The end of the Conservative movement?
By Yair Sheleg
Next week the Conservative Movement in Israel will hold a series of festive events - the first will be the laying of the cornerstone for the new Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, followed by the awarding of the Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance, which is marking a decade since its inception. After the festivities are over, however, the world Conservative movement, and especially its American center, will have to contend with the gloomy reality: the decline of its standing among American Jews, and serious disputes within the movement, to the point of the real possibility of a split.
The heart of the crisis in the movement is the issue of its attitude toward homosexuals and lesbians. It would be difficult to find any other subject that illustrates so clearly the gap between the liberal conception, which views same-sex couples as complete equals with heterosexual couples, and the halakhic conception, which has an absolutely negative attitude toward homosexuals. It is no wonder that this issue has touched the Conservative movement, which considers itself both halakhic and liberal, attuned to the times, in its most sensitive spot.
Next month the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in the United States is due to rule on two petitions submitted to it on this issue: One would allow declared homosexuals and lesbians to be ordained and serve as rabbis within the movement; the other would permit the movement’s rabbis to conduct "commitment ceremonies" for same-sex couples (at this stage even the liberal elements within the movement are not mentioning genuine marriage ceremonies). The committee has also received petitions asking it to explicitly forbid the training of homosexual rabbis and the holding of commitment ceremonies.
The contradictory petitions are splitting the movement from within. The confoundment is even greater due to the procedural rules governing the committee: a consensus of 25 percent (6 out of 25) of the committee’s membership is enough to approve a certain policy, and thus for the Conservative community to be able to adopt it. This could create a situation in which the final decision rests with each individual community.
A senior source explains that he opposes both petitions, not only because of his stance on the issue itself, but also because of the long-term implications of the adoption of the petitions.
"If the movement recognizes homosexuals, it will lose its halakhic character completely," says the source. "In that case, we will also have to concede our position that we do not recognize as Jewish a person whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not [on the assumption that after a halakhic concession on the homosexual issue, the movement will find it difficult to insist on any halakhic position on any other issues, Y.S.], and then there will really be no difference between us and Reform [Jews]."
The source believes that if the liberal policy changes are accepted, the movement will undergo a split far worse than the crisis that plagued the movement in 1983, when the rabbinical ordination of women was first approved, but when only a few rabbis actually left.
"I predict that there will not only be a split in the movement, but that the whole movement will eventually disintegrate," continued the source. "I am very worried that following such a decision, there will be no more Conservative movement."
Female Rabbi Einat Ramon, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, who also opposes the two petitions, explains why the above "senior source" wants to remain anonymous.
"This issue involves an element of pure intellectual totalitarianism," says Ramon. "People are afraid to openly voice opposition to the initiatives, for fear they will immediately be labeled ’benighted.’ That is the main reason for the split being inevitable, as well as due to the contempt that the liberals are displaying toward the conservatives. Perhaps this is the best thing for the movement. We simply cannot continue this way."
Prof. Arnold Eisen, on the other hand, the new chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, feels that even the approval of the status of homosexuals will not cause a split, "on the assumption that the decision is made with the necessary halakhic seriousness."
"If the ruling is worded neutrally," explains Eisen, "that, ’there is no problem with approving the petition because we believe in freedom,’ this would create a problem. But if the answer is derived from a deep halakhic discussion, even most of the objectors will be able to live with it."
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the JTS, who retired last summer after 20 years at the helm, foresees long-term changes affecting all the streams of Judaism. Schorsch predicts that the liberal branch of the Conservative movement (the groups demanding rights for homosexuals) will eventually join the Reform movement, while the conservative branch of the movement will join modern-Orthodox groups, which are also experiencing growing conflicts with the conservatives (more religious) in their own ranks.
There will still be three streams, but their composition will be different: The conservative Orthodox will be on one side, the Reforms and liberals on the other, and a collection of modern Orthodox and conservative Conservatives in the middle.