Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Close - But No Cigar

Maimonides Memorial - Cordova, Spain
Rabbi Daniel Gordis never fails to surprise me. He has responded to critics of his last article (Requiem for a Movement)  in which  he spoke about the imminent demise of his movement, Conservative Judaism. In that article he cited the devastating statistics  of a recent Pew Research Center Survey (like the 70% intermarriage rate of non Orthodox Jews) as evidence of that, his reasons for that, and his prescription for a cure.

Critics from within his movement (interlocutors – as he calls them) have disputed his claim. I am not going to go into his rather lengthy response (Cognitive Dissonance) which can be read at the Jewish Review of Books website. But there are a few of things that stood out that are worthy of note here.

Daniel Gordis one might say is the favorite Conservative Rabbi of Orthodox Jews. I think that is a fair assessment (albeit with a caveat which I will get to later). I believe that a great deal of what he says resonates with Orthodox Jews. If one did not know better, one would almost think he is an Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Just to cite one example:
In (Modern Orthodoxy) the Jewish calendar is the metronome of life; they have homes infused with much more ritual, they learn more Torah, they intermarry much less, they visit Israel more often than their Conservative and Reform peers. They sing together and daven (which is not the same thing as worshipping) together. The best of them (not all, not enough) read just as much, think as broadly, and are as fully engaged in the modern world as their non-Orthodox counterparts, despite the intellectual tensions.
His criticism of Conservative Judaism too sounds like it came from an Orthodox perspective:
Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.
While he recognizes that many Orthodox Jews observe Mitzvos and customs for sociological reasons and can be quite lax outside of their community, at the same time he feels that their sense of community is what makes them cohesive. In an interesting example of that, he tells us of a Modern Orthodox couple where the wife covers her hair with a Shaitel (wig) and yet when they go on vacation in an areas where there were no Kosher restaurants they ate in Treif ones. (Although I doubt that they ate actual Treif meat – they still probably violated the laws of Kashrus – which are very complex). 

This kind of ‘Lite’ observance is unfortunately an all too common occurrence among far too many Jews. But it does exist. Yet these people are all members in good standing of their Orthodox communities. This, says Rabbi Grodis is the hallmark and savior of Orthodoxy that does not exist in the Conservative movement.

This is where I begin to part company with him. He attributes our success to our communal bond. While it is true that it exists, that is not the reason for our success (although I’m sure it helps).  What has and continues to sustain us throughout history is our belief system. It is a belief in the 13 core principles of faith as outlined by the Rambam (Maimondes). It is those core principles that gives us our cohesion and perpetuates us. These core principles bind us to Mitzvah observance. The community which results is due more to that than any artificial sense of belonging to a group.

Many of the Maimonidean principles contradict modern biblical criticism. Which seems to be an article of faith among Conservative thinkers and thereby supersedes them. Biblical criticism  is a discipline that does literary analyses of the Torah and suggests that the Torah was very likely written by man - at different periods of history… and that the events at Sinai never happened and are only allegorical. The Rambam on the other hand tells us that belief in the events of Sinai is foundational.

Principle 8: The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God.

I am not going to get into a discussion about the validity of biblical criticism except to say, that I do not subscribe to its conclusions. I am a believer in the 13 principles of faith. Why I do - is beyond the scope of this post.  Unfortunately modern scholarship has penetrated some of our own circles which has led many Orthodox Jews to question the events of Sinai. But that too is beyond the scope of this post.

Rabbi Gordis has subscribed to biblical criticism ever since he studied it as a young man.  What is telling about the problem I have with it is how he dealt with the obvious question it raises: How does one theologically justify following Halacha as a Godly mandate in a document likely written by man? Here is his answer:
I talked to my grandfather. A leading intellectual light of the Conservative movement, he had to have something to say, didn’t he? But no matter how hard I pushed, we always ended up in the same place. Why did halakha matter? It was, he told me, minhag k’lal yisrael. “This is simply what Jews do.” This is how we Jews live; it’s the ticket to belonging. “Stop all your theologizing,” he basically said to me. “Life’s real decisions are about belonging and sustaining, not about theology.”
I’m sorry but doing Mitzvos is more than about Minhag Klal Yisroel or belonging. While that is a benefit too, it is hardly the reason to observe. If I thought the Torah was a man made document, I would go out and buy a cheeseburger right now! Judaism as Orthodoxy understands it - is about Yiras Shomayim… being in awe of God and doing His will. That will - is expressed in His Torah – dictated to Moshe.

So as much as I like Rabbi Gordis’s attitude about Orthodoxy – especially Modern Orthodoxy – which he says should be the model for Conservative Jews, Judaism will never be sustained without its core theology of belief in the revelation at Sinai. Man made laws can and will be changed by men. So that a Judaism devoid of a Torah mandate will ultimately evolve into whatever the spirit of the times tells us is the moral and ethical ideal of the moment – and will be unrecognizable as anything Jewish. The Judaism we observe today is the Judaism of our forefathers.

While Halacha always evolves – applying its principles to the times, the times do not adapt the Torah to it. Yes, Judaism as we practice it today hardly resembles the way it was practiced in ancient times. We had to adapt to changing circumstances. But the Torah was never changed. We have simply looked to it in order to know how to adapt.

This has always been my primary problem with the Conservative movement. Much more than its questionable Halachic rulings like permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos. A theology that allows the denial of the events at Sinai is a theology that denies the Torah itself.

If not for Rabbi Gordis’s problematic theology, I would love to welcome him into Orthodoxy’s big tent. But  even the most left wing segment of Orthodoxy – which Rabbi Gordis correctly believes would welcome him - rejects the claim that Sinai never happened.  Left Wing standard bearer, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) has rejected one of its brighter ordainees skepticism about Siniatic Revelation. But they still accepted him as a member in good standing of Orthodoxy. I’m sure they would accept Rabbi Gordis too.

I believe YCT is wrong for doing so as it pushes the envelope too far. It makes their stand on the theology itself unclear. But the fact is that they don’t accept it. And that’s the  difference between YCT and the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement legitimizes that theology. And that makes them outside the pale. Which is really too bad. We could use a fine mind and dedicated Jew like Rabbi Gordis.

Please note: I am not going to allow a theological discussion about biblical criticsim. That is beyond the scope of this post.