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As Conservatives Question Halachah, Some Predict an Exodus to the Right

Some Conservative Jews were taken aback last month when Rabbi Neil Gillman urged the movement to stop calling itself halachic. But for Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg, Gillman simply confirmed what he’d been saying for 20 years. “Until now there has been the widespread assumption in the Conservative movement that it is a halachic movement,” or a movement that adheres to traditional Jewish law, said Ginsburg, president of the Union for Traditional Judaism, which was founded two decades ago by breakaways from the Conservative movement and which sits ideologically between Conservative Judaism and modern Orthodoxy.

“The announcement that Rabbi Gillman made, which was echoed by others, does create a very clear ideological and halachic divide in the Jewish community,” he said.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Conservative movement has drifted to the left over the past 20 years. Now some are asking whether members of the movement’s more traditional wing will jump ship in favor of the UTJ’s more halachah-centered ideology.

Over the years, the Conservative movement has made moves that some have seen as contravening traditional rabbinic Jewish law.

In 1960, for example, the movement voted to allow driving to its synagogues on Shabbat and holidays. Twenty years ago, it began ordaining female rabbis.

Since then it has wrestled with the issue of ordaining gay rabbis, a move many insiders say is just a matter of time. Now there’s Gillman’s call, made in his keynote speech to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial conference in December.

Will the slow move to the left drive more traditional Conservative Jews into the UTJ’s arms? Not in great numbers, UTJ insiders and observers say.

“I do suspect that there will be a few rabbis and possibly some congregations that will move into the camp of the UTJ,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, the UTJ’s executive vice president. But, he added, “even though it’s a turning point for the Conservative movement, I don’t think there will be a sea change in terms of our growth.”

Gillman, a philosophy professor at the Jewish Theology Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, said at the biennial that Conservative Judaism may be guided by halachah, or Jewish law, but it evolves according to aggada, or changing social and cultural norms.

It was an assertion that found backing among some rabbis and rank-and-file members of the movement. But other Conservative Jews said Gilman’s comments were off base, insisting that halachah — interpreted through a Conservative lens — remains the basis of the movement’s existence.

“I think that it’s important to remember that Neil Gillman was really speaking for himself — as a philosopher, I suppose, or as someone who has thought a lot about the Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of suburban Philadelphia’s Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue.

“He’ll say our people, by and large, are not observing halachah. That’s an opinion that he gathers from a rather removed perspective,” Cooper said. “It seems to me, working from the pulpit, that that’s off base.”

The UTJ is not a synagogue-based movement, though a few shuls have aligned themselves with the group. Essentially, it’s an education and outreach organization whose members largely come from Orthodox shuls, in addition to those affiliated with Conservative and Reform congregations.

The UTJ’s Institute of Traditional Judaism, headed by former JTS and Columbia University professor Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, offers rabbinical ordination, a beit midrash study program and continuing education for rabbis.

The movement believes in “open-minded observance.” Its rabbinic program uses traditional methodologies along with critical approaches such as the study of Ugaritic and Akkadian.

But, says Price, “we start with a statement of faith” that Jewish texts “are sacred texts.”

Synagogues connected to the UTJ are not uniform in their approach to egalitarianism: Some are more tolerant, others less so. The UTJ also stresses dialogue with non-halachic Jews and non-Jews.

Ginsburg’s shul — Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, Long Island, which is affiliated with United Synagogue — offers what he calls tri-seating: There’s a men’s section, a women’s section and a mixed-seating section.

In a recent Op-Ed piece, UTJ leaders argued that Gillman had simply said out loud what many had known to be true for years.

“In some ways, the article that we wrote is simply our statement that we saw it coming, and we have hopefully made the right decisions for our own future and the future of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president.

“I’m hoping that more people will understand that there is a need for what we call ‘open-minded halachic Judaism,’ ” he added. “It is full commitment to halachah, with real openness to the broader community and to the non-halachic community as well.”

But Gillman — who says he supports the Conservative movement’s perspective on Jewish observance and takes issue only with its self-identification as halachic — told JTA that in the 20 years since the Conservative movement decided to ordain women, the UTJ “has hardly had a raging success.”

“What’s going to make them is not my speech,” he said. What would drive people into the UTJ’s arms, he said, is if the Conservative movement’s law committee approves the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.

“Then the UTJ is going to have a great burst of excitement,” Gillman said.

While UTJ leaders say they hope growing numbers of people will flock to their kind of Jewish practice, Cooper isn’t so sure.

“I think that the problem with the UTJ is that it’s hard to convince people that you can have it both ways,” he said. “That you can be an open, critical, historical, and liberal thinker on the one hand, but maintain on the other hand that there’s no way for the halachah — even within that critical historical framework — to grow.”

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