Thursday, May 6, 2010

This week, the Schechter Institute, the chief educational institution of the Conservative movement in Israel, celebrated its 25th anniversary with the opening of two new buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Following decades of effort, the occasion marks a genuine milestone for the Masorti movement (to use its Hebrew name), a movement still struggling to establish a presence in Israel in the teeth of institutional opposition and public indifference. 

Unlike Orthodoxy and Reform, already established as ideological movements in 19th-century Europe, Conservative Judaism, though tracing some of its roots to the 1850s, took shape in early-20th-century America, to become, in the postwar period, the largest of the three U.S. Jewish denominations. Its greatest achievements lay in the production of high-level scholarship in Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, theology, and history and in the fostering of a widely shared commitment to Jewish peoplehood in its broadest sense. In both respects, and especially the second, Conservatism contrasted at once with the more insular focus of Orthodoxy and with the more far-reaching universalism of Reform.

The commitment to peoplehood helps explain the movement's longstanding connection with Zionism. It also makes the more vexing its failure to make inroads into Israeli society. Today there are about fifty Conservative congregations in the country, a few more than in the state of Pennsylvania, most of them served by part-time and underpaid rabbis. Yet very many Israelis, in their approach to Judaism and Jewish practice, call themselves, and seem genuinely to be, masorti—literally, "traditional"—and indeed the Israeli Masorti movement is itself significantly more traditionalist than its American parent. Why, then, the failure?

The reasons are both political and social-cultural. Politically, the Orthodox rabbinical establishment has for decades succeeded in denying non-Orthodox movements official recognition and, more importantly given Israel's system of public funding for religious institutions, money. This forces the non-Orthodox movements to turn to the courts to secure a modicum of recognition and public space.

Socially and culturally, Conservative Judaism has so far been unable to strike indigenous roots. Its principled middle ground is an anomaly in Israel's raucous culture; its model of congregation and community is alien in a country where even Orthodox synagogues hardly function as community centers; and its palpable Americanness diminishes its authenticity in the eyes of potential recruits among secular Israelis accustomed to regarding Orthodoxy, the religion they reject, as the only religion they would ever choose.  

Another dynamic is operating as well, in both Israel and the US. As the religious movement still most committed to the common denominator of Jewish peoplehood, Conservative Judaism is losing out to the growing numbers of Jews who look to religion for passionate experiences, or strong authority, or a thicker sense of authenticity, or some combination thereof. In the age of a pull to greater religious stringency on the one hand, and to cultivation of the individual self, "the Jew within," on the other, the principle of Catholic Israel enunciated by Solomon Schechter, Conservatism's greatest founding father, has not surprisingly fallen on hard times.

Is there still hope for Masorti Judaism in Israel? If so, it will lie in the emergence of something new and not terribly American: a strong attachment to tradition that is rooted in the Hebrew language and the local landscape, at one with the passions and problems of contemporary Israel, and in collaboration with the more critical voices within the ranks of Israel's religious (i.e., Orthodox) Zionists.  

Early signs pointing in such a direction include the movement's recently reissued siddur, Vaani Tfilati, and in materials being developed by the TALI foundation for use in Israeli public schools.  Such efforts play to the movement's scholarly strengths. Turning these into a lived commitment, strong and supple enough for the rough and tumble of Israeli life, will be its greatest test.

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