Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Conservative Movement: Is The Theology Heresy?

An article in Cross-Currents has prompted me to ask a question about the Conservative Movement. As we look at it today, what exactly is the objection to it? I am not asking what the problems are. They are many and self evident as shown by statements made by Conservative Rabbi, Dr. Ismar Schorsch Chancellor emeritus of JTS. Who, after all, had a better perspective on these problems than he? My question is a theological one.

I have been in the forefront of referring to the Conservative movement as a heretical one. And I continue to do so. But that description requires more analysis and reflection. Here is how I view the current state of affairs.

There are two basic problems with the Conservative movement. One is in the area of what I would call creating law. The Conservative movement has redefined how Halacha is created and adopted a much more liberal method of doing so, using a kind of Eis Laasos reasoning. They have used questionable methods based on inappropriately applied Talmudic reasoning and changed established rabbinic law based on their own logic and reason rejecting centuries of established rules on how to Paskin.

A classic example of this is the Heter given to driving to Shul on Shabbos. Their rationale was that since Jews were driving anyway, they might as well better drive to shul. They qualified the Heter as permitting driving only for Shul. But once the horse is out of the barn there is no point in closing the door. In fact there was recently some discussion amongst Conservative rabbinic leaders that the “driving to Shul” Heter was a mistake as people used it to drive anywhere they wanted.

Perhaps their intention was good but breaking away from traditional methods of Psak Halacha slid them down a slope of no return. This has culminated in one prominent Conservative rabbi, Neil Gilman, into facing reality and exhorting the movement to stop calling itself Halachic.

But this approach to Psak Halacha can perhaps be forgiven in the abstract if not in reality. Orthodox philosopher and theologian, Dr. Eliezer Berkovits has suggested a similar approach for Orthodoxy in his final publication “Lo BaShamyim He”. A much bigger problem is the Conservative Movement's acceptance of critical scholarship.

Critical scholarship is the acceptance of the archeological lack of evidence of the biblical narrative and literary analysis of the biblical text concluding the events in the bible never actually took place. Conservatives reconcile this with Emunah by saying that even though the bible never happened; its narrative was "divinely inspired", meaning that those who wrote it, did so through Ruach HaKodash. It was God, they say who inspired them to write the narrative as a method of teaching us how to live, through the example of the Avos and the laws of the Torah. This approach was universally looked at by Orthodoxy as heretical. To deny that the events of the bible took place was to deny basis of Judaism.

But recently something strange has happened. Many of the assumptions of the literalness of the Torah have been questioned within Orthodoxy itself. Modern Orthodox scholars who have tried to deal with, for example the archeological claim that there could not have been a major flood (Mabul) have suggested that the story was indeed allegorical. Of course they were roundly rebuffed by those who considered such claims to be against the Mesorah. Yet they all seemed to stop short of calling it outright heresy.

One does not have to question the Mabul to claim that the not all of the Torah narrative is to be understood as literal (R. Elyashiv and the ban on Rabbi Slifkin’s writings to that effect not withstanding). Because of scientific discoveries in the last couple of centuries many of even the right wing of Orthodoxy now accept that the first six days of creation are not to be taken literally.

If this is the case then how is it different from the claims of the Conservative Movement? They accepted critical scholarship and wrote off all the narrative. Many of the most respected Orthodox thinkers, such as Aryeh Kaplan, have accepted scientific study and have changed their own understandings of formerly literal interpretations into allegorical ones... or other non traditional explanations. The difference between us now seems to be the degree to which we allow allegorization.

So in the final analysis, the differences between Orthodoxy and Conservativism, at least in theory seems to eroding, on the one hand because of Dr. Berkovits’s claim and on the other the fact that we have allowed for some allegorizing which opens the door to more, as we’ve seen with the attempt within Orthodoxy to allegorize the Mabul.

So I ask in all sincerity: In theory, is there really a major difference anymore? Can we still say that the Conservative Movement is heretical because of their acceptance of critical scholarship?

Updated: 6/28/07 8:22 AM CDT