondering whether any apologies will be forthcoming from those who hurled thunderbolts of invective at him. My guess, however, is that he will be waiting a long time – at least as long as the kibbutz members who opposed aligning with Stalin.