Gordon Tucker is widely regarded as one of Conservative Judaism’s leading thinkers. From 1984 to 1992, he was dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has taught there for many years. In his writing and teaching, Rabbi Tucker has articulated a distinctive approach to halachah that has impacted a generation of rabbis. One of his intellectual accomplishments was the 2006 translation with commentary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s major Hebrew work on rabbinic theology, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. Rabbi Tucker is beginning his 20th year as religious leader of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, which seemed like a good time to talk to him about current issues in Conservative Judaism.
CJ What are the biggest challenges facing Conservative congregations and Conservative Judaism?
GT First, there is a lot of very positive activity and engagement in many Conservative synagogues. But when you look at Conservative Judaism as a whole, there ought to be greater identification with the movement – its ideas and goals – which would give active and engaged congregations a sense of kinship with other such congregations and a greater sense of a shared mission and cause.
Second, because social, economic and technological changes are happening with such great speed, making traditional Jewish practices and norms plausible to young people is a greater challenge than it’s ever been, and we have to work harder to restore that plausibility.
Number three is how to create a welcoming home for young people whose energies have been brought out in small, homogeneous, independent communities, particularly in cities, when they move to another stage of their lives and no longer find themselves in cities. For many, their background is consonant with what Conservative Judaism is about. Conservative structures have to do a lot of internal thinking about how to create the right kind of home for these people.
CJ Some people say we’re in a “postdenominational” Jewish era. Do you agree?
GT If “post-denominational” means that fewer people are displaying interest in identifying with a particular denomination, that’s probably true, almost trivially true. I consider this to be one of the downsides of Conservative Judaism’s success. We have over the decades successfully promoted many important and noble ideas of Klal Yisrael and as a result, paradoxically, a lot of our people have subliminally been taught that one shouldn’t be putting on one’s own movement label, but rather try to be involved with the entire Jewish community.
If by post-denominational you mean that’s what we ought to be aspiring to, I’m much less ready to acquiesce. I think that the religious movements came into being for some good reasons that are not at all outdated.
CJ Is there still a place for Conservative Judaism?
GT Yes. Among the things that can promote the plausibility of Jewish practices is the existence of a larger coalition of Jews who are committed to many of those practices, and committed to articulating and refining a common ideology. I’ve actually heard people refer to the independent minyan phenomenon as the “independent minyan movement.” Isn’t that interesting?
We’re a very social species. We like to be identified with and to coalesce with people who are sufficiently like us to form coalitions, but with implied and even explicit permission to create a certain creative diversity. So I think denominations and movements may change their names, they may realign a little, but I don’t think they’re going to disappear.
CJ Many Conservative rabbis and synagogues are struggling with how to treat interfaith couples and families. What are your thoughts?
GT It’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that a lot of people are on some kind of Jewish spectrum, not because of some objective status that the community ascribes to them, but rather because of how they think of themselves, how they live their lives. Until now, we have been accustomed to thinking in terms such as: “You’re a Jew and you can get an aliyah, and you’re not a Jew so you can’t.” But we will increasingly have to think about how to accommodate the various gradations of Jewishness that are already there in different families.
Every synagogue has had to develop appropriate ways in which to treat families in which a non-Jewish spouse has been totally supporting the Jewishness of the family, and who is there at the child’s bar mitzvah. And then there’s the intriguing situation in which the non-Jewish member of the family is more involved in synagogue life than the Jewish member, and when there are all sorts of things going on to promote the Jewish identity of a family, even though it doesn’t meet the traditional objective criteria. We can’t be oblivious to all of these developments.
CJ How can synagogues respond to these realities?
GT I think we have to have patience to let this play out, without feeling threatened that everything is going to unravel. It’s not going to unravel, because you’re dealing with families who actually are very positive about being Jewish, and who want to be part of the Jewish community.
I suspect that, as with other issues such as egalitarianism, it’s going to start happening community by community and some kind of dominant approach will eventually emerge, and then it will have to be given some underpinning.
You’re going to see interesting conversations and a certain amount of diversity in the community. As usual, people will say the Conservative movement has all this diversity and that we don’t know what we stand for. But I think that would be to get it wrong. We will be doing the right thing if we let some of the diversity develop and see how it goes.