Conservative Leader Says Movement is Bridging Secular, Modern Worlds

The oil painting adorning the wall of Dr. Ismar Schorsch’s office serves as an apt metaphor for the mission of Conservative Judaism, which the Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor plays a major role in shaping.

Painted in 1910 by the Polish artist Mauricy Minkofsky, the painting depicts a grouping of rabbis and “yeshiva bochers” deep in study. At the center of the painting, however, is a pale adolescent who stares out at the viewer. Schorsch is captivated by the student’s interest in the world beyond the painting’s frame and the yeshiva’s walls.

“I think Minkofsky understood that we are able to live in both worlds simultaneously,” said Schorsch, who defines Conservative Judaism as “a repudiation that Judaism’s meeting with the secular world is an either/or proposition.”

In the last few months, Schorsch has seen that definition variously, almost simultaneously, affirmed and challenged. On one hand, he was gratified by the movement’s ratification of “Emet ve-Emunah,” a statement of principles he believes “clearly and succinctly states the Conservative movement’s positions on Israel, halacha and what is expected of the Jewish laity.”

On the other hand, he witnessed members of the Cantors Assembly, the professional body of Conservative cantors, voting to bar trained women cantors from its ranks. The vote rejected Schorsch’s 1987 decision allowing women trained at JTS to be conferred the title of cantor.

MAINSTREAM VS. TRADITIONALISTS

In an interview conducted at his request earlier this month, the JTS chancellor took stock of a movement that today is divided between the mainstream ideological camp he heads and a “traditionalist” camp, represented by the Cantors Assembly and members of the offshoot Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism. The union wants to slow the pace of Conservative Judaism’s accommodations to the modern world.

According to Schorsch, the Cantors Assembly vote was “a repudiation of the decision that I made, but a temporary repudiation. They will in time come to accept the policy.”

He differs with the traditionalists and even the Orthodox not over principles, but “details.”

“Where we differ from the other denominations is not in the quality of our Judaism, but the manner in which the traditional texts are studied. We have an equal commitment to the preservation and sanctity of halacha,” he said.

Judaism never stood for a rigid approach to the law, said Schorsch, who, when asked to suggest an alternate name for Conservative Judaism, replied “historical.”

“The term articulates a conviction that we are in the historical mainstream — that Israel has historically evolved,” Schorsch explained. Conservative Judaism, he said, is “the most authentic expression of Judaism in the contemporary world.”

And yet, as the chancellor acknowledged, there remains a gap between Conservative Judaism as taught in the seminary and as practiced by the laity.

“There is great anguish that the level of observance is not what we expect it to be,” he said. “But I don’t think that we have failed on this score. The challenge is immense in an open society like this one.”

Schorsch indicated with pride the educational role played by the movement’s Ramah summer camps and its system of 70 Solomon Schechter day schools in the United States and Canada.

The movement also is encouraging outreach efforts similar to those undertaken successfully by Orthodox groups in Israel and the United States, although he doubts those efforts can match the Orthodox initiatives in intensity.

“To capture the unaffiliated, you need a lot of people willing to live a minimal standard of living, fairly rootless,” he explained. “We do not have monks. Orthodoxy has. To missionize, you have to have monastic orders.”

In addition, the “Emet ve-Emunah” document calls for increased practice and study on the part of the laity, and sets the parameters of the Conservative Jew’s relationship with Israel. It is a “two-dimensional” one that affirms the worth of both Israel and the Diaspora, said Schorsch.

Assessing the current challenges to the Israel-Diaspora relationship, Schorsch spoke in favor of American Jewish participation in Israel’s internal debate over the future of the administered territories.

SPEAKING OUT ON ISRAEL

He supports Americans speaking out. “There is no chasm between Israel and the Diaspora in terms of their fate. Their fate is inextricably linked,” he said.

“American Jewry has every right to speak its mind on these issues, publicly and privately,” he said. “That does not deny the final choice to Israel — only it increases the quantity of wisdom in making that choice.”

Among the choices Schorsch would like to see made in Israel is a rejection of Orthodoxy’s nearly complete domination of Israel’s religious life, or what he calls the religious parties’ attempt to “turn the Zionist achievement into an Orthodox ghetto.”

He grows passionate on the topic, his voice rising as he decries the lack of funding afforded Conservative and Reform institutions in Israel. “When we fight for more funding, we are fighting for the character of Israel, not a principle.

“As major donors, we have every right to express our vision of what Israel ought to be and use our funding in a creative way,” he said. The vision he supports is “the creation of a post-emancipation society that recognizes the validity of pluralism.”

Asked if the vision might be more easily realized if more Conservative Jews made aliyah, Schorsch replied, “Aliyah is too comfortable an argument for sustaining the status quo.”

Still, he said, Conservative Judaism does encourage aliyah and has been taking steps toward developing an indigenous, Israeli Conservative leadership. Next month, the first three Israeli rabbis will be ordained by the movement’s “beit midrash” in Jerusalem.

The chancellor is encouraged by the participation of as many as 40 young Israelis in the Jerusalem program. “A good number are coming from Orthodox sectors, disillusioned by a lack of responsiveness to modernity,” he said, smiling under the curious gaze of the Minkofsky.

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