Twenty-five years ago, at a United Synagogue convention with over ‘,000 people attending, Rabbi Neil Gillman, then the dean of the Conservative rabbinical school, wrote the word "God" at the top of a large blackboard and "Torah" at its bottom. He proclaimed that while God may or may not exist, Torah certainly does, but that even if God exists, He is not necessarily connected to Torah. At that moment, some of us painfully glimpsed the future: Sooner or later, Conservative Judaism would no longer be a halachic movement. For we believed, as we still do, that without God, there is no future for Torah or, for that matter, the Jewish people.
How fitting, then, that a few weeks ago, with attendance at the United Synagogue convention dramatically down to under 600, Rabbi Gillman offered another bold declaration in a keynote address. The movement’s foremost ideological spokesman, he explicitly affirmed that Conservative Judaism is not a halachic movement after all ("Conservative Jews wrestle with movement’s identity," Dec. 16).
Ironically, when the founders of the Union for Traditional Judaism desperately warned of such an ideological outcome, they were loudly denounced at Conservative conventions. They were even branded by some as traitors. Of course, there are contextual differences. Today, Rabbi Gillman matter-of-factly offers his observation as the springboard for a new "religious vision" welcome by much of the movement’s membership, while the UTJ’s founders presented theirs as a heavy-hearted admonition that Conservative Judaism was jeopardizing its claim to religious authenticity. But it boils down to the same thing. Better than two decades after the historic rift, both finally agree that the movement can no longer honestly pose as an heir to the rabbinic legal tradition.
Not all Conservative leaders are ready to speak as forthrightly as Rabbi Gillman. For a while, some will persist in repeating tired mantras about Conservative commitment to halacha. But that’s just human nature. Consider the Andersen tale "The Emperor’s New Clothes." Surely, some of his subjects habitually continued praising his latest wardrobe for a few moments even after the truth was out. Fortunately, there is always one voice of honesty in the crowd. Though we vigorously take issue with Rabbi Gillman’s approach to Judaism, we heartily commend his candor.
We are less favorably disposed to the spirit behind Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s comments at the biennial, though we thank him for exposing yet another irony. When two decades ago, a distinguished rabbinic founder of the UTJ expressed apprehension that traditionalists were being purged from the Conservative movement, he was rudely booed at the Rabbinical Assembly convention for the perceived implication that his colleagues were anything less than open-minded pluralists. Along comes Rabbi Creditor urging that non-egalitarian congregations either be converted or expelled from the United Synagogue registry — and he garners "rousing applause and a standing ovation." The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbi Judith Hauptman advocated the very same position this past summer in a published opinion piece, arguing that United Synagogue’s few, lingering traditional congregations are at fault for the movement’s declining membership rolls. Why these Conservative leaders find it necessary to pin the blame on an utterly non-influential, paltry minority in their midst is beyond us, other than to speculate that it is an incarnation of that old human foible known as scapegoating.
Champions of expelling traditionalists would, of course, claim that their crusade is based on principle, for they assert that non-egalitarian synagogues are culpable of "institutional misogyny." They should know better. The UTJ is proof positive that people don’t have to be card-carrying egalitarians to genuinely respect women. With most of our current rabbinic and lay constituency hailing from the Orthodox community, we have compiled a decades-old track record of advocacy for women. While deeply valuing the traditional roles of wives and mothers, we have also been pioneers of women’s participation in advanced talmudic studies, the conduct of religious services within halachic parameters, and top leadership positions in national Jewish organizations.
Our well-known opposition to the seminary’s 1983 decision to ordain women as rabbis was hardly a function of misogyny. It emerged from our prescient concern that the cavalier treatment of the halachic process in that case would foreshadow a wholesale abandonment of the rabbinic legal tradition later. Our fears have been validated time and again by attempts to put patrilineal descent on the Conservative agenda, the publication of halachically problematic liturgy, and the acceptance of non-marital sexual relations as holy. Even former proponents of some of the above departures have been prompted to rethink their underlying positions in light of the movement’s current debate over ordaining homosexuals as rabbis and officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies. JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch has said that if such moves are made "there is very little to prevent us halachically from officiating at [interfaith] marriages, or accepting the patrilineal principle." Rabbi Joel Roth — author of the responsum serving as the pretext for the decision to ordain women as rabbis — takes it a step further. He has gone on record that if Conservative Judaism is not halachic, "we should close up shop and admit that our movement has no claim to normative Jewish authenticity and, therefore, no good reason to exist."
As individuals who both fondly recall the great teachers with whom we studied at the seminary and who invested time, energy, and substance there and in other Conservative institutions, we hardly find satisfaction in this most recent confirmation of the warnings we issued years ago. But, along with the others who established the Union for Traditional Judaism and its mission to bear the torch for the open-minded halachic community, we do take comfort in the choices we have made.
Rabbi Ronald Price is executive vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism, which is based in Teaneck, and Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg is president of the UTJ.