Adrift Movement Searches Anew For An Anchor


In the face of criticism that contradictory rulings on gay ordination have left the Conservative movement ideologically adrift, a new approach suggested by a young Chicago rabbi edges toward a new middle ground in an attempt to anchor the movement.
Trying to bridge the traditional view that the Torah is infallible with the liberal one that stresses critical analysis of sacred texts, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove argues that there is sufficient common ground to meld the two positions into a theologically coherent message, one seen as crucial for the continuation of the movement.

Writing the 23-page cover story in the recent issue of Conservative Judaism, published by the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Cosgrove calls for the two sides to begin a dialogue immediately. “But the conversation itself is not in the heavens and stands as the most compelling subject on the docket of Conservative Judaism today,” he wrote.
Rabbi Cosgrove, spiritual leader of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago in his mid-30s, wrote that without “an honest rapprochement between the claims of scholarship and faith … the historic polarities of the Conservative movement will remain out of balance and unaddressed.”

As if to underscore how crucial finding a new middle ground is, Rabbi Cosgrove acknowledged that without such a new consensus, either the traditional or liberal positions would have to be accepted. This would likely alienate huge swaths of Conservative Jewry, ending a movement based on a pluralistic approach that until now has sought to balance the two positions in a creative tension.

“What Elliot has done is to sharpen what the underlying philosophical halachic issues are, and what he ends up saying is that it would be fascinating to watch the unfolding of the internal tensions and discussions,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“Out of this kind of debate comes a synthesis and Cosgrove says the next generation will continue to debate this and end up with a synthesis,” Rabbi Meyers added. “It’s not a new halacha. We’re talking about an approach to understanding halachic development. … It’s a distinctly Conservative approach.”

Rabbi Cosgrove’s article, which is beginning to garner attention, comes amid a flurry of new papers and community forums that are seeking to find ways to redefine the movement and heal its gaping rift.

And it comes as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, is launching what he calls a “Mitzvah Project” to empower the movement’s laity regarding its future direction. Ten congregations across the country, including Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, L.I., will be asked to speak about “what they feel commanded to do, disciplined about, in love with in the practice of Judaism in general and Conservative Judaism in particular,” Eisen has told The Jewish Week.

It is believed that no major change will take place until this project, which lays the movement’s future in the laps of the membership, is completed.

Another leader of Conservative Judaism, former JTS provost Jack Wertheimer, suggests in the September issue of Commentary that the movement is already facing a dire crisis. He wrote that its split decision on gay ordination “has taken on the signs of ideological impasse.” He calls for a return to the traditional approach to Judaism to “help Conservative Judaism regain its role as a true religious force,” even though it would lead to a loss of numbers.

Last week in an address to Conservative Jews in Suffolk County, L.I., Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, painted a dim picture of the movement’s future. He argued that halacha, or Jewish law, is the core of the movement and he called on those in attendance to follow the commandments.

But interviews with several people after the speech found agreement that although Rabbi Roth may be correct in calling for observance of mitzvot, not all agreed on which ones must be followed.

“He’s clearly correct,” said Willa Gerber, the mother of three from Melville. “But we’ve made multiple choices because it’s more convenient.”

In his Commentary article, Wertheimer wrote: “Of all the movements, Conservative Judaism has been the least able to condense its religious ideology into a single message. Instead, it has relied mostly on assertions of what it is not … rather than on affirmations of what it is. An easily identifiable set of associations, a clear ‘branding,’ has been lacking.”
“Lurking in any effort to sharpen the movement’s definition has been the perpetual danger of exposing irreparable fault lines,” he added.

As a result, Wertheimer wrote, the Conservative movement, is “bleeding members of all ages to its religious Left and Right” and through assimilation. Its membership dropped during the 1990s from 915,000 to 660,000, putting it below the Reform movement for the first time in a half-century.

The way to stop the loss, he said, is to “get back to basics” through a “traditionalist approach [that] would emphasize high-quality Jewish education and lifelong Jewish learning, rather than the expedient of simply preparing young people to perform at a bar or bat mitzvah.”

Wertheimer cited a sociological study that found that “congregations willing to make reasonable demands on their members tend not to wither but to thrive. … In offering a clear and demanding religious program, the movement might have to prepare itself to live with some further shrinkage in the short term in order to insure growth in the future.”
Liberals include Gordon Tucker, the senior rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, who says he does not believe the Torah is Divine and that neither does “our Conservative Jewish world.” Its sacred status, Rabbi Cosgrove quoted him as saying, comes from the engagement of God with the Jewish people “by way of Torah.” And the fact that critical scholarship has identified the human hand in Torah only serves to strengthen the “Divine-human relationship.”

Rabbi Tucker submitted a position paper on the gay ordination issue based on that premise, calling for full equality for gays and lesbians with no restrictions on sexual behavior. Although not adopted, it is what Rabbi Cosgrove called the “most far-reaching in its implications for the future of Conservative Judaism.”

‘Glimmer Of Hope’

But because he believes there is room for movement on the part of both Rabbis Tucker and Roth, Rabbi Cosgrove suggested in his article that attempts be made to meld their opposing positions or accept either one, thereby ending the movement’s identity crisis.

“In calling for a Conservative halacha to be recast to fits its theology, Tucker has, in short order, encouraged Conservative Judaism to overturn the foundational premise of Jewish law through the ages,” Rabbi Cosgrove wrote. “The broader implications of his [paper] bear the potential either for the most courageous restating of Conservative Judaism’s raison d’etre, or just the opposite, the reckless unraveling of Conservative Judaism’s already tenuous claim to halacha. It is precisely because Tucker challenges the very foundations of Conservative Judaism’s ideological matrix that he cannot be ignored.”

Rabbi Cosgrove said he sees a “glimmer of hope” in Rabbi Roth’s position because “he concedes far more ground that he has in the past.” Although remaining firm in his belief in the Torah’s Divine origin, “he [Roth] too seeks to construct a theology capable of embracing the movement’s claims vis-a-vis source criticism. What has hitherto been ignored by Roth is now affirmed as a necessary conversation for the movement — namely, how does one maintain the sacred status of Scripture while affirming” the critical analysis of the text.

“The positions between Roth and Tucker are ideologically proximate enough for ongoing dialogue,” Rabbi Cosgrove maintained. “Both take the Divine-human partnership in Revelation as a given, both accept the findings of biblical criticism, and both understand the need to construct a theology that acknowledges Conservative Judaism’s distinctive theological voice. They differ dramatically on the degree to which those claims may be integrated into the halachic process, not a small difference to be sure, but a difference which deserves an ongoing hearing in the movement.”
He added that the dialogue on this issue “holds the potential to generate the most distinctive and valuable contribution that Conservative Judaism has to offer to contemporary Jewry.”

Asked his reaction to Rabbi Cosgrove’s suggestion, Rabbi Roth said he has “no objection to ongoing dialogue.” But he said the “likelihood that Rabbi Tucker and my ideological stance would ever be close enough that we would be able to decide the hard cases of Jewish law is infinitesimal. … He is misreading what my intention was.”
Rabbi Roth stressed that on ordinary issues he and Rabbi Tucker are generally in agreement. It is the difficult cases where the differences lie.

“I don’t believe Rabbi Tucker and I could agree on a theological framework that would allow us to agree on the methodology for hard cases — ones where Rabbi Tucker would like to deny the infallibility of Torah.”

Rabbi Tucker was unavailable to respond to Rabbi Cosgrove’s paper.
In his address on Long Island, Rabbi Roth acknowledged, and expressed concern about, the fact that his views are out of step with most Conservative Jews — namely his belief that adherence to halacha is “central and core to Conservative Judaism.” He said he hardly knows of any Conservative Jew who “feels commanded to obey the mitzvot,” and that the movement has moved so far to the left that it is alienating those who believe in pluralism.

Rabbi Roth said the Conservative movement has placed such stress on Scriptural analysis that it needs to “remythologize our sacred texts” so that they are again considered holy.