I recently attended the wedding of a wonderful ba’al teshuva couple whose parents are Conservative Jews. One of the honored guests was their parent’s Conservative Rabbi. Although the mesader kedushin (the officiating rabbi) was Orthodox, the Conservative rabbi was quite involved with various Halachic minutia throughout the course of the evening (…none under the hupah). Without getting into details, I have to say that I was impressed. The rabbi was very knowledgeable in Halacha and insisted that it be followed. If one did not know that he was a Conservative rabbi, one could have easily thought he was Orthodox… and not especially left wing either.
I happen to know that this rabbi came through the ranks of the Conservative movement. He was not one of those Orthodox “sellouts” who took a Conservative shul for the money. He came from a committed Conservative home and his primary Jewish education was through the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he was ordained. His shul is fairly large and I would guess consists mostly of non-observant (by Orthodox standards) Jews.
This got me to thinking about the origins of the Conservative movement. I fully believe that the founders’ intent was to ‘conserve’ Judaism… from the inroads of Reform that was sweeping the country in those days. Those founders wanted to produce a rabbinate that was in harmony with American values and American culture… in order to better relate to the melting pot mentality of those days.
Although the movement has since undergone changes whereby questionable theologies have become acceptable… I do not believe that was part of the original equation and did not become so until the late Mordechai Kaplan advanced his radical ideas about the nature of God and the Jewish people. Although radical views are not required in Conservative Judaism, they are now accepted or at least tolerated.
I don’t know the theology of this rabbi. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he believed in Torah MiSinai. In any case, I think one can fairly say that Conservative rabbis like the one at the wedding are observant and see themselves in many ways like kiruv professionals for their members. Not that they are able to get their members to observe Shabbos. But that they try and get them to be as observant as possible without alienating them from the shul.
Oddly enough, this is the philosophy of Lubavitch. Although their primary focus is on making as many Jews as possible religious Lubavitchers, they do things one step at a time and often do not succeed beyond merely making non observant Jews merely Lubavitivch friendly. They will say that we all fall short of perfection and that we should all try and improve in our observances… even those of us who are shomer Shabbos!
I think the Conservative rabbi sees himself and his role in the same way. I further believe that he would be overjoyed if any of his congregants become Orthodox via Chabad or any other Orthodox Kiruv group. Indeed he was effusive with praise for this young couple who were going to spend their first year of marriage in Israel with the husband spending time in a yeshiva.
I realize of course that not all Conservative rabbis are like this. But I’ll bet that there are a lot more like him – that actually live up to the original Conservative credo of trying to conserve Judaism.
I bring all this up in light of an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner. She too was critical of her own columnist Jay Michaelson for considering Haredism to be the single biggest existential threat to “fabric of American Jewish Life”…. And castigated him for demonizing and alienating one group when there is another threat that is “just as potent.”
Her point was that the many unaffiliated Jews are increasingly opting out of their Judaism. From the Forward article:
As the UJA-Federation of New York’s recent population survey highlighted, the growth of the “unaffiliated” has equally profound and worrying consequences for the future of the Jewish community. Compounded by the shrinking middle — that mixture of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who are, with some notable exceptions, throwing a party fewer and fewer people want to attend — we have a community that is ceding ground to an extreme form of Judaism largely because many of its members don’t care enough to maintain any other form.
The statistics that Ms. Eisner quotes in her editorial are illustrative of the problem. The trend is towards the growth of Orthodoxy and the shrinkage of everything else. It isn’t too hard to predict the future of heterodox movements.
But instead of being triumphalist, I think we Orthodox Jews are better served by reflecting on this massive attrition by so many Jews from Judaism… and seeing if there is anything we can do about it. To my mind it is tragic that we are losing so many Jews to an assimilation that sees any and all religion as archaic and useless.
It is all too easy to write everybody else off and say, “That’s life”! We can’t really do anything about it. Let us therefore concentrate on ourselves – to make our lives holier and re-build Judaism’s numbers by our own propagation. Thankfully there is Chabad and other Kiruv organizations that do not feel this way. But the people they reach are all a drop in the bucket compared to attrition numbers.
Which brings me back to the Conservative rabbi I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The fact is that if there was some way we could work together with people like him, I think our attempts at outreach would be far more successful. Altruistic Conservative rabbis like him I am sure would be eager to do that.
I am convinced that any and every non-observant Jew that becomes Orthodox would be a success story for him – if he were in some way involved with an Orthodox Kiruv movement – even it were nothing more than steering teenagers to NCSY and through them they became observant, that would be considered a victory for him.
I’m not saying that it will be easy to accomplish that. I realize there are restrictions involved because of issues having to do with validation. These issues are real. Virtually all the Gedolim of previous generations, including Rav Soloveitchik, forbade any religious collaboration with heterodox rabbis for fear of giving them tacit recognition.
One may argue that conditions are different now and since these movements are in decline there is little danger of our legitimizing them in any meaningful way. And that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs a now archaic public policy. But it is way below my pay grade to over-rule these giants.
That those on the left wing of Orthodoxy have done so – even if for these very reasons does not make it right. Besides – joint public prayer ceremonies and the like do not really do all that much for outreach anyway, in my view. There is a difference between working with them behind the scenes – and standing in a public arena and thereby by inference endorsing them.
I believe that we should work with them. Those who are sincere about mitzvah observance, like this rabbi, desire to keep Jews – Jewish. And they now realize that their past leniencies like permitting their members to drive to shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. And exactly counterproductive to their goals of preserving Judaism. They have instead created a path out of it… and their movement is now in serious decline.
I don’t know how to co-operate with them in ways that will not violate the will of the rabbinic giants of the last generation. But I’m sure it can be done. The devil – I know – is in the details. But at this point in time – it is worth taking the time to figure it out. There is too much at stake and the time is short. Before long there will be no Conservative Jews to work with. If not now, when?
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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