I can't say that it came as a surprise to hear that an uproar resulted in some circles from my recent article in Moment Magazine showing how the Conservative movement's theology is at stark odds with its actions, and calling on members of its laity to re-evaluate their identification with a movement faithful to Jewish religious law (halacha) in name alone. But the angry and oddly personal nature of the response thus far from Conservative leaders, not to mention their studious avoidance of the very real issues I raised, was unexpected. It is also very sad, and telling.
Part of the animus is due, perhaps, to the unfortunately incendiary title the magazine gave my piece. Instead of my own choice, "Time To Come Home," Moment decided to crown the article with a large, bold banner headline reading: "The Conservative Lie."
All the same, the piece itself is, admittedly, provocative, laying out as it does not only examples of the blatantly agenda-driven "halachic process" of the Conservative movement but open admission of the same by a number of Conservative leaders.
My purpose, though, was not provocation for provocation's sake, but to generate honest and serious introspection among my fellow Jews who affiliate with the Conservative movement.
Introspection, however, does not appear to be on the Conservative leadership's agenda.
"A nasty diatribe" is how Rabbi Alan Silverstein, president of the World Council of Masorti/Conservative Synagogues, characterized my article, which is neither remotely nasty nor diatribe (check it out at momentmag.com). "Let us," he announces hopefully, "marginalize strident voices like that of Avi Shafran."
"Does [Rabbi Shafran] really think that the masses of Conservative Jews are going to... run out and join his little shtibl?" mocks Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who also accuses me of hypocrisy for having dared critique his movement while claiming at the same time to care about Jewish unity.
Rabbi Steven Bayar, of Congregation B'nei Israel in Millburn, New Jersey, renders his own judgment that by writing what I did, I must be trying to make myself "look good by making others look bad." He then confidently declares that I surely have not brought as many Jews closer to our tradition as he has. He then goes on to reassure readers of the New Jersey Jewish News that he simply will not allow the evidence laid out in my article to bother him. "I'm not going to lose sleep over it," he says contentedly. "I consider the source and I don't expect anything different."
For his part, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, sees in my having raised substantive issues and presented serious questions about Conservative decisions that my claim to be an "ohev Yisrael," one who loves fellow Jews, is clearly nothing but a "guise."
Though all the intemperate reactions are disturbing, that last assertion carries particular irony. Because ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is precisely why I wrote my piece.
Consider a family, which is precisely how all we Jews are to view ourselves. Were one to witness a beloved family member being misled - even by another member of the clan - about, say, a financial investment or a medical course of action, what would true familial love and concern dictate? Ignoring the situation? Pretending it didn't exist?
What any caring, concerned parent or child or sibling or cousin would do, of course, is address the less-informed relative, calmly and clearly, and lay o ut the pertinent facts and dangers. Indeed, the closer the relation, the more urgent the effort to provide the loved one with accurate information. And if the threat was to something even greater than finances or physical health, the response would be proportionately forthright.
While some, like Rabbi Bayar, may choose to not let the facts bother them, they are nevertheless clear: The Conservative movement - which tells Jews sincerely interested in observing Jewish religious law that halacha permits, among other things, traveling by car on the Sabbath, mixed-seating at prayer, marriages forbidden by the Torah and acceptance of homosexual relations as an acceptable alternative lifestyle - baldly misrepresents both the letter and spirit of the Jewish religious heritage.
Now, I could certainly keep that observation private, convince myself that politeness trumps truth here, that no one will likely listen anyway, and that speaking up simply isn't worth the resultant rain of animus and insults from offended Jewish leaders. But I chose - and choose - to dispense with convenient excuses and act from something deeper: my love and concern for my precious fellow Jews. Many of them, egged on by their leaders, may indeed reject my words and choose to ignore the evidence, but that affords me no moral basis for withholding vital truths, no matter how uncomfortable they might be.
Were all the Conservative movement's leaders (rather than those I quoted in my article alone) to admit, as have Reform leaders, that they simply do not consider halacha binding, I would hardly be happy with the presentation to Jews of an "ahalachic" religious option. They would be guilty, to be sure, of attempting to change the nature of Judaism, but not of misrepresenting what they are doing. When, however, some Conservative leaders tell their congregants - my precious brothers and sisters - that they can be fully assured that the movement of their affiliation is truly faithful to the halachic method, I cannot in good conscience and concern for my fellow Jews simply allow the blatant misrepresentation to stand unchallenged.
When Catholics and Protestants, or Sunnis and Shi'ites, present mutually exclusive perspectives on the legacy of Christianity or Islam, I am happy to be securely "pluralistic" and allow them all equal legitimacy. Because the protagonists, though I wish them all well, are not my flesh and blood. But when the Jewish religious heritage is twisted, I do not feel I can afford the luxury of "hey-who-cares-anyway pluralism" - not if there is true ahavat Yisrael in my heart. My family's soul and future are at stake.
Rabbi Epstein may be right that most Conservative Jews will not likely be spurred by my article to embrace halacha (what he means, presumably, by my "shtibl"). But if even one Jew indeed comes to realize that halacha is not Silly Putty, that we Jews are here to do G-d's will, not to ascribe our own wills to Him, it will have been well worth all the anger and insults of outraged Conservative rabbis.
I personally know many once-Conservative (and Reform, and secular) Jews who are now fully and happily halacha-observant. I've even written a biography - "Migrant Soul: The Story of an American Ger" (Targum/Feldheim) - of two such people, a once-secular Jewish feminist and her then-non-Jewish, mixed-race husband.
They and others like them were also told for years to marginalize the Orthodox perspective, and to ignore evidence like the facts I cited in Moment. But they had the temerity to not listen, and instead explored. Sampling Orthodox books and tapes and websites, entering Orthodox shuls and homes (yes, Rabbi Bayar, not a few of them my own home), they encountered not only warmth and love, but Jewish consistency in the form of uncompromising dedication to halacha. In time, they came to objectively regard both the facts of history and the Orthodox community, and realized that their personal Jewish futures - as well as the collective Jewish Future - are entirely dependent on honest and selfless engagement with the fullness of the Jewish past.
My detractors are free to imagine what they like about me, free to vilify me if it helps them sleep soundly at night. But it was out of deep concern and love for all the sincere and trusting Conservative Jews who have not yet considered the facts about their movement and halacha that I penned my Moment piece.
I pray with all my heart that they be strong and honest, that they not let some Jewish leaders' ugly words prevent them from actually weighing, and acting on, those facts.
I pray, in other words, that they come to realize, despite all the noise and anger and umbrage-taking, that Jewish words like "Torah" and "halacha", have historical meanings, and that it is indeed time to come home.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American director of Am Echad]
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