My name is Michael Knopf. I grew up at a Conservative synagogue; I spent my summers at Camp Ramah in New England, a Conservative movement camp; as a teen, I was president of my Atlanta chapter of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth arm, and served as a regional and international vice president of the organization; I was trained as a rabbi by a Conservative-affiliated school; and I am still a proud Conservative Jew.
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The last of those characteristics is not necessarily my newest, but it is the one that I feel most compelled to emphasize, given current events. Last week, the teen leaders of USY voted to change the language of the religious and behavioral standards that they have voluntarily held themselves to since the 1970s. In the past, to take on a regional or international leadership position in USY, one had to commit to refraining from “relationships which can be construed as interdating.” Last week, at the body’s international convention in Atlanta, leaders elected to modify the language of that standard.
The change set off a firestorm of reaction in the Jewish press and on social media. The most stinging critiques (as has repeatedly proven to be the case whenever the movement is seen by some to shift leftward) came from self-professed “former Conservative Jews” who accused USY, and by extension the Conservative movement, of once again selling out its values for market share. As one such critic put it, USY in this instance set “its commitment to its original, cardinal principles [sic] aside in an effort to salvage some of its continually dwindling membership.” Ouch.
Those outside the Conservative movement revel in reading and writing these types of broadsides. And many within the movement feel especially pained by them. To both camps, the critiques seem indicative of a failed movement, one that appears freely and repeatedly willing to sell its soul, and one that finds its best and brightest abandoning or turning against it.
But what makes for good click-bait does not necessarily convey truth. The truth is that the change the USYers effected last week was not a betrayal of Conservative Jewish values but, rather, a principled defense and fulfillment of them. And, it seems to me, those who deride or jettison the movement as a response to those or other changes probably never quite felt at home under our ideological umbrella.
Conservative Judaism is premised on the belief that while the Torah is a God-given gift and the Jewish people has a covenantal responsibility to live by its teachings, the exact content of Jewish religious norms are open to interpretation and change. Of course, not every change proves to be wise or good, and change in an ancient tradition should not be taken lightly. A tradition with no continuity is a fad. At the same time, every generation has unique needs and often faces novel circumstances. A tradition that has no mechanism for interpretation and adaptation risks becoming a fossil. The articulation of Jewish standards in every age must thus always balance responsiveness to the needs of a living Jewish community with loyalty to its ancestors’ wisdom.
If one believes that the Torah has timeless wisdom that can help people flourish today, that the Jewish people has a unique mission to heal a broken world, and that the covenant between God and Israel is eternal, then, it seems to me, it should be a cardinal sin for Judaism to become either a fossil or a fad. I have long felt that Conservative Judaism is the only contemporary Jewish path that deliberately and self-consciously strives for that balance of maintaining the integrity of the Jewish tradition while utilizing the tradition itself to facilitate necessary change.
The changes to the USY standards of leadership are completely in line with that sacred charge. These USYers affirmed the integrity of a traditional value, "the importance of dating within the Jewish community,” while facilitating a change they saw as necessary to enable Torah to remain accessible and relevant for a new generation. In this case, the necessary change was ensuring that even those teens who date outside the faith and, more importantly, those who happen to come from interfaith families, will feel that USY is a welcoming and inclusive space for them to engage though Judaism in meaningful ways. In other words, the teens acknowledged a dramatically changing reality and tried to craft an authentically Jewish response to it that welcomes people into relationship with God, Torah, and community rather than shutting doors in their face.
Moreover, these incredible and dedicated teens did more than simply hold out the torch of Torah to a wider circle of people. Through their new standards, they reinforced deeply important traditional Jewish values: that Judaism says more about relationships than, simply, “Don’t date non-Jews”; that Judaism demands that we treat every human being with whom we interact honorably, as a reflection of God’s image. And through the other standards the teens adopted in the same vote, they insisted upon the traditional Jewish abhorrence of bullying and gossip.
The critics are entitled to affiliate with whatever movement they wish. If the Conservative movement is not the right place for them, “the Torah has 70 faces” (Numbers Rabah 13:15-16) and they should find the Jewish home that’s right for their mind, heart, and soul. But these USYers did precisely what Conservative Jews are supposed to do. As a Conservative Jew, a Conservative rabbi, and a USY alumnus, I admire their courage, their wisdom, and their dedication to Torah. They are a reminder of why I am and will proudly remain, by choice, a Conservative Jew.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.