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Monday, 24 March 2008

Counterpoint: Merge Reform and Conservative Judaism

Counterpoint: Merge Reform and Conservative Judaism
By DAVID FORMAN
In October 2005, I wrote a column, "Merge the movements," which called
upon the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to meld together as
one religious entity. The primary opposition came from the
Conservatives, especially from many Conservative rabbis whose unabashed
derision of my suggestion gave me pause to think that unifying both
movements might be unattainable.
Of course, this does not mean that they shouldn't unite.
The Conservative movement's main objection to such a merger is its claim
that Conservative Judaism is far more traditional than Reform Judaism
and, unlike Reform, defines itself as halachic. However, my Conservative
rabbinic colleagues suffer from a delusion of traditional grandeur.
Their level of religious observance does not necessarily reflect that of
their constituents. For example, one critic responded that the
Conservative youth movement (Noam) observes Shabbat and kashrut, unlike
the Reform youth movement. All four of my children were active in Noam.
If their friends' and their parents' religious behavior is any
indication, then I can categorically state that - with rare exceptions -
the level of the Conservative movement's members' personal observance in
no way matches the standards of traditionalism that Conservative rabbis
pretend to be the case.
Another critic based his opposition to the unification of the movements
on the foolhardy supposition that "his synagogue had more in common with
an Orthodox one than a Reform one."
By whose standards? Certainly not Orthodoxy's. And why would a
Conservative rabbi take pride in such a specious comparison, when
Orthodoxy decries Conservative Judaism's legitimacy?
Before considering a partnership with the Reform movement, my
Conservative co-religionists argue that Reform in Israel must separate
itself from Reform in America. Since when is guilt by association a
criteria for judging someone? That McDonald's in downtown Jerusalem is
not kosher did not prevent McDonald's at the Central Bus Station from
receiving a kashrut certificate. Should Israel's Conservative movement
disassociate itself from its American counterpart because its rabbis in
the States altered halacha so their congregants could drive to synagogue
on Shabbat (as if it would matter)?
Does one truly believe that no Conservative rabbis and lay people in
Israel drive on Shabbat? This is another case of wishful thinking. Does
a violation of Shabbat by others diminish someone else's strict Shabbat
observance?
As one Conservative rabbi from Tel Aviv remarked: "Let my rabbinic
brethren in Jerusalem spend one summer in Tel Aviv, and they will find
halachic justification to drive to the beach on Shabbat!"
WHATEVER COMPLAINTS the Conservatives have against Reform changes in the
tradition, they eventually follow suit. The Conservative movement
followed Reform's lead by instituting egalitarianism and ordaining women
- both in Israel and abroad - despite its once-resolute opposition to
such far-reaching changes in halacha. And, in the States, there are
cracks in the once impenetrable Conservative wall, with musical
instruments used to enhance Shabbat services, the ordination of gays and
lesbians, and even some grudging recognition of children of patrilineal
descent as Jews.
Would the Conservatives here deny that one of its own rabbis performs
same-sex marriages, or musical instruments are played in some of its
synagogues on Shabbat? Conservatives, on both sides of the ocean, are
fast becoming a mirror image of Reform.
The Israel Conservative movement would benefit more from an affiliation
with Israel's Reform movement than vice versa. Jerusalem's prestigious
Van Leer Institute dedicated a conference to "Contemporary Reform
Judaism," the first serious academic symposium in Israel on a
non-Orthodox religious stream of Judaism, which demonstrates that the
Reform movement's profile is substantially more visible than the
Conservative movement's. The Conservatives hitch a ride on the Reform's
Israel Religious Action Center, whose organizational activism makes it
the chief proponent for equal rights for non-Orthodox religious branches
of Judaism. And while the Reform movement's Israeli rabbinic program has
grown, the Conservative movement's has shrunk, with many Conservative
rabbis employed by Reform institutions
ULTIMATELY THEN, a merger of the two movements would be advantageous,
especially since the most liberal count of Israelis who consider
themselves Reform or Conservative does not exceed a few thousand. Why
fight over essentially the same constituents by opening competing
synagogues in the same cities and towns? Why have two educational campuses?
In merging the two movements, neither one would need to give up its
ideological worldview or ritual lifestyle. Compromise would demand that
the Reform movement adjust to the Conservative movement's halachic
leanings, but more significantly, Conservative rabbis would have to
adjust their ideology to reality. And here we will find much to build
upon, because the religious practices of the majority of Reform and
Conservative Jews in Israel (and abroad) are virtually indistinguishable.
Yes, the Reform movement views halacha as nonbinding, which is far more
honest than the Conservative approach that surreptitiously "unbinds"
halacha. But the basic fact is that both movements in Israel hold equal
religious positions on marriage, divorce, conversion and patrilineality.
Many Israelis are facing crises of faith and are seeking answers to
questions regarding the efficacy of a Jewish state that should reflect
the best of Jewish moral values. The two movements should pool their
religious, educational and financial resources so that they might make
an impact upon Israeli society, which is in need of alternative
spiritual nourishment to Orthodoxy's rigidity and paternalism - an
alternative that is creative, progressive, inclusive and responsive to
the dramatic events that continually confront our country.

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