Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32
Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, said last month, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.” Spokespersons for my movement — Conservative — immediately came forward with a number of responses to this blunt prediction.
It is well known that any disputes in Judaism must be “for the sake of Heaven.” We have a commandment from this week’s Torah portion of Korach (Bamidbar [Numbers] 17:5), that says, “Do not be like Korach and his group.” Korach and his followers sought personal gain and egotistical aggrandizement.
We are taught that when we have disagreements, we should conduct them in the fashion of Hillel and Shammai — with mutual respect, and only in order to determine the correct path in life. Personal feelings were absent from their disputations (Avot 5:17). We might say that Hillel and Shammai cared about the synagogue. Korach cared about the demagogue. And he was the demagogue.
To my mind, Rabbi Lamm’s comments were for the sake of Heaven. He is a mentsch. I can’t imagine that in his 80s, after a glittering career, he is suddenly picking a gratuitous fight. So the gauntlet is legitimately — if a bit unexpectedly — thrown down. What shall I say, as a representative of Conservative Jewry?
The Conservative movement is not about to die. But it is declining in membership. And it is in need of fresh ideas.
In my opinion, the movement still acts as though we are living in the 1950s. I think that, for better or worse, people cannot sit through a Shabbat morning service for three hours. The service needs to be shortened.
The service needs to be shortened in part because people today don’t understand the Hebrew prayers. We Conservatives rightly maintain the primacy of the sacred language. But we are in dissonance because the people don’t understand Hebrew. This needs to be addressed.
We Americans are an incredibly monolingual people. We need to get it into our heads that it’s OK to learn some words of Hebrew. We need to get over this linguistic hurdle, because our lack of Hebrew separates us from 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and Jewish expression. Yes, you can pray in English. And you can study numerous Jewish books in English. And the sermon should be in English. (Yiddish hasn’t been the preacher’s language of choice in shul for over 100 years.) But the Jewish sacred form takes its shape in the Hebrew language. It’s time to recognize that.
Conservative Judaism has never been coherent in its philosophy. This too needs to be addressed.
Once upon a time, Conservative Judaism served almost as a default mode for American Jews who came from Eastern European parents. They weren’t Orthodox (that movement — unlike today — was in decline). And they weren’t Reform.
Today, Orthodox and Reform are both strong. And I say, God bless them. The old sociological patterns are gone. But that doesn’t mean that the Conservative movement is, or will soon be, gone. The center will hold. There is undeniably a need for a Judaism that struggles with the challenges of modernity in a traditional (even if not-quite halachic) way.
Do not sound the death knell. The center will hold. Critics of the movement have every right to their opinions. There is a lot to criticize, and it can all be done “for the sake of Heaven.” Those of us within the Conservative camp will have to do a fair amount of introspection, and be ready to make some basic changes.
But I am optimistic. Jews are nothing if not resourceful and resilient. The time has come for such virtues to be manifested from the center of the American Jewish religious spectrum. Trust me — that is exactly what is beginning to happen.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)