Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary
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The Value of Denominations in Judaism
September 14, 2011 / 15 Elul 5771

Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Almost every time I speak at a synagogue or other venue about Conservative Judaism, someone asks why we need multiple Jewish denominations. We Jews are so few, the argument goes; resources are scarce. Why should our community weaken itself further by dividing into competing religious movements? Shouldn’t we, at long last, try to unite? Why can’t we just be—Jews?

The question is a very good one, I think, and the answer begins with history: the fact that there never has been complete Jewish unity or anything like it, for reasons built into the "DNA" of our tradition. The Sinai Covenant demands that Jews apply the Torah’s teachings in the real world. In order to accomplish that purpose, the Commandments have had to be interpreted, reinterpreted, and adapted to changing circumstances. Jewish minds, experience, and learning have been brought to bear on that task over many centuries. A significant measure of disagreement was inevitable.

Geographic dispersion, too, worked against homogeneity and in favor of difference. Jews have taught and practiced Torah in diverse conditions, languages, cultures, societies, and political orders. Total uniformity would have ensured our downfall. So would the absence of laws, customs, and beliefs common to all Jews no matter where they lived. Judaism survived and thrived thanks to an elaborate balance of unity and diversity. That is still the case in our day.

Modernity added two further sources of division to this mix: the freedom to opt into or out of the Jewish community and Judaism, and the ability of Jewish groups, or even individuals, to define the tradition as they please. To my mind, the many issues that have divided Jews over the past three centuries—and which resulted in the labels Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and secular—come down in the end to two overarching disagreements: What are Jews commanded to do and believe? And who has the right to decide? (Or, if you prefer: What is a Jew? Who is a rabbi?)

The lesson that I draw from this age-old Jewish story of unity and diversity is twofold.

First: Denominations are worth preserving, indeed are essential to Jewish passion and commitment. One cannot practice Judaism in the abstract. Lowest-common-denominator religion does not work. I am a Conservative Jew because I believe strongly that our kind of Judaism more than any other gets the Torah right. The essays in this blog series explain why. Jews of other movements, I know, feel similarly about their commitments.

Second: A lot of what Jews currently do separately could be done together just as well or even better. We need not study, teach, train leaders, or work to fix the world only as Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox Jews. It is a good thing that movement boundaries shift and blur over time. At this point in our history, especially in North America, Conservative Jews should work both to strengthen our own movement and to build a coalition that I call the "vital religious center." Both projects will help to preserve Judaism and serve the needs of kelal Yisra’el.

Why do we need denominations? Because substantial differences among Jews, for all the hurt and damage they engender, are not only inevitable but, on balance, essential to the survival of our tradition. The Torah opens opportunities to Jews and makes demands upon Jews that shape the ways we think, eat, celebrate, mourn, raise our kids, treat our spouses, do business, stand before God, and work to repair the world. It matters greatly how these gifts and responsibilities are pursued. Will women be fully a part of Jewish learning, practice, and leadership? Will Hebrew, Shabbat, and kashrut be central pillars? Will Jews stand simultaneously apart from and as an integral part of the larger society and culture? Will we take on the discipline of ritual practice—and insist that it remain inseparable from an ethical practice of individual virtue and social justice? These and other dividing lines among our movements are not trivial. Compromise concerning them is not always possible. One cannot be all things to all people if one wants to be a Jew.

Why work for greater unity? As a Conservative Jew, I am an avowed pluralist. I know there are valid ways other than mine to serve God and Torah faithfully. I often find myself, as a result of that conviction, giving respect to Jews who will not extend it to me in return. "These and these are the words of the living God." "All Jews are responsible for one another." The interests of our community at this moment, in Israel as in North America, demand that Jews act on these two principles more devotedly than we have in recent centuries. We need to find our way to a degree of cooperation that has thus far eluded modern Jews. For all that I believe in the necessity of multiple paths, and believe passionately in the essential rightness of the Conservative path, I am convinced that the "default position" among Jews right now should be partnership. It no longer makes sense to do most things on parallel tracks, duplicating efforts and squandering resources.

That is particularly true, I think, at the ideological and behavioral center of Jewish life, where serious Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Jews more and more share vocabulary, learning, sensibility, and even practice. I also include in this group Jews who call themselves "nonreligious" but undertake significant responsibilities to the Jewish community and see themselves bound to Jewish history, Jewish ethics, and the Jewish people. Avowedly postdenominational groups that are egalitarian and traditional—a pattern that looks a lot like Conservative Judaism—fit squarely into the vital religious center as well. The members of this overarching group have a lot to say to one another, and all could benefit from a heightened degree of cooperation.

But that is also true of the Jewish community as a whole, which in my view benefits enormously from the diverse strengths and passions that varying denominations bring to our people and our tradition, and also benefits when work for Federation, social justice, environment, Israel, the arts, and many other causes crosses denominational boundaries. I hope Conservative Jews will join me in coming months in doing all we can to continue the revitalization of our synagogues, schools, and other institutions. I hope all Jews will take the trouble in 5772 to speak and listen to every Jew addressed by the Covenant we share, reaching out to every Jew who calls the tradition home.

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Featured Responses

Julie Schonfeld

Julie Schonfeld

"Is Conservative Judaism to remain a denomination struggling to retain its identity and regain its footing or can it summon the assets and resources of its historic structures to bring forth an inspiring, ascendant religious Movement?" Read More »

Adam Roffman

Adam Roffman

"I applaud the chancellor for his very brave statement that he is a Conservative Jew because he “believe[s] strongly that our kind of Judaism more than any other gets the Torah right.” At the same time, I believe he hints at another important principle: Jews should choose their denominational affiliation based on what they actually believe to be the truth about the nature of Jewish religious practice, the authority of Jewish texts, and the type of worship they find most effective and
authentic."   Read More »