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.

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