Monday, January 02, 2006

Cross-Currents Bullshit Alert

I don't usually read Cross-Currents, and I took them off my RSS aggregator a long time ago. Needless to say, I don't comment there, given their history of careful "selection." But, DW brought this diatribe of Orthodox triumphalism to my attention. Their thesis: Neil Gilman says that Conservayive Judaism should give up on halacha, therefore, Conservative Judaism has given up on halacha. And, of course that means that Agudas Israel spokesman Avi Shafran was right when he questioned the intellectual integrity of the Conservative movement. So, do we owe Shafran an apology?

Not yet. Conservative Judaism is not, and pretty much has never been, a united movement. When Mordechai Kaplan (as a JTS professor) wrote the foundational book for Reconstructionism, "Judaism as a Civilization," he argued that all three contemporary American Jewish movements were not viable. There were four chapters on the subject, one for each denomination — Neo-Orthodox, Reformist, Right Conservative, and Left Conservative. The non-halachic side of Conservative Judaism has already given birth to Kaplan's "Reconstructionism," David Wolpe's proposal for "Covenental Judaism," and Neil Gilman's current attempt to define the movement. Jonathan Rosenblum already knew that:

Just as Mordechai Kaplan taught an earlier generation of JTS rabbinical students to view Judaism as a civilization, in which scheme God played little or no role, so Gilman teaches them that a “binding” mitzvah is whatever a Jew decides at that particular moment is binding for him – an odd definition of obligation. Gilman reiterated this theme in his keynote address when he stressed that to whatever extent Conservative Jews follow halachic norms, it is because they want to and not because they have to.1

It is not news that some prominent Conservative thinkers don't view halacha as binding. So, what makes Rosenblum think that the internal debate is any more “settled” now than it was in the 1930's?

1The same can be said of a large part of contemporary Orthodox Jews as well. Yes, there's social pressure towards conformity and observance, but for many, the obligation is felt personally, but not externally enforced.

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Agreed on all counts, but I really do wish Gillman hadn't given that speech. It's caused more than a few headaches for us in the halakhic school.
Conservative Judaism is not, and pretty much has never been, a united movement.


Didn't Rabbi Creditor say a few weeks ago that the Conservative Movement should just throw out all non-egalitarian elements in the movement? And yet, at minhatho, there was no egalitarian minyon at JTS, yet the non-egal minyon managed to get about 17 men!
Sorry, that last sentence should read:

"And yet, at minhatho today, there was no egalitarian minyon at JTS, yet the non-egal minyon managed to get about 17 men!"

(It seems that this will continue to be the situation until classes resume towards the end of the Monat.)
It seems to me that the views of both sides here are somewhat anachronistic. In the first decade or two post-WWII, there was a perception that the Conservative movement was an existential threat to Orthodox Judaism in the United States. That perception clearly no longer exists, but every few years comments like these crop up to gratuitously stoke controversy of the unproductive variety. I'll leave it at that.

I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to wish that R. Gillman did not give his speech- it had a lot of things worthy of thought in it. But I do wish that people would stop taking one suggestion as fact. Perhaps I would wish that he had given his suggestion in a slightly less err, influential, setting.

Mar Gavriel- I'm interested by your remark, especially since I was told, when I was visiting JTS, that the non-egal minyan did not always make a minyan during the school year. So is there a reason that it does better on breaks? Or was I just not given a full/accurate picture of demographics?

When did you visit JTS? The demographics have changed from year to year over the past few years.

The two JTS minyonim are called "Stein Chapel" (non-egalitarian, pronounced "Shtein") and "WLSS" (Women's League Seminary Synagogue, egalitarian; the acronym is pronounced as willace).

In 1998, both minyonim were meeting every day of the week, including Shabbos. All meeting during inter-semester break was erratic. At some point after 1998 (I don't know exactly when), Stein stopped having regularly-scheduled Shabbos services. However, there would be an occasional Shabbos service when the need arose, such as when a Stein-supporter was giving a senior sermon.

In the years 1999 through 2004, neither JTS minyon had Sunday services. However, in the middle of the academic year 2004-5, some committed WLSS members managed to found a Sunday Shacharis minyon at WLSS, which still runs now. (Still no Mincho or `Arvis.)

In the academic year of 2002-2003, Stein attendance had fallen to an all-time low. During that year, Stein couldn't even schedule a daily Shacharis minyon, and only met for Mincho.

Then, in Fall 2003, Stein began to grow again, and to have minyonim for Shacharis, Mincho, and `Arvis on all schooldays.

To my knowledge, the last Shabbos service at Stein was for Fred Grossman's senior sermon, on Shabbas Shekolim / Rôsh Chôdesh Ador II, 2005. In fact, I was the ba`al keri'o at that service. A few weeks later, on Shabbos of Shushan Purim, some people tried to organize a "private" JTS non-egalitarian Stein minyon for Friday night services, but it doesn't seem to have worked out. (I can't tell you exactly, because I had hit my head into a wall at around 4:00 PM that day, as a result of my drunken stupor likhvôd Purim. Oh, and I managed to break my chevruso's plate in the process. I then fell asleep on my chevruso's couch and-- oh, well, that's a story for another time. But it was on that Friday night that I met LabRab's brother and sister, and I met LabRab himself two weeks later. But I digress.)

During the year, there are some days when WLSS doesn't get a minyon for Shacharis, and some days when Stein doesn't get a minyon for Shacharis. (There are even days when, nebbech, neither group manages to get a minyon for Shacharis. What does that say about JTS?) Typically, both groups do just fine for Mincho, then again have trouble for `Arvis.

Why is it that Stein has been having a Mincho minyon over intercession, whereas WLSS has not? One fellow (who shall remain anonymous) suggested that while there may be more "people in general" who associate with WLSS (mainly students), there seem to be more "permanent people" who associate with Stein (mainly professors and researchers, who hang around JTS even during intercession.) Ver veys?

This post has gotten too long, so I'm going to end it right here, in the middle of a...
I just checked the comments to the Cross-Currents post and found that mine was actually accepted, along with several others in a similar vein. Interesting.
Perhaps they're lightening up on dissent.
Light(e)ning? Like בָּרָק? Cool-- reminds me of Zeus!
Barak? I doubt they'd support such liberals over at CC...
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