Since the publication of The Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the real and virtual pages of Jewish media have been ablaze with laments for what many authors see as death of American non-Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps the loudest of these voices is Daniel Gordis’ “Requiem for a Movement.” Gordis reviews the data of the Pew report and deduces that the end of Conservative Judaism is nearer than anyone thought or wishes to believe. Gordis’ piece is filled with sadness, and while his analysis of the perceived failure of what was once the largest “movement” in American Judaism is, in many ways, true, he makes a category mistake by conflating “Conservative Judaism” with the movement which shares the name.
There can be little question that the main institutions of Conservative movement, synagogues especially, face enormous challenges at the moment. Yet, religious ideologies are never fully identical with the practical spheres of life in which those theological modes of thought are enacted in real communities. Gordis is right to excoriate rabbis and leaders of Conservative institutions for their failure to fully enact the ideology of Conservative Judaism within the various arms of the movement. We all know that the movement is in trouble, but the Conservative movement’s woes ought not be blamed on Conservative Judaism. From my prospective as someone whose life is currently devoted to training future Conservative Rabbis to be thoughtful talmudists, Conservative Judaism is, in fact, alive and well beyond the narrow confines of the movement.
Though many are apparently blind to this fact, Conservative Judaism encompasses a far broader swath of the Jewish population than that shrinking number of Jews who affiliate in some capacity with an arm of the movement. This can be seen most clearly by thinking about those who would never dare to set foot in my first-year Talmud course. It may be an unpopular opinion to my many friends and colleagues, but when the fundamentalist voices of the haredi press excoriate the “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as in fact “Conservative,” I am offended by their mean-spiritedness, but the truth is that I fundamentally agree.
Large swaths of people who affiliate as “Orthodox” believe in dinosaurs and the germ theory of disease but not in a genetic difference between Jews and Gentiles. They rely much more heavily on psychology than “Da’at Torah” and think there is wisdom in non-Jewish religious traditions. They don’t see any innate immorality in an act of gay sex and believe that women have as much right to access to traditional learning as men do. They are offended by some aspects of hilkhot nidda, because they recognize the fact that all documents, religious or otherwise, are products of a certain time and place, and deserve to be studied as such. Like it or not, and despite their best efforts to portray themselves as otherwise, they subscribe to the basic approach of Conservative Judaism.
The same phenomenon occurs on the left. Many, if not most students at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew College, and even Hebrew Union College are not only drawn to traditional modes of Jewish practice and prayer, but seem to feel compelled, indeed commanded All these students are participating in Conservative Judaism, and I haven’t even mentioned Mechon Hadar, the non-denominational egalitarian yeshiva.
In my own interactions with the men and women who have decided to devote the next five or six years of their lives to intense Jewish learning at The Jewish Theological Seminary, I meet fewer and fewer who are products of the Conservative movement (children of rabbis, students educated at Schechter schools, former members of USY, Koach, etc.) Instead, students enroll because they have had powerful experiences in community organizing, social justice work, chaplaincy, and above all, serious time learning Jewish texts in traditional Jewish modes of study at places like Pardes and Mechon Hadar. These students are, by and large, agnostic about the movement and its institutions. They didn’t grow up in the Conservative movement and aren’t necessarily committed to its institutions. Their passion is for an egalitarian, halakhic, yet non-fundamentalist Judaism. They are passionate about Conservative Judaism, whether they call it that or not.
The Conservative movement is shrinking, and Rabbi Gordis is not wrong to find this sad. But the institutional problems facing the movement should not cloud the simple fact that Conservative Judaism, whether connected to the movement or not, continues to speak to many, perhaps most, of those who choose to devote their lives to the future of the Jewish people.
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