Monday, September 20, 2010

Less than Awe Inspiring – the Conservative Machzor

The Conservative movement has always held a fascination for me. What fascinates me most is the claim that they are Halachic. Until very recently there was no internal dispute about that. Considering that they allowed their congregants to drive to Shul on Shabbos (if they were going to drive anyway) claiming to be Halachic is quite a statement.

One of the interesting things about them is their history. They began as a movement to conserve Judaism. That was during an era where there were practically no Yeshivos and certainly no Orthodox training grounds for rabbis in the new world. America was then a ‘melting pot’ society where assimilation was the order of the day. Very few Jews who immigrated here ended up with Frum children – even in the rare circumstance where they tried to stay Frum - and keep their children Frum. The pull of assimilation and the American dream of financial success were too strong.

Young people who wanted to become rabbis and relate to this new mentality felt they need to get training as American rabbis. The European model of Rav and Posek just didn’t work here then. Their only option was the Reform Hebrew Union College. They enrolled for practical training as American rabbis. In essence I believe that many of the early HUC students were probably still Frum.

Their level of religiosity became an issue when HUC decided to dispense entirely with Kashrus and had a Chag Semicha – a rabbinic ordination exercise accompanied by a Treif banquet. Those graduates who were observant bolted. That is how the Conservative Movement and their flagship institution - the Jewish Theological Seminary came into being in America. It was founded as a Halachic movement for the purpose of ‘conserving’ Judaism in a way that would be more appealing to the masses. A noble enterprise.

The problem is that they went astray. In their zeal to appeal to the masses who were assimilating in droves they instituted policies that violated Halacha (like the above-mentioned driving to Shul). True they felt they had no choice. It was that or losing the assimilated masses for good – and in essence destroying any chance for traditional Judaism to survive. But as history has shown they were wrong.

Further separating the movement from Orthodoxy was the acceptance of heretical beliefs and tolerance for non observant rabbis and heretics as professors in the school. Mordecai Kaplan who ironically was observant was one of those heretics - and a powerful influence in the seminary. He was there for many years before his new philosophy became a movement of its own - Reconstructionist Judaism.

This – in brief - is how I understand the development of the Conservative movement.

In our day their focus has been on how to incorporate the spirit of our times the so called ‘zeitgeist’ (as they see it) into the Judaism. The New York Times reports thier most recent innovation. It is the publication of a new Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - Lev Shalem. It contains innovations which are unacceptable to any interpretation of Orthodoxy.

Although I kind of like one of them. They have substituted ‘awe-inspiring’ for the word ‘awesome’ when used in context of God. ‘Awesome’ has unfortunately lost the reverence attached to it and has become somewhat of a cliché among adolescents:

“If you say God is awesome, you are immediately in street language, rather than inspiring language,” said Rabbi Edward Feld, who headed the committee that over 12 years wrote and translated the new book.

But that’s about all I can say for this Machzor. Their concern for appealing to the masses has supplanted the reverence one should have for the liturgy composed by Chazal. Political correctness has caused them to change the language of prayer.

Such arrogance! It takes an amazing amount of Chutzpah for these rabbis to say that Chazal’s attitude about various issues of our day is inferior to theirs. But even if one believes that privately - to be so certain about it to the point of changing millennia old language is to have unbelievable confidence in the correctness of their agenda - an agenda based on the spirit of the times.

Here is what I’m talking about:

During Yom Kippur’s Yizkor memorial for dead relatives, which this year falls on Saturday, the new prayer book will for the first time include a prayer for a deceased “partner”— an effort to include gay Jews — and also one for “a parent who was hurtful.”

“His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and dismay,” the passage says.

The revised mahzor includes works by modern poets like Yehuda Amichai and at least two by Gentiles— Denise Levertov and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Given that the movement has become more egalitarian, ordaining women as rabbis since 1985, the mahzor also includes more language that is gender-neutral and names female Biblical figures like Hannah and Miriam as models of righteous heroism.

The irony is that no matter how much you try and be politically correct and stay true to the politcally liberal agenda that so dominates the Conservative movement they cannot please everyone. One of their own members said the following about one of their deletions:

Louis D. Levine, 70, a Temple Israel member, said he missed some lines deleted from the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, particularly one asking God to avenge spilled Jewish blood.

“I’m not a warmongering, right-wing nut,” Mr. Levine said, “but that line represented a real historical response to the horrors visited upon Israel.”

He’s right. Of course he still loves the new Machzor. (Or is he just being politically correct by saying that?)

One of the things that has kept Judaism alive during the Diaspora is our commitment to tradition. That means that we do not change things based on the prevailing winds of the moment. Yes, there is such a thing as Hora’as Shah which can bring innovative change. But change was sparingly implemented over time by religious leaders of immense knowledge and only in circumstances when it became apparent that the very existence of Judaism was at stake.

It was never about submitting to a spirit of the time that did not have existential overtones. Nor did it involve the drastic attitude changes that these rabbis are promoting. It was instead about survival of the masses. Not subservience to a politically correct agenda or the placation of the few.

It is one thing to innovate formal Jewish education for women. It is another to start eliminating ‘offensive’ passages of prayer that insult only those with certain agendas.

It is a bit ironic to now see the reverse happening with Conservative and Reform Jewry. Many if not most Reform leaders – although unlike Conservative Judaism still believe that Halacha is not binding - are on a campaign to re-establish Mitzvah observance and traditional prayer. In that vein they published a Siddur that re-established Hebrew as the language of prayer and restored much of the liturgy that was deleted by their forbears.

The way things are going now - the Reform and Conservative may end up meeting in the middle and becoming one.