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Orthodox Article Reignites Dormant Pluralism Debate

Breaking a months-long lull in the struggle for Jewish religious pluralism, an Orthodox leader has accused Conservative Judaism of being a “lie.”

In a lengthy feature article in the February-March issue of Moment magazine, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, writes that the Conservative movement is a “failure.”

Not surprisingly, the article has caused something of a stir, spawning 20 letters to Moment within a few days of its appearance.

It also is spurring criticism from Conservative leaders, who say they are particularly disturbed that it comes despite a concerted Conservative effort to avoid confrontations with the Orthodox in Israel by agreeing not to hold mixed prayer services at the Western Wall, among other steps.

In “The Conservative Lie,” Shafran accuses Conservative Judaism of being intellectually dishonest in its claim to be governed by halachah, or Jewish law.

The movement’s halachic rulings always result in “new permissions,” Shafran writes, and its claim of adherence to Jewish law is “a figurative fig leaf, strategically positioned to prevent the exposure of the Conservative movement as nothing more than a timid version of Reform.”

Conservative Judaism is also “superfluous,” Shafran writes. In his view, Orthodox Judaism offers a viable alternative for the halachically-inclined, while Reform Judaism is an “attractive and logical option” for Jews who “regrettably have no interest in halachah.”

Conservative leaders criticized Shafran’s arguments.

“It’s important for Conservative Jews as well as the rest of the world to understand that Rabbi Shafran is not the defining authority of what is halachic,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Few Conservative Jews will find Shafran’s brand of Judaism appealing, Epstein said, and “to make them feel as if what they’re doing is not credible, appropriate or authentic – which it is – is only counterproductive.”

Epstein also contended that by recognizing multiple interpretations of Jewish law, “Conservative Judaism, in a real sense, is more authentic than the brand of Judaism” Shafran is “trying to force onto people.”

Epstein also took issue with the idea that Conservative rulings are always more lenient than Orthodox ones. For example, the decision to allow women to be counted in a minyan and lead prayer services also calls on them to assume the obligations required of men.

In addition, Conservative rulings about domestic violence and kosher slaughter create new requirements that go beyond traditional interpretations, Epstein said.

Conservative leaders, who are collaborating on a letter to the editor of Moment, criticize more than the article’s content. They also suggest that it should have been labeled an Op-Ed piece, rather than a feature, and should have identified Shafran’s profession and his bias against non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.

Moment Editor Hershel Shanks, as well as Shafran himself, stands by the article.

Shanks said he does not find Shafran’s lack of objectivity problematic.

“I don’t care who Avi Shafran is,” Shanks said. “The question is does he have a sound argument that ought to be aired? That’s the only question for me.”

Shafran said he did not choose the title, which he finds unnecessarily antagonistic, but has no other regrets.

“I’m pleading with Conservative Jews to think through whether halachah is something they’re committed to and whether the evidence is there that the movement is committed to it,” Shafran said.

And why write the article now, at a time when renewed violence in Israel – and the resulting pressure for unity – has quelled most talk of pluralism?

Religious pluralism debates are “bubbling up under the surface,” Shafran said. “Before the Conservative movement takes the next step in trying to convince the Israeli public and government that it is a vibrant and halachically motivated movement, it’s important that the dialogue be opened about whether that’s indeed true.”

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