Oct 17, 2008

NY Jewish Week: A Movement in Transition

A Movement In Transition

by Stewart Ain
Staff Writer - NY Jewish Week
Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove, right, Steven M. Friedman, Park Avenue Synagogue's board chairman, at the rabbi's recent installation.The Conservative movement's beliefs and practices need clarifying, Rabbi Cosgrove says. Courtesy of Park Avenue Synagogue
When the Conservative movement was faced with contradictory rabbinic rulings regarding gay ordination two years ago, a young Chicago rabbi tried to find a common theological view. 

Now the rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove, is again pushing the envelope, calling upon the Conservative movement to re-examine its institutional structure "in a way that is coherent to the very Jews it claims to serve."

Rabbi Cosgrove, who was installed last month as the senior rabbi of the 1,500-family Park Avenue Synagogue on East 87th Street, perhaps Manhattan's flagship Conservative shul, pointed out in an interview that it was nearly 100 years ago that "Solomon Schechter set up the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue and the Jewish Theological Seminary."

"It strikes me that a fair question is whether this organizational model is the most effective structure 100 years later," said the rabbi, 36, whose appointment here is seen as recognition that he is one of the new leaders of the Conservative movement.

Such a re-examination now would be opportune because the senior paid executives of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue will be retiring next year, Rabbi Cosgrove noted.

"The moment of transition is precisely the moment to raise the question about the next 100 years of the movement, not to mention the fact that I always look at this from the vantage point of the Jews in the pews," he said.

With the current structure, the "Jews in the pews" have what Rabbi Cosgrove described as "the Herculean task of sorting out a single movement as represented by the seminary, the United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly, Masorti [the movement in Israel], Masorti Olami [the movement in South America and Europe], the University of Judaism, Women's League and the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs."

Not only is the movement's infrastructure confusing, he maintained, but the movement's beliefs and practices are also in need of clarification in light of a narrowing of differences between Conservative and Reform Judaism.

"I would like to see Chancellor Arnold Eisen and President [David] Ellenson clearly clarify the difference between Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, both in theory and in practice," he said.

Eisen is chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbi Ellenson is president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Cosgrove's call for such a clarification comes at a time when the Conservative movement's ideology is in a state of flux. The former provost of the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, Jack Wertheimer, wrote in Commentary magazine last year that the movement's split decision on gay ordination "has taken on the signs of ideological impasse" and that the movement should "get back to basics."

The Conservative movement, Wertheimer maintained, "has relied mostly on assertions of what it is not ... rather than on affirmations of what it is."

Rabbi Cosgrove pointed out that the Reform movement "is showing increased attention to Jewish rituals, the Hebrew language and observance" while the Conservative movement "is seeking to position itself as a viable halachic [Jewish law] alternative to Orthodoxy. And people are asking, 'Where precisely is the line between Reform and Conservative Judaism?'"

At the same time, the rabbi observed that American Jewry is "increasingly if not entirely post-denominational."

"I don't think movement labels bring people to the door," he said. "People are looking for relevant, dynamic and compelling communities that enable their Judaism to speak to their day-to-day lives. The challenge the Conservative movement faces is how to communicate the values the movement stands for in a post-denominational world.

"I firmly believe with a full heart that American Jews want a passionate, uplifting Jewish life that doesn't ask them to check their intellect at the door. I believe American Jews are searching for the language of how to affirm their own faith while respecting the integrity of other faith claims. The ideals Conservative Judaism stands for are just as relevant now as they ever were. The problem of Conservative Judaism isn't what we believe in — we are very well positioned to meet the special needs of our time. The problem is that we as a movement are akin to the man in the classic parable who goes searching the world for a treasure that is ultimately discovered beneath his own home."

Rabbi Cosgrove, a native of Los Angeles whose father was president of Sinai Temple there and whose grandfather served as an Orthodox rabbi in Glasgow, Scotland, said the Conservative movement's ability to adapt with the times is part of its strength.

"A movement doesn't require a fixed ideological position," he said. "It represents a critical conversation for the future vitality of our people. ... The excitement of Conservative Judaism is that it includes two ideologies like Rabbi Gordon Tucker's and Rabbi Joel Roth's," who espouse opposite opinions on gay ordination.

Their debate, Rabbi Cosgrove argued, "draws our attention to the nature of the halachic process. Movements aren't static. They evolve and a movement that claims to always be aware of historical context inevitably will always be responsive to the community of Jews in which it functions."

But there are limits to where the Conservative movement should go despite a changing world, said Rabbi Cosgrove, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and previously served as spiritual leader of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. One is patrilineal descent, which says that a person is a Jew if he or she was born to a Jewish father or mother and then formally identifies with the Jewish faith, or who converted to Judaism.

Although the Reform movement adopted this position in 1983, both the Conservative and Orthodox movements continue to recognize matrilineal descent, in which Jewish identity is passed through the mother only or by conversion. The Talmud says matrilineal descent is Torah law.

Rabbi Cosgrove said matrilineal descent "needs to remain firm, and our continued efforts to encourage building Jewish marriages should be ongoing."

He noted that the Conservative movement "is showing an increasing willingness to reach out to the non-Jew in a Jewish family. ... It's inconceivable to me to teach, preach or practice a vision of Jewish life that doesn't acknowledge that most North American Jewish families have a non-Jewish member somewhere in them. In-marriage is still a Jewish value, and so what we're seeking to do is to create an inclusive mode of Jewish existence that still places a premium on core Jewish values."

Reflecting upon his new position here, Rabbi Cosgrove said his challenge is to "bring the spirit of religious entrepreneurship to synagogue life. ... The opportunity for me as the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue is how to take that energy and bring it within the four walls of this institution. And more importantly, how to bring the Jews of the Upper East Side into the Park Avenue Synagogue family."

"If one day I can walk into this building and see a packed room of excited high school students, that would mean they have come up through the system, celebrated their bar or bat mitzvah and continued developing their Jewish identities. We would be sending them off to college with a deep commitment to their Judaism. At that point I'd know that I have done something great. ... "The holy grail for me is when the children of Park Avenue Synagogue return to New York for their first jobs or graduate school and walk back in as adults to the congregation in which they grew up."

As children played noisily on the street outside of his synagogue office, Rabbi Cosgrove, married and the father of four, summed up his thoughts about the Conservative movement.

"There is no catechism to the Conservative movement — no one dogma," he said. "The question is not which checklist of beliefs you want to sign off on. The question for post-denominational Jewry is which movement best represents your aspirations and your struggles as a contemporary Jew. I believe the values that Conservative Judaism struggles with and elevates are precisely those that are of deepest concern to American Jewry."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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