Feb 19, 2008

Catholic Israel.

So if it weren't for the fact that The Blackwell Companion to Judaism cost more than $150.00, it would be on its way to me right now. I happened to stumble upon the text (which I hoped was available online, and it is, but U of C doesn't have permissions to view it) while searching for writings about Solomon Schechter's "catholic Israel."

It's important -- and I realized this after the fact -- that we emphasize the little "c" here as I begin this conversation as it relates to my discussion about Conservative Judaism as I explore what it is and how it works and whether it's what I'm "looking for." So we're not talking Catholic Church, we're talking simply the word, "catholic."

catholic: Etymology: Middle English catholik, from Middle French & Late Latin; Middle French catholique, from Late Latin catholicus, from Greek katholikos universal, general, from katholou in general, from kata by + holos whole
In essence, what I gather from Solomon Schechter's position is that "the whole of Israel" (i.e. the Jewish community) should make decisions on Jewish law -- not rabbis or sages or scholars. Now, in his time, Jews were much more observant than they are today. I can understand possibly how such a statement and/or idea could be within reason in the late 19th, early 20th century. But to have such an idea espoused today is sort of ridiculous. Robert Gordis, a leading Conservative rabbi of the 20th century suggested that the idea of "catholic Israel" is completely feasible, but must be reinterpreted so that "the whole of Israel" is instead the whole of Jews who try to observe Jewish law. This seems to me to defeat the purpose, then, of "catholic Israel." Gordis writes in the 2003 version of The Blackwell Companion to Judaism (which I can view nicely on Google Books, btw):
Speaking to the very nature of Conservative Judaism, [Schechter] wrote that contemporary American Jews "accept all the ancient ideas, but they want modern methods, and this, on the whole, may be the definition of Conservative Judaism."
But Schechter's notion that the Jews who made up the nascent Conservative community "accept all the ancient ideas" may have been one of the gravest miscalculatoins of his career and of the movement's founders in general. ... But [the community] did not accept or deny the "ancient ideas" -- indeed, they differed from Schecter and his colleagues in that the worldof ideas was simply not what animated their Jewish lives. ...

The leaders of the movement seem to have intuited this tension early in the movement's history. Whether consciously or not, they assiduously avoided articulating with clarity what they meant by "Catholic Israel," a phrase that Solomon Schechter had introduced when he wrote that "the centre of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body ... the collective consciousness of Catholic Israel. ..." This implicit decision left open the possibility that a largely non-halakhically committed community could still be a legitimate partner in the emerging project called Conservative Judaism.
I've been told that the idea of "catholic Isreal" is still actively espoused among the Conservative community, and it just adds to my derivation of a movement so very confused about what it wants and hopes to be. On this note, it seems that even Schechter perhaps didn't have a firm grasp on the community or how it might change -- or was already changing.

Now. There are 5.9 million Jews in the U.S. (according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey), and according to estimates from a variety of sources, Conservative Judaism claims 1.25-1.5 million individuals who identify themselves as Conservative. It must be noted, though, that of those million plus, the amount that claim synagogue membership is likely half to three-quarters. On that note, Daniel J. Elazar and Charles Liebman "have estimated that there are no more than 40,000-50,000 that live up to the standards of Conservative Judaism as defined by its leadership and who see themselves as Conservative Jews" (from "The Conservative Movement in Judaism," 2000).

Schechter claimed that those who would be members of the movement would most assuredly accept the ancient ideas, and merely want modern methods. But if this is so of "catholic Israel," then why is it that there is the division of the elite and the mass -- the people expecting the rabbis and their families to be more observant than the lay community? Why is it that Elazer and Liebman's figure is so minuscule compared to the larger picture of the Conservative community? If this is true, and if the community, the whole of Israel were to decide on Jewish law, then -- in all honesty -- Jewish practices of custom and halakhic standards would fall entirely by the wayside ...

So, I guess what all of this means is that I disagree entirely with Schechter and his idea of "catholic Israel." I'm not sure what I think alternatively, but I know that Schechter sort of had a pipe dream going on, there, with no anticipation of the extent of assimilation and acculturation. But regardless? Disagreement abounds.

Any thoughts are welcomed, of course. I look forward to comments and considerations! Likewise, if I'm completely off-base in my interpretation of "catholic Israel" or have misunderstood what Schechter was going for, feel free to sock it to me!



Chris said...

There was an article in Slate Magazine that talked about the Conservative identity struggle. It argued that, while Reform and Orthodox communities both espouse ostensibly coherent positions (either accommodation to culture or strict Torah adherence), Conservative Judaism, like much of contemporary Christianity, struggles to have it both ways, and therefore has a hard time reaching any consensus on the right balance.

I don't know if that's true or not, but it makes sense.

Also: very glad to have helped engender a love of Chicago in anybody, let alone you.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Chris, that's pretty much what I've been trying to say :) Of course, many disagree with that position, but what can you do, eh?

Chris said...

Write an article in Slate or a blog post, apparently.

UW is interviewing candidates for a position in Rabbinics. This week's candidate would have really interested you. She's concerned with issues of identity in Classical Rabbinic halakhah--particularly, intermarriage and conversion, and the tension in the law between legal requirements and the human cost thereof.

lxr23g56 said...

I don't really have a comment. But I do want to want to offer the following quote from Rabbi Elliot Dorff's source book entitled "Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors", which by the way is a book I have already recommended to you and still encourage you to pick up, as it is an important (at least in my opinion) resource for understanding conservative Judaism, as it functions today.

The following is from Chapter 2, titled the Developments and Structure of Conservative Judaism, and can be found on pages 23-26
Oh and I apologize in advance for any typos, grammatical and or transcribing mistakes I may have made.

E) "Catholic Israel:"

But if the conservative movement recognizes changes in Jewish law, how can it at the same time conserve it? The answer lies in making the decision of when, what, and how to change a law a matter for communal decision. There is no guarantee that the community or its representatives will be any wiser than an individual, but least then we will be drawing upon the collective wisdom of the people involved. Moreover, that method has preserved Judaism until now. Furthermore, we really cannot do more than try to make intelligent and necessary changes at the appropriate time with the best judgment we can muster: life does not come with guarantees, especially in important decisions.

Among the early leaders of the conservative movement, there were two different programs for gaining communal involvement. Alexander Kohut claimed that legal decision should be made by the rabbis in each generation. In this he was simply restating the way that most decisions had been made in Jewish law from the time of the Bible on words, for Judaism always had entrusted the law to those who knew most about it, the rabbis of each generation. The Jewish community never chose it’s interpreters of the law by vote of the people or by calculation of how much land or money a person had, and heredity ceased to be a relevant factor in the appointment of judges shortly after the destruction of the second Temple. Since Ezra’s time, a person who wanted to gain authority in Jewish law first had to learn enough to earn the authorization to act as teacher or judge. From the first century CE on words, those who gained the authorization were called "rabbis," or "teachers," as a given sign of their education, and to this day they are the ones who make decisions regarding Jewish law. Kohut would continue that practice:

a religious guide is the Torah, a law of Moses, interpreted and applied in the light of tradition. But in as much as individual opinion cannot be valid for the whole community, it behooves individuals and communities to appoint only recognize authorities as teachers; such men, that is to say, as acknowledge the leaf in authority, and who, at the same time, with comprehension and tact, are willing to consider what be permitted in view of the exigencies of the times and what may be discarded without changing the nature and character of the foundations of the faith. (End note 13)

there was always another factor that influenced Jewish law, however that was the customs of the people. These decisions of the rabbis and the practices of the people were often indetical, but sometimes they were not. When that happened the rabbis sometimes attempted to change the practices of the people. The decisions of the rabbis in the practices of the people were often identical, but sometimes they were not. When that happened the rabbis sometimes attempted to change the practices of the people to fit the law, but sometimes they adjusted the law to fit the customs of the people. In factin some cases the customs became so strong that the Roberts claimed that “custom upper roots a legal decision." (end note 14) in any case, Jewish law was always a product of an interaction between the rabbis and the rest of the Jewish people. In recognition of that, Solomon Schechter, president of the re-organize seminary from 1902 to his death in 1915, claimed that Jewish law should be determined by "Catholic Israel."

We are used to using the term "Catholic" as a proper name referring to the Catholic Church and not as a common adjective describing other things, and so we have to be careful here to avoid misunderstanding. " Catholic" means "the whole of," and thus "catholic Israel" means the whole of "Israel," or "the whole of the Jewish community. " that was Schechter's translation of the Hebrew term "Klal Israel, " and he uses it to indicate that decisions in Jewish law should be determined by the practices of the whole community of Israel:

another consequence of this conception of tradition is that neither Scripture nor primitive Judaism, but general custom which forms the real rule practice. Holy Writ as well is history... Teaches at the law of Moses was never fully and absolutely put in practice. Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions. Hence a return to Mosaism would be illegal, pernicious [destruct of], and indeed impossible. The norm [laws] as well as the sanction [authority] of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use-or, in other words are of Catholic Israel.

Since.. The inception of Scripture or secondary meaning [in addition to what is meant originally] is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authorities is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary meaning. This living body, however, is not where presented by any action of the nation, or any corporate priesthood, or Rabbihood, but by the collective conscious of Catholic Israel as embodied in the universal synagogue. (End note 15)

In Schechter's time, most Jews were observant, and therefore he could confidently base decisions in Jewish law on the practices of Jewish community. In our own time, most Jews do not observe Jewish law, and therefore we cannot look to the practices of the whole Jewish community to decide issues in Jewish law. If we were to do that, then almost all of the major practices of Judaism would fall by the wayside! Still, the concept of "catholic israel" makes sense and remains an important part of the process of making decisions in Jewish law if we follow the reinterpretation suggested by Robert Gordis and consider only the practices of the Jews who try to observe Jewish law in making decisions. (End Note 16) that is certainly the group to whom we refer or we talk about the custom of Jewish communities in the past, and it is that group to whom we must refer today too if we are to understand the interaction between the rabbis in the community, between din (law) and minhag (custom).

Those who are not observant may still be Jews, but their own choices to neglect the Laws of Judaism excludes them from consideration when we want to know the minhag. It is, of course, regrettable that so many Jews are not observant - and Conservative Judaism has been increasingly trying to correct that situation - but Schechter's concept is still crucial for an adequate understanding of Jewish law.

In every age it has been the decisionS of the rabbis and the practices of the observant Jewish community which together determine the nature of Jewish law and which together make the decisions communal decisions. Just as observant communities have had differing interpretations of Jewish thought and practice in times past, so too in the present there may well be several separate understandings of proper Jewish observant among the various communities of observant Jews - the spectrum within Conservative Jewish practice, the various American Orthodox groups, the various segments of Israeli Orthodox Jews, Sephardic Jews, etc. The original founders of conservative Judaism hoped to formulate an interpretation of Judaism for the entire American Jewish community, but historical model of several different communities won out -and perhaps it is better that way.

The Conservative Movement, then, is new in the historical method that it applies to Judaism and history, but is traditional in that it maintains much of the tradition from generation to generation and is yet willing to make changes when necessary or desirable. There were other beliefs that the early leaders of Conservative Judaism had, and we shall discuss them in detail in Chapter 4. The concepts of positive-historical Judaism and Catholic Israel were the major ideas that brought them together and found a seminary and ultimately a movement; on other issues they exercised considerable freedom of opinion.

As Schechter said:

The historical school has, never to my knowledge, offered to the world a theological program of its own. By the nature of its task... It pays but little attention to purely dogmatic questions.... As far as we may gather from vague remarks and hints thrown out now and then, it's theological position may perhaps be thus defined - it is not the mere reveal Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by tradition.(End Note 17)

The method and program contained in the notions of positive-historical Judaism and Catholic Israel were more than enough, however, to launch a new movement and to give it a distinctive character.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Avi -- that text is actually available online :D and I actually looked into it while writing my blog entry!

Thank you :)


David said...

Chavi: As someone who belongs to a Conservative synagogue, I hear these arguments put forth all the time: that the Conservative movement is neither fish nor fowl, doesn't know what it wants or stands for, wants to have it both ways, and so on.

I'm a member of a synagogue, not a movement. Still, I'm sensitive to these characterizations, because they seem to apply a broad brush to what the Conservative movement (if you can call it that) really is. I think it's actually a constant process of examination and adjustment: the attempt to adhere to law, but not for law's sake; to see ancient directives in light of modern circumstances; and a philosophy that is committed to walking up to the line of Orthodoxy without ever unquestionably or rigidly crossing it.

The first two characteristics are true of any Jewish movement, in fact any religious denomination at all; the last is uniquely Conservative (capital C). And I think it's important. It's not for everyone, but it's still important. It works for me because I think much of Orthodoxy (again, applying a broad brush) denies the validity of Modern thought, and in so doing, it refuses to build on the few but real wisdoms that come to us from millennia of experience. There are numerous finer distinctions to be made, of course, but the key thing is this: Conservative Judaism is willing to take the difficult and most ambiguous position, and to defend and adhere to it anyway: that halakha is rooted in a deep relationship with the Divine, but that this relationship does not forbid us from advancing; just from reinventing Judaism out of whole cloth.

The joke I often hear is that a Conservative shul has an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform congregation. Sadly, this is often true. But I invite you up to Deerfield sometime, to attend services at Moriah Congregation with me. We have many faults as a group, but our davennen is heartfelt and literate. And our Kiddush lunch is to die for.

Be well, and Shabbat Shalom.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

David -- Wow! Thank you so much for your comments. I think that you speak with the tongue of a confident, Conservative Jew who understands clearly the situation. Add to that the fact that you write very eloquently, and I'd say you provided the most intelligent, well-composed "argument" for Conservative Judaism I have read/heard to date. Your confidence and what appears to be a passion for where you are Jewishly inspires me, even in such a brief comment.

And your comment about the Orthodox rabbi and the Reform congregation -- wowzas -- that just clicked. It seems so very accurate. Though, it would appear that you likely end up in the portion of CJs who are so very small, compared to the mass.

I'm not sure how far Deerfield is, but I'll have to consider it. I don't have a car though, so my life is sort of in a bubble.

Thank you again for popping by, I really really appreciate your thoughts.


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