Monday, February 18, 2008

Why is the Conservative Movement Worse Than Every Other Movement?

This post got me thinking.

It's no secret that the Conservative movement has major problems. It originated in the late nineteenth-century as a denomination for Jews who didn't want to reform as much as the Reform movement but didn't want to do the whole Orthodox thing, either. While leaders of the movement will insist that it has a more intricate philosophy than "not Orthodox and not Reform," the truth is that it's been struggling to define that philosophy since its inception, and I don't think there was any time throughout the movement's history when it didn't seem at risk of fragmentation.

None of this bothers me as much as it seems to bother so many people I talk to. This may be partly because I don't really consider myself a Conservative Jew. It's not that I'm ideologically post-denominational; it's just that I don't really think of "Orthodox," "Conservative," and "Reform" as labels that belong on people. There are Conservative rabbis (I often rely on one for halakhic opinions) and Conservative congregations (I attend one), and there are Conservative responsa and position papers, which I read with interest because some of them reflect approaches to Judaism that approximate my own. But as for me, I am simply a Jew. So it doesn't bother me that the movement doesn't always reflect my ideals, or even that it doesn't seem to have a clear-cut mission. From my perspective, the movement's function is to serve as an umbrella organization for similarly-minded Jewish leaders to build and sustain communities, grapple with contemporary issues, and educate the next generation. Granted, it doesn't always do these things very well, but it hobbles along. And since I don't generally expect much from religious institutions (or institutions in general), I'm not seriously disappointed.

But Katrina makes an observation that I don't think I ever fully appreciated: Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement seem uniquely disenchanted with it. Yitz Greenberg is supposed to have said that it doesn't matter what denomination you belong to, as long as you're ashamed of it (I know I've quoted this before, but it's good), and I always thought that the disillusionment shared by so many of those committed to Conservative Judaism was just a healthy realization of their movement's flaws. On the other hand, Katrina claims that Jews committed to the Reform movement generally seem pretty gung-ho about it, and I've known a fair number of Jews who seemed quite enthusiastic about modern Orthodoxy as well. On the other hand, I've rarely met a Conservative rabbi or educated layperson who didn't regard the Conservative movement with positive contempt. Maybe there really is something wrong with this picture.

ELF Becomes Disenchanted With Politics

No, I'm not really a total newcomer to the human race. But Saturday's paper particularly upset me, and it's still hurting.

The worst part was learning that Clinton is calling for the delegates she won in the Michigan and Florida primaries to be to be counted. We all know that the Democratic primary process this year is a total mess, but demanding delegates you won in a contest in which your opponent wasn't on the ballot because he was following the party's rules is tantamount to saying that you'll do anything to win, democratic process be damned. I voted for Clinton, and it's a vote that I'd been looking forward to casting for some time. But at a time when unchecked presidential power is one of the most serious issues facing our country, this isn't the sort of thing that I can shrug off.

Then there was McCain's vote against a bill restricting government interrogation techniques. I've never been a McCain supporter per se -- I disagree with his positions on nearly every issue of substance -- but like so many Americans, I've always respected him, and I was quietly thrilled to see him sweep the Republican primaries. He seemed competent, sensible, and principled (at least as politicians go), not least because of his stand on torture. Now, he seems to be doing an about-face and hoping that no one but right-wing Republicans will notice. (His vote supporting phone companies that assisted in Bush's warrantless wiretapping program doesn't inspire confidence, either.)

That leaves Mr. Smith, a.k.a. Barak Obama. He may not have much experience, but he says that we Can, and while I'm not sure exactly what it is that we can do, people seem pretty excited about it. And he did get this endorsement. I guess there's something to be said for electing a guy who makes people feel good. It may not be the only necessary qualification for Leader of the Free World and Commander-in-Chief in Wartime, but then again, he couldn't easily make things much worse.