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