July 15, 2019

The Challenge of the Middle

Orthodox, Conservative and Reform embrace the fundamental principle that Judaism is a work in progress. All three movements originated in Germany in the early 19th century as a response to the emancipation of the Jewish people in the Western world, and they differ only in how much or how little they are willing to change in Jewish belief and practice. Orthodoxy is generally perceived as having changed the least, Reform is perceived as having changed a lot, and Conservative Judaism, like Goldilocks, appears to prefer an approach that falls somewhere in between.

Yet, according to Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism is “rooted in and grow[s] from Jewish tradition, law, and moral values,” as he writes in “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” (University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society), a book that offers a commanding view of the history and destiny of the Conservative movement as explained to us by one of its leading lights.

“For those readers who grew up in the Conservative movement, this book may serve as an illuminating backstory you may have never known, explaining not only what the movement believes and practices but how and why it arrived at these conclusions,” Dorff explains. “For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.”

Dorff emphasizes the developments that have taken place over the last 50 years, but he uses a medieval Jewish credo to provide a path through the sprawling theological terrain: “Israel, Torah and God are one.” As Dorff points out, he has reversed the order of the triad. Thus, the first section of the book is theological, the second section focuses on how the Conservative movement understands and teaches the ancient Jewish texts, and the final section explains “why Conservative leaders today remain personally committed to Israel even when they may disagree with official Israeli policy.”

Dorff’s book is the latest title in the JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought series, which is published by the University of Nebraska on behalf of the Jewish Publication Society and the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization whose membership consists of some 1,700 Conservative rabbis in North America, Israel and around the world. 

“Rabbi Dorff’s publications include more than two hundred articles on Jewish thought, law, and ethics, together with twelve books he wrote and another fourteen he edited or co-edited,” writes Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to serve as chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly (or, for that matter, any major rabbinical organization), in her foreword to Dorff’s book. “We might suggest that Rabbi Dorff’s extensive teaching, speaking, and writing constitute a lifetime of preparation for this new book.”

“Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value.”

While “Modern Conservative Judaism” deserves to be described as Dorff’s magnum opus, he also serves as the curator of writings by other leading rabbis and scholars in the Conservative movement. The book includes selections from these men and women, living and dead, including the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Dorff’s fellow faculty member at the American Jewish University, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

Dorff brings a bracing intellectual honesty to his work. The Shema may be the credo of Judaism, but exactly what we mean when we refer to “the Lord Our God” is not prescribed by the Torah, which presents God in a great many different guises. While Dorff insists that “Judaism cannot be detached from belief in, or beliefs about God,” he also concedes that “God is also a source of great perplexities and confusions.” Above all, he reminds us that one can call himself or herself a Jew without believing in God at all.

“One cannot be a Christian without believing, in some manner, that Jesus is Christ, and one cannot be a Muslim without believing Muhammad is the primary prophet of God,” he explains. “Judaism, in contrast, defines a Jew through matrilineal descent or conversion. A Jew can therefore be an agnostic or atheist or believe all kinds of other things about God (except perhaps that God is more than one or incarnated in a particular person) and still be a Jew .”

“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.” — Elliot N. Dorff   

On the questions of who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, we find one of the great heartbreaks in the Jewish world. Dorff affirms the fundamental importance of Zionism and the Jewish state in the Conservative movement — known as Masorti in Israel — but he cannot overlook the fact that the State of Israel engages in what he frankly calls religious discrimination against all Jewish denominations except Orthodoxy. “The Israeli government funds only secular and Orthodox schools and grants allocations solely to Orthodox congregations for their buildings, maintenance, and rabbis’ salaries,” he points out. “Furthermore, only Orthodox rabbis may officiate at a wedding of two Jews in Israel or process a divorce, and the Orthodox also control which conversions to Judaism count for eligibility to marry a Jew.”

Notably, Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value. “In fact, Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he insists. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”

As someone who is both an activist and a dean in the Conservative movement, Dorff is not reluctant to serve as an advocate. “Conservative thinkers and leaders will affirm with some justification that the synthesis of tradition with modernity that Conservative Judaism represents is historically the most authentic form of Judaism and the he=althiest form of Judaism for the future,” he writes. “I believe readers of this book will learn why both of these claims are true.”

Authenticity, I fear, is a dangerous word when it comes to religion. All varieties of Judaism acknowledge, whether explicitly or implicitly, that there is some irreducible set of beliefs and practices that serves as a benchmark against which each expression of Judaism must be measured. All too often, they are quick to accuse one another of “inauthenticity.” The lesson that we learn in Dorff’s important book, however, is that respect, tolerance and inclusiveness are a crucial measure of what makes a movement Jewishly authentic.

Read excerpts from the book and Q+A with Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff here. 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.