Latest update: November 7th, 2013
I feel sorry for them. The leaders of Conservative Judaism are scrambling to make sense of a Pew Research Center report that says their movement is shrinking. Not they they don’t already know this. Much has been written about it by their own leaders – both past and present. JTS Chancelor, Arnlod Eisen spoke to this issue long before the Pew report came out. He blamed their problems on allowing people to drive to Shul on Shabbos – and the suburban sprawl their congregants followed as a result. That led to most Conservative Jews to feel that driving on Shabbos was OK in all circumstances. Mr. Eisen now realizes that this was a mistake as it destroyed the sense of community that Orthodox Jews enjoy. By not driving to Shul on Shabbos, Orthodox Jews are forced to live near the Shul they attend. This creates a sense of community. People interact with each other -especially on Shabbos and Yom Tov. By contrast Conservative Jews do not necessairly live in Jewish neighborhoods and have no sense of community as Jews. He may be right about that. But I believe he misses the real reason the shrinkage. That was made very clear in an article by Michah Gottlieb in today’s Forward. He was raised as a Conservative Jew in a family that actually did follow Halacha as the Conservative movement interprets it. But the vast majority of Conservative Jews do not follow Halacha. Conservative Judaism has failed to live up to the Halachic ideals that they preach.The movement has failed to instill Haklachic observance into most of their members. It is for this reason that Michah Gottlieb who was originally devout by Conservative standards and quite motivated about Conservative Judaism – eventually became disaffected with it. Here’s how he puts it:
As a youth, I had internalized what I understood to be Conservative Jewish values by being very committed to Halacha and Jewish learning. But I found that my family was one of the very few in my synagogue that valued these things. While the pews overflowed on the High Holy Days, they were sparsely filled on a typical Sabbath, and almost no children attended. My family rarely went out for Sabbath meals, as few families at the synagogue prepared them…
I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic.
I was also dissatisfied by what I saw as the self-preoccupation of Conservative Judaism. While Orthodoxy saw itself as fulfilling God’s will through halachic obedience… I was constantly being encouraged to work for the advancement of the Conservative movement. I felt no mission driving Conservative Judaism, which for an idealistic youth was highly unsatisfying.
I also sensed a certain superiority from Conservative rabbis I encountered. They constantly recounted how the Jewish Theological Seminary had attracted great scholars such as Louis Finkelstein, Saul Lieberman and Louis Ginzberg, and how by contrast Orthodoxy was unscholarly and uncritical. But already in my time those great European scholars had died or retired, and the religious value of having housed those great critical scholars was not at all evident to me.
I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women… The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.
I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters.
Professor Gottlieb eventually turned to Orthodox Judaism. That is where his values were actually practiced. The values that were part of the Conservative ideology that Prof. Gottlieb embraced were practically nonexistent in Conservative Judaism.
He has not abandoned his former movement. He actually thinks it’s critical for them to rebuild along the same lines as Orthodoxy if they are to survive. He feels it is important for Judaism to have what he calls a healthy center. I am not going to argue the point here since my definition of the center is different than his. Nor can I support a movement that allows heretical beliefs as at least one expression of their theology.
For me, Conservative Judaism is not the answer to the future of Judaism even if it were to do what Prof. Gottlieb suggests.
But his point is well taken. Conservative Judaism is a movement with a minority of adherents as it pertains to Halacha. Most of members are Conservative in name only. Trying to change things now is virtually impossible. The barn door has long ago been opened. Too late to close it now. I do not think they have a prayer of surviving. Unless they stop calling themselves a Halachic movement and basically become another version of Reform Judaism. And do we really need 2 versions of Reform?!
I do not say this with any sense of glee or triumphalism. I say it simply as a prediction based on current trends in Conservative Judaism – and the reason for them.
What do we do about all those non observant people who now call themselves Conservative? I don’t know. But I do think we ought to somehow reach out to them. Chabad is already doing this. Open Orthodoxy is also doing it in its own unorthodox ways (no pun intended). I think the rest of Orthodox Jewry should stop being so self absorbed and do the same.
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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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