Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A New Name for 'Conservative Judaism': My Worst Idea Ever

From time to time, someone suggests renaming "Conservative Judaism." The name is technically accurate. In this context, "conservative" refers to "conserving" or "preserving". The movement was a reaction against the more extreme move away from tradition that late 19th Century Reform Judaism was advocating. However, when people hear the name, they typically think of "conservative" as meaning "not liberal", and thus think of the movement as some sort of right-wing version of Judaism, which it is not.

To solve this problem, people have offered suggestions for a new name. R. David Wolpe has advocated changing the name to "Covenantal Judaism." Daniel J. Elazar and Rela Mintz Geffen in "The Conservative Movement in Judaism" have suggested renaming it "Masorti Judaism", which means "traditional" and is the name of the movement in Israel. (I think this is a bad idea --- most Americans will have no idea what this means.)

I do not have better suggestion, but I have a much worse suggestion. In fact, this might be the worst name conceivable. Obviously, one could pick a simple derogatory name, and it would be bad. But this one is quite accurate, as well as absolutely terrible.

One important theme in Conservative Judaism is balancing between tradition and change. And if viewed in this light, all versions of Judaism are forms of Conservative Judaism; they just strike the balance at different points. Thus, Conservative Judaism is actually universal. With this and Solomon Schechter in mind, my super-accurate and terribly misleading new name for Conservative Judaism is "Catholic Judaism." I don't think it can be more confusing than that.

(Just to clarify. Schechter argued that the ultimate authority for halacha did not rest in the Talmud but instead in the Jewish people as a whole, or k'lal Yisrael. He referred to this in English as "Catholic Israel", where "catholic" means universal or comprehensive. Needless to say, the label never really caught on.)

If anyone has an accurately descriptive but much worse name for Conservative Judaism --- or for Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism --- leave a comment. Needless to say (but I'll say it), don't be crude or insulting.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Rhythm and Sometimes Lack of Rhythm of the Calendar.

Most of the time, there is a nice rhythm to the Jewish calendar. The stories in the Torah unfold chronologically, from creation at the beginning of Genesis to Moses's death at the end of Deuteronomy. Each week, we move forward a little in the story.

And most of the holidays fit in nicely, or at least do not clash, with this rhythm. During the long narratives of Genesis in the fall and early winter, there are no holidays. Tu B'shvat comes in the middle of the Exodus story, but celebrates trees, not a historical event. We finish reading about the Exodus from Egypt, and move to the slow legislation of Leviticus when Passover rolls around. And the numerous major holidays in the fall --- Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot --- all occur during the final weeks of Deuteronomy, where there is no real narrative, only a final speech by Moses.

But things are a little more dissonant this time of the year. The Torah parshot over the past few weeks covered the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the movement of the whole family to Egypt. This is a prelude to slavery and the exodus. We just finished celebrating Chanukah, celebrating the defeat of the Syrian-Greeks and the rededication the Second Temple around 165 BCE. Today is the 10th of Tevet, which commemorates the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar's attack on the First Temple in 588 BCE. So in the past two weeks or so, we have focused on three very different stories in three very different periods.

I guess when both history and Torah readings are coiled around an annual calendar, it is not surprising that disparate things sometimes end up next to each other.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Possible Reasons for the Gaza Invastion

Jewish Atheist has a post making an intelligent case against Israel's actions. Essentially, he argues that while Israel has the right to defend itself, this military action is not likely to accomplish its objections and stop Hamas rockets (which can be easily made). So this action is likely to kill lots of Palestinians and not accomplish much.

JA's challenge is a reasonable one. Obviously, Israel cannot simply "defeat" Hamas and end the problem. But I think there are three strategic objectives that Israel has and that it could accomplish that might meet JA's objection.

1. By killing Hamas fighters and destroying a lot of Hamas's resources, it simply makes it more difficult for Hamas to fire rockets. It won't stop it, but it will reduce it. If the numbers go from (say) 200 rockets per day to 195 rockets per day, the Israeli attack might not be worth it. But if it goes from 200 rockets per day to 30 rockets per day, it might be worth it.

2. The "international community" (if that is even a coherent term) has been ignoring Hamas's rocket attacks. If they put pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire, there is a reasonable chance that the cease-fire agreement will include some provisions for monitoring Hamas rocket attacks, tunnels, arms, etc. And that would be a step forward.

3. Israel's attacks might raise the cost to Palestinians of voting for Hamas over Fatah. I've got to think that an ordinary Palestinian citizen in Gaza is quite conflicted now. On the one hand, he or she hates Israel, blames Israel for the killings, and wants revenge. This action risks further radicalizing Gaza (assuming that this is even possible). On the other hand, the average Palestinian in Gaza is probably thinking that the West Bank looks like a much nicer place to be right around now (not to mention Egypt or Jordan). And the average Palestinian certainly realizes that Hamas's rocket attacks are a but-for cause of the Israeli military attacks, regardless of whether the attacks are justified or not.

The next time there is an election, the Palestinians must sort out these conflicting thoughts and decide whether to vote for Hamas or Fatah. This attack might push at least some Palestinians towards Fatah.