Helping the center hold

Helping the center hold

Rabbi David Fine’s new book argues for the Conservative movement

Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine defends a centrist view of politics and religion.
Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine defends a centrist view of politics and religion.

Being in the center is hard.

Logically, it shouldn’t be; it’s a protected place, sheltered from the outside forces that can batter outliers. But it’s easy to get complacent, to get lazy, or alternatively to overthink, to self-doubt, to use the lack of real threats to create made-up ones.

It’s hard because you can get soft.

William Butler Yeats knew that. “The center cannot hold,” he wrote. Why? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

On the other hand, “I feel that the problem we face in the religious world — and I think it’s fair to say that we have a similar problem in the political world — is that the passionate voices are from the extreme,” Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine said. Rabbi Fine heads Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood; his Ph.D., from the graduate center at CUNY, is in modern European history, and his ordination is from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

As a long-time centrist, both in politics and in religion, he is passionately consumed with the idea of the importance of the center, a place not of stasis but of balance. His new book, “Passionate Centrism: One Rabbi’s Judaism,” explores what it means to stand where the old and the new, the pull toward tradition and the equal pull toward exploration, all come together.

Rabbi Fine finds that center in Conservative Judaism, at least in Conservative Judaism at its best. The movement’s intellectual direction comes from what was called positive historical Judaism, an outlook championed by Solomon Schechter, who was the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary long before he became a school namesake. Schechter believed in the importance of halacha — Jewish law — but he also believed that change came through evolution, which he called catholic Israel. (The “c” in the phrase is neither incorrect not accidental; Schechter used “catholic,” in a correct although secondary definition, to mean broad, open, and diverse.)

“My book is a passionate defense of what many people have told me over the course of my student and professional career doesn’t work,” he said. “They say that no one will be inspired by history, that a dry academic understanding of the historical evolution of Judaism is not going to inspire spirituality.

“This is what I am taking issue with. This book is my best attempt to explain why the Judaism that I see as rooted in 19th century historical positivism and then developed by Solomon Schechter speaks to me, and why it is inspiring.”

“In rabbinical school, my two heroes were Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton,” Rabbi Fine said. “They were in charge of Israel and the United States at the time” — Rabin was prime minister and Clinton was president — “and they were centrists. They both were vilified by both sides.

“Of course, one was assassinated and one was impeached. Being in the center is not easy — but if you don’t have a strong center, the whole enterprise falls apart.”

“I’m conservative on some issues, and liberal on others,” Rabbi Fine said. “I am very conservative liturgically” — note the small c here. “That’s why I really value references to the Temple sacrifices, we will call people to the Torah as Kohen, Levi, and Israel. I value duchening.” (Duchening is when kohanim give the congregation the biblical priestly blessing, raising their hands and separating their fingers as they do so. Many liberal synagogues have dispensed with the practice, and many no longer divide Jews by caste.)

“On the other hand, I believe in the legitimacy of the decision to allow driving to shul on Shabbat, and I support egalitarianism. And I believe that I have published the first written defense of the widespread custom among the majority of Conservative Jews of eating hot dairy and fish out. I make a strong argument for that practice in the book.”

The argument, he said, involves the presumptions that go into the decision, presumptions that have tended to be stringent but need not and probably should not be. In this case, the presumption is that “the food was not compromised when it was cooked. That is a leap of faith — but no more of a leap than the presumption that exists already.

“And the more general argument I make is that it is wrong to call people who eat in non-kosher restaurants and make a point of not eating meat or shellfish apostates, and to call them apostates in public. That is wrong.

“They are following a tradition that has evolved over time.”

Overall, he said, in the arguments he makes, both in and outside the book, “sometimes I am stringent, sometimes I am lenient. Automatic stringency is not better than automatic leniency.” Nor is it worse. It just cannot be automatic.

Rabbi Fine explained how his thinking grows logically from the Conservative movement, which itself was a historical evolution. “Positive historical Judaism came out of the context of late 19th century romanticism,” Rabbi Fine said. “It was a romantic reaction to rational reform.” In other words, the Reform movement, in its commitment to logic and its disdain for the emotional — a commitment from which it has retreated more recently — left the spirituality and the commitment to tradition out.” The Conservative movement has attempted to combine the commitment to tradition with logic, and particularly with scholarly, close readings of Jewish foundational texts.

It’s a hard balance, but Rabbi Fine is trying to keep from teetering on that tightrope.

Next month, Rabbi Fine is going to teach from his book; one of the sessions will be a dialogue with one of his local colleagues, Rev. Canon John G. Hartnett, rector of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Ridgewood.

“The Conservative movement is the Episcopal church of the Jewish world,” Rabbi Fine said. “They think Protestant and act Catholic; we think Reform and act Orthodox.” (To elaborate, the Episcopalian church — part of the Anglican communion — broke away from the Roman Catholic church in the sixteenth century. Although certainly it has structure, it gave up on the church’s hierarchy. It has no pope. On the other hand, its services feel more lushly, sensually Catholic than they do austerely Protestant.)

“Think about the use of Hebrew, and of the Latin mass. Even if you didn’t understand Latin, you could feel the power and the authenticity of the language.” The same is true of Hebrew.

Moreover, he added, “the same issues affect us and the mainline churches. It’s about change, and how fidelity to tradition responds to changes in society.

“Bill Clinton found a way to talk about a moderate platform like an evangelical,” Rabbi Fine said. Not only do mainstream churches have to find that voice and that balance — not only do they have to find a voice that brings the passion of the fringes back to the center — “but so do Conservative Jews. We have not been able to communicate to our people the sense of excitement about who we are and what we stand for.”

But for Rabbi Fine, that sense of excitement is real. His book is an attempt to communicate it.

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