Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unintended Consequences of Conservative Judaism

Tzedek Chicago founder Rabbi Brant Rosen addressing a BLM  rally (TOI)
One of the attendees at a recent meeting between Senator Mark Kirk and Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish leaders (lay and rabbinic) made a somewhat shocking remark to me. He said that Senator Kirk told him that in his encounters with the general Jewish community, he found that Jews don’t care about Israel. He said this in the context of finding it refreshing that at least one segment of the Jewish people – Orthodox Jews – do care.

This is yet another reason to support Senator Kirk’s re-election to the US Senate. It shows that his support of the Jewish State is not because he seeks the Jewish vote or Jewish money. That goal would be better served by advocating the liberal Jewish causes that most non Orthodox Jews support. As student of history, he supports Israel for moral reasons.

I said ‘shocking’. But I suppose it shouldn’t be that shocking to understand that the vast majority of the Jewish people in the United States have little to no Jewish education. Most are secular with humanistic values. At best they are cultural Jews. They place a lot more importance on Yiddish theater, literature, or poetry than they do on following the dictates of the Torah (of which they know little about). They in fact see no relevance to an ancient document whose values are archaic -  a throwback to primitive times. Many in academia have labeled the Torah a literary document written by man. Which in our day has little value based on modern concepts of equality and justice. In some cases Torah law is seen as sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, or even barbaric.

The rabbis of the Talmud are at best seen as flawed human beings that were a product of their primitive times. Which caused them to create laws that are anathema to modern day values.

And that’s only that segment that even cares about it. My guess is that most Jews in America do not know – or even care to know what the Torah and the sages say about anything. Which is why (according to a Pew Research poll) so many intermarry and/or assimilate out of Judaism. Is it any wonder that they don’t care about Israel either?

This is the unintended consequence of the Conservative movement. What was once the largest segment of Jewry in America has fallen to a distant 2nd place behind Reform which is increasing their number via redefining who is and isn’t a Jew to the point of absurdity.

It is ironic that a movement that was created to ‘conserve’ Judaism has done the opposite. They were the original ‘Open Orthodox’. They wanted to open up Judaism to the masses who would not or could not remain fully observant because they believed their livelihoods depended on working on Shabbos.

While claiming loyalty to Halacha - the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic leadership did much to subvert it - albeit unintentionally. For exampe - they ‘Paskined’ that since their members were going to drive anyway, let them drive to Shul. This ‘Heter’ gave a rabbinic imprimatur for driving on Shabbos in general. Most non Orthodox Jews of that time saw little difference between driving to Shul or driving to the beach.

Conservative rabbis  - most of whom were observant back then - did nothing to stop that. They rationalized that if they admonish their congregants for driving on Shabbos, they would lose them entirely. So they looked the other way. And thus over time virtually all Halachic observance was frittered away. Certainly the most of the ‘Don’ts’ of Halacha - observing some of ‘Dos’ for cultural or social reasons. And with each succeeding generation ignorance increased while the cultural motives decreased. And that’s where we are today. Support for Israel was once a pillar of Conservative Judaism. That too is now gone. Today we see more criticism of Israel than ever!

It should therefore not be surprising that there are Conservative or Reform synagogues and temples like Tzedek Chicago that bills itself as a non Zionist synagogue. From the Forward
Tzedek “bills itself as non-Zionist.” We are a values-based community, and our core values include “a Judaism beyond nationalism.” But we are not a one-issue congregation, and we don’t refer to ourselves as such…
Tzedek and its members are active in many progressive issues, from immigration justice to #BlackLivesMatter to fighting Islamophobia to #StandWithStandingRock. Our second day Rosh Hashanah service was a prayerful solidarity action with the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago’s City Hall.  We uphold non-Zionism as part of our core values...
(A)mong us, there are a-Zionists, those indifferent; post-Zionists; anti-Zionists; those unsure of their position regarding Zionism, and even a few political Zionists who appreciate our anti-Occupation activism. We impose no litmus test for membership. 
Now it is true that this synagogue is outside even the mainstream of the Conseravtive of Reform Movements. Its founder, Brant Rosen is an avowed supporter of the Palestinian cause. And yet according to the Times of Israel millenials are flocking to it! That is disturbing!

That it exists at all shows just how far removed some Jews can be from the core values of Judaism – which first and foremost are represented by the Mitzvos of the Torah. 

That these young Jews view only popular liberal causes as their primary focus without a even a trace of Halachic observance – or even cultural activites  - as any part of their identity is surely the by-product of the Conservative Movement virtual indifference to the Halachic observance of its members over the years - save for Tikun Olam.  Tikun Olam is surely a Jewish value - but one that is shared by Christianity, secular humanists, and others. It is not distinctively Jewish.
Tikun Olam – especially one that is no longer supportive of the Jewish  State - has now become the sole identifier of many non Orthodox Jews. And it’s why we have synagogues like Tzedek Chicago. One might argue that even this is better than assimilating out as is the case with so many Jews these days. But I would argue that there is little practical difference between the two. And perhaps it’s even worse.