Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Conservative Judaism in America -- Where the movement's next generation of rabbis are heading

Centrist No More?

For all the theological, ritualistic and institutional differences separating Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform, for all their divergent approaches to revelation, halacha, decision making and politics, what outwardly distinguishes the streams in the minds of many ordinary American Jews comes down to branding: Orthodoxy is on the right; Reform on the left; and in the middle stands Conservative Judaism.

But can the movement still be thought of in those terms? A recent report conducted by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary that examined the political views of its Generation Y rabbinical students, and those of its older alumni ordained since 1980, implies that the new crop of Conservative rabbis are unlikely to want the movement anchored in the center. At first blush, the report purports to show what one would hope to find in examining the views of those committed to the rabbinate: a solid Jewish identity and strong attachment to Israel.

On closer examination, this identity appears increasingly filtered through a universalistic perspective. And it seems as if the rabbis' support of Israel is more and more conditioned upon redefining what it means to be pro-Israel. It is hard to uphold the center when you are not in it. American Jews identify themselves as liberal (38 percent) or moderate (39%), according to the Pew Forum. In contrast, 58% of the Conservative rabbis surveyed identified themselves as liberal. The rabbinical students were even more tilted to the left with 69% calling themselves liberal. As liberals, who by definition hold an optimistic view of human nature, the rabbis would find it hard to acknowledge the zero-sum nature of the Arab-Israel conflict no matter what the Palestinians say.

To understand events in Israel, they seek out ideologically reinforcing left-oriented sources, according to the report: liberal media outlets, Facebook posts and Haaretz. This helps explain the conspicuous disconnect between how mainstream U.S. Jews and the next generation of Conservative rabbis understand the conflict. Strikingly, only 30% of JTS rabbinical students believe that the Palestinian Arabs seek "not just the disputed territories, but Israel's [ultimate] destruction." In contrast, the latest American Jewish Committee survey showed that 76% of American Jews believe that the Arab goal is not the return of the "occupied territories" but "rather the destruction of Israel."

Disappointingly, 12% of the students are "uncomfortable" with Israel being a "Jewish state." Moral relavatism comes more naturally to those of a universalistic bent. The movement's future rabbis – all of whom have spent time studying in Israel -- mostly do not see Palestinian leaders as enemies: 56% say the Palestinian side is no "more to blame" than Israel for the ongoing conflict. In stark contrast, most Israelis – regardless of their political views – simply do not believe that today's Palestinian leadership is capable of making peace with Israel.

Sure Hamas dominates Gaza and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank refused to negotiate with the Netanyahu government during a 10-month settlement freeze, nevertheless a majority of the rabbis surveyed wants – at this juncture – an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 "borders" with "land swaps" and a freeze on "expansion of settlements in the West Bank." Compare this to where most U.S. Jews stand given unremitting Palestinian intransigence -- 55% oppose a Palestinian state, an AJC poll revealed.

The rabbinical students, by a 68% margin see the "settler movement" – mind you, not just extremist among the settlers – as a "threat." Oddly, the JTS survey did not bother to ask whether the Palestinians should be required to accept Israel as a Jewish state (a position adhered to by 96% of rank and file American Jews) or whether Mahmoud Abbas should abandon his demand for the Palestinian "right of return." Still, it's not hard to discern the rabbis' political orientation: AIPAC is not liberal enough; J-Street, whose platform practically mirrors that of the Palestinian Authority, is closer to their hearts (58%), and the New Israel Fund is the absolute cat's meow (with an 80% approval rating).

The survey tells us that 72% of rabbinical students have engaged in dialogue efforts with Arabs; we read that some head to Ramallah for the opportunity to socialize with Palestinians; others take excursions with New Israel Fund-supported activists to West Bank Arab villages. The survey – for reasons we can intuit – tells us nothing about commensurate efforts to understand the "settler" mindset. Many of the student rabbis report having visited a "settlement" though it is left to our imagination under whose patronage or indeed how the study defines "settlement."

The 63-year-old Zionist enterprise is a work-in-progress and no Israeli would suggest it is beyond criticism. Thirty percent of Reform rabbinical students return to the U.S. feeling “hostile” or “indifferent” toward the Jewish state. We don't know what makes 53% of JTS rabbinical students report being "sometimes" or "often" ashamed of Israel. Is it the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on state-controlled religious life that's alienated them? Too bad, then, that one sees so few future rabbis volunteering extensively at existing Masorti congregations in Israel.

Seminaries and professors have been unable or unwilling to provide their students with the necessary moral compass that might profitably help them navigate between worthy universalistic values and particularistic Jewish standards. By the time they get to seminary it may be too late. Most of today's rabbinical students did not attend Jewish elementary or high-schools (though they were likely to have attended Camp Ramah). The attitudes revealed in the JTS survey hammer home the need – now more than ever – for the community to find the means of providing its youth with a parochial education.

The JTS report concludes that the younger cohort of rabbinical students is "no less connected" to Israel than their elders. Yet, for too many, this connection seems compromised by the felt need to reconcile attachment to Israel with uncritically assimilated universalist ideals, and in extreme cases, with left-liberal dogma that is anti-Zionist. No amount of redefining what it means to be pro-Israel can paper over the predicament facing Conservative Judaism's future leaders: What is the place of the movement in Jewish life if not as the centrist stream embodying political and theological moderation?

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