In which I half-articulate what might be wrong with the Conservative movement.
This Shefa list I talked about earlier is turning out to be pretty interesting: a lot less personal bellyaching and a lot more considered and creative thought about where the Conservative movement should go from here. Here's an e-mail I sent to the list that might not make the moderator's cut:
1. One distinction which might be helpful is between LIBERAL and LAX. Conservative Judaism is very much a liberal movement, for the following reasons (all of which are discussed, or at least adumbrated/hat-tipped, in Emet veEmunah): recognition of the importance of individual decision-making as something which can't be coerced into homogeneity by communal institutions; or, relatedly, the notion of religious responsibility (mitsves) as intertwined with individual religious progress cum exploration and contingency. There is a connection to be made between the looser, layperson's meaning of "liberal" and liberal political theory, but "this is no place to be lengthy."
In general, C. Judaism is liberal because it tends to be meykil rather than makhmir. It is important to understand what "meykil" does not mean; it is NOT to be equated with laxity, lack of stringency for its own sake. (Those who equate laxity with the term "kule" [leniency] do not understand the latter.) Ideally, the C. movement should be a rigorous application of both liberal and (this is where we've differed
from our friends on the left) halachic ideas. Liberal *and* rigorous Judaism -- isn't this what we want?
2. However (and this is perhaps where rubber meets road, or theory meets Action Plans), this liberal stringency (or stringent liberality) must be based on a wide range of possibilities for vibrant Jewish life. For the past few years, I have harbored a suspicion that dare not speak its name: that the C. movement's loud protestations of its "halachic" nature are meant as a response to our critics on the right. Of course, halachah is the blood of our Jewish being, but it is not the all. There is much more in addition to halachah which goes into living a God-fearing and humane Jewish life. A convenient term for it is "culture." I don't just mean books on Jewish topics, or Woody Allen, or Jewish music (though all these have some role to play). I'm talking about the ways in which a Conservative sensibility can inform a Jewish religious culture. In other words: the Orthodox have their sub-culture, so why don't we have one? Why are we satisfied to participate in secular Jewish culture when Conservative Judaism has something both religious and worldly to bring to the table?
Let me give an example of where culture can play a role. (There are many other ways, of course.) Mishnah Yomit is a worthwhile initiative of the USCJ. But where's the promotion? Where's the advertising? Where is the pop-culture soupcon of kitsch which has made Daf Yomi a "smash hit" phenomenon among the Orthodox? (To head off an expected comment: adopting this strategy of the Orthodox does not at all mean agreeing with their religious approach.) Or another example: what does Conservative Judaism have to say about American secular Jewish culture? Is there any alternative to provide? I think our answers might be at once more congenial and more convincing than those provided by modern Orthodoxy.