Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Theology Aside - Is the Conservative Movement Halachic?

One of the reasons that the Conservative Movement has so much fascination for me is the following statement from an article in Washington Jewish Week:

"Our rabbis are as knowledgeable about kashrut as their Orthodox colleagues, and care about it as much as they do," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement's main rabbinical group. "But our emphasis is on raising Jewish adherence to kashrut observance rather than professional ritual kashrut supervision.


Conservative Judaism, like Orthodoxy, accepts the Torah's commandments as obligatory, including kashrut.

These points were driven home to me recently when I was pointed to the Conservative movement’s Passover Guide. Here is an excerpt from that:

It is customary (and easiest) to remove the utensils and dishes that are used during the year, replacing them with either new utensils or utensils reserved for exclusive use on Pesah. This is clearly not feasible for major kitchen appliances and may not even be possible for dishes and utensils. There is a process for kashering a variety of utensils and appliances. The general principle used in kashering is that the way the utensil absorbs food is the way it can be purged of that food ( ke-volo kach pol-to).

The entire guide is filled with similar Halachic information.

It amazes me every time I see something like this. If one would read the guide in its entirety without knowing it was authored by the Conservative Movement, one would never guess they were reading anything other than a document produced by the OU or even Agudah.

They claim to adhere to Halacha. As this document shows, when it comes to Pesach they have not even attempted to modify it to make it easier for the masses. The Kashrus standards for Pesach seem to me to be the same as Orthodoxy’s standards for Pesach.

But then there is Shabbos. There they have modified big time. They have allowed Chilul Shabbos to take place by telling those who drive cars on Shabbos anyway that they should drive to Shul instead of the shopping mall. And once that barn door was open, all the horses ran out. Driving on Shabbos anywhere they please is standard fare for most Conservative Jews.

Nonetheless taken in this light, and ignoring for a moment their problematic theology, I can understand how they see themselves in a Kiruv context. The original rationale for this ‘Psak’ was not seen by them as a Heter for driving. They saw it as a way to turn an Aveira into a Mitzvah the Mitzvah of going to Shul on Shabbos. They will argue that if they hadn’t done that, their members - who had moved too far away to walk would never see the inside of a shul in their lives and become completely estranged from Judaism. Well it took a few decades but that is happening anyway. Going to Shul is less popular than ever. Their leadership now regrets that decision big time as they search for ways to save the movement from eventual extinction – if it keeps going the way it is.

While there is universal condemnation of their Teshuvos by every Orthodox organization and every Orthodox rabbi no matter how far to the left he may be, I can nevertheless hear why they did it. It is a form of Kiruv to them. They argue: ‘Our members are driving anyway – let them drive to Shul’.

Is this so radical from an Orthodox perspective? I used to think so until I asked a Lakewood Rosh Kollel a Shaila about a similar circumstance.

Members of my extended family invite a non religious Jewish woman to their Seder every Pesach, knowing that she is going to drive back home after the Seder. She has been doing so every Pesach for many years.

One year I invited those family members to my own Seder and they told me about that woman whom they invite every year. She had already been invited that year and accepted. When I found out about it, I wanted to cancel my own invitation to them - thinking that if I didn’t I would be responsible for her violating Halacha. My extended family got upset at the mere suggestion that I would undo the invitation because of this. They felt that it was wrong because this Seder was her only connection with Yiddsihkeit. So for family peace, I asked a Shaila. I was told that as long as I didn’t tell her directly to drive, I could invite her knowing full well she would drive home.

We had a warm and wonderful Seder that year.

I realize that this is not the same ‘Heter’ the Conservative Movement gives. But how far off is it for them to use the rationale that they drive anyway – let them drive to Shul? They too are not exactly telling their members to drive directly. It is only because their members are already driving that they gave their ‘Heter’.

Taking out Mechitzos alone would not disqualify Conservative Judaism from Orthodoxy. One of the biggest opponents of Traditional Shuls - Rav Ahron Soloveichik - was careful to distinguish between Traditional Shuls who removed their Mechitzos and the theologically flawed Conservative Shuls. While he forbade any of his Musmachim from taking a non Mechitza Shul he never categorized those who did as theologically heretical. Nor did he categorize those rabbis as anything but Orthodox.

Please do not confuse this essay as trying to in any way legitimize the Conservative movement. Their current theology alone makes that impossible. But I can certainly understand why from their perspective they are so upset with us. They see themselves as following Halacha meticulously the same as Orthodoxy. They see their ‘Heterim’ as being Mekil for Kiruv purposes! We can disagree with them – and we do. Strongly. But are they to be viewed as non Halachic if they use Teshuvos to arrive at their ‘Psak Halacha’ - egregiously mistaken though we believe them to be?

If they were to repudiate their theology and accept Orthodox theology as their own, how would we view them? How should we view them?

On the one hand we see the fruits of their Teshuvos now in how radically they have departed from Mesorah. For example with respect to female rabbis, gay rabbis, egalitarian Minyanim, etc. On the other hand is left wing modern Orthodoxy that far behind in these things?

There are in fact rabbis within the Conservative movement calling for a change in their identity. They say that their own Conservative Movement has moved so far away from Halacha that it can no longer call itself Halachic. And that they should drop all pretences at it. And yet their own Rabbinic Assembly comes out with a clearly Halachic document like their Pesach guide. What an enigmatic - perhaps even schizophrenic movement!