Sunday, December 12, 2010

Conservadox Judaism

According to an article in JTA, a new Yeshiva and rabbinical school is taking shape in Toronto. Rabbi Daniel Sperber an Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Israel’s Bar Ilan University has accepted the position as chancellor. He said he is joing this Yeshiva in response to what he perceives as the direction of modern Orthodoxy. He points to modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution Yeshiva University’s move to the right and sees that as leaving out far too many serious Jews.

This yeshiva has taken yet another step closer to the edge of the cliff that contains that slippery slope away from Orthodoxy and perhaps ultimately observant Judaism. Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) has already taken steps in that direction and broken with traditional Orthodoxy in many of its policies by defining itself as Open Orthodox. Rather than eschew heterodox rabbis and their movements, they now embrace and welcome them in common areas of Halachic religious service.

I suppose they see this as outreach in a way. By embracing their religious leaders in a friendly way rather than antagonizing them through overt rejectionism – they feel they can influence their constituency to be more observant. A noble goal - but one which most of traditional Orthodox rabbis – even most modern Orthodox ones - see as not justified. That’s because of the tacit recognition it grants them. They see it (correctly in my view) as legitimizing heretical theologies.

But this new yeshiva takes this concept a step further. They are formalizing the relationship. A relationship that creates a new denomination many would call ‘Conservadox Judaism’. That is not how they will identify themselves though. They have in fact made a point of not identifying with any movement. I guess they might want to call themselves post or non denominational.

In theory, I would love it if we could all be non denominational. That would mean that we do not label ourselves as anything other than Jews. Some more religious and some less. Kind of like Sephardi Judaism sees Jews and Judaism. They do not have denominations. They are one people with one head rabbi.

But alas that is not what is happening here. Saying they are non or post denominational is in fact a lie. They are just another movement with a specific philosophy that as of yet has not been named. It is an ideology that is supposedly based in Halacha. That leaves out any branch that is not based in Halacha - like Reform.

This new Yeshiva is designed to be a middle ground between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.

In fact that has already happened - as this article points out. Back in early 1990s the right wing of Conservative Judaism led by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni combined with some rabbis of the Traditional movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). And as I recall UTJ was endorsed by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits shortly before his death in 1992.

Traditional Judaism was an offshoot of Orthodoxy where rabbis of Orthodox Shuls permitted the use of microphones and allowed the removal of Mechitzos. The RCA had allowed Traditional rabbis membership in their organization. But in the early nineties they no longer permitted it –grandfathering in those who were already members.

What makes this different from UTJ is that Rabbi Sperber has never compromised Orthodoxy by eliminating a Mechitza in a Shul or in the use of microphones. And yet his new Yeshiva goes beyond YCT’s simple embrace of heterodox Jewry. This new Yeshiva is formally joining with a movement that permits heretical views of Judaism.

I’m sure that Rabbi Sperber is doing this L’Shma. I’m sure that he sees this as a form of outreach. Many Jews who might otherwise be Orthodox but whose values - for whatever reason – see an Orthodox rigidity that seems to contradict those values and thus preclude them from being Orthodox themselves.

Right or wrong there are a lot of sincere Jews who want to be observant but can’t because of those values. By bending over backwards within limits of Halacha Rabbis like R’ Avi Weiss and R’ Daniel Sperber feel they will be able to attract them to Orthodoxy.

The current Zeitgeist of feminist egalitarianism is a case in point. While I do not consider this a legitimate reason to alter traditional practices - I certainly understand the motivation to do so. This is why Rabbi Weiss has crossed some traditional (albeit non Halachic) lines in Judaism in various ways. He may still be Halachic but many of his innovations have been rejected by mainstream Orthodox Institutions including key modern Orthodox ones like the RCA.

But this new yeshiva crosses line that I don’t even think Rabbi Weiss would cross. I completely understand that their purpose is to conserve Judaism. But at what price? How much concession is too much concession? Is it really OK to combine with Conservative rabbis no matter how ‘Halachic’ they are?

If they are truly Halachic why have they stayed in a movement that embraces heretical theologies and that has of late made a mockery of Halacha. I do not exaggerate here. One of their brightest lights - JTS Professor Rabbi Neil Gilman - argued years ago that the movement should no longer call itself Halachic.

I’m sorry. Outreach or not - this crosses the line. I actually feel bad saying so because I do feel that this has the potential for a net gain in observance by the Jewish people. But it cannot come at such a high price.

Let us remember that the Conservative movement was founded based on this very principle. Their founders reacted against the Reform abandonment of Halacha. The founders believed in maintaining Halacha and compromising only as needed. That slippery slope has long passed and look where they are now. All of their good intentions have resulted in a form of Judaism that one can hardly call Halachic, despite some protestations to the contrary by some of its members.

Is it appropriate for Orthodox Judaism to embrace anything with the name Conservative Judaism attached to it? … even if it is from their right wing? I don’t think so. This is way to close to the edge if it hasn’t already crossed it. If nothing else we should take a lesson from the history of Conservative Judaism. They were L’Shma too when they embarked on their slippery slope. And the slope has never been more slippery than it is now.