Sunday, March 20, 2005

Hakarat HaTov to the Conservative Movement

Gil Student recently highlighted the crisis that has presently siezed Conservative Judaism. In large part, JTS Chancellor, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, attributes the decline 'to the exodus of young Conservative Jews with strong religious educations.' In other words, despite the heavy emphasis upon scholarship that was the hallmark of JTS, the Conservative movement has remained, what it always was, a phenomenon driven by the laity, whose values are usually derived from whatever trends dominate American, liberal society and not from Jewish knowledge This was pointed out by the late Marshall Sklare, over forty years ago, in his classic study, Conservative Judaism. (Sklare, who I knew well, was a Life-long Conserrvative Jew.)

I wanted to highlight this angle of CJ's crisis, because I was an early example thereof. I grew up, in a 50's and 60's America wherein Conservative Judaism was viewed as the way of the future. Orthodoxy, I grew up hearing, was 'too much' and would be confined to the dust bin of history. Reform, on the other hand, was too 'goyish.' It was often said, with disdain, that Reform was just one step from assimilation, intermarriage and (as time went on, apostasy). It will be noted, that this was a CJ that heavily emphasized traditional ritual, and (more importantly) Jewish education. Here, it must be admitted, it could really excel (if it and the parents so desired). I went to an 'intensive Hebrew School' wherein we learned Hebrew, Hebrew Language, Hebrew Literature, History, Humash Navi, and Siddur. The goal of the program was to prepare the students for entry into the Prozdor of Boston Hebrew Teacher's College (now, Hebrew College). Of course, most kids didn't go this way. This path, however, was validated and offered. Day school was not yet respected as an option in Boston, since Boston Jews (my parents included), were doctrinnaire believers in the value of a public school education.

The knowledge that Hebrew School imparted, and (more importantly) the ability to attend the Prozdor and then Hebrew College, afforded me a broad Jewish education the like of which one is hard put to acquire anywhere in the world today. True, Torah she'b'al Peh was not taught in Hebrew School. However, the linguistic and textual tools we were given provided me with the basis that allowed me, at age eighteen, to start my nine and a half years of study with my beloved rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, zatzal.

I started my way out of the movement not long after my Bar Mitzva, though the final break came when I was graduated from High School. Indeed, it was my years in USY that helped me to ease myself out, as it afforded me a context in which to assume Shemiras Shabbos.

In the end, I left because of the lack of authenticity I found in the leaders of the movement. I left because of the contempt and anger that rabbis had toward tradition and, especially, toward the Gemora. I left because, even then, I felt that the movement (to reverse an image by Tchernichovsky) strove to 'put tefillin on a statue of Apollo.' Tradition had no integrity in their eyes, and certainly none in the face of whatever transient modes of thinking or values were making their way through the American Jewish MIddle or Upper Class. It was at this crucial point in my life that three of my teachers at Hebrew College: Rabbi Dr. Arnold Wieder and Rabbi Dr. Isaiah Wohlgemuth introduced me to the world of Torah. More to the point it was Rabbi Wohlgemuth (tofether with Rabbi Dr. David Schapiro) who made it possible for me to enter the Rov's shiur, a moment that transformed my life forever.

Nevertheless, despite my thirty two year axiological opposition to and rejection of Conservative Judaism, and my sense of validation at their current brain-drain, I would be guilty of the most churlish form of ingratitude if I did not (at the same time) acknowledge that it was the education they provided that allowed me to find an authentic, Torah way of life. My wife, who's training to become an art therapist, offers that people need to own all of the parts of their lives. This is my way of owning mine.