In his sermon a few weeks ago, Conservative leader Elliot J. Cosgrove praised Chabad's authenticity when he explained the message of the Red Heifer as "when it comes to religion, reason is hardly the determinative variable."
Cosgrove, who has been described as one of the new leaders of the Conservative Movement, argued that whereas Conservative Judaism "explained why under certain circumstances it is okay to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath," Chabad "makes no bones about it."
He began his discourse by describing a stereotype American Jew he calls David, who is completely unobservant on a personal level, but is utterly unwavering in his view of Judaism's unchanging principles.
"David is the son of a Holocaust survivor; he grew up Orthodox, and is a fiercely proud Jew. Passover Seders with David are always fun – he knows every word by heart, can sing every song in Hebrew, and is always off-key. To say that David is at home in his Judaism is an understatement. But David’s Judaism comes with a few quirks. He will put on tefillin in the morning, but only on days that he is flying somewhere for business. His favorite restaurant is the steakhouse Peter Luger – which last time I checked is not yet kosher. That said, David would never eat pork products, except of course when he did, ironically during the year he spent living on a kibbutz in Israel. David never eats shellfish, would never dream of it, except of course, when he does – if he is eating at a restaurant with a Zagat rating of 27 or higher... Don’t worry, David isn’t a member of our synagogue – he is far more comfortable in an Orthodox shul."
Attempting to make sense of this enigmatic kind of a personality, which Cosgrove calls "a sort of gastroenterological hypocrisy", leads him to learn a simple lesson from the inexplicable rituals of Judaism, particularly from the Parah Adumah.
"[The Red Heifer] is meant to be a purification ritual... In this rite, the blood of a red cow is burned with the cow’s body and the ashes are used as an ongoing instrument of purification, while the person who burns the cow himself becomes impure. It is paradoxical, it is unintelligible and it is to be obeyed...
"But when all is said and done, I think it was our own rabbis who were the closest to understanding its meaning when they explained that the whole point of the ritual is that it is not meant to be understood. It is the paradigmatic example of the ritual law that defies explanation – in Hebrew, a hok.
"The Red Heifer ritual reminds us that while it may be reasonable to hope that our ritual life squares up neatly with our day-to-day life, when it comes to religion, reason is hardly the determinative variable."
The Park Avenue Synagogue leader concludes that people are not interested in watered down versions of Judaism. They want the real thing, even if they're not going to be compliant with all the tenets of their faith.
"Read any theorist of religion... All of them say what you and I know in our hearts to be true. Ritual and religion are not there to accommodate us. Rather we come to religion in order to experience an authentic dialogue with that which lies beyond our comprehension."
He continues to offer an example of a successful outreach group which follows this philosophy.
"If you want to know who knows this better than anyone else, then you need look no further than your local Chabad house. Chabad, G-d bless them, make no bones about it. Come as you are, do whatever you want to do in your private sphere, but when you walk into a Chabad house, we promise you it will be brimming with authenticity. Chabad knows that this world is full of Davids, people who want to make their own choices in the private sphere, but when they do access religious living, they want it to be Torah-true. Chabad dresses the part, they claim to be the real deal, their theology is oblivious to the last 200 years of western thought and they make no judgments about who you are and where you came from. And you know what? Surprise surprise, they are the fastest growing segment of American Jewish life.
"And if you want to know who is missing this message, then you need look no further than our own Conservative Movement. The story of Conservative Judaism is the story of traditional Jews trying to accommodate Jewish practice to modernity – a noble project, but one that has long since run its course... We have demonstrated why we know that swordfish, previously thought not to be kosher because it lacked scales, is actually kosher because at a certain point it does in fact have scales. But in all our erudition and intellectual fire-power, the Conservative movement has forgotten that in the interim, the 'Davids' of the world have long since checked out of the conversation. The Davids of the world don’t look to their rabbi to call kosher what they know is treif. In fact, if the rabbi does so, not only is Judaism diminished, but the stature of that rabbi is diminished. The Davids of the world, if we are lucky, come to shul because they are seeking to connect with the one thing that doesn’t have to answer to them. The moment it tries to do so, they see right through it and the game is done.
"Chabad and Conservative Judaism begin from the same working premise, that there is a gap between the assimilated Jew and the faith of our ancestors. The difference that has made all the difference is the tactical response to this gap. Chabad has dug in its heels and positioned itself as the non-judgmental voice of authentic Judaism. We, on the other hand, have sought to make Judaism palatable to the modern Jew; in doing so, we have forgotten the very reason that people turn to religion in the first place. We have become caricatures of Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.” In other words, we have been so busy trying to keep our job that we have forgotten to do our job and that, my friends, should end right now."
Cosgrove stops short of endorsing Chabad's theology. Rather, he proposes that the Conservative Movement be a "non-fundamentalist" version of the Chabad movement.
How his "new and improved" Conservative Judaism solves the problems he raised is unconvincing. He still contends that some parts of Judaism should be dismissed, even though he agrees that average Jews aren't attracted to Judaism that disposes basic principles of Judaism.
Perhaps when he does create such a movement, he will blame its failure on the fact that Jews want authentic Judaism minus nothing. They want it all. Maybe then, the Conservative Movement, and all the other strains of progressive Judaism, will come to terms with the fact that religious life has durability only within the framework of G-d's Way, without any veering whatsoever.