And you shall bind them (2)

A few days ago I talked about Rabbi Michael Broyde's prediction of the Conservative movement's imminent demise. What interested me were two throwaway statements: (1) "halachah is binding" (implying that this statement is unquestionably true for everyone, in the same way, at all times), and (2) American Jews can be divided into those who believe (1) is true and those who don't.

Comes a recent post by Jonathan Woocher on the Conservative e-mail list Shefa which nicely addresses point 2. So I'll quote it here in its entirety. Two points: although Broyde was trying to classify the whole of the Jewish community, Woocher talks here about the difficulty of defining the Conservative movement. I think the same difficulties apply to either, which is why I'm citing this. Second, the poster thinks it would be problematic for the Conservative movement to define itself based on behavioral criteria. I agree with this, probably for same reason as the poster. Indeed, it would be curious if behavioral criteria were not part of the C. movement's self-definition (such criteria being an essential part of halachah) - but only a part, since if it were the whole definition we would be a movement dedicated to self-policing and ruling people out rather than in.

I believe that part of the difficulty in addressing questions of denominational identity, boundaries, etc., is that there are multiple dimensions of what we might mean by, say, “the Conservative movement.” We might be talking about the movement’s 1) ideology (and, of course, none of the movements has a single, coherent ideology, but rather at best a set of ideologies with certain common elements); 2) program (different than an ideology; this is what it actually focuses its collective energies on at any given point in time); 3) institutions (synagogues, seminaries, USCJ, RA, etc.); 4) people (not just the public figures, but the people one encounters or encountered in the past in shul, school, camp, etc.; and/or 5) style (as with ideologies, movements do have multiple styles, but the “styles” of Conservative and Reform Judaism are generally fairly distinct). My observation is that what attracts individuals to a particular movement may be any of these (singly or in combination). So, one may well be ideologically “Reform,” but have a social network largely made up of Conservative Jews and prefer a service with more Hebrew.

There is a natural and understandable inclination to believe that ideology should be the trump card in this deck. This would lead to saying, e.g., that if you don’t believe in the normative authority of Halakha (leaving aside for the moment what we understand Halakha and its normative authority to be), you really don’t belong in the Conservative movement. However, it’s not clear to me that we should privilege ideology in this fashion, especially since it is an arena in which multiple positions coexist. So, unless one is prepared to set either strict ideological boundaries (how would we enforce these?) or – even more problematic – behavioral boundaries (which is where this thread began: questioning whether those who do not follow “normative Conservative practice,” e.g., not eating non-Kosher food outside the home, should have their opinions counted on an issue like gay ordination), I’m afraid we are stuck with an ambiguous movement in an ambiguous world.

I, for one, am comfortable with this, since the alternative would in my view be far worse, namely a movement constantly checking its tzitzes. I would not find this a very appealing landscape on which to take my Jewish journey.

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