Motzei Shabbat, several years ago, a close friend called in a panic. Rabbi Joel Roth, the preeminent Conservative halakhic expert who was for many years head of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee, had just concluded a Shabbaton at her synagogue in Pennsylvania and had thrown a bombshell. Rabbi Roth said that Conservative Jews are bound by halakhah. Everyone was in an uproar. No one in that synagogue had ever heard that said before, and she wanted to know if what Rabbi Roth had said was true. I deeply disappointed my friend who had somehow hoped that I would have the chutzpah to contradict Rabbi Roth.
I tell you this story because it is not enough for the Jewish Theological Seminary to choose a gifted administrator and fundraiser as the new chancellor. Ultimately the health of the seminary depends on the health of the Conservative Movement. And what the movement needs today is for you, as chancellor, to project a clear, compelling vision of Conservative Judaism for the 21st century.
This movement started out as a marriage of convenience between a visionary fledging seminary with a critical scientific approach to the study of Jewish texts and a laity, many of whom were seeking a familiar form of Judaism that could be integrated with their new American lifestyle. The seminary provided the clergy needed to run the Conservative synagogues sprouting up all over America, and the laity provided the funding to allow the seminary to function. Somehow, it just seemed more convenient for all involved not to remind the laity too often what was required of a committed Conservative Jew. This arrangement worked fairly well for nearly a century; it worked well for Conservative Jews who were new immigrants or were raised in Orthodox homes. But if the seminary is to maintain its base of support, it is going to have to help find a more persuasive reason to continue the partnership for a generation of Jews without the nostalgic baggage to make Conservative Judaism a comfortable fit.
In America, we are all Jews by choice. Contemporary Jews need to know why they do things, not just how to do them. We are a generation of seekers, and many would be more willing than their parents to accept a framework of halakhah if they saw it as enhancing their lives and providing greater meaning for life. As the new chancellor, you must enthusiastically promote a Conservative Jewish lifestyle and a Conservative Jewish prism through which to view the world. The excitement, the exploration, and discovery at the seminary must be projected beyond the gates of 3080 Broadway. This needs to be more than intellectual gymnastics; it needs to be a passionate appeal that a lifestyle of fulfilling mitzvot will enhance life and bring a deeper connection to God and to the Jewish community.
I am eager to see you project a strong vision of Conservative Judaism. I believe there are many who hunger for a clear, unambiguous understanding of what it means to be a Conservative Jew. I say this as a lay person who went from being a non-religious labor Zionist, through the Havurah movement, to become a shomer Shabbat Conservative Jew. Even if your vision winds up leaving me outside on the right of a newly constituted Conservative tent, I would still welcome it, because neither the movement nor the Seminary will flourish without a laity that understands and embraces Conservative Judaism in its daily life.
Chair of the Ritual Committee, and board member of Temple Israel of Great Neck