Reports of the demise of the Jewish people are greatly exaggerated, but predictions of the impending collapse of Conservative Judaism cannot be so easily dismissed. Apart from its salaried representatives, it’s hard to find anyone bullish about the movement. With a graying base, many of its institutions in disarray, and ongoing confusion about its meaning and message, the dismal statistics of the Pew report only confirm many people’s everyday experience.
So Daniel Gordis is right to ask “What went wrong?” How could a movement that was so strong at mid-century, with a vigorous academic center esteemed as one of the great bastions of modern Jewish learning and a base of almost one thousand congregations in North America alone, sink so far and so fast?
As it happens, Gordis and I both enjoyed the privilege of interning with a successful Conservative rabbi, Yakov Hilsenrath, spiritual leader of the Highland Park Jewish Center in Highland Park, New Jersey. We heard Hilsenrath make real demands on his congregants, and we saw how he worked together with them to rebuild their Jewish personal lives and their community. He told them on Yom Kippur, “It’s great that you’re here today, but why not build a sukkah in your backyard,?” that is, experience Judaism as celebration, as something lived at home as well as in public spaces like synagogues. It worked. Rabbi Hilsenrath taught and pushed and loved and demanded, and his congregation responded. He was a kind of rabbinic Vince Lombardi, a great coach who knew the X’s and O’s of administration but also knew his players and gave them the tools to become excellent. But there were too few Conservative rabbis like Hilsensrath. Many others, as Gordis has observed, defined deviance down, and thereby perpetuated and deepened the mediocrity that generally characterizes the movement (to say nothing of the rest of American Jewish life).
Gordis is also right to lament the failure to develop a confident post-halakhic traditionalism that does not feel the need to justify itself before Orthodoxy. (Though ironically I remember to this day hearing his uncle, then chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary Dr. Gerson Cohen, tell us first-year rabbinical students precisely that, namely to develop our own worldview, our own legitimacy, and not to expect to derive our self-worth from the esteem of our peers uptown at Yeshiva University.) But I don’t think he is equally correct when he suggests that Conservative rabbis generally failed to address their congregants’ need for “a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping.” If Conservative rabbis can be accused of anything, it is that they often neglected institution-building precisely for the sake of speaking about and working for the Jewish people. My wife remembers hearing her Conservative rabbi speak about Israel virtually every Shabbat. When I served with Mordecai Waxman, a student of Mordecai Kaplan and the leader of Temple Israel in Great Neck, New York he spoke constantly about the nature and purpose of Jewish civilization and our obligations as Jews to that civilization. If that’s not a call to service and self-transcendence, I don’t know what is.
As Leora Batnitzky has pointed out in her book How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, both Reform Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy underwent “Protestantization,” developing approaches to Judaism that focused more on creed than on peoplehood. Only Conservative Judaism, from the outset, refused to separate Judaism from politics and civilization and redefine it as a mere religion. Among other things, this accounts for the movement’s deep affinity to Zionism.
At a time like the present, when the Orthodox movement seems to equate meaning with arguments over kosher certifications, continues to exclude women from public ritual life, and is beating a hasty retreat from humanism and western values, does Gordis really want to insist that Orthodoxy’s stance reflects a concern with “deep existential human questions”?
Yes, Judaism must be countercultural and it must make serious demands upon us. Some of those demands are related to what it means to serve God while others ask us to respond to the burden of Jewish history. Conservative Judaism’s insistence on history and community as well as God and Torah still seems right to me, at least philosophically. But being right, I am afraid, is not all that is required.
Editor’s Note: Daniel Gordis replies to his critics and outlines his positive vision for the future.
In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews were part of the Conservative movement. Today it's 18 percent and falling fast. What happened? Maybe its leaders never knew what Conservative Judaism was really about.
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