Israel must recognize the legitimacy of all forms of Judaism, emphatically including Reform and Conservative Judaism, or it will alienate those movements, the just-returned Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said in an interview.
Oren, who in October ended a four-year stint as Israel's envoy in Washington, DC, said it was all well and good for Israel to describe itself as "the nation-state of the Jewish people" — a formulation, now routinely used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which Oren said was adopted on his recommendation — but "we've got to stand behind it. Now we've accepted the formula, let's live up to it."
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Oren warned that "if Israel does not work to make itself the nation-state of all the Jewish people, and be truly pluralistic and open about this, then we risk losing these people."
The former ambassador was commenting on the current state of US Jewry and its relationship with Israel.
Asked, first, about the impact of the settlement enterprise on Israeli-Diaspora ties, he said certain Jews were troubled by the expansion of settlements, and others were "dissatisfied we're not building more and faster… I had as much opposition from the American Jewish right as I did from the American Jewish left," he added, "for being in favor of the two-state solution. For effecting the moratorium [on settlement building] in 2010. For prisoner releases."
Oren described the American Jewish community as being "similar to what many physicists say is occurring in the universe — that it's expanding and contracting at the same time. So the American community — read the Pew Report — they're contracting through intermarriage and assimilation. However, at the same time, there's a strong kernel of the American Jewish community, not just Orthodox, but also Jews who've gone on Birthright, who are more connected Jewishly and more connected to Israel, and that's expanding… So if you look down the road, 20 or 30 years from now, the American Jewish community may be smaller, but it could also be more Jewishly identified and more connected to Israel."
At the same time, he warned, "on the constriction side, you have not only Jews who are disaffected because of Israeli policies, but also because the State of Israel doesn't recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism."
He said the only thing that all the rabbis he met with agreed upon — be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — was their opposition to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which doesn't recognize even most US Orthodox conversions today.
More broadly, he said, Israel needed "to recognize all forms of Judaism. We have to recognize the roles of those movements in Judaism within different life-cycle events in Israeli life. We risk alienating them. The amazing thing about the Reform movement is that, after so many years of not being recognized by the State of Israel, they remain so pro-Israeli. That to me is extraordinary."
He could not be fully confident, he said, that this would last forever. "I'll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel," Oren said. "But they'll say to you: I can't tell you how hurtful it is that the State of Israel doesn't recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It's something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation-state of the Jewish people."
The ex-ambassador's comments came two weeks after Netanyahu became the first prime minister to address the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial US gathering. In a speech via satellite to the event in San Diego, Netanyahu said "Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people. That's the place where all Jews — including Reform Jews — experience nothing less than 'audacious hospitality.'" He added that he was "committed to doing everything in my power to ensure that all Jews feel connected to Israel and to each other."
The Times of Israel's full interview with Michael Oren will appear later this week.
The obituaries have been written, the plot has been opened and the tombstone is being carved. But before we complete the burial of the Conservative Movement, maybe we should give it another look. Let's be sure that the patient is actually dead!
While there is no doubt that the percentage of American Jews who claim to identify with the movement has dropped precipitously (41% in 1971, 38% in 1990, 26% in 2000 and 18% in 2013), numbers do not a movement make.
But numbers are facile, so let's begin there. The number of Conservative Jews who were truly affiliated with the movement was an inflated statistic throughout the 20th century. Most Jews who joined Conservative shuls did not join because they agreed with the movement's practice or ideology, but rather out of convenience: it was the perfect rest stop between the Orthodoxy of their parents and what would become the Reform and unaffiliated Judaism of their children and grandchildren. It fused enough tradition to feel authentic with comfortable English sermons, family style seating and decorum that compared nicely with the norms of their Protestant neighbors.
That said, no matter how great or poor the rabbi, the synagogue, or the Ramah movement, they could not compete with the greater forces of assimilation.
The current move to extremes, to polarization, in so many areas of life from politics to religion hasn't helped either. That has strengthened the religious streams on the perimeter, but not the vital center. Extreme positions, by their nature have more fire and brimstone, clearer and less nuanced ideologies that prove attractive to larger numbers in our increasingly fractured societies; though passionate moderation is what the world actually needs.
Now, don't get me wrong, the Conservative movement has plenty of problems. Its institutions have been poorly run by leaders and administrators who were more interested in maintaining their own turf than in deeper issues of meaning. Ineptitude and ideological divisions hurt many of its organizations including most noticeably, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.
Its branding is weak and confusing. The time may have come to adopt its Hebrew name and call it Masorti (Traditional), as it is known in Israel and the rest of the world beyond North America. While the numbers are small, the loss of some of its most committed young people to Orthodoxy has been demoralizing. The 1950 driving teshuvah allowing driving to shul did not help build Shabbat communities where members could walk to each other's homes, sharing meals and spontaneous interactions. However, the post-war move to suburbia was probably inexorable.
When we look beyond numbers to big ideas, the movement's success has been remarkable. Its focus on Hebrew and traditional rituals has been picked up by Reform and other liberal movements. Its halakhic egalitarianism is being emulated by modern Orthodoxy today. It continues the support of Israel that has been a hallmark since the movement's founding; Reform and Orthodoxy now emulate that position. Its focus on academic excellence and intellectual honesty has been picked up by hundreds of Judaic studies departments around the country. Its approaches have bred institutions founded by graduates of Jewish Theological Seminary, its premier educational institution. Although not officially part of the movement Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Kehillat/Mechon Hadar and IKAR are among its products.
Some have criticized the movement for its recent decisions about egalitarianism and welcoming gay and lesbian Jews, and even claimed that these decisions are the cause of the movement shrinkage. These decisions are not the result of focus groups and surveys, they are not made to bring in the biggest numbers, they are attempts to decipher what God and our halakhah dictate for us in this time and place, knowing what we know today.
We know that women and men both bring great gifts to this world and they are fundamentally equal ("zakhar u'nekeivah bara otam – male and female God created them" Genesis 1:27). Therefore, egalitarianism is what the halakhah requires of us.
Thus, while I participate on some level in davening in an Orthodox synagogue or a Reform temple because of my commitment to am yisrael (the Jewish people) and ahdut ha'am (the unity of the Jewish people), in neither do I feel as if I have fulfilled the halakhah completely. In one, I often miss essential parts of the traditional davening experience and in the other, I have evaded my responsibility to implement our tradition's mandate regarding the status of women.
To share why I feel the way I do, let me tell you some of my Jewish journey. I grew up as an observant Conservative Jew – the son of a Conservative rabbi and a JTS professor. Even my maternal grandparents were highly educated Boston-born shomer ShabbatConservative Jews. I was given a strong Jewish education at Conservative and Orthodox day schools.
Like many teens, I drifted away from traditional Jewish practices like prayer and Shabbat. When I left for college, I celebrated my first Shabbat by turning on all my electronic devices (my computer, TV, stereo, video game machine) – something that was forbidden in my home growing up. I was free.
Much the wiser, over that Thanksgiving dinner, I told my parents that "it was too bad you both became Jewish educators. You both went to great schools – you could have become lawyers or business people. Don't you know that all religions were made up by people and they are all the same?!"
My parents were good – they just kept on chewing and didn't react to my provocations.
Sure enough, in the course of the next year, I became involved more and more with the strong Orthodox community on my campus. When I returned the following Thanksgiving, I told them over dinner that I didn't feel that their approach to Judaism was correct. In fact, I turned to my mother who davens each morning in tefillin and told her "Ema, don't you realize that what you are doing is an anathema to God!"
Again, my mother and father did not overreact; they kept on chewing.
Over time, I realized that I did not have all the answers and spent more time listening. I always loved the power of Jewish community and was drawn to our people's traditional practices, but, at the same time I was taking philosophy courses and struggling to bring these two arenas together.
The summer before my senior year, I studied with Rabbi Neil Gillman who offered me a powerful synthesis of how to approach what I considered two separate realms. He enabled me to understand that my personal practice was not at odds with a modern theology and a historical understanding of the tradition.
I could pursue ritual and halakhah, even if the metaphor of the Book of Life did not work for me.
I believe in the power of our tradition and the learning of science. The world can be created in 7 days, 7 Divine days which are equivalent to 13.8 billion years. I believe in the power of the halakhah which has produced a most intense and comprehensive legal system that offers me the deepest insights into how to live a moral, ethical and meaningful life.
I believe in the power of observance and rituals which root me in my connection to God, Torah and Israel. I believe in Jewish peoplehood, which places our people and the State of Israel in a preferred status.
I believe in history, logic and science and while I often engage in superstitious behavior (usually watching sports games), I know the limits of magical thinking. I believe in our evolving understanding of morality within halakhah – which means that thankfully, our tradition's approach to new situations like intermarried Jews and gays and lesbians has changed in light of today's knowledge, creating a more open and moral Judaism.
I believe in the transformative power of prayer – engaging in our thrice daily regimen. I believe in finding the most creative ways to present our people's ancient wisdom. I believe in serious engagement with kashrutthat roots me in an ancient system of eating, even as it evolves to include new ideas like banning veal because of how the animal is treated.
I believe that Judaism is the most powerful way to live one's life.
I believe in the experience of learning – an intellectually honest approach to all of our texts that can stand up to scrutiny in any academic setting, but never blunts their influence. I believe in hesed – acts of love that are woven into the life of Jews and our narrative and rituals only serve to reinforce that.
I am an egalitarian halakhic Jew.
That's what makes me a Conservative Jew.
Today, Conservative Judaism is turning a corner, ready for a fresh and new presentation. The future is already in place: a generation of men and women who bring new ideas and commitment. It needs a package that is as dynamic as its underlying ideals and ideas. It needs a smile and a positive outlook.
My community, Temple Emunah, is not the only Conservative shul where from twice daily lay-led minyans through High Holy Day services, from pre-school through 55+ we support each other and the world, while we enjoy learning, connecting, eating and sharing together. It is an honor to serve as their rabbi.
There is no doubt that Conservative Judaism's ideology is solid; its challenge remains creating enough strong communities. In that area, it needs to emulate Orthodox Judaism and its sense of community.
Will it be the largest Jewish movement as it was for most of the 20th century? While anything can happen, probably not.
Will it continue to offer the most compelling, the most authentic responses to the intersection of tradition and modernity? There is no doubt that it will.
Will there be challenges as the community ages and older shul merge and close? Will there be painful decisions to be made about priorities, as funding contracts? Will there be tough competition from other movements and the overwhelming forces of assimilation? Sure, but I am happy to pit its ideology, its moral grounding, its openness, its fierce commitment to observance, its fidelity to mitzvot and its honesty against anything else I have seen.
Maybe instead of a funeral, it's time to study harder and plan for a Bat-Mitzvah.