Monday, September 12, 2005

"Our Gang," Salamone-Punster style: The Conservative Jewish community

Since it seems to me that I've been blogging a good deal about the Orthodox Jewish community and not nearly enough about my own Conservative crew, I've been thinking for a while about posting something about the Conservative movement. The post from which I quoted below persuaded me that now is the time.

2005 [in Hebrew text: Yom Sheni, September 12]

"Inadequate Denominations

. . .

[There are a few 'traditional' congregations left, where there's no mechitza, very few members are observant, but they insist on things like an Orthodox Rabbi whose job it is to make 'ha-motzi' at sisterhood functions. The only elements of tradition that it adheres to are those which keep the people unempowered. Let's call it 'Misogydoxy' or 'Ignoramodoxy']. "

If I didn't know better, I'd swear (you should pardon the expression) that this man has actually visited and davvened (prayed) in my synagogue.

No, there's no mechitza.

" . . . very few members are observant . . . " A former rabbi once joked that one of the few members of our synagogue who would pass a "tzitzit test" is a woman who's a Jew by Choice. She's one of the few congregants who neither works, shops, nor travels on Shabbat.

At the moment, we have an Orthodox rabbi. Don't ask—it's a major sore point for me. The problem is not entirely that he's Orthodox, but that he's a very close-minded individual with an extremely negative attitude. (I've blogged before that his approach to Judaism can be described in five words: "They're out to get us." Somehow, I suspect that the Renegade Rebbitzen's favorite rabbi has a rather different hashkafah [approach, viewpoint].)

"The only elements of tradition that it adheres to are those which keep the people unempowered. Let's call it 'Misogydoxy' or 'Ignoramodoxy.'" Man o' Manishevitz, ain't that the truth. There are exactly four—count 'em, four—congregants who know how to lein Torah (chant a text directly from the handwritten scroll of the Bible), and none of us learned that skill at this synagogue. One's Israeli (he leins without trup [cantillation]), one's a trained cantor who's currently between congregations, one's my husband (who learned to lein at our former synagogue), and one's me (ditto). Off the top of my head, I can think of only eight members who've ever chanted a haftarah (a Bible reading usually from the Prophets) at times other than their Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, which is why my husband gets the honor at least twice a month. Most folks at our shul (synagogue) are perfectly happy appoaching Jewish ritual as a performance, rather than a participatory experience. The sad truth is that they're not interested in becoming empowered. The poor cantor's been offering to teach people to chant a haftarah for years—he just doesn't get any takers. And it doesn't help that our rabbi considers himself such a Talmud scholar that he thinks it's beneath his dignity to learn either how to chant a haftarah or to lein Torah. (I kid you not—he really doesn't know how.)

On the other hand, there are many lively and participatory Conservative synagogues in which the congregants love to learn new tunes—boy, have I "caught it" for introducing new tunes for Ein Kelokeinu and Adon Olam—love to sing along, have a different person leining each aliyah on Shabbat (Sabbath) and Yom Tov (holiday), and have such a large roster of haftarah-chanters that one must "book" a haftarah a year in advance. Now that's my kind of Conservative shul!

We are a group divided. We're divided by level of observance, which varies to a staggering degree even among members of the same synagogue. We're divided by our approach to the participation of women in public ritual, with some saying that the traditional role for women provides them with more than enough honor, dignity, respect and meaning, and others saying that we're not comfortable with the rigid roles of our ancestors and feel excluded. We're divided, lately, by questions concerning our leadership, both lay and rabbinic. For example, should a person who's intermarried be a member of a synagogue board? (To be honest, I don't know whether the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has an official position on that question. My own opinion? No!) Should the Jewish Theological Seminary (NY) and/or the University of Judaism (CA) ordain gay men and women as rabbis? (The jury's still out on that one—the Rabbinical Assembly is currently reconsidering the question. And so I am.)

What will become of our movement? Will it survive into the next century, or vanish, an experiment that failed? Will our grandchildren be Jewish? (Conservative Judaism accepts the halachic ruling that the religion of a child is determined by the religion of the mother. My only child is a son. I try not to think about that too much. Which is to say that I'll probably spend the next few years biting my nails.)

There are so many issues, so many questions, and so few answers. Only time will tell, and I won't live long enough to find out.


Blogger Naomi Chana said...

I think my current shul used to be one of those "Misogynodox" places, but opening up to full egalitarianism has easily doubled the number of people who participate actively (daven, layn, etc.) in services, and our membership is (quietly) on the rise. We've also been helped by some congregants' forming a monthly trad-egal minyan in their neighborhood, because that gives us an opportunity to learn ritual skills in a less intimidating setting than the main sanctuary or even the chapel. If we didn't have that, I'd have suggested a monthly library minyan or something for the same reasons.

Right now, we have easily a dozen lay adults who layn Torah regularly and several dozen who can creditably chant Haftarah (as well as half a dozen who know various other trupp); most of those people can also lead some subset of services. What's trickier is getting the teenagers involved past BM age -- they have most of the ritual skills, but only the ones from Torah-reading families seem to ever show up again on the Torah or Haftarah rotations.

Actually, I suspect family's important, and not just because my husband and I are the congregation's object lesson in what happens when you set up two Torah readers (they not only get married, they also start swapping nusach tips). So, nu -- does your son layn? It's certainly one way of meeting a nice Jewish girl. ;)

Tue Sep 13, 01:09:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Wherever you live, I'm moving there.

As to our son layning, unfortunately this is the answer: When it comes to shul, he won't set foot in the place. On the plus side, at least he still leads kiddush for us on Erev Shabbat whenever he's home.

Tue Sep 13, 09:12:00 PM 2005  
Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

Perhaps I've been there, but there's more than one that fits the bill.

I once taught in such a shul, and when I told the sisterhood president, who asked me to make motzi at a function of theirs that took place while i was in the building, that she should do it herself, she was completely blown away. 'Don't you need a man to make motzi?!'

Wed Sep 14, 07:06:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Among the non-Orthodox--and I speak as someone who's been affiliated with Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues and with an independent Chavurah (a layperson-run prayer-and-study group)--differences in knowledge and observance levels can be mind-boggling. I've attended functions at which the organizers ran around frantically seeking someone who knew how to say motzi (the one-line prayer thanking G-d for bread), then found another individual whose birkat ha-mazon (the several-pages-long grace after meals) would have impressed even a maven like Naomi Chana. :)

It's a sad commentary on the state of Jewish education among the non-Orthodox that there's so much ignorance in my own crowd. Having gotten tired of counting myself among the "am haaretzim"/Jewishly illiterate, I've made an "Elul resolution" to sign up for classes in modern Hebrew. I'm probably too late for this semester, but I hope to start in January. I'm hoping that, once I master *modern* Hebrew, I'll be better prepared to study *Biblical* Hebrew. (I'm following my instincts: As a French major, I learned to speak modern French first, then read the 17th-century French classics, so I'm going to approach the study of Hebrew the same way.) It's about time I did some serious learning.

Thu Sep 15, 10:26:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post was about the Conservative MOVEMENT, but talked mostly about your have the comments, but I feel you've left people with a comparison of the best parts of Orthodoxy with the worst parts of Conservative Judaism. And that's not fair to us.

Me, I left a Classical Reform upbringing for Conservative Judaism. In my secular studies, learning just enough to get by was never acceptable--I had to study the most rigourous mathematics, science, history, etc. curricula available. Anything else was selling myself short. But when it came to my Jewish education--the attitude was that I was a Jew no matter how little I knew, so why waste my time with the stuff.

I got to college, and was amazed at how much my Conservative classmates knew, about subjects I'd never even heard of. I arrived at college not knowing what a drash was, what a d'var torah was, what halachah was...and there were no Orthodox Jews at the college I attended (a simple consequense of having no kosher food)--I learned about the Judaism I'd missed out on from my Conservative classmates.

And when I left college, I went in search of Jewish communites in the places I moved, and found that there were active groups of young, well-educated, welcoming, observant Conservate Jews in every city I moved to or visited. People who made me feel welcome in shul, and taught me zemirot, and helped me follow along with the morning service, and kept inviting me over for delicious kosher meals...and made me into the observant Conservative Jew I am today. (Met my husband in shul, too).

Today, I belong to a Conservative shul where on a typical Shabbos morning, once congregant leads Psukei d'Zimrah, another leads Shaharit, another leads the Torah Service, others a gabbaim, 7 others read torah, another reads Haftorah, another gives the drash, and another leads Musaf. And we can cycle through more than a month of leaders this way without repeating! Some congregants are the children of rabbis or came from observant backgrounds--but I beleive more than half of us are more educated and more observant than our parents.

Originally, I thought that just as my Conservative classmates were more knowledgable than the Reform Jews I grew up with, surely the Orthodox must be even more knowledgable. And while I've found many (mostly liberal) Orthodox communities which were very welcoming and respected a woman's interest in learning, I also saw things that disturbed me there. I saw women who were Orthodox from birth who could talk for hours about kashrut, but didn't know how to bensch. I saw men who were newly observant and seemed to have less understanding of halacha than I do, unable to tell halachot from customs, and making major life decisions based on the instructions of their rabbis.

There are wonderful Orthodox communities and awful Conservative ones. But there are also wonderful Conservative communities and awful Orthodox ones.

And for all the disparities in the Conservative movement, and for all it's oddities (the best educated young Conservative Jews I know seem to have picked up a large chunk of their knowledge at Ramah summer camps!)--I think there are some things which DO bind us Conservative Jews together.

1) Even if we accept much more lenient interpretations of the Law than our Orthodox bretheren, we beleive in the concept of Jewish Law.

2) We try to value halacha more than customs. We care more about whether or not people cover their heads (which is, admittedly, more custom than halacha) than about the color of the kippah. We care more about making kiddush than about the size of the glasses. We worry more about which foods require supervision than about which supervisions are acceptable...

3) We value Jewish learning. Including that of women. And not just concerning Kashrut and Tznius.

4) We value secular learning. We think it's OK for our secular learning to inform our Jewish learning and vice versa.

5) We are, all of us, Jews by Choice. We have the skills and the knowledge of the outside world that we COULD assimilate away if we wanted to. We are not trapped in Judiasm--we're here because we want to be.

Sun Sep 18, 03:16:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I'll grant you that most of what I had to say *was* about my shul and *was* negative. That's just the experience that I've been living with for the past 20 years.

There are many wonderful and participatory congregations, and congregants, in the Conservative Movement. It's unfortunate that I don't happen to live in a neighborhood that attracts many of them. We're a one-Conservative-shul neighborhood here, and seem to attract a largely non-participatory, undereducated crowd. To be honest, I really don't know which type of congregation--or congregant--is more typical of the Conservative Movement as a whole. I prefer to think that it's the participatory, educated version.

I particularly appreciate what you had to say about valuing halacha more than minhag/customs. I do have a problem with the increased tendency in the Orthodox community to get obsessed about matters that are more a question of custom than law, such as the whole question of why a guy who wears a black hat is considered more observant than a guy who wears a kippah.

I also love your statement that "We think it's OK for our secular learning to inform our Jewish learning and vice versa." As I've mentioned previously, this is a major bone of contention between me and our shul's (Orthodox) rabbi, who thinks *everything's* MiSinai (from Mt. Sinai) and that the Jewish people has never been influenced by any other culture.

Mon Sep 19, 11:15:00 PM 2005  

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