On My Mind: Arnie Eisen


/15 Iyyar, 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

What does Conservative Judaism stand for?

To me, that question is better phrased, “Where do we stand, and with whom?” The answer, to Conservative Judaism, has been clear. We are the heirs to the Jewish story that began, according to Torah, with Abraham and Sarah. We stand at Sinai, with every previous generation of the children of Israel, and reaffirm the promises made there to God, to one another, and to the world. I believe—humbly but firmly—that the Sinai Covenant continues in 2011/5771 through us. Participation in the set of relationships set forth in Covenant adds immeasurably to the meaning and purpose of our lives. The fact that the Covenant at Sinai established a people simultaneously with a relationship to the Holy One stands at the heart of Conservative Judaism today and in the future.

Featured Respondents

Dr. Benjamin D. SommerBenjamin D. Sommer

“Chancellor Eisen’s discussion of covenant begins with Abraham and Sarah and, in the very next sentence, mentions Sinai. From the viewpoint of biblical scholarship, this is appropriate because the Torah tells us that God created not one but two covenants with the Jewish people. The first, described in Genesis, is a one-sided covenant; all the responsibilities are on God’s side. God promises that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah will become a great nation, will inherit the land of Canaan, and will endure. Scholars refer to this as the covenant of grant or grace, since God unilaterally grants land and continuity to a people.”
Read More

Meredith Berkman Meredith Berkman

“As children, we naturally accept the religion of our parents. Born to a father who self-identified as a Conservative Jew, and a Jewish mother who proudly labelled herself a strong agnostic, I chose the path of patrilineal spiritual lineage. I attended weekly Shabbat and holiday services with my father and sisters; became a bat-mitzvah at our Conservative shul (reading from the haftarah but not the Torah); was married by my family’s Conservative rabbi who presided over my daughters’ baby namings, my son’s brit milah, and my mother’s funeral.” Read More

Rabbi David SteinhardtRabbi David Steinhardt

“Whenever questioned, “What does Conservative Judaism believe about . . . ” I recall a homiletics class in 1980 with Dr. Simon Greenberg (z”l), one of the giants of twentieth-century Jewry and certainly the Conservative movement. To paraphrase, he said the following: Conservative Judaism will never create passion as a movement because it stands in the middle. Rather, always understand that Conservative Judaism reflects a critical way of understanding text and a reasonable way to live one’s life. Conservative Judaism, he said, is a way to be in the larger world and live as a proud Jew.” Read More

That double covenant means, first and most importantly, that life as a Jewish human being is given ultimate meaning. For reasons that mere mortals will never understand, but for which practicing Jews are profoundly grateful, the Creator of the universe seeks human assistance in completing the work of Creation. The world is not good enough as it is, the Torah insists, and you and I can make it better. All of us are needed for this task: Jews and non-Jews, men and women, old and young. Everything that each and every one of us brings to the task is required: the sum total of our diverse experiences and learning, our skills and our relationships, our intelligence and our passion, all the arts and all the sciences: all our hearts, all our souls, all our might.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, who spent much of his career teaching at The Jewish Theological Seminary, well captured the wonder and consequence of this divine-human partnership for the meaning of individual lives in the titles of two of his best-known books: Man is not alone. God [is] in search of man. Judaism provides a life-giving answer to what he called the “vital, personal question which every human being is called upon to answer, day in day out. What shall I do with my mind, my wealth, my power?”

There is no doubt that Jews continue to turn to Judaism in search of such meaning and purpose. I am a devoted Conservative Jew largely because, time and again, I have been vouchsafed the precious experience of meaning in Conservative auspices; I have long been shaped by the conviction, central to Conservative Judaism, that the Jewish part of my self need not be—indeed, should not be—separate from the rest of who I am. The Torah demands and offers wholeness; in our day it requires all that 21st-century men and women can bring to the task. Thanks in part to that conviction, imbued in me since childhood, my love of family and friends is inextricably intertwined with love of God and Torah.

A second continuing consequence of Covenant is that Judaism has always been more than religion, even as religion has always been an integral part of Judaism. Jews are not defined as a church or sect. Rather, the Torah establishes Israel as “a kingdom,” “a nation,” “a people.” As important as religious belief is to Judaism, it is not everything, and, arguably, is not the main thing. The Torah aims to impact the entirety of life, individual and collective, not merely the aspect of it that other scriptures and traditions call “religion.” It offers a way, called mitzvah, that—if we walk it diligently—guides and impacts all of life.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, another great figure in JTS’s history, captured an important truth about Torah’s insistence that Judaism is far more than “religion” when he famously defined Judaism as a civilization in his great book by that title (1934). He knew that Judaism had always included aspects of life that went beyond “religion” in the normal sense of the word: history, language, literature, folk-customs, communal organizations, and intimate connection to the Land of Israel. Kaplan wanted to assure Jews whose doubts about God barred the way to faith that Judaism held an honored place for them.

This point bears repeating today. Individuals enter Conservative auspices from differing backgrounds and bearing differing needs. All of our institutions should reflect this, even while offering Jews the pleasure and meaning that come from acting, worshipping, and talking together, as one caring community of Torah.

It follows that Conservative communities must be more than synagogues, and our synagogues must offer more than worship. Our form of Judaism is well-known for the quality of ritual observances and life-cycle celebrations; the tone set for family relations in Conservative homes; the leadership roles accorded to women as well as men both on and off the bimah; and for the distinctive tenor of Conservative conversation as it moves back and forth from ancient sources to contemporary politics, Hebrew to English, Shabbat zemirot to rock music and jazz. There is an intangible but notable warmth in our shuls and schools that comes from comfort with Judaism and one another. At our best, Conservative Jews exhibit a quiet confidence that living fully in this century and its culture at the same time as we immerse ourselves in Jewish tradition is what Torah wants us to do.

That confidence is crucial to our future; it is the key to successful Conservative communities (the topic of the next post in this series) and goes hand in hand with the sense that you and I—every bit as much as Jewish ancestors—are part of a Reality and Purpose far larger than ourselves, longer than our life-span, wider than our mind can reach. Heschel said it eloquently: The Torah poses a question to which our life here and now “can be the spelling of an answer.” Conservative Judaism is the most compelling interpretation of Torah that I know, a precious word in the conversation begun at Sinai, guiding covenantal work that only our generation can perform.

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  1. Josh says:

    While I agree with most everything you have written, I think it is what is not written that underlines the key, I would not say problem, rather issue facing conservative Judaism.

    If you were to replace the word “Conservative” with “Reform” or even “Reconstructionist”, what was written would no less be true.  Conservative Judaism may stand for this duality between Torah and Secular or all aspects of the self, but this distinction is not what stands for Conservative Judaism. 

    In a changing American Jewish landscape where people are seeking  the hyper personal Judaism, is simply stating what the movement stands for enough? How do you define a movement without alienating a segment of the population you wish to attract when such a large segment is in a theological flux? At the same time how do you sustain a movement without setting those specific and structured definitions of what Conservative Judaism is?

    Every Chancellor has had a definition of Conservative Judaism.  In the past these definitions have led the Conservative Jew to still ask “What does Conservative Judaism mean to the movement?” Today it leads the Conservative Jew to ask “What does Conservative Judaism mean to me?” Either way the definitions supplied were never enough to actually define.

    The question we should be asking is, is a smaller movement with a clear definition worth more or less then a larger one with a vague definition? And which is the most sustainable for the long run?

    • Daniel Aldouby says:

      Another question might be “Who is a Jew?”  As with the spiderweb Rabbis had to untangle during the 1490s and following decades, so we wrestle among the different branches of Judaism in order to cling to Halachah, yet wrestle with our knowledge of this time in our history.  My  layman’s answer to this question might be –A Jew is a person who says she/he is Jewish and does what Jews should do.  This type of person, in the vernacular is called a “mensch”.  I believe that this word is genderless and describes a person who helps in “Tikun Olam.   If a person claims to be Jewish and does Jewish, that person is a Jew.  Smaller movement, larger movement-each movement, if it contributes to menschlichkiet is a spoke in the wheel of Kaplan’s catholic Judaism.

    • Michael J Doniger says:

      Chancellor –

      With all due respect, I must agree with Josh.  With the exception of the second to last paragraph, the essay is applicable to any branch of Judaism.  I also feel it misses the root cause of the decline of many conservative communities.

      Below is a an alternate approach to what sets a conservative community apart:

      Conservative Judaism centers itself around a culture of continuous learning providing access to the diverse cross-section of modern Jews and enabling increasingly spiritual, personal relationships with G – d via structured egalitarian services, creative family prayer settings, musical expression and insightful educational experiences – for young and old – based on traditional Jewish philosophy.
       – Based on my fairly extensive travel (US and International) and participation in a number of Jewish communities across the full range of traditional to liberal, large to small, sucessful to struggling.

      • Yonatan says:

        Dear Michael,

        Your definition for conservative Judaism reads like a suitable description for the Re-constructionist, Reform, Conservative and even the liberal Orthodox streams. 
        I feel like the main difference between the movements is, as has been written before, their different approaches towards Halacha. 
        Maybe what makes it hard to define the movements by this standard is that unlike in the Orthodox movement, maybe members of the more open streams are not really obliged to adhere to jewish law- norms concerning jewish law may be seen more as “soft” recommendations. Now how can you define a movement by it’s take on Halacha if its members don’t necessarily follow it’s relevant teachings? 

    • Martin in Houston says:

      First of all let me commend Chancellor Eisen for initiating this blog, in view of the current crisis in Conservative Judaism.  I agree with Josh that we need a better definition of the Conservative Judaism even if this translates into fewer congregations and fewer members.  Both the essay of Chancellor  Eisen and the recent 

      ”mission/vision “ work of  the the USJC leave me wondering whether anyone is able or willing to define what Conservative Judaism is; my impression is that who we are has become less clear over time.  We are so intent on not offending anybody that we are afraid to state in any definitive way what we really stand for or expect.

      While the lack of ritual observance of many (most?) members of conservative congregations is clearly an issue, this does not mean that the movement should not lay out clearer expectations and standards.  It’s because of our lack of clarity that our congregants are defecting either to Reform or to Orthodoxy.  What do we want for Conservative Judaism: a slow decline because we can’t figure out who we are, or a potentially smaller movement that  represents something of substance?

  2. David Rosen says:

    I am delighted to see this new blog and commend JTS and Chancellor Eisen for initiating it. It is precisely what we need in order to have a meaningful conversation about the future of our movement. Rav todot!

  3. For me the critical question is whether Conservative Judaism  has a defining mission within the overall context of the meaning of Judaism.  Is it one of what I have called the Re(x) movements (Reform, Reconstruction, Renewal, etc.).  Orthodoxy, which is itself a conglomeration, defines its mission as preservation of ways of behavior handed down by the Holy One from Sinai on.  Both streams assume the mandate, but how does Conservatism define its mission within that mandate?  Re(x) movements preserve by renewal, Orthodoxy preserves by literal continuity, what does Conservatism do?  In my writings (http://www.philiprichman.com), I argue that renewal/preservation must derive primarily from a spiritual source.  Is Conservatism merely a collection of sentiments, propensities and forms of self identification that have come together in the same place, like LA, or is there a there there?  What’s the core message?

  4. Stephen Cohen says:

    While it may be broad-minded for Conservative Judaism to claim to be a “big-tent” Judaism, in the real world it cannot. There are some congregations that refuse to be egalitarian. There is a pressure from the top that doing more rituals is somehow “better” for me (I reject that–what I do is fine for me, and I don’t need guilt, and guilt is not a mitzvah). I also reject the notion that Conservative Judaism is “best”. It is what it is, and satisfies a group of people, but clearly not all Jews. Better, I claim, that the various sects of Judaism are like the blind men touching the elephant: Each finds a true aspect of our nationality (and its official religion) but misses something vital. Orthodoxy usually has a very close-knit group, which is positive, but the ritualistic baggage is a problem. Conservative tries to be everything to everyone, but there is no way for that to be a real solution. Reform stands up for equality and diversity, but forgets that there is no clear distinction between rituals and morals. Reconstructionism (ironically quoted above!) got the civilization part correct, but somehow fails to recognize that chosenhood does not equal “superior”.

    How about if we all agree to be Jews, and not insist on putting us in boxes? There are precious few of us already to be subdivided.

    • Jordan Goodman says:

       Shalom Stephen,

      So what does it mean “to be Jews” beyond an accident of birth, anti anti semitism and political liberalism? Why should one be a Jew? 



  5. Jeff Dielle says:

    The last sentence of Dr. Eisen’s first paragraph treats the “Sinai Covenant” as a discrete, historical event.  I would contend that many Jews, myself included, would reject that conclusion.  

    • Reuben Berman says:

      The Chancellor does not present Sinai as a historical moment, but rather, as a theological point. It seems like Sinai serves as a prominent metaphor for our formation as a people, not a literal moment in time, and it is for that reason that every Jew was standing there when the covenant at Sinai was made, because in every generation we continue to affirm the identical bond between ourselves, the people, and G-d.

  6. Larry Kaufman says:

    I find it interesting that in Chancellor Eisen’s statement there is no mention of Halacha, nor is there in two of the the three featured responses.  (The third mentions a commitment to Halacha, without defining what that means.)  If I, as someone who identifies as a Reform Jew, can  define Halacha in a Reform way, there is nothing in any of these statements that I can’t enthusiastically sign on to. 

    Does the failure to define how Conservative Judaism differs from Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism mean that, in essence, it doesn’t?  I see no difference in the lifestyles of my many friends who identify as Conservative Jews, other than that I go to services every Shabbat and they don’t. 

    If the only differences are the handling of liturgy and the expectations for rabbinic observance of kashrut and Shabbat, why be so intent on maintaining a singularity which doesn’t seem to exist on “the street?” 

    • Jacob Taber says:

       And yet, aside from a passing reference to egalitarianism, there’s little here that a Modern Orthodox Jew can’t sign onto with equal enthusiasm.

      • Jeff says:

        Jacob, You raise a most interesting point.  I sent an e-mail to Dr. Eisen directly, hoping that he might address this most obvious of issues.  So far, only silence from him.

  7. R. Konigsburg says:

    The enigma of Conservative Judaism is not in its philosophy, it is in the way that philosophy is applied in the area of Halacha and personal living. How important is Halacha? What are the essential rules of Halacha that interpret what we do and how we are to do it? Is Halacha a legal system that overrides our other feelings of fairness and equality so we can support that which we feel “God” wants us to do? Or do we say that there is an underlying morality to Halacha that enables us to change laws that come to fall outside what is generally accepted moral boundaries?  The Chancellor has set the general agreement over what our movement is about but the real issues are still waiting for discussion.

  8. Jonathan Loring says:

    To me Rabbi Adam Frank said it best, “Most of my Orthodox friends really are Conservative and most of my Conservative friends are not.”. I wonder if there is any plan within Conservative Judaism to remedy this reality.

    • Guest says:

      Well observed. I once heard that the JTS rabbinical school trains Orthodox rabbis to serve Conservative congregations populated by Reform Jews. As a former JTS student, that is still my experience.

  9. Anonymous says:

    In my opinion to be a good Jew, a person needs to do three things on a regular basis :  pray, study Torah, and perform acts of kindness.   

  10. howard says:

    Commenting solely based on the first of a series of articles is akin to asking after hearing the first of the Ten Commandments, “is that the whole megilla?”. 

  11. Anonymous says:

    I would like to know the Conservative Movement’s position on what constitutes egalitarianism in the synagogue.  Are women expected to put on a tallit when reciting the brachot for an aliyah or when performing g’llilah? Does a bat-mitzvah put on a tallit when reading the Torah and chanting the haftarah?  I’m aware that ritual may take second place to other aspects of Conservative Judaism, but what is the latter’s interpretation of Kavod l’torah? 

  12. Daniel Aldouby says:

    A Jew is a person who worries about little things which happen every minute.  We worry about the Rightness or Wrongness of how we live and what we do.  We even classify “evil acts” using many words viz. chet, aveyrah, “a shandeh”, etc.  Good and evil are not what we perceive as existing separately from human action.  However, maybe we should also look at specific acts in terms of absolute good/evil.  I wonder if the great teachers of the Talmud were sitting around today studying the law and its meaning in everyday life, would they define an agunah, whose husband disappeared during the holocaust quite as strictly as they did in days of yore?  Would they accept patrilinear descent as “Kosher”?  It appears to me that adhering to a fence around the law may be necessary, but every fence needs a gate.  Instead, some Jews have, not only locked the gate, but have electrified the fence and placed an eruv around it.  The ancient sages were wise in that one of their precepts was “Go out and see what the people are doing!”  I see no difference in the halachic stance of any of the branches of Judaism.  They all define “mitzva” and “tikun olam” slightly differently, but it that works for the Jews of those congregations, then Kaplan’s umbrella covers them beautifully.  Even if one does not believe in the literal revelation at Sinai, I know that whatever happened there happened to me because within me reside the genes of those who left Egypt, wandered, and settled in our land, built the Temple, and brought a marvelous vision of deity into this world.  I was there.  Who else, but a Jew would dare to question, to argue with the creator, while at the same time reciting the Kedushah?
    The Good/Evil enigma is ever present with us and our attempt to learn the law, and to argue about it with each other and Hashem is not only our burden, but our glory.  

  13. Jordan Goodman says:

     Shalom All,


    That which used to be the sole provenance of non orthodox
    synagogue membership is available for free, online or ala carte at far less
    cost. Other than for a life cycle event, or an occasional high holiday worship
    service, most non orthodox Jews couldn’t care less one way or another about Judaism, its movements nor its synagogues as places that provide the opportunity for Jewish community,
    whatever that might mean.


    Other than political liberalism, anti anti semitism and an accident of birth,
    there is no meaningful agreed upon articulation of non-orthodox Judaism. A standing joke about Reform (and I would add the other non Orthodox movements as well) has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. The
    non orthodox movements and their synagogues will eventually go the way of the
    Catskills and the Jewish Deli, sadly for the same reason: irrelevance. The
    further away we get from the Eastern European immigrant experience, the more
    irrelevant Jewish ethno-cultural markers become for most Jews. Quite simply,
    nostalgia is insufficient as an engine for Jewish continuity.


    Clara Peller zl’ of “Wendy’s” fame had it right when she
    famously asked:




    The irony is not lost on me that a Pastrami sandwich from
    the slowly dying Jewish Deli: 




    juxtaposed with Clara Peller’s question (which clearly,
    crisply, concisely and compellingly frames the non Orthodox status quo’s inability to connect with the majority of Jews),
    represents a metaphor for what needs to be rediscovered in order to create a meaningful
    contemporary non Orthodox Judaism. Her last line “I don’t think there’s anyone
    back there,” is spot on. Based on measurable results, the status quo (of which Dr. Eisen’s post and most of the responses are yet more permutations) is broken
    and beyond repair, and visionary leadership toward a passion producing picture of a preferred future seems nowhere
    to be found. KIng Solomon had it right when he wrote: “In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained.”  Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18


    Non orthodox Judaism (not to be confused with
    peoplehood/ethno-cultural Jewishness), must be re-envisioned, retooled, and
    re-engineered to become a relevant, practical, application oriented way of life
    that is consonant with the 21rst century reality that Jews find themselves a
    part of. Rabbis and other Jewish teachers must let prospective congregants know
    through bimah teaching, other educational efforts and experiential opportunities that indeed, they have
    walked or are walking in their prospects’ moccasins. They must give folks
    answers to the questions, “Why Judaism? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?”


    Then and only then can one even begin to think about an
    effective delivery system. Will this be the non orthodox synagogue? Who knows?

    Shabbat Shalom/Shavu’a Tov




  14. Anonymous says:

    “If we can hear the words from Sinai,  Then love will flow from us;  and we shall serve all that is holy with all our intellect and all our passion and all our life.  
      Adapted from a poem by Rabbi Richard Levy. 

  15. Mike Krampner says:

    The central idea captured here is that there is no division between the religious and all other aspects of life. That is an idea which has fallen out of favor in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish world.

    • kidchicago says:

      Mike, you are right on!!!!!!!!!! The sentiment expressed above is truly old world, and smacks of “Today, I am a fountain pen”!!!!!!!!!!!!. The 21st Century
      and beyond most certainly are times in which we, as human beings, and not as
      Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddists,etc find our real common denominators on
      this planet.

  16. Shatterproof says:

    While I am a member of a Conservative Jewish Synagogue, I found nothing in this essay that would not have applied to a member of a Reform, Orthodox or Chabad unit.  Why are we Conservative Jewis? 

  17. Fred Passman says:

    Shabbat a week ago, after enjoying a conversation with the rabbi of a Kehillah I was visiting, I was reflecting on the conversation and the upcoming USCJ SULAM leadership retreat for incoming congregational presidents.  For the past two years’ I’ve been recommending to congregational leadership teams (clergy, other professionals and board members) that they spend serious time articulating their Kehilla’s norms, and then make every effort to exemplify those norms.  Last Shabbat it dawned on me that the first –perhaps most urgent – question with which congregational leadership teams should grapple is: “Why Torah?”  Of course this is probably a question on which we should spend time reflecting daily. “Why Torah” implicitly includes questions of Mitzvot and how we as a community respond to Mitzvot.  Those responses become the norms of our communities.  Apropos of  Shatterproof’s comment that Chancellor Eisen’s essay offers nothing to distinguish Conservative Judaism from other movements, I suggest it’s the process of entering into CJ as individuals and subsequently grappling with the concept of covenant and Mitzvot as a community that differentiate us from other approaches to Judaism.  The conversation initiated by the Mitzvah Initiative reflects this.   Once our lay leadership, under the tutelage of our clergy, take ownership of  these issues their example coupled with a natural ripple effect plus some inspirational leadership will inevitably help our congregations grow as sacred communities.   

  18. Rustin Shenkman says:

    I always love hearing from Dr./Chancellor Eisen. But I don’t expect to experience Arnie’s divrei chochmah the next time I venture into a Conservative shul. I expect to be asked whether I am a Cohen or have a yahrtzeit but no other conversation until I leave. I expect to wonder if I am the youngest adult in attendance and if I remember seeing any strollers. I expect I’ll want to visit a different shul next time I’m in town. Should it be so hard to upset such low expectations?

  19. Rebecca H. says:

    Dear Chancellor Eisen and Fellow Commentators,

    Thank you for this blog. It is in good taste, and a timely initiative. Over the
    past handful of days, I have thought about your article a lot, as well as the
    responses of commentators here. However, I must say, I take issue with some of the commentators’
    responses to the essay.


    Commentator Josh alleges that the Chancellor’s essay could
    be applicable to any Jewish movement.


    I assert that Conservative Jews are reading the Chancellor’s
    words differently than Reform and Orthodox Jews due to a fundamentally
    different internal anchor point on theological matters. It is not necessarily what
    we believe that distinguishes us, but how we believe it. I would further
    point out that a Reform writer would have included Social Justice and/or being a
    Light Unto Nations in this essay, while an Orthodox writer would have promoted
    social cohesion through the homogenous observance of halachah. Orthodoxy and
    Reform Judaism would include these concepts because those paths are their
    primary way of fulfilling the covenants with God.


    Chancellor Eisen, if I understand correctly, advocates a
    Peoplehood of breadth in halachic observance. I think he seeks homogeneity and
    unity in our attitude toward tradition (at the minimum both respect for, and
    emotional attachment to, observance), and balancing it with modernity (finding
    room for women in leadership, and the GLBT community in general)


    In Orthodox Judaism, membership is strictly observance defined.
    Attitudes and intentions matter greatly, but are not subject to scrutiny for
    the purpose of membership. Arguably, Reform Judaism takes the opposite tactic.
    Attitudes and Intentions are heavily scrutinized whereas halachic observance is
    a definitively second tier concern (at best).


    This essay made me wonder if we can look at the reality of
    the Conservative Jewish demographic, and come to the conclusion that
    Conservative Judaism fundamentally asserts (in its refusal to forsake either of
    its more observant and less observant congregants) that attitudes matter as
    much as actions to God. Not that they be balanced in a way that would be
    comfortable for an Orthodox Jew (wherein you must observe to stay a member no
    matter how out-of-whack you feel) or for a Reform Jew (wherein expression of
    religious zeal is relentlessly shunted toward activism of some type- and
    misgivings would undermine membership), but that they be co-equal, no matter
    the result in expression. 


    Or, as commentator Fred Passman writes much more succinctly,
    “it’s the process of entering into CJ as individuals and subsequently grappling
    with the concept of covenant and Mitzvot as a community that differentiate us
    from other approaches to Judaism.” 


    If Conservative Menschkeit demands equality in action and
    attitude, then it makes sense that we also assert that one’s attitudes,
    intentions, and observance should work in tandem at all times- again, with whatever
    observance level results.


    In the halachic diversity within Conservative communities,
    do we choose to see a fundamental valuing of spiritual honesty in our co-religionists
    prioritized over the satisfaction of seeing a level of observance in others that any
    individual Conservative would consider Right and Proper?


    Would this be consistent with our simultaneous acceptance of
    academic biblical scholarship and traditional rabbinic understandings?


    A friend once told me that they thought Conservative Judaism
    was the Movement that values the journey more than the result. They thought
    that Conservative Judaism stands in the only place that deep honesty (not to be
    confused with earnestness and sincerity- the province of all) can stand: in the
    middle, witness to all thoughts, factors, and ideas. Subject to all the tug of
    war, and heir to all its glory.


    Is it for the sake of this honesty that Conservative Judaism
    differentiates itself from the other Movements? Is this enough to counter Philip’s
    challenge, “Is Conservatism merely a collection of sentiments, propensities and
    forms of self identification that have come together in the same place, like
    LA, or is there a there there?  What’s the core message?” Is a demand for
    rigorous spiritual honesty, co-equal living of observance and attitude, and
    fundamentally valuing wide breadth of observance levels among adherents enough of a there?


    I think it could be.   

  20. H D Uriel Smith says:

    This covenantal view of Judaism is comfortable with the new Catholic view which states that God never overrides a covenant once it is made. A covenant may include the punishments for breaking it, as we have read in the last parashah, B’huqqotai. As a result, the punishments may make it seem that the covenant has been overriden, even though it has not.
    It is in opposition to the Supercessionist view that the covenant can be overridden by a new covenant. This was the old Catholic view, and it is still maintained by some Protestant communities. We will disagree with this Christian view, but we recognize that this view can form a basis for dialogue. 
    There is no means for dialogue with the Calvinist view that the old covenants were the New Covenant through Christ just in a different form. This latter view, however, does not fit the plain meaning of the Biblical text.
    We can have dialogues with people with completely different perspectives, but we first need to understand the plain meaning of what they claim.
    This view, however, will have dfficulties with perspectives such as the materialist ones, which do not recognize any covenants.

  21. Avi Hoffman says:

    “At our best, Conservative Jews exhibit a quiet confidence that living fully in this century and its culture at the same time as we immerse ourselves in Jewish tradition is what Torah wants us to do.” 
    I fail to see how Soccer practice or Golf on Shabbat Afternoon (Culture) is consistent with what the Torah wants. 

    • Guest says:

      I also fail to see how the Chancellor’s attendance at a mixed marriage on Shabbos is what the Torah wants.

    • Rebecca H. says:

      Is it people driving to soccer practice that bothers you? The possibility that they are carrying water bottles? The physical activity itself?  The time not spent in front of a book (secular? religious?)? Are you asserting that in your experience these pursuits are synonymous with a lack of spiritual ones?

      The point you are making is unclear. Please clarify what you are taking issue with.

  22. Gary Goldberg says:

    There is a very interesting convergence taking place between theology and secular philosophy (specifically phenomenology) that has occurred in the philosophical work of Emmanuel Levinas and those who have followed Levinas’s lead.  Levinas has effectively created a bridge between the secular and the religious that develops around the concept of covenantal relationship and how we bring the sacred into our lives through the choices that we make in the context of covenantal obligation.  That we can only truly be free if we assume responsibility for each other’s welfare.  That the needs and requirements of the Other precede our own and that, in fact, we define our own existence in terms of how we relate to the Other.  In other words, Being (existence) is secondary to relationship (ethics).  Ethics precedes Ontology.  By linking Levinas and the phenomenology of human relationship (particularly that unique experience that occurs when two human beings communicate in a face-to-face context), to the obligations that we have to the Other (made explicit in the commitment to existence within the boundaries of Covenant), we arrive at a “way of being,” a “mode of existence” that is unique and not defined in specific terms of belief, but purely in experiential terms.  Being Jewish is not a matter of belief but a matter of embracing a Covenantal “mode of existence” based fundamentally on Love of the Other–ie. attunement to the needs of the Other.  Levinas calls us to recognize that we must “Love the Other as ourselves”, but that, in fact, “Love the Other is ourselves”.  That is, we reach out toward the Infinite and define our own existence in terms of the relationships that we establish with the Other. 
    To unpack this, if you are interested, consider settling in with a couple of key books:
    1.  Richard M. Cohen’s “Levinasian Meditations:  Ethics, Philosophy and Religion”
    2.  Michael Fagenblat’s “A Covenant of Creatures:  Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism”

    See also the writings of Rabbi Ira Stone linking Emmanuel Levinas to a modern philosophy of Judaism.

    For me, it is in this convergence between a theological stance that informs daily existence (i.e. how we choose to act), and secular philosophy (that is, how we view our existence in the world in a secular context), that Conservative Judaism should seek its bearings.

  23. Phil Kruger says:

    I agree that there will always be Conservative Jews, and by that I mean people who believe that adherence to Jewish law is an obligation and not a choice while at the same time being open to a critical view of Torah and Jewish history.  Where I may differ with Chancellor Eisen is that I am as yet unconvinced that the existence of Conservative Jews necessarily requires a Conservative Judaism, that is a national or international movement with all that goes with it.  Perhaps something other than a full-fledged religious denomination would better serve the interest of all non-haredi Jews in Israel and elsewhere.  Has the idea of religious movements come and gone?

    • Rebecca H. says:

      ….I think it depends on how accepting the movements to either side of us are in each place where Jews live. Do you feel that Reform communities often and easily accept observant members? Do you feel non-haredi Orthodox communities often and easily accept those who relate to the Tanach in a more historically critical way, or those steeped in non-Ashkenazi cultures (or non-Sephardi cultures, as the case may be)? I don’t ask rhetorically- I really would like to know your experience on this.

      • Mike S says:

        I have been davvening with a self-proclaimed “non-judgmental [mostly non-Charedi] minyan” for the past 6 months.  There are occasionally a few Chassidim – relatives who are visiting for Shabbat.  I am the only one, as far as I know, who drives – consistently with the “Roth Chuvah” – on Shabbat.  The non-judgmental nature of our relationship cuts both ways: they (except for one member who finds my attendance troubling) accept me, and I accept them (coincidently, except for that same person…).  The davvening is strong, with nothing held back, and I am getting more out of my teffilot now than I have in the past year.  The d’vrei Torah that I have given cover the same sorts of inyanim – and with the same approach to “”critical scholarship” that I would give in my Conservative synagogue.  My sense is that my new minyan likes the perspective.  My  sense is also that part of this acceptance stems from the fact that (although the level of scholarship is generally  high and some of the hevra have s’micha) there is no rav.

        Shul goers of all stripes vote with their feet.  If more people got more out of attending Conservative prayer services, attendance in Conservative shuls  would be much stronger and more dynamic than it generally is.

        Judaism is a team sport.  But it’s made up of individuals.  If you try to be true to yourself and accepting of others, anyone has a chance, in turn, of being accepted in a comminuity with different minhagim.

  24. D** says:

    For those who have a copy of Etz Hayim handy, take a look at “Medieval and Modern Theories of Revelation” by Rabbi Elliot Dorf (p. 1399).  In particular, read his discussion of Franz Rosenzweig (pages 1401 to 1403).  As far as I’m concerned, this is what Conservative Judaism is all about.  I’m not sure if this was Dorf’s intent, but his words–which should be spread far and wide–could perhaps be thought of as a clear description as to how Conservative Judaism differs from Reform and Reconstructionism. 

    For those who don’t have a copy handy, I’ll quote a portion of Rabbi Dorf’s article:

    Rosenzweig agreed with his friend Buber that revelation is not a matter of God speaking words: it is rather what we lean about God from ongoing encounters with Him.  “All that God ever reveals in revelation is revelation . . . .  He reveals nothing but Himself to man.”  For Rosenzweig, though, the Torah is the record of an encounter of the Jewish people with God, and, as such, each Jew is obligated to keep the commandments that he or she can.  Rosenzweig stresses that Jews are not free to choose which commandments they want to fulfill; rather, they are obligated to do whatever they can.  Sometimes we are not physically able to perform a commandment–for example, when we are ill.  Even in traditional Jewish law, under such circumstances we are not held to be at fault for failing to do what the commandment requires.  The novelty of Rosenzweig’s thesis is that he sees ability not just as a physical property but as a psychological–or, better, a relational–matter.  One’s ability to perform God’s commands, for Rosenzweig, is  primarily a function of one’s ability to feel commanded by God.  That, in turn, is a function of the depth of one’s relationship with God. 
     . . . . . . . . . . .
    Similarly, says Rosenzweig, the extent of one’s obligations to God is a function of the depth of the relationship that one has been able to cultivate with God.  Consequently, each of us will have a different level of obligation to fulfill the commandments . . . .(p. 1402)

  25. Yosef Mordechai says:

    I was just wondering if Chancellor Eisen is  referring to following the traditions and halachot of tahara-mispacha when he makes reference to family relations. These laws are succintly and clearly outline by Rabbi Isaac Klein in his book, “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” published by JTS.

  26. Lin says:

    I am grateful for this blog and the importance of identifying/defining Conservative Judaism. My synagogue is losing older members (dying, leaving town, retiring) and many younger members do not feel a responsibility to “make” the minyan on Shabbat morning. It also appears that some members are nicer and warmer to a visitor from another state than regular members, which is sad. I am excited to learn more definitions and insights. LB

  27. Sadia Abraham says:

    The problem Reform Judaism is facing is that a growing number of it’s members are becoming too Conservative to fit within traditional Reform philosophy.  Especially young people.

    The problem Conservative Judaism is facing is that a growing number of it’s members are becoming too Reform to fit into traditional Conservative philosophy.  Especially young people.

    My prediction for the future.  My hope, at least.  And I’m 25, coming from the camp of “Reform Jew who now goes to a Conservative Synagogue but still struggles with some of the Liturgy, but struggles more with the fact that virtually no one in my Reform congregation knows how to read Hebrew, or cares to know, and is getting lonely and frustrated.”

    My hope is….

    We are inches away now from there being a formal and serious discussion of the merging of the movements.  That will be one of the most exciting and energizing things in the history of American Judaism.

    In my opinion, there are now only a few core pieces of Liturgy away from a huge number of Reform Jews shifting full force into a Conservative space.  Those pieces of Liturgy are the same as they have been since the beginning of the separation between the movements.  They are prayers for the Messiah Ben David, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the notion of exile.  Regarding these three differences.

    1)  I think that these “conservative” Reform Jews have already come around regarding the notion of exile.  Some may still care.  But it’s less of an issue than people may think nowadays.  Certainly less than in the past.

    2) “Conservative” Reform Jews are still dancing with the notion of the Temple.  I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to end up in Israel, or that they don’t love Jerusalem.  I think that it is because their Judaism is closer to that of Zionist Kibbutzim who were the backbone of the formation of Israel, than they to the notion of a shining structure on a hill.  They have trouble, however, realizing that the two types of Judaism- rural, agricultural, and urban, cultic- are not inherently separate.  

    The Conservative movement should make that clear, and they should back it up with action that respects it.  Conservative Jews are almost exclusively urban.  They should start a farm, a Kibbutz, on which the movement could incubate and control, for instance, their own Kosher food program.  One that recognizes that a Conservative Jew see’s no value in a Hescher from an Orthodox food plant that pays illegal immigrants 2 bucks an hour is not, in fact, Kosher at all.

    3)  Based on the prophecy of Nathan in Kings, that there is a very real and very serious argument that the notion of a Messiah Ben David was something that was refuted to his face, in his lifetime, because he murdered someone to have sex with his wife.  He blatantly broke, in that act, 3 of the ten commandments, and had he not been King of Israel, he would have been put to death for it.  Go to Kings and read what Nathan said to David.  Read that, and then try to tell a Reform Jew who sit at the gates the Conservative movement that they are wrong to not pray for a Messiah ben David.

    This is a point that the Conservative movement may have to cave on.  It’s not in the “notion of a Messiah.”  Not about whether a person thinks the Messiah is a “person or an era”.  

    It’s because the Talmud teaches that someone’s teacher is akin to being his Father.  And I think people have a serious problem with the notion of the Messiah being Ben David, seeing as no matter how great David may have been in his youth or in his unification, he destroyed an entire Universe by full blown murdering Uriah.  The notion of our Messiah coming from that line is, to say the least, problematic.

    The Conservative movement should address that, honestly, and openly.  I think they might want to change not their notion of Messiah, but their notion of Ben David.

    Anyways- that’s my take.


  28. In the most recent essay prayer is described as yearning. I think we need more thankfulness to and praise of HaShem before expecting His response.

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