Just over two years ago, Commentary published an
article by Rabbi Clifford Librach entitled "Does
Conservative Judaism Have a Future?" Rabbi Librach predicted
the gradual merger of the Conservative and Reform
That process, he argued, was made possible by a Conservative
movement tumbling down a slippery slope "away from the norms
of law and tradition, according to an agenda increasingly
dictated by an unlearned laity, and by greater receptivity
within Reform to aspects of traditional ritual."
Rabbi Librach pointed to the decision by Gerson Cohen,
former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to
fully involve the laity in the 1983 decision to ordain women
as an example of the former trend. He noted that many
observers expect the Conservative movement to follow Reform,
"after a lag of years for decency's sake, on such issues as
the ordination of deviants, sanctification of deviant
`marriage,' and growing tolerance of intermarriage."
A handful of letter writers challenged Rabbi Librach's
thesis on intellectual grounds. No one called him a hater of
Jews or resorted to ad hominem attacks. In fact, the
president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly
cited the article as a subject for continuing review and
Last month, Moment magazine published an article by
Rabbi Avi Shafran entitled "The Conservative Lie." (The
title was forced on the author by the editors of Moment;
his choice was "Time to Come Home.") The article
included many of the arguments previously raised by Rabbi
Librach from a different perspective.
Rabbi Shafran argued that the Conservative movement cannot
be called, halachic (based on Jewish law) for two reasons.
The first is that Conservative legal standards are too
frequently outcome-determined and designed to legitimize the
practices of the laity.
Supra-halachic principles, citations to modernity, and
policy considerations result in responsa diametrically
opposed to the codified Halachah, such as the decision to
permit driving to synagogue on Shabbos. Already in 1955,
Marshall Sklare, the leading sociologist of American Jewry,
wrote, "Conservative rabbis now recognize that they are not
making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a
poll of their membership."
Rabbi Shafran's second point was that Conservative Judaism
has failed to instill its followers with any awareness of
halachah as a binding system of law. He cited the
Conservative movement's own statistics on the very low
levels of observance (even according to Conservative
standards) of even the most basic, mitzvos, e.g., Shabbos,
kashrus, and the laws of family purity.
Howard Singer, who left the Conservative pulpit for the
world of public relations, explained the extremely high
rates of job disaffection among his former colleagues: "If
we talk of G-d or Jewish law, [our congregants] act as if we
breached a tacit understanding"("Rabbis and Their
Discontents," Commentary, May 1985). His attitude
toward halachah as nonbinding has apparently infected
rabbinical students at JTS as well, only half of whom view
halachic observance as central to their role as a
The number and vehemence of the responses to Rabbi Shafran's
article was unprecedented in Moment's history.
In stark contrast to the response to Rabbi Librach, none of
Rabbi Shafran's critics treated him as having made an
intellectual argument. Rather Rabbi Shafran himself became
the subject. He was denounced as a fundamentalist troglodyte
and a nasty hater of Jews.
Ironically, the venom spewed at Rabbi Shafran proved one of
the points that both he and Rabbi Librach made: the growing
congruence between Reform and Conservative. What explains
the different response to Rabbis Shafran and Librach? Only
that Rabbi Shafran is Orthodox and Rabbi Librach Reform.
Conservative leaders and laymen treated Reform Rabbi Librach
as someone on their side of the fence, while Rabbi Shafran
was by definition the "other."
The charge of not loving his fellow Jews cannot stand
against Rabbi Shafran. He was scrupulous, as always, to
confine his criticism to ideology.
I know Avi Shafran well, and there is no one who better
exemplifies, ahavas Yisrael in word or deed. He once
worked alone under a blazing sun to place the final earth
over a Reform rabbi with whom he was friendly rather than
leave the task to an earthmover.
Reading a letter in a Reform publication from an 11-year-old
girl wondering why the Orthodox hate her, he called the girl
personally on the phone to disabuse her of that idea.
(Unsuccessfully, as it happens -- her rabbis had taught her
the opposite.) This month, when a pluralistic high school
near Philadelphia made it a class project to blast his
article on the Moment Internet site, he wrote
offering to come speak to them. The students were eager, but
the administrators vetoed the idea.
Rabbi Avi Shafran's criticism of Conservative Judaism only
echoed that of some Conservative leaders.
It seems that even pluralism has its limits.