Money should not split faith groups, only ideas

May 30, 2008

The North American Conservative stream is dividing. That is not good for British Jews

Canadian Jews — whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — are more traditional than their American counterparts. That is one reason why they have always felt closer to Europe than to the United States. As a put-down, Americans like to say that Canada is “two generations behind”.

The difference is very noticeable in Conservative Judaism, especially in Toronto, where more than half of Canada’s 350,000 Jews live. Thus, for example, unlike in other communities, no Conservative pulpit in Toronto is open to women. Similarly, documents signed by women rabbis are rendered inadmissible.

It seems that what many Conservative rabbis really want is to be recognised by their Orthodox counterparts, with whom they believe to share a commitment to Jewish law, differing only on points of interpretation. Even if their congregants are lax in observance, they themselves aspire to lead the lives of Orthodox Jews. Often they even send their children to Orthodox day schools and yeshivot.

In the vain hope of strengthening their case, they tend to distance themselves from Reform. Sadly for them, however, Orthodox rabbis don’t appreciate it. In fact, because the Conservatives claim affinity, Orthodox spokespersons tend to attack them even more than Reform. This is particularly so in Israel, where there is very little difference in the practice of the two movements, yet they remain very much apart.

As expressions of their halachic bent, several Canadian Conservative rabbis have joined the Union for Traditional Judaism, an organisation largely in existence as a protest against alleged excesses in the Conservative movement. In many ways, the Union appears to pursue a course that was once that of the United Synagogue in Britain and of modern Orthodoxy elsewhere.

Members of the Union look askance at the attempts by Conservative rabbis in the United States to imitate their Reform colleagues in the relentless effort to attract the largely non-observant suburban Jewish middle class. Even patrilineal descent that recognises the Jewish status of the offspring of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, taken for granted in American Reform, appears to be acceptable in some Conservative quarters in America.

The last straw is the recent decision by the American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where most Conservative rabbis in Toronto were trained, to admit gays and lesbians into its rabbinic programme. This prompted several large congregations here in Toronto to do what the prestigious Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal has done years ago, and secede from the parent body.

Unlike their rabbis, the Canadian Conservative lay leaders have had little to say about halachah and ideology. Their primary reasons are financial. As an expression of anti-American parochialism, which is never far from the surface in Canada, they declared that they were paying more in affiliation fees to the US Conservative movement than they benefited. The implication is, of course, that they wouldn’t tolerate American Jews taking advantage of the “two generations behind” community to the north.

Whatever the reasons, the result of the secession is that several important synagogues in Canada are moving away from the liberal religious mainstream. For though the dissenters insist that they will continue to support JTS and presumably get their (male) rabbis from there, it is bound to be only a matter of time before JTS and its lay counterpart will greatly discourage, perhaps even block, graduates from serving these congregations and thus compel them to employ Orthodox rabbis in the future.

Ideology — even when misguided, as I believe to be the case here — can be respected. It is much more difficult to take seriously a decision to save money by leaving a movement that represents Conservative Judaism on the American continent and beyond, and is there to offer support to the smaller congregations that lack the resources that the Toronto dissidents have. These may include the struggling Masorti institutions outside North America, including Britain. Though Canadian traditionalism may appeal to the English way, there are solid historic reasons for Masorti Jews not to rejoice in the Canadians’ decision to secede.     

Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He is a graduate of the Leo Baeck College and served two Reform congregations in London between 1962 and 1983

    Last updated: 4:04pm, May 29 2008