When my parents made aliyah this past summer I had to clean boxes of papers, articles, and documents I had collected over the years. One of the gems I dug up was the following letter my father wrote Robert Gordis in resigning from the Rabbinical Assembly and leaving Conservative Judaism.
This letter may be of academic interest to a historian, religious sociologist, or even fans of my father. Others may find useful comparisons or contrasts with the current state of liberal Orthodox Judaisms. For myself, it represents a salient moment in the life of the person who has imparted to me most of my Torah and approach to Judaism and life. I would also venture to say that this letter is so indicative of my father’s hadracha that if one keeps the essence of the logical argument while substituting names and institutions, this letter could be reprinted by him today. My father has told me privately that he patterned his letter after Abraham Joshua Heschel’s own letter of resignation.
With my father’s permission I am publishing his letter of resignation from the Rabbinical Assembly and his disaffiliation from Conservative Judaism.
19 Av, 5747
14 August 1987
Dr. Robert Gordis
15 East 84th Street
New York, New York 10028
Dear Dr. Gordis:
Thank you for your solicitious letter of July 31, 1987. While I am always interested in what you have to say and write, my decision to leave the Conservative Movement remains firm.
For many years you have advocated the formulation of a philosophy statement for Conservative Judaism, which you described as having “both feet planted firmly in mid-air.” As this emerging Conservative self-definition developed,
it became clear to me that I do not belong.
While Conservative Judaism talks about halakhah, it practices Jewish style. Your discomfort with hilkhot niddah at the last conference and in your book on Jewish sexuality indicates to me that what you mean by halakhah is very different from what I believe and practice. Historical method is not the issue. Professor Menahem Elon also studies Jewish law “Historically,” but he never advocates the position that requires suspension of difficult, inconvenient, or embarrassing rules. I believe in a Metsaveh and mitzvah; at best, Conservative rabbis take these words metaphorically. For Conservative Judaism, critical scholarship teaches that one must understand the tradition through relativist eyes; I use scholarship to help me understand the words of my sacred literature so I can understand exactly what my religious obligations happen to be.
It is unpleasant to always raise objections, and it is not nice to be cast as the obstinate reactionary. Ugly ducklings must find appropriate ponds. I am not a Conservative Jew any more. How can I remain a Conservative rabbi?
I have come to realize that for most people, “ethics” refers to the values that make them feel good. But we are commanded to be holy, not happy. The values encoded in Jewish Tradition are not congruent with the values of the secular academy, and all liberal Judaisms, Conservative Judaism included, look to this knowledge class for approval. This secular community has decided that gender neutrality is a dogma, so Conservative Judaism, in its desire to be current, agrees on “ethical” grounds.
I believe that the modern Jew is given the choice to choose between two irreconcilable orthodoxies. Given the vehemence, which has assumed eschatological proportions, in which the issues of women rabbis and cantors has been pushed–Dr. Schorsch pointed to a 9-3 decision of the CJLS in 1974 without telling anyone that the 9 votes opposed women cantors and he waves the so-called “Roth responsum” which was not even accepted by the CJLS or the faculty of JTS–it is clear that feminism is now a new fundamentalism. I choose the orthodoxy of Jewish tradition over the orthodoxy of current secular taste.
Continued debate is possible when the participants share a common theological frame of reference. My positions are not recognized as “Conservative” by my RA colleagues; you characterized my essay on patrilinearity with the words “with enemies like me, orthodoxy is in no need of friends.” Conservative Judaism and I have both evolved, but in different directions. While I cannot deny my biography, I must not ignore my conscience. It is for this reason that I have resigned my position on the Committee on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism and have withdrawn my membership in the Rabbinical Assembly of America. My views concerning the Authorship and content of the Torah, the nature of my committment [sic] to halakhah, and the rabbinic community that shares my ideals force me to look elsewhere for my religious home.
As a man who respects intellectual honesty and religious integrity, I do hope that you can appreciate, even if you cannot agree, with the direction that I have taken.
Alan J. Yuter
Alan Yuter – Letter of Resignation From the RA and Conservative Judaism by Rabbi Joshua Yuter
Did he become Orthodox?
He subsequently received multiple ordinations from Orthodox institutions including YU and the Israeli rabbinate, joined the RCA, and served as a Rav in Orthodox / Mechitza congregations until last year. I think it would be most accurate, based on his thought and the nature of Orthodox Judaism to say he “affiliated” Orthodox instead of “becoming” Orthodox.
beautiful letter. He lays out the divisions clearly and succinctly.
With the recent debates regarding Maharat within the Orthodox community, I think this letter sadly highlights an ongoing trend. Your father lists some philosophical problems with the Conservative movement, but philosophy isn’t practice. When it comes to specific examples of bad practice in Conservative Judaism, almost every example is about the role of women in Jewish life and leadership. I do not doubt that your father had very good and more nuanced reasons to leave the Conservative movement and could think of dozens of additional examples. Still, when picking a few examples, the role of women is central.
Since his letter, it seems like restrictions on the role of women has become the central practice that creates a sharp divide between Orthodoxy and other Jewish movements (and the rigidity of those restrictions on what distinguishes branches within Orthodoxy).
Thank for you posting this — I think this kind of thing is very important to document. I believe that the current chief rabbi of Poland was a Conservative rabbi who left the Conservative movement and became Orthodoxy. It would be interesting to see if he has ever explained how he changed his mind.
I don’t know if anyone has published a comprehensive analysis of why the Conservative movement is heretical or fundamentally inconsistent with traditional Judaism — hopefully this will be done one day, in a way that encourages more Conservatives Jews to affiliate Orthodox.
A few random notes:
1) Conservative Judaism has explicitly changed or abandoned both Torah and rabbinic mitzvos. I think an important example that’s often overlooked is that the movement suspended all restrictions on kohanim marriages (converts, divorcees, etc.) in the 50s.
2) I’ve heard Conservative rabbi say things like “I don’t hold by the laws of yichud.” Many seem to have a Reform mentality, choosing whether a particular body of halacha appeals to them before deciding whether to observe it.
3) I believe many Conservative communities have no mikvah and no access to a mikvah, though some congregations are regaining an interest in this mitzvah.
It’s not the only point of division. Other things, I would argue, are even more fundamental. Conservative Judaism views itself as having a kind of Sandhedrin that can cancel Torah and rabbinic mitzvos that have been practiced for thousands of years (like kohanim marriage restrictions and counting seven clean days before mikvah). Conservative Judaism also denies the Sinaitic origin of the oral law. These attitudes toward halacha are what created the fundamental rift between the traditional and Orthodox hashkafa and the innovations of the Conservative movement. Gender issues, such as ordaining women and mechitza have some halachic basis, but are really more rooted in a vague respect for tradition, so they don’t really get at the basic distinction between the Orthodox and heterodox.
I’m not saying it’s the only point of division. I’m saying whenever someone wants to break from the movement or say a person isn’t really Orthodox, it’s almost always over the roles of women.
I assume Rabbi Alan Yuter joined the Conservative rabbinate when there was already the CJLS as their halachic interpretation body. He already joined well after the decision on driving to shul. He joined well after many other of these things that you mention were common practice. When he quit, he cited women.
I’m not sure about your generalization, but regarding this case, yes, he cited women. But he also made clear he rejected the Conservative attitude toward halacha in general: that is, suspending or ignoring “difficult, inconvenient, or embarrassing rules.”
It’s ok, I would have forgiven even an undocumented correction of your father’s typo – committment – without questioning your honesty or integrity. Gosh, it seems like people feel they have to be so careful these days.
It’s to his advantage. It’s a way of saying this typo is his, all others are mine.
I was brought up Conservative and became a Ba’al Teshuva in college. I try to explain to older Conservative Jews (my parents and their generation). Because I became “Orthodox” and much more ideologically conservative, it was easy for them to dismiss my warnings as conspiracy theories about how the Conservative movement has been co-opted, essentially, by the Reform movement and Liberal ideology (enviro-statism, anti-life, alternative-lifestyle, marxism, patrilineal descent, etc…)
I wish there were more people like your father, with the courage to finally speak up. Unfortunately, most of the sheeple just mindlessly continue in their stupor. It’s going to cause a very large problem for the next generation of Jews, because at that point, many of them might not even be Jews any more.
Hope you dont mind, I am taking a few of these ideas and asking some questions of my personal leadership..
I don’t mind at all (if you meant to respond to me). Hatzlacha!
It already has caused the problem and did so decades ago.