Concluding her impassioned remarks at a panel Sunday on the future of the Conservative movement, Judith Hauptman, a rabbi and professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, issued “an open call to the next chancellor” — an issue of great interest since the announcement that Ismar Schorsch was stepping down from the post after two decades this June and with no successor chosen yet.
“This failing movement is now in your hands,” said Rabbi Hauptman, “and you must do something dramatic.” The movement, she asserted, cannot tolerate a chancellor who goes on with “business as usual.”As she spoke, Rabbi Hauptman turned to the panelist on her right and addressed him directly. He blushed deeply and averted her gaze.
The large audience laughed knowingly, since the embarrassed panelist was Gordon Tucker, senior rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains and perceived frontrunner among the candidates to succeed Schorsch as chancellor at the flagship institution of the Conservative movement.
The moment took place during a 90-minute program at the Limmud NY conference at Kutshers Country Club in the Catskills, one of the most anticipated of more than 200 sessions at the four-day conference last weekend.When it was over, some in the audience were enthused by the exchange, while others said it left them realizing why the Conservative movement is worried about the future.The four panelists agreed that much change was needed in how rabbis are trained, schools are improved and basic tenets are explained.
They agreed, too, that the movement is at a low point, facing attrition from within and controversy over its increasingly unpopular ban on gay and lesbian rabbinical students, and over whether it is still a halachic movement. But they spoke with varying degrees of directness about how to resolve the internal conflicts and what should be done to bolster the movement.Rabbi Tucker, speaking first, acknowledged that many feel “an ebb in the Conservative movement’s biorhythm,” and said it needed to redefine itself since until now “it has defined itself by what it is not.”
Addressing the charge by Rabbi Neil Gillman at the recent United Synagogue biennial in Boston that the movement should no longer call itself halachic, or bound by Jewish rabbinical law, Rabbi Tucker said Rabbi Gilman “is right in the sense that it is intellectually dishonest if we have the same definition [of halacha] as one in Borough Park.”That, Rabbi Tucker said, would be “pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, including our own.”
He said the movement owes it to itself and others to make clear its own definition.Later, in response to a question from the audience, Rabbi Tucker said he believed it was “inevitable” that gays and lesbians will be accepted by JTS — a move Schorsch has opposed — and that it was important that it be accompanied by the halachic theory to support the decision.
In an interview the next day, Rabbi Tucker said he had written a 37-page, heavily footnoted paper for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which will take up the issue next month, but declined to discuss his conclusion.Based on the tenor of his comments at the panel and in the interview, though, Rabbi Tucker seemed supportive of accepting gays and lesbians in the rabbinate and to agree with Rabbi Hauptman’s argument that an important element of the decision will be how it is presented to the community — that it not be seen as giving in to outside political and cultural pressures but, in a more positive sense, as consistent with the Conservative movement’s views of halacha, emphasizing sexual equality and social justice.
On the issue at the panel of whether to allow non-egalitarian congregations to remain within the movement, he suggested a big-tent approach, encouraging the egalitarian norm while allowing the others to remain.Rabbi Tucker also called for “exercising leadership” in Israel, where he said 80 percent of the Jews are not Orthodox and many would find the values of the Conservative movement meaningful.He said Conservative Jewry in this country should “help recapture the religious rhetoric from the right” and, responding to a question, spoke out strongly against the focus on day school education as the only serious alternative for families.
Rabbi Tucker said it was a “massive failure to put the emphasis we do on day schools when 65 percent of our children are in public schools,” and that “the damage done has been horrendous.”In her presentation, Rabbi Hauptman emphasized that the Conservative movement stands for, and is bound by, both halacha and aggadah, which she described as “the ethical musings that bring about halacha.” She said the failure has been in not emphasizing this “binding to halacha.”Noting that 20 years ago, when women were given religious equality in the movement, “it was sold to the public” as the result of “pressure from the women’s movement” rather than as the result of aggadah, or the ethical impulse for equality among men and women.“This is my heartbreak today,” said Rabbi Hauptman, who received her ordination from the non-denominational Academy of Jewish Religion after Schorsch turned down her request to study for the rabbinate at JTS.
She later told The Jewish Week she favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis “as a matter of social justice, and this, too, falls under the rubric of tikkun olam,” repairing the world. She expressed concern that the decision not be presented as the result of succumbing to political pressure, as happened with the women’s issue.Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and panelist on the program, said the Conservative movement “has the best product” and needs to hire a marketing firm to do a better job of making its case.Dorff called for teaching “prayerbook Hebrew” so that congregants can follow the synagogue services; making synagogues friendlier and more open to “the changing demographics” of singles, gays and blended families; be willing to talk more about God and spirituality; and increase cooperation among organizations within the movement.The final panelist, Jeffrey Schwarz, a New York money manager and founding co-chair of Limmud New York, was the most blunt, asserting that halacha should be “a way but not the way” and no longer binding; that non-egalitarian congregations should no longer be accepted in the movement; and that gays and lesbians can no longer be “second-class citizens” in the Conservative movement.