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Liberals and conservatives

Why is it that religious progressives seek interaction with, approval from, and common ground with religious conservatives, but not vice versa? (For the purposes of this post, and in fact in general in this blog, please assume that when I capitalize Conservative I'm talking about the Conservative Movement, and when I use the miniscule "c" I mean opposite-of-liberal.)

I can't say for certain how this one plays out in other traditions, but in Judaism there's a complicated dynamic between the denominations. I know a bunch of Jews from liberal backgrounds who make a conscious effort to learn more about (small-c) conservative/traditional liturgy and observance (witness Shira's decision to learn to davven from the Artscroll, or, heck, any number of posts at Baraita) but I'm not sure I can call to mind an instance of a religiously-conservative/Orthodox friend or relative saying, "Hey, you know, in the interest of preserving the unity of k'lal Yisrael [the greater Jewish community] I ought to learn how those other guys pray."

Obviously this is anecdotal, and readers can probably give me counter-examples. (In fact, I really hope you will.) And please don't misread me as saying that conservative or Orthodox Jews don't care about the rest of us or don't have an interest in dialogue; the mere existence of people like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would disprove that nonsense in a heartbeat. What I'm saying is that it seems to me that liberal Jews often feel like we should be reaching out to conservative Jews, and I'm not sure that feeling is mirrored on the other side of the divide.

This may be because it's easier for people who hew to a liberal interpretation to "visit" the land of strict interpretations than it is to go the other way. (For instance, if my dietary practice were an eco-kashrut one in which I strove to eat only foods which have been sustainably farmed and harvested, I could pop into a kosher restaurant and try a glatt kosher meal with little difficulty. Whereas if my dietary practice were strict separation of milk and meat, down to separate plates, I probably wouldn't feel comfortable eating in a place where the meat, however organic, comes in the form of a cheeseburger.)

Alternately, this trend may have something to do with how people at different points on the traditional-practice spectrum regard the rightness of their path. Which is to say, many of the liberal Jews I know regard our kind of Judaism as the right way for us, but not the right way for everyone; indeed, many of us disagree with the stance that one "right way" exists at all. I'm not sure that perspective is shared at the traditionalist end of the spectrum. It stands to reason that folks who understand their way as the way mightn't have a lot of discernible interest in intra-denominational ecumenicism.

I see some historical factors which point to why the "our way is the right way" view might be dominant at that end of the spectrum. Here's a story. Once upon a time there was only one kind of Judaism. Then the Reform movement sprung forth from the head of Zeus Haskalah (a Jewish counterpart to the German Enlightenment), seeking to imbue Judaism with some enlightenment values. They did wacky things like promoting vernacular prayer (how, er, Lutheran of them) and scrapping "outdated" concepts like angels and literal resurrection of the dead. In response to that, the other kind of Judaism began to call itself Orthodoxy; they liked the way things already were and they considered those so-called innovations assimilationist. In response to that, a new group formed which liked some of the ideas behind Reform philosophy (specifically, they had a strong interest in bringing rationalist/scientific thinking to bear on Torah) but didn't want to be as far-out as the Reformim, and they called themselves Conservative Judaism. Then, in the twentieth century, a Conservative rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan decided to revitalize his denomination and wound up creating Reconstructionism almost by accident. And then Jewish Renewal arose in the latter half of that century out of a desire to combine the liberal thinking of Reform Judaism with the esoteric teachings and liturgical joy of Hasidism. And that's how Judaism came to have the landscape it has today.

Okay, obviously that's essentialist and barely sketches the real story. Also, I ignored the conflict between the emerging ecstatic Hasidic movements and their Law-focused "opponents" the mitnagdim, which predated all of the above. How Judaism came to be such a rainbow of fruit flavors denominations is a nifty subject that could fill many books, and in fact has done. (For the record, the synopsis I sketched in the previous paragraph was largely drawn from George Robinson's Essential Judaism.) But my larger point is this: the Ur-Judaism, the standard Rabbinic Judaism that predominated for so many centuries, grew into what we now call Orthodoxy. Which might explain why some people at the Orthodox end of the spectrum believe they're doing Judaism "right," (and by extension, the rest of us aren't, quite) and why they're therefore not all that interested in learning to pray, or interpret Torah, like their liberal cousins do.

There's a larger question at work here, which is: what purpose does that kind of cross-denominational outreach serve? So what if I learn to davven the amidah the way my Orthodox cousins do? If it doesn't resonate for me, if I'm still more comfortable praying it in other ways, what does it matter? Why would it matter if my Orthodox cousins learned to sing the adoration? Would the Jewish world really change if we tasted each others' ways?

Some might argue that it's good for everyone to share knowledge of the traditional texts, but that there's less merit (or no merit) in everyone learning liberal or contemporary stuff. According to that line of thinking, it would benefit me (a liberal Jew) to study Talmud because generations of Jews before me have done so and because yeshiva buchers study it today, but a (conservative) yeshiva student might not benefit from reading  Judith Plaskow or The Five Books of Miriam.

But I would argue that it does matter, and that the learning should absolutely happen on all sides. If we're to attempt to continue being a single Jewish community (multifaceted though we, and our practices, may be), we need common ground. We can all agree that Torah is important, but how we interpret Torah differs wildly. We can all agree that prayer is important, but how we davven differs wildly. We can all agree on the importance of mitzvot (commandments) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), but we differ wildly on which ones we think are most important. Those differences are fine! They're good! They're healthy! But I feel strongly that we need to learn to communicate despite our differences -- indeed, because of them. We don't have to homogenize how we do things (what an unthinkable loss that would be) but we do need to respect one another's ways of being Jewish. And for me, one way to show respect is to learn a little bit from each other. Which requires participation on both sides of the dynamic. Which is why I'm thinking so much about why that dynamic seems lop-sided to me.

Hence, my theory about religious conservatives experiencing their Jewishness as "the right way," and religious liberals experiencing their Jewishness as "a right way," and that disjunction sparking other disjunctions all the way down the line. (That theory coincidentally relates to how I'm currently seeing the American political landscape, in which progressives bend over backwards to find common ground with conservatives but the effort doesn't seem to be mutual. But that's another story, nevermind, anyway.) Of course, being a theory, it's no more than a hypothesis at this point; I'm not sure it's correct, and I'd love to know what y'all think. Does this theory make sense to you? Am I completely off-base? Do your experiences paint a totally different picture? (And, on a related note: if you're not Jewish, does this kind of thing happen in your religious community too?) Chime in, because I'm genuinely fascinated by this, and I'd love a good conversation.