Sunday, February 24, 2008

What’s in a Name?
by: Schvach Yid

Catholic Israel? Huh? I’ve searched for the paper in which this bit of Conservative Movement philosophy was first introduced and espoused in 1896(?) by one of the founding machers of the Conservative Movement, Solomon Schechter, but alas, my effort has been fruitless, except for a brief (I assume) excerpt found in Marshall Sklare’s An American Religious Movement, Conservative Judaism (1985, University Press of America, Inc.). So if anyone who reads this can provide me with a link to the on-line text, thanks in advance.

The concept of Catholic Israel has subsequently been re-defined by Robert Gordis, but here’s the bit from Schechter, via Sklare:
It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition…Since then the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning. This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood…but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue

Schechter continues: Another consequence of this conception of Tradition is that it is neither Scripture nor primitive Judaism, but general custom which forms the real rule of practice…Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions…The norm as well as the sanction of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use – or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.

Voguish Judaism? Do as you please Judaism? What’s catholic about that? Remember, the etymology of catholic derives from the Greek katholikos, meaning universal or general, but those who conceived this contentious title had to have had something else in mind, I assume, especially given that the founding raison d’être of the Conservative Movement was in response to another free-minded version of Judaism, Reform Judaism, while simultaneously striving to remain distinct from Jewish Orthodoxy. It comes across as an attempt at niche cutting.

I have to assume that this piece of nouveau Jewish philosophy was an in-your-face challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, but what on earth for? And so I continue to shrug my shoulders at the Conservative Movement. I still think it’s a bad idea in search of a very elusive justification. It’s not that the Movement needs one, but its leadership evidently thinks one is required.

The recruitment of the term ‘catholic’ is probably more a function of the ‘philosopher’s’ opinion of the Roman Catholic Church and his attempt to analogize the masses of Jews with the mass of followers of the Roman Catholic Church, not to mention an attempt at emulation. This, too, is my biased assumption.

Judaism is Judaism, and those who attempt innovations to the ‘original’ are bound to screw up. That’s another of my highly biased opinions. Here’s another one: I think philosophy makes a poor profession.

Let’s not forget that the Conservative Movement, like the Reform Movement, was invented by immigrants who undoubtedly wanted to fit into their new home (my parents and grandparents, all immigrants, certainly did), not to mention their descendants, some of whom found/find the sights and sounds of traditional Judaism to only serve as sources of embarrassment.

In an opinion piece published in the January 4th edition of The New York Jewish Week (I have to write about this paper; after all, I subscribe to it), Rabbi Barry Gelman has espoused his own bit of philosophy – that the Orthodox community, in light of its successes in recruiting Jews back into the Orthodox fold, can “reshape the way it is perceived if it becomes more engaged and relevant by broadening its conversation”. He wants Modern Orthodoxy to speak to all Jews “by speaking out on the major cultural and ethical issues of the day”; you know, Darfur, global warming, immigration.

Sound familiar? It’s the Conservative Movement all over again; Conservative Judaism, The Sequel. By extension, the MOs should go ‘catholic’ according to Gelman (no, he doesn't use that term). In other words, he wants to emulate the emulators. Isn’t he informed about the demographics of the Conservative and Reform Movements, and he want to hop onto their sinking ship?

I think he’s right about leniency verses stringency in the everyday adherence to Halacha, but different shows attract different audiences. I doubt that those who eschew Jewish religious observance will go MO if these changes are implemented, while the current MOs will likely find other Orthodox ‘venues’ to join if Rabbi Gelman’s suggestions are adopted.

Worst of all, organizational fealty is raising its ugly head in this construct of a new Orthodox Judaism, and this really recapitulates the error of the Conservative Movement. It is organizational allegiance which, I think, most overtly identifies the Roman Catholic Church. I believe Schechter’s use of the term ‘catholic’ was employed to stress the intended organizational nature of the Conservative Movement that, like the Roman Catholic Church, would demand fealty from its members. I hope the MOs don’t follow this same path.


chaviva said...

Have you read about how there is no such thing -- nor can their be -- of "Jewish philosophy" ...? I think it's an interesting topic/question. Typically what is meant by Jewish philosophy is actually theology. I'd never really thought about it before I read a paper by Paul Mendes-Flohr called "Jewish Philosophy and Theology." It's an interesting paper, anyhow.

I also could not find anywhere on the internet the actual paper by Schechter, just that it appears in Philosophia Judaica.


Schvach said...

I thought (therefor I was?)that theology is a topic of philosophy.

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