Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Young Man of Principle

Jesse Arm (TOI)
I wish there were more people like Jesse Arm. He has written a thoughtful article in the Times of Israel which identifies him as a principled young man. His message? He has left the Conservative Movement. Why? Because their synagogue youth organization (USY) has dropped the requirement that its leaders date only members of the Jewish faith.

Jesse is no ordinary Jewish teenager. He is the grandson of a Conservative Rabbi, a former president of the Detroit chapter of USY, and a former student at a Conservative Jewish day school.

I am certainly not a supporter of Conservative Judaism for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. But I do consider them a valuable resource for Jewish outreach.  In fact USY has actually helped Orthodox Jewish youth groups reach out to them.  

The truth is that I have always had a fascination about this movement. The way they were founded as a reaction to Reform (hence the name ‘Conservative’ projecting the idea that they wanted to conserve Halachic Judaism); that they consider Halacha binding (even as Orthodoxy rejects their interpretation of it in many cases); that some of their early leaders (like Louis Ginzburg) were Talmidei Chachamim from the great Yeshivos in pre-Holocaust Europe; the fact that they always had a Mechitza Minyan in their flagship school, JTS, even though that was their signature departure (at least one of them) from Orthodoxy; that religious Jews like Saul Leiberman hung his hat there… all made this movement a fascinating subject to study.

Leaving out problematic Conservative theology - when someone says that he is an observant Conservative Jew, I wonder what that means exactly.  I have to believe that at least in some cases it means that they are actually Shomer Shabbos. In fact if I am not mistaken, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism is basically Shomer Shabbos.

One of the most fascinating Conservative rabbis in this regard is Jack Wertheimer. His many articles criticizing his own movement for not being observant enough (…or even at all in most cases) - pointing to and praising Orthodox Jews as role models has made me wonder why he hasn’t just done what Jesse Arm has done and left the movement. I believe that there are a lot more Conservative Jews like them both albeit a very small percentage.

It is people with Jewish values like those expressed by Jack Wertheimer and Jesse Arm that Orthodoxy seeks. It is values like theirs that we promote. Here is some of what Jesse Arm wrote in explanation of why he left the movement. I challenge anyone to tell me where this in any way departs from an Orthodox viewpoint. 
Perhaps the crux of why this change (in USY dating policy) so fundamentally irks me is in its lack of forthcoming language. If my former youth group, and in essence my former movement, is willing to compromise its commitment to the preservation of Jewish nationhood in the name of inclusivity, then why doesn’t it just say so? It is clear that this movement is on a path of setting its commitment to its original, cardinal principles aside in an effort to salvage some of its continually dwindling membership and “changing with the times.”
The addition of Hebrew words in the language which adopts the permissibility of interdating is truly laughable. Saying that recognition of all humans being created betzelem elohim serves as a justification for interdating and eventually intermarriage, makes about as much sense as me arguing I should be eating delicious bacon in my Sukkah because the Torah says v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach (we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but total happiness).
I am attracted to the heart of what the Conservative movement was built upon. I am attracted to the integration of the Jewish tradition into modernity through continual reinterpretation that builds on Halacha paired with an undying spirit of inquisitive learning and practice. This innovative expression of a tradition was established to answer questions of the day that our brilliant sages could have never even imagined, let alone addressed. It was not created in the spirit of perpetually moving to the left and blowing off the tradition, but rather to develop the tradition while keeping its pillars close to our hearts.
This movement should be leading the charge in offering Halachic analysis on the issues of embryonic stem cell research, cloning, homosexual relationships, and other facets of our society left unaddressed by our tradition rather than regressing from what has been previously established. It is offensive to me that this movement allows itself to make yet another revealing, significant pivot away from its core and toward American liberalism. It is particularly upsetting to me that this decision comes from the movement’s youth. The active decision to amend this bylaw is a blatant display of a change that is not rooted in valuable interpretation of Halacha but in readjustment based on modern convenience. 
Just substitute Orthodox for Conservative and I see little difference between what he says and what Orthodox Judaism believes. While I sympathize with his lament over his former movement,  now that he is ‘stateless’ so to speak, I invite Jesse and all other disaffected Conservative Jews to come join us. We welcome people with values like his. We in fact encourage them. I think he will find a home in Modern Orthodoxy where he will find many kindred spirits and the ability to continue living the lifestyle of a committed observant Jew in the modern world.

Those looking for a spiritual home where core Jewish values are not abandoned in a mistaken attempt to preserve a movement - Modern Orthodoxy is your home.  Jesse Arm, we will welcome you with open arms.