One Mad Rabbi

Conservative Judaism gets a kick in the pants.

Earlier this summer, Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, kicked off his retirement with a graduation speech that was the religious scholar’s equivalent of Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup head-butt. Schorsch’s speech was a farewell not just to the most recent class of rabbis but to the school he ran for the last 20 years, which is the central institution of Conservative Judaism. Amazingly, given the context—an auditorium full of major donors and a freshly minted class of graduates and their families—Schorsch sounded few notes of inspiration and hope for the future. Instead, he offered his honest appraisal of Judaism’s Conservative movement, which he helped build: Basically, it stinks!

Since 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary has sought to negotiate a middle ground between Orthodox Judaism, which (to vastly oversimplify) teaches that the Torah and Rabbinic law were authored by God, and Reform Judaism, which sees obedience of Jewish law, or Halakha, as a choice, not a divine mandate. Conservative Judaism, which began as a congregational movement in 1913, attempts to bridge the gap—to affirm the divinity of ancient Jewish law but also to allow changes to accommodate modern circumstances. “Tradition and change” is a movement motto.

In his graduation speech, Schorsch called this motto “inane” and used the words “impoverishment” and “malaise” to characterize the movement. Conservative rabbinical students? They “crave instant gratification.” Etz Hayim, the edition of the Bible recently published by the Conservative movement and used by its synagogues around the country? “Their Rabbinic authors go through the paces without passion.” Schorsch explained just how bad the volume is by comparing it to the biblical story in which Moses smashes the tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments when he sees the Israelites fashioning a golden calf. Now, in case you don’t know much about the Jewish view of golden calf building, aka idol worship, let me say, it’s pretty bad. An entire fast day is devoted to mourning the tragedy of the smashing of those tablets. Did I mention Schorsch wrote the foreword to Etz Hayim?

I’m sorry that Schorsch’s angry send-off made the ceremony a letdown for the JTS graduates, some of whom are friends of mine. But though I don’t agree with many of the details of Schorsch’s critique, I must admit I felt an evil twinge of guilty pleasure when I read his speech.

I grew up in the Conservative movement, and my religious ideals line up with it in many ways. Yet I agree that it often misses the mark and suffers, as Schorsch said, from “a failure of nerve.” As the world is growing increasingly religious, the faithful are not growing more interested in reconciling modernity and tradition. They are becoming more orthodox. It’s somehow liberating (if not encouraging) to see the leader of a religious movement whose goal is to hold the middle ground forcefully wrestle with his sense of failure.

In his speech, Schorsch described the Conservative religious ideal as one that maintains a fragile balance between two poles, truth and faith. He said that during the heyday of the JTS, this tension was sustained by reverent, but critical, scholarship that analyzed the historical context surrounding Jewish texts, rather than viewing them only as a message delivered by God at Mt. Sinai.

Many of the heavy-hitters from Schorsch’s golden era of Conservative scholarship were not trained solely in the institutions of liberal Judaism. Solomon Schechter, Mordecai Kaplan, and Abraham Joshua Heschel came out of Orthodox yeshivas, or religious centers of learning. Although they later studied Jewish texts as these writings would be studied at a modern secular university, they first studied them traditionally. They came to historical biblical criticism with a vigorous training in the more reverent style of Jewish learning, where the highest form is learning leshma, or “for its own sake.”

Schorsch argued that today, that sort of learning has fallen out of favor because students crave a “quick spiritual fix.” I think the problem is more complicated. For starters, the JTS never figured out a way to generate the kind of passion that is evident at most Orthodox yeshivas. The logical extension of Conservative Judaism’s academic scholarship is that to obey Halakha just because “God says so” is intellectually dishonest. But if that’s the case, then why not throw over religious law, like Reform Jews do? The middle-ground movement has come up with no satisfactory answer. It makes do with guilt and a sort of schmaltzy ode to tradition a la Fiddler on the Roof.

Take the issue of the ordination of gay rabbis. It’s a no-brainer for Reform Jews, who allow it because they place precedence on personal choice above biblical mandates, and for the Orthodox, who bar it because they believe that the Torah strictly prohibits gay sex. But for Conservatives, it’s a crisis, because the movement lacks a clear theology to navigate between the poles of tradition and change, even as the gap between them becomes ever wider. As a result, the decision to admit openly gay rabbinical students to JTS has been bitterly contested, tabled, avoided, and fought over for the last half-dozen or so years. Schorsch has said in previous interviews that advocates for the ordination of gay rabbis are bending and manipulating Halakha rather than looking at it honestly. His despair over this issue surely motivated some of the ferocity of his speech.

But Conservative Judaism has never adequately explained how its rabbis or congregants should decide which aspects of modern times are worth adjusting the law to, and which aren’t. The decision in 1972 to ordain women rabbis at JTS wasn’t advocated by the institutions’ Talmudic scholars but by a committee of lay people. They made many strong moral and ethical arguments for ordaining women, but they couldn’t ground their stance coherently in Jewish law.

Still earlier, in 1961, the Conservative movement issued a ruling permitting driving on Shabbat—but only to synagogue. Orthodox Jews, by contrast, observe the prohibition against driving and build their neighborhoods around their synagogues and each other’s homes. There is something powerful about this decision: The foundation of the community is a countercultural value that requires some sacrifice in the name of a higher purpose. While it might be possible to read Jewish law to permit driving on Shabbat or ordaining a woman rabbi, both of those choices seem motivated by a reluctant acquiescence to the demands of the time rather than by a deep and reverent reading of the texts. Orthodox Jews also change the law—you won’t find any of them following the Torah’s injunction to forgive all loans every seven years, or to stone a rebellious child—but they do so in a way that has internal coherence.

Liberal denominations of any faith tend to make a religion out of tolerance and humanistic values. But this misses some of the point of faith. There is a sweetness, intensity, and pleasure that comes from religious practice that isn’t wholly rational.

Earlier in this century, the common wisdom was that Orthodox Judaism would die out in America, outmoded and irrelevant. Instead, it’s the American Jewish center that’s eroding. Conservative Judaism, once the most popular Jewish denomination in the United States, has recently taken second place to the more clearheaded Reform movement. About 33 percent of American Jews affiliate with Conservative Judaism, down from 38 percent 10 years ago. And interestingly, as the Reform movement swells, to a lesser degree, so do the numbers of Orthodox. And as sociologist Samuel Heilman shows in his recent book, Sliding to the Right, the form of Orthodoxy that’s on the rise is the more extremist and isolationist sort—the congregations and movements that are deliberately at odds with American norms.

The project of looking squarely at the demands of our time and Jewish texts is both true to Jewish tradition and badly needed at this particular historical moment, and I wish it didn’t seem to be faltering. People of all faiths who are trying to hold the middle ground need to get up a little more “nerve,” as Schorsch put it—some oomph, confidence, joyfulness. Although I don’t think he said it in the right way or at the right time, I hope some of Schorsch’s zeal makes it way to staid suburban synagogues.