Eight Families and the 18 Percent
I suppose I am just one of those old-fashioned Conservative rabbis of yesteryear who, according to Daniel Gordis, once were “reasonably conversant in classical Jewish texts and able to teach them to their flocks.” (The implication that phrase of his carries about today’s rabbis, many of whom, like Rabbi Gordis, were my students, is no doubt deliberate.) One of those classical texts (in the Talmud, Bava Kamma 92b) offers the homely but well-placed advice that when one has drunk from a well, one should not later be found throwing clods of earth into it, a teaching that somehow came to mind when I read Gordis’ eulogy for the Conservative Movement.
He says that “the numbers are in, and they are devastating,” because, among other things, they seem to indicate a precipitous drop in the number of survey respondents asserting an affiliation with Conservative Judaism. So first, a very general observation: It is peculiar for someone who is aware of, and speaking for, Jewish tradition to argue that smaller numbers mean lessened potency and fitness for survival. The fallaciousness of such an assumption has, of course, been demonstrated again and again throughout our people’s history. (More on this further on.)
I am a congregational rabbi, and so it is not for me to offer an unbiased assessment of the vitality of Jewish learning, worship, spiritual journeying, and activism that exists in communities such as mine. We are by no means unusual in the Conservative world. But it is a curious cultural habit that we have developed that has us getting our primary evidence from survey data rather than from “looking out of the study window” and observing what is actually happening around us.
So let’s ask ourselves: Do the Pew Research Center numbers even convey an unequivocal tale? Not if one keeps in mind the complicated and fluid condition of American Jewry today. Today’s landscape includes all manner of inventive Jewish study and worship communities dotting the country, quite apart from the established congregations that hold denominational affiliations. The young (and not so young) Jews of these creative communities can hardly be expected to answer a polling question about movement affiliation by identifying with a conventional label. The very enterprise exemplified by “independent minyanim” and similar young “startups” is rooted in spiritual exploration beyond those labels. But it does not take intense investigation to reveal that this spectral phenomenon has three familiar features: a desire for engagement with tradition, a deep respect for and commitment to Jewish practice that is balanced with an openness to redefining its limits (gender egalitarianism, the inclusion of more than one sexuality, liturgical creativity, and the incorporation of concerns with justice into the definitions of ritual fitness), and a vision of Jewish learning that embraces our received canon first and foremost, but is not closed to other traditions, new conceptions of the divine and the critical rigors of scholarship.
In other words, the new minyanim and communities of study and practice, which are arguably the most vital new development on the American Jewish religious scene, share a great deal with the classical ideology of Conservative Judaism. It is the same ideology that attracted people like me to the movement years ago, although I had been educated in an Orthodox yeshiva and had contentedly followed that path through my college years.
“Conservative Judaism is today the denominational home of only 18 percent of Jews.” What this observation of Gordis fails to note is that 30 percent of Jews claim no denominational affiliation at all, and of those only 3 percent self-describe as “not practicing,” “atheist,” or “agnostic.”.In other words, 27 percent of American Jews (described in Pew terms as “just Jewish”) are neither non-practicing, nor atheist, nor willing to espouse a denominational loyalty. Is it at all a stretch to imagine that a significant portion of this 27 percent can be found among those in these inspired and imaginative communities? Or that among them are many young Jews who are pursuing the search for their own Jewish authenticity with the very tools that Conservative Judaism fashioned and that many of them no doubt learned in Conservative institutions? And is it at all surprising that they would be among the 41 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 who (currently) eschew a denominational label? Indeed, Gordis himself seems to decline to give himself such a label; instead, he coyly says that he has “meandered” to “a different Jewish community.” Has he considered that there might be many others whose meanderings do not signify surrender, or lack of seriousness?
Gordis’ critiques of his erstwhile religious home are also hard to follow. At one point, he condemns the movement for “abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance,” but he also derides its historical concern for halakhic discourse. What does he suggest movement leaders should have done instead? It is to have preached Jewish solidarity as the way to save us from merely being “part of an undifferentiated human mass” and to have instilled the “instinct that our people . . . still has something to say.” Is this urge to belong more substantive than halakhic reasoning?
Similarly, although he scoffs at the relevance and importance of the question of “how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism,” this does not prevent him from leveling the exact opposite critique later on:
Looming unasked in Conservative circles is the following question: Can one create a community committed to the rigors of Jewish traditional living without a literal (read Orthodox) notion of revelation at its core?
Unasked by whom? Not, certainly, by his teachers, or by rabbis like myself. When criticism comes from both sides like this, it is almost always a sign of censure for the sake of censure.
But back, finally, to the question of the relevance of numbers. My own intellectual father, Gordis’ uncle Rabbi Gerson Cohen, used to love to ask: “You know about that Golden Age of Spanish Jewry?” and then he would pause, deadpan, before continuing, “It was eight families.” We no longer organize ourselves primarily around clans. But there are cadres and communities that continue to live out and develop the kind of moral and spiritual engagement with tradition that Conservative Judaism came into the world to cultivate. Moreover, there are more than enough of them to ensure that this noble enterprise can prevail and even eventuate in newly defined and robust movement institutions.
What Conservative Judaism has stood for continues to represent the ideal mode of engaging Jewish tradition to far more than the 18 percent to whom Gordis and other eulogizers love to refer. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Rabbi Gordis actually comes from a modern version of one of those “eight families” whose vision transcends polls and whose patience and tenaciousness change the world. More’s the pity that he has allowed himself to “meander” away.
Editor's Note: Daniel Gordis replies to his critics and outlines his positive vision for the future.