Cognitive Dissonance

As careful Jewish Review of Books readers have undoubtedly noticed, my interlocutors, who include some of the most distinguished and perceptive figures in Conservative Judaism, largely agree with me about the condition of the Conservative movement. As Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky writes, “there is no denying that in the last 30 or 40 years, Masorti/Conservative Jewish ideology has inspired fewer people than it once did.” In fact, says Rabbi Susan Grossman, my assessment “may have been too kind.” Jonathan D. Sarna, a leading historian of American Judaism, states that “Daniel Gordis is right” that the Pew numbers are devastating.

We also agree on several other points: the importance of studying Judaism through a historical prism, that halakha is fundamentally dynamic (even if, I believe, intentionally hesitantly so), the legitimacy of biblical criticism, and the urgent need for expanded roles for women in Jewish life. In fact, those were the ideas that drew me to The Jewish Theological Seminary some 30 years ago, and it was because I still believe they are critical that I wrote with sadness (even if I was insufficiently lachrymose for Kalmanofsky) about the cataclysmic erosion of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Noah Benjamin Bickart, and Gordon Tucker are right that Conservative Judaism’s ideas are alive and well, albeit often in institutions outside the movement. But that does raise a question: If the ideas of Conservative Judaism are so vital and continue to flourish elsewhere, why did the movement sputter? Or, to put matters less abstractly, if one goes to Friday night services on the campus of Harvard or Columbia, Penn or Maryland, why is it the Orthodox services that are packed and overflowing with energy?

There isn’t, of course, a single answer, but I would like to sharpen one point from my original essay: Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.

In the Orthodox congregation in which I grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s, many of the worshippers drove to shul, while we, the Conservative Jewish family, walked. The parking lot was chained closed and our co-parishioners knew that what they were doing was not “permitted,” but they managed (the adjacent streets were clogged with parked cars), and it never dawned on them to ask the rabbi to sanction their driving. Today, their children do not drive, in part because their rabbis held the line.

But in response to the same phenomenon, Conservative Judaism sanctioned driving on Shabbat. It eradicated that productive cognitive dissonance for its members and, in so doing, created a Judaism that was non-aspirational. And the Pew results show what happens when Judaism doesn’t push us.

While few Orthodox Jews drive on Shabbat these days, cognitive dissonance persists. For instance, many American Modern Orthodox Jews eat dairy food or fish in non-kosher restaurants. Some will do it in their hometowns, others only when they are away for business or out of town on vacation. Do they believe that this practice is halakhically justified or justifiable? They do not. They live with the tension between what they do and what they know that Jewish law, and their rabbinic leaders, demand of them. The ensuing tension means that Judaism—like their marriages, their roles as parents, their professions—demands that they grow.

But when the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled in 1952 that “Fish dinners in non-kosher eating places shall not be construed as a violation of the dietary laws,” the movement illustrated once again its determination to fashion for its adherents an easy, dissonance-free spiritual life; in so doing, it also erased the aspirational drive so central to Jewish flourishing.

What all this suggests, though many Orthodox rabbis will publicly deny it, is that a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox; “revelation” and “commandment” are key words in the lexicon of their communities, but not so deep down, they’re motivated as much by sociology as theology.  When the daughter of a childhood friend of mine recently married, she bought a sheitel, a wig, in order to keep her hair covered at all times. This would have been unimaginable in the crowd in which we grew up. When I asked her mother where the kids were heading for their honeymoon, she mentioned a place where I knew there was no kosher food. How were they doing that, I gently inquired? When they’re away, they eat in non-kosher restaurants, she told me.

Halakhically, eating out in such restaurants is far more problematic than not wearing a sheitel (which many would claim is not necessary at all). But intellectual consistency, the celebrated hallmark of Conservative Judaism, is not what these young people are seeking. What they want is meaning, community, closeness, and a sense of striving (incidentally, that’s what their non-Orthodox peers seek too). They have found these things in a halakhically demanding universe. And, although some of my interlocutors would scoff at their way of life, the fact is that it works.

In that community, the Jewish calendar is the metronome of life; they have homes infused with much more ritual, they learn more Torah, they intermarry much less, they visit Israel more often than their Conservative and Reform peers. They sing together and daven (which is not the same thing as worshipping) together. The best of them (not all, not enough) read just as much, think as broadly, and are as fully engaged in the modern world as their non-Orthodox counterparts, despite the intellectual tensions.

Many of the women among them find the opportunities for high-level Talmud study—opportunities that their mothers did not have—a profound indication that even in Modern Orthodoxy, feminism is alive and well. Pace Professor Judith Hauptman, most of them don’t need “ritual egalitarianism” to feel that they matter. Those who do, leave. That is what is wonderful about the American Jewish spiritual marketplace. (For the record, despite Dorff’s intentionally misleading suggestion to the contrary, nothing in my original article can fairly be construed as an endorsement of Orthodoxy.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was young and searching for a theological justification for the halakha to which I was committed in the face of the biblical criticism I was studying, I talked to my grandfather. A leading intellectual light of the Conservative movement, he had to have something to say, didn’t he? But no matter how hard I pushed, we always ended up in the same place. Why did halakha matter? It was, he told me, minhag k’lal yisrael. “This is simply what Jews do.” This is how we Jews live; it’s the ticket to belonging. “Stop all your theologizing,” he basically said to me. “Life’s real decisions are about belonging and sustaining, not about theology.” Not his words, but his point. And he was largely right.

Minhag k’lal yisrael works, but it’s working for Modern Orthodoxy—because Orthodoxy was never afraid of cognitive dissonance. Does it help that Orthodox rabbis still speak in theological terms? Yes, it does, and that would have been challenging for Conservative rabbis. It may not have worked even had we tried; there is something powerful about the theological certainty that is elusive for most of the lettered class, and that is undoubtedly the reason that Pew shows Modern Orthodoxy struggling now too.

But we could have given it a much better shot. We could have cajoled and inspired, encouraging our congregants to conform themselves to Jewish tradition, rather than working to shape the tradition to their fleeting, ostensible needs. (Rabbi David B. Starr is quite right to point to the extraordinary model of such leadership that Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath afforded us both; it’s instructive, however, that Rabbi Hilsenrath never joined the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.) We were too complacent. It didn’t matter, we told ourselves, how many of our flock were actually toeing the line. “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,” writes Tucker in his response to me. (Really? His claim seems to be that because there are young Jews who are serious but not Orthodox, few of whom wish to affiliate with the Conservative movement, this proves the vitality of the Conservative movement?) Since they’re ostensibly not worried by the numbers, several of my interlocutors insist that no change in strategy is necessary. (As one observer has noted, not a single one of them actually offered a concrete suggestion of what Conservative Judaism should do.) Dorff writes:

We should do exactly what Jewish leaders … have [always] done, even when the large majority of Jews did not believe or act in the same way—namely, live and teach the kind of Judaism that Conservative Judaism represents with as much vigor and creativity as we can muster.

Kalmanofsky says he’ll “keep plugging away, hopefully, optimistically, persistently.” There’s an air of nobility to such soldiering on, but, unfortunately, it’s the nobility of Don Quixote.

I would ask my interlocutors this: Are our ideas important in some Platonic sense, simply by virtue of their existence, or do they matter because we want them to shape the future of the Jewish people? Are you as committed to the survival of the Jewish people as you are to the “rightness” of those deeply held principles? If you are, then simply soldiering on will not do. We must articulate the ideas that we believe are critical to Judaism’s survival and then we must work—doggedly, creatively, and effectively—to get them deeply rooted in as wide a swath of American Jews as possible.

We live in a frightening and uncharted Jewish world. Despite all appearances of stability, ours is a period not unlike that of almost 2,000 years ago, after the Temple had been destroyed. Then as now, it was entirely unclear what sort of Judaism could sustain our people into the future.

The Sadducees were not wrong when they insisted that they were the rightful leaders of the people and the Temple (even in its absence), their divinely sanctioned seat of power. But others in that period looked at a shattered Jewish world and chose otherwise. Essenes opted for a focus on ritual and moral purity, avoiding contact with almost everyone else. Proto-Christians, then still Jewish, had a very different vision of what Judaism could become. The rabbis dared to invent something almost unrecognizable as Judaism. Their “heretical” notions—that Judaism could be geographically decentralized, that sacred time would replace sacred space, that prayer would substitute for sacrifice, and that a learned elite would assume the leadership roles once the province of priests—must have seemed utterly absurd to many.

We are no less shattered than the Jews of 100 C.E. The extraordinarily rich, vibrant, heterogeneous world of Polish Jewry was annihilated less than a lifetime ago. When 700,000 Jews were evicted from Arab lands in the late 1940s, Jewish life all along the Mediterranean’s north coast essentially came to an end. So, too, did Jewish life in Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, for all intents and purposes.

Even before these demographic devastations, there were intellectual seismic shifts. The Enlightenment called into question theological and historical “truths” that Jews had long taken for granted. And matters have only grown more complicated. Science, feminism, and restored Jewish military power in Israel have all upended social, moral, and religious stances we once took for granted.

In this unsettled Jewish world, many groups are staking out territory. We have our Essenes today—haredim—who want as little to do with the Western world, or the rest of us, as possible. For the time being, high birth rates buttress their position, but I find it impossible to imagine that Ultra-Orthodoxy, with its rabid rejection of Western intellectualism and its reprehensible attitude to women (among many other factors) is sustainable for the long run. The future of Judaism is not (I hope) there.

What about Centrist Orthodoxy? It has built impressive social and educational institutions, created a vast lay network with impressively high levels of Jewish literacy and learning. But central to Orthodoxy’s worldview is the non-negotiability of absolute belief in the divine revelation of Jewish religious tradition. So far it appears to be working, but in the intellectual world we inhabit, can this certainty about revelation sustain itself among most well-educated American Jews for the long haul without retreat into the other-worldliness and anti-intellectualism of the haredim? One wonders.

A very different option, now the apparent choice of a preponderance of American Jews, lies at the other end of the spectrum. It claims that Judaism must be dramatically transformed, perhaps even re-invented: We should redefine who counts as a Jew (patrilineal descent), whom Jews can marry (sanctioning intermarriage), and minimize the religious dimension of Judaism. This fills me with dread, not because I am certain that it is theologically wrong—I’ve  already acknowledged that theological certainty is hard to come by today—but because it seems to me utterly unsustainable. Responding in Ha’aretz to my original JRB essay, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote that:

[There are] serious Jews . . . [i]mmersed in Torah study and the work of mitzvah-doing and tzedakah-doing, [and] they are to be found in all religious streams—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Activist and spiritually alive, they are far more committed and observant than anyone in America would have thought possible a half century ago—or even two decades ago.

I wish that this were true. But as Sarna notes, it’s really only Orthodoxy that has “produced a laity that was Jewishly knowledgeable.” When one enters a sanctuary of the typical liberal synagogue in America (of course, there are exceptions), one encounters a community of thoroughly decent, well-intentioned people who simply do not know enough to be part of a real Jewish conversation. If one speaks in the typical Reform or Conservative congregation, even to the “regulars,” can one reasonably expect that they know the difference between Mishnah and midrash? Neder and nidda? Tanna and amora? If the rabbi makes an interesting comment about a Mishnah in her sermon, how many of the people in the pews even own a one-volume edition of the Mishnah to which they could refer at home should they be so moved?

Now, there will be those who will say that neder and nidda, tanna and amora are just too technical to be a basis for judging anything. I disagree. We don’t consider people even marginally literate in matters American if they don’t know the difference between the House and the Senate, filibustering versus gerrymandering, or the difference between judiciary versus legislative functions. We would be horrified if, by the end of high school, our children didn’t know these things. But the terms I’ve plucked, almost at random, are just as basic to Jewish life.

For argument’s sake, however, let’s ignore such terms. Let’s ask instead how these “Torah-studying and mitzvah doing” women and men in the pews would respond to the following question:

In what ways are Jewish values and a Jewish conception of the life well-lived substantively different from the Western, Christian, and American notions with which we’re familiar?

And how many of these congregants would be unable to answer the question but feel that they should, and (at least aspirationally) consume themselves with Torah study to get there? As Kalmanofsky writes, “We work, study, dwell, shop, eat, play, read, vote, marry, and think like our non-Jewish neighbors.” And that is precisely why serious Jews must be able to answer such questions.  Starr is certainly right when he writes that “Judaism must be countercultural.” As the Pew study makes clear, liberal Judaism in America has given up its counter-cultural essence; only 60 percent assert that believing in Jesus as the Messiah puts one outside Jewish boundaries! The liberal end of the spectrum, like Central Orthodoxy, is growing at the expense of the middle, but for a wholly different set of reasons. I can’t imagine it surviving.

The middle, though, strikes me as the site of potentially the most noble Jewish religious project of our era: the belief that we can fashion a Jewish world constructed of intellectual rigor, moral nuance, the best of Western learning, substantial Jewish literacy, and a commanded devotion to the rituals of Jewish life could be the greatest legacy of our time. To preserve it, though, we need to do something, and we know what will not sustain the middle.

“Conservative Judaism’s insistence on history,” Starr correctly notes, “still seems right to me. . . . But being right . . .  is not all that is required.” Sensitivity to the nuances and ironies of history as such will draw very few to Jewish life. Neither will feminism, which thankfully is abundantly reflected in varying ways from Reform through Orthodox, and throughout American culture. Judaism dare not offend our feminist sensibilities, but Americans Jews do not need Judaism as an outlet for their feminist commitments.

So what will work? All of us who care about the Jewish future must state what a viable Judaism looks like to us. This rejoinder is already longer than my original article, so, in the interests of (relative) brevity, I will name three elements that seem to me essential for a flourishing Judaism:

1. A Jewish community in which suspension of our autonomy (a commitment to Jewish ritual and time) is central.
2. A community of people with the high level of Jewish literacy that is required to be a meaningful participant in a substantive and distinctly Jewish conversation
3. A Judaism is that self-critical and morally reflective.

I will expand briefly on each.

One of the core insights of Jewish life has been that closeness to God (or, failing that, moments in which God’s presence might be felt) is achieved by the suspension of our autonomy. Limiting what we eat, what we wear, when we may make love, how we speak, how we use our time, and what we must study has been, I think, the single most important Jewish insight about building a relationship with God; it has long been Judaism’s central defining characteristic. Successful Jewish communities will continue, in significant ways, to submit to the “yoke of the commandments.”

Moreover, communities not committed to Jewish ritual obligation are also communities in which Jewish literacy does not exist. Period. The reasons for this linkage are complex and beyond the scope of this essay, but here is why it matters: If Judaism is (as I believe it is) a several millennia-long conversation, then the critical question that Yoffie and others must answer is how much one needs to know in order to be part of that conversation. And the undeniable truth is that the overwhelming majority of his “Torah-studying” Jews don’t know Rashi, have not been taught how to study Mishnah, can’t find their way around a traditional prayer book, don’t recognize the biblical allusions in Bialik or Agnon, can say virtually nothing about the intellectual and religious disputes at the heart of Zionism, and so on. They have been educated, at best, to be onlookers, not genuine participants in this conversation. Smart and successful American Jews don’t want to be onlookers. We have sold our people short, and Pew is evidence of the payback.

Third, and finally, in addition to the suspension of autonomy and a distinct Jewish voice, we also need a hefty dose of self-doubt. That has long been a hallmark of Judaism’s greatness (one need only look to contemporary Islam for an example of what happens when it is absent). But such self-criticism is almost impossible to cultivate with the theological certainties that lie at the heart of most of Orthodoxy, and it is irrelevant when Jewish tradition is simply reduced to an ethnic version of the pervasive Protestant ethos.

I do not see these elements as the basis for a movement, Capital-C Conservative or otherwise. The world of intellectual openness coupled to halakhic rigor is hard, which is precisely why what is called for is not robotically soldiering on, but seeking new partners and new ideas as we seek to teach and inspire American Jews. One possibility worth trying is a broad coalition of people who disagree strongly about matters of Jewish law and might not even be able to pray together, but who nonetheless become partners in articulating forcefully the necessity of these three elements, even as they go about implementing them in radically different ways.

This coalition could include the most intellectually courageous Modern Orthodox rabbis (including, but not limited to, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its “open Orthodoxy”). It will include the “socially Orthodox” along with the world of in which mostly Orthodox rabbis wrestle with the challenges of biblical criticism. It will include non-denominational institutions like Yeshivat Hadar and Pardes, along with the more serious Conservative rabbis and their communities. It will evoke the commitments of Magen Tzedek, the Conservative movement’s attempt to make kashrut a moral enterprise, more liberal communities like Ikar in Los Angeles and Reform rabbis who are also committed to the necessity of ritual and the centrality of study.  Such a broad coalition might succeed where movements have failed; they could change the face of Jewish life in America by banding together even in the face of all their principled differences, precisely because Pew shows that time is running out.

Are we guaranteed success? We are not. Is it possible that the radical re-writing of Judaism that I find wholly unpalatable will actually save the day and that time will prove that I’m just a modern-day Sadducee? Absolutely. So let’s hear others articulate competing visions of Jewish life and arguments for why they are viable. Let’s challenge each other, not because we’re desperate to prove others wrong, but because we are Jews yearning to find partners in our preservation of what we hold dear.

At this juncture in Jewish history, we need to create a much broader conversation about what makes Judaism worth surviving and what has a chance of sustaining it.  So let’s begin, without regard to our roles as stakeholders in particular movements or institutions. At this stage of Jewish history, nothing more can be asked of us, but nothing less will suffice.


  1. Jim Rogozen

    Most important takeaway: Jewish Education is crucial. It correlates with more observance, more engagement, more commitment. I wonder what Conservative congregations would look like if they were to re-do their budgets (and the job descriptions of their Rabbis) based on this understanding.

  2. ravpinchas

    I am a Reform rabbi with extensive experience in the institutions of the Conservative movement. I receive no Schadenfreude in its decline, but I have seen it coming for a long time. It has always seemed to be a movement in which its members want their rabbis to behave halakhically while they go about their business. Emil Fackenheim wrote a serious Confirmation text (which I wish was still in print) called *Paths To Jewish Belief*. In the section on the denominations he says to the effect (if memory serves), Conservative Jews behave like Orthodox Jews in the synagogue and like Reform Jews everyplace else.

    The zinger flung at Reform notwithstanding, he meant, way back in 1965, that engagement with Jewish text and a passion for Jewish knowledge and action has long faded (and he wrote this in Canada, generally acknowledged to be a bit more Jewishly engaged).

    I admire Rabbi Gordis' intelligence and passion on this matter, as I do all of his respondents. But the decline in Conservative identifying seems to me to be the acknowledgement among the laity that intellectual, spiritual, halakhic challenges lay far beyond the purview of most. The ignorance we confront is deep and wide and not going to be resolved any time soon, I fear. Those among Gordis' interlocutors who argue that size doesn't matter I think are engaging in a fat rationalization. Critical mass needed to support the institutions and to simply have someone to talk with.

    So, as I say, I take no joy in the obvious and sharp decline in numbers; I fear the various solutions recommended are the energies of the committed aimed at the uncommitted, who will not, in droves anyway, be brought over.

    Phil Cohen

  3. gwhepner


    There is a major difference between eating fish
    in restaurants and saying that this is permitted
    by the halakhah. What a Jew may wish
    should not include thought processes that are dim-witted,
    and aspiration should not be the bottom line
    in decisions that determine how a Jew
    should act . Though pain relief comes when they’re anodyne,
    they fog the mind since they are foggier than the dew.

    Cognitive dissonance that enables Jews
    to drive their cars to shul and then to other places
    ends up causing them eventually to lose
    the safety belt that should protect them like strong braces.
    Dissonance makes Jews lose pants once they have lost
    their shirts, becoming emperors of nothing. When
    the mitzvah cupboard becomes bare the holocaust
    leaves no survivors for a minyan made of ten.

    [email protected]


      As a reform rabbi, you should be even more concerned. Your next board of directors might have a non-Jewish majority and vote to introduce a creche

  4. dmark49389

    I have been a fulltime rabbi for 30 years; I am currently p/t, and teaching college English. I rabbi on weekends, and continue to derive great satisfaction from the Jews with whom I interact. Regardless of what scholars may say about the State of Conservatism (or Reform, Orthodoxy, or Reconstructionism, for that matter), the eekar zach/bottom line/essential thing is what individual Jews do. Every Jew writes her own Shulchan Aruch, her own "Code of Jewish Law." It doesn't have to make sense. Faith, Religion, folkways-- they aren't supposed to make sense. When Jews come together in a congregation, they decide on which customs and laws make them feel holier as a group. Since the onslaught of what I call "Blind Pew" (with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson) there have any number of Cassandras proclaiming the demise of American Judaism. But I refuse to, Pagliacci-like, beat a drum (and I know that I am mixing my metaphors). I consider every Jew who does Something Jewish to be a triumph, a means of holding back the Darkness, the threat of assimilation, of Jewish Chameleon-ness, of Ignorance. And I am losing patience with other Jewish leaders who, rather than putting their intellectual shoulders to the wheel, rush to bury any denomination. There is an army of rabbis, cantors, and Ed Directors out there in America today, spanning the denominations, doing what they aspired to do Jewishly, what they were trained to do by well-meaning and sincere teachers, and they are working to keep Judaism alive. Can we move on, now, please? Because there are more important things for Jewish scholars to do than plan funerals for Conservative Judaism in particular, or Judaism in general. Thank you.

  5. David Magerman

    Daniel, your point about Orthodoxy being aspirational is right on target. However, you lost me at "a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox." More than just Orthodox rabbis will quibble with you. So will many of the "large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews".

    I am an aspirational Orthodox Jew. My theology is Orthodox, and I am adhering to more of it every day. But if I did not believe in the theology, I can't imagine why I would take on more observance, especially observance that has no social repercussions. By deciding that Torah observance does not have to be theological in nature, your arguments go off track and your conclusions miss the mark.

    YCT and Open Orthodoxy are just filling the gap created by the failure of the Conservative movement, but they too will come to the same end. A Judaism without a divine Sinaitic Torah is not Judaism. It might create an interesting, creative, and worthwhile intellectual community, but it isn't Judaism. Judaism and Torah mi-Sinai are inseparable.


    As pointed out, if there ever was "original sin" in Conservative Judaism it was rationalizing driving to synagogue on Shabbat. And the distinction has continued for dozens of other issues - that which is done versus that which is rationalized as permissible against all legal precedent.

    By granting permission to eat in non-kosher establishments, drink stam yeynam, etc, the Cons Movement signaled that everything is up for discussion when "we get around to it". Thus, every intrusion of religion on contemporary lifestyle could be "waited out"; sooner or later its wall would come down. And each generation of JTS scholars felt it necessary to be the ones to tear off another chunk of the fabric of Jewish law.

  7. Pesach

    Folks that attend Conservative synagogue events, for the most part, do not believe that the Torah is the word of G-d and therefore do not have a personal or communal sense of obligation to observe mitvot.

    Here are just two examples:
    - Look at the premier Conservative youth program Camp Ramah. Kids love the singing and community of a Ramah Kabbalat Shabbat. But when the kids return to their homes, there is no similar weekly Kabbalat Shabbat either at their home or Conservative synagogues. Sure there maybe a quarterly kinus, but that is not the same as weekly Kabbalat Shabbat.

    - Conservative synagogues are really community centers, with little emphasis on tefila. Board and committee meetings, along with a multitude of events are held during daily tefila...shachrit and mincha/maariv.

  8. Rand

    An excellent article. I was waiting for the author to mention Hadar, Chovevei, Shira Hadasha and all the groups that have both passion and aspirations, and Gorids did not disappoint. These are central to the vitality of a community, even in an age when denominations no longer play the role they once did (and I think we've very much entered that age, late though it may be).

    That said, the entire piece is unfair in a major way to Reform Judaism. Gordis says that Judaism must be "countercultural", but when your ethos is Tikkun Olam, you cannot afford to be a counter culture on principle. He dwells on how Judaism needs to be different from the society around it, he notes that liberalism and feminism are features of American culture, they can't define a religious movement. This is profoundly unfair. Reform Judaism did not appear in New York City in 2012 into a liberal atmosphere and a groundswell of support for gay marriage and decide to hop on the wagon. The history of Reform Judaism is deeply connected to the history of the United States, and it has had influence on that history. The United States is (slowly) moving towards a certain vision, and its a vision much in line with that of Reform Judaism, and it's a universalist, liberal vision.

    I understand that Gordis is focused on the future of a countercultural Judaism. But Judaism doesn't have to be countercultural, and for many (perhaps most) it cannot be. But there is a future for the non-counterculture too, and it goes further than Hadar can dream to.

  9. jerryjblaz

    West Coast Conservative Jews have a reputation for being the less observant among Conservative Jewry. In the several years since Rabbi Gordis left the head of the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the American Jewish University, the West Coast branch of the Conservative movement, he seems to be casting off the old "ghosts" of what he today would probably call "lax observance." Yet, at Ziegler, there were no apparent ideological dissonances, cognitive or otherwise that were heard. (Lest we forget, the father of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was one of the institution's founders.)

    I firmly believe that being a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel has been a very new experience for Daniel Gordis, for it is a place where Conservative rabbis have little recognition compared to Orthodox and Xaredi rabbis. However, what is cognitive dissonance and where does this concept originate? A book by Leon Festinger,"The Prophecy that Failed" is a sociological ethnography of a religious group whose prophecies continued to be unfulfilled, but yet they maintained their belief. While Rabbi Gordis explicitly prefers theology and observance to sociology, cognitive dissonance is a sociological concept, and he has made it the basis of his rebuttal to those rabbis who denounced his criticism of Conservative Judaism.

    His reliance on the Pew Report is reliance on a survey that elicits some strange results.

    >>One truly bizarre result is the finding that a not insignificant proportion of Orthodox Jews — including haredim — are attending non-Jewish religious services with some regularity.

    >>According to the survey, a full 16 percent of Orthodox Jews “attend non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year.” The proportion is identical for Modern Orthodox Jews and what the survey describes as “ultra-Orthodox Jews” — 15 percent for both sub-groups. Shockingly, that’s slightly higher than the proportions of Reform Jews (15 percent) and non-denominational Jews (12%) who report attending non-Jewish religious services with similar frequency. (Are we to assume that sizable numbers of black-hatted haredim are ducking into churches or mosques for some interfaith davening on a semi-regular basis?)

    >>The question that yielded this unusual result was: “And aside from special occasions like weddings and funerals, how often do you attend non-Jewish religious services?” (Perhaps taking into account the possibility of confusion on this question, there was a directive given to those conducting the interviews: “If respondent asks, clarify that we are interested in how often they attend religious services of a religion other than Judaism.”)

    >>Given the traditional Orthodox prohibition on attendance at non-Jewish religious activities, the finding seems wholly implausible. Did large numbers of respondents completely misunderstand the question? Or are significant numbers of people who are not by any stretch of the imagination Orthodox, let alone ultra-Orthodox, identifying themselves as such? (I would guess the former would be the more likely answer.)<<

  10. rabbirami

    I have been following the reactions to the Pew study with great interest, and find the discussion that Rabbi Gordis has triggered most fascinating. I wonder why it is that he, like so many others, are pointing to Orthodoxy as a guide for the future. According to Pew the percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is just over half that of Jews who identify as Conservative (10% to 18%). Among Jews who are also synagogue members Conservative Jews beat Orthodox Jews by 7 points (29% to 22%). So it may be that Orthodox services are more vibrant, but their numbers are still miniscule. Looking to those who are doing worse is not a wise move if our goal is to do better.

    As for Rabbi Gordis' suggestions, while I think a community based on them would be vibrant, I also doubt it will capture more than the 18% Conservative Judaism attracts now. Most Jews (myself included) cannot abide by the "suspension of autonomy." In fact what I read in the latest piece is not so much a suspension of autonomy but suspension of authority. Jews--even Orthodox Jews--are doing what they want when they want. Demanding behaviors that are "observed in the breach" sounds like the dilemma the Catholic Church in the United States finds itself in vis a vis birth control. Is this really going to lead us to a vibrant Judaism?

    Rabbi Gordis' hope for a "community of people with the high level of Jewish literacy" sounds good, but what does he mean by "literacy." As a retired professor of religion I doubt he means a religious literacy that reveals the human origins of Judaism and the laws rabbis put in the mouth of God in order to control the people they claim to lead. What he means is a level of knowledge that allows us behave as Orthodox Jews without (his third point notwithstanding) questioning why we are doing so. Knowing how to live lives determined by halacha doesn't make living this way any more compelling. No one is keeping Jews illiterate when it comes to halacha accept the Jews themselves.

    And while I applaud the centrality of argument and doubt as one of Judaism's greatest gifts to the world, it is just this that leads Jews to affirm rather than suspend our autonomy.

    Like the Sadducees before us, we Pharisees have had a good run. Just as our liturgy pretends to look forward to a day when Judaism is once again in the hands of priests and running red with the slaughter of innocent animals, I doubt very many of us would actually choose to be Jewish if that became the only Judaism open to us. I suspect that whatever post-halachic and post-rabbinic Judaism comes next it will give a wink and nod to us Pharisees as we do to the Sadducees. I look forward to seeing what that Judaism might be.

  11. robertlsmith18

    Cognitive dissonance captures for me an important component of my approach to Judaism. For some of us we need a sense of "diaspora" both physically by living in the US, but also spiritually by realizing we need to grow. Do we need to understand what it means to be commanded? Not in my opinion, what we need is to want to know what it means to be commanded and to believe by living according to halacha we will gain insight and understanding both from what we do and what we don't yet do. My "Orthodox" friends ask me why do I keep Kosher if I don't literally believe what they claim to believe. My response, I can't make myself believe something, I don't even really know what I believe, but do you want me to stop keeping Kosher? Cognitive dissonance seems to me to capture my approach to several aspects of Judaism. Conservative Judaism as I understand it allows me to live in the intersection of action and belief with each informing the other.

  12. eisen

    I find Daniel Gordis's analysis here incredibly insightful--in fact, perhaps as insightful as anything I have ever read about the challenges facing contemporary American Judaism. But I have some comments / criticisms:

    1. It's awfully difficult to get American Jews to do what Gordis is asking for here. Halakhic commitment of the kind that Gordis is speak about requires sacrifices in every major aspect of life: whom you love (we have to marry Jews), what you eat (assuming that Halakhah requires SOME sort of commitment to dietary restrictions), how you spend your weekend (or at least, the first day of it), and what you spend your money on (Jewish education for your kids is going to take all of it, unless you're in one of three well-paid professions). One might be willing to make these sacrifices if one really believes in Torah min ha-shamayim--that G-d said so, that Halakhah originates with the Divine, and that your reward in heaven depends on it. But such beliefs are not easy to sell these days. So what then are such sacrifices for? The commitment to tradition, peoplehood etc.? These just don't seem compelling enough.
    2. I have a less sanguine view of Modern Orthodoxy than Gordis does. My sense is that the Modern Orthodox community is experiencing a malaise similar to that of Conservative Judaism and for similar reasons. Here too the question, often unarticulared,is: What for? Why live this incredibly demanding life? It should be because of Torah min ha-shamayim, because G-d said so. After all, that is the center of Orthodoxy as Gordis says. But it's not that simple. The whole issue of Torah min ha-shamayim is a much bigger problem for Modern Orthodox Jews than they are willing to admit. Those in Modern Orthodoxy who truly buy into this doctrine often lean to right, with some abandoning Modern Orthodoxy in favor of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Those who don't buy into it often leave the community altogether. But the majority of Modern Orthodox Jews remain in their communities in a state of confusion. They don't necessarily believe in Torah min ha-shamayim but they like the way of life, and so they just don't confront this issue. And the result is an Orthodoxy that's not as enthusiastic or vibrant as Gordis believes.
    3. So if the demands of living a Jewish life are so great, and Torah min ha-shamyaim is not a sufficient anchor for most Jews, what is? I am a professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at a major American university, and my sense is that what my young Jewish students are looking for is a compelling vision. They want their Judaism to make a difference in the world. They want a sense of "mission." And that is something that American Jews seem to have lost. Perhaps the answer is social action, or at least some sort of action that will fire the imagination. Some Jews have gone this route, but this type of Judaism is often dismissed by the mainstream as something only the left does.
    4. If we're going to talk about action that makes a difference in the world, my sense is that one of the reasons many of my students have difficulty relating to Judaism is that the only "action" they see Jews doing in the world making any sort of difference, is the oppression of Palestinians. Please do not misunderstood me here. I know that the issue is far more complicated than that, that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My point is that this is what the PERCEPTION is. I can speak all I want to my students about how there are two sides to the conflict, but it just doesn't easily counter the fact that every day we have headlines screaming at us about Israel's injustices. When you're trying to inspire young Jews to think of Judaism as an active mission in the world--and all they see is what's in the newspapers--it's a huge problem. A solution to the conflict is therefore a good idea even if you're a right-winger who believes that Israel has done no wrong. You still have the problem of perception here--of mar'it ayin, in halakhic terms--that makes it difficult for young Jews to relate to Judaism in compelling idealistic terms.

    But with all this said, I still commend Daniel Gordis for a beautifully written piece that gets to the heart of many of the issues facing Judaism in American today.

    Robert Eisen
    Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies
    Chair, Department of Religion
    George Washington University
    Washington, D.C.


      the perception of your students is "oppression of Palestinians"?
      Where do you teach? Do you really think that the students of GW are as concerned with what goes on 5500 miles away; or are they concerned with their own lives.

      Your agenda, which you spread to students who've had no prior exposure to Jews, is what's perverting their views. Do you bother to tell them that "oppression" is just another word for keeping terrorists from blowing up pizza stores and killing babies? Or do you revel in your pseudo self-centered moral high ground.

  13. ignoring the elephant

    I find it amazing that among all this handwringing about the state and future of the Conservative movement, not one of the esteemed rabbis even aludes to the impact of the economics. Let's recite the numbers: membership at a suburban Conservative synagogue including buildling fund and holiday tickets averages about $3000 a year without afternoon classes. At Solomon Schechter in Westchester NY, tution for primary school is $23,000; for high school it's $34,000. Four weeks at Camp Ramah costs $5,400 per child; a full summer costs $7,800 (not including the "voluntary" $500 contribution). Do the math: for a family with just two chidren, one in primary and one in high school, to lead a life fully committed to Conservative institutions (the best way to produce committed Conservative Jews) costs $75,000 per year. Do any of the esteemed rabbis even recognize this reality as an troubling issue for the movement?


      when your day school is overrun with administrators, and your synagogue is awash in programs, you need a big budget.

      Chabad rabbis deliver a lot more judaism for a lot less money; and they're no more judgmental than the woman rabbi conducting a single-sex wedding.

  14. greatdogquilts

    i think that the one sentence from your the article referring to the lack of aspiration among conservative jews, is the key to the problem. Conservative judaism over the past 25 years was a judaism of accommodation and appeasement(also known as assimilation)---BUT AMOST NEVER ASPIRATION.
    soccer practice over hebrew classes; jews and gentiles at jewish community center dances; football games over sunday school; bar mitzvah in israel over real jewish study. WHen children are taught these values, what is to continue.
    oh, i know, passover is inconvenient for some relatives, so we will have the seder the following week when aunt bridget can make it. Yom kippur is too long, so we will break the fast at lunch. you get the idea. Keep the convenience of an aspect of the jewish culture, but NEVER mention that we are doing something that is absurdly wrong---also, NEVER mention that maybe we should TRY to have the seder at the appropriate time with whoever can make it and that Judaism actually has something buy;t in to the system to allow for an alternate date---then maybe aunt bridget can come for the other seder.
    conservative judaism has forgotten to conserve judaism.

  15. Matt Plen

    It seems to me that there's a disconnect between Gordis's diagnosis and his solution. The solution - a cross-denominational, counter-cultural Judaism grounded in obligation and Jewish literacy - is something I can wholeheartedly agree with, and reflects the vision we are trying to work towards at Masorti Judaism in the UK. But the diagnosis which leads to this remedy - the idea that Conservative Judaism fell apart because of lowering of standards - is deeply flawed.

    If Conservative Judaism failed because Jews are looking for authority and commitment, how does Gordis explain that only 1% of young people (according to Pew) identify with modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to the 11% who still identify as Conservative? The numbers don't back up his arguments. Moreover, there's a strong case to be made that the relative vibrancy of certain Orthodox congregations is a result of their exclusivity - ideological commitment is much easier to sustain when anyone who does not identify simply leaves (or does not come in to begin with). Clearly this kind of exclusivity is not a recipe for mass Jewish engagement. And where Orthodox communities are inclusive - for example in the UK - we see that they suffer from exactly the same kinds of problems that face Conservative communities in the US.

    The flip side of this critique is the real elephant in the room missing from Gordis's analysis: the deep commitment of Conservative/Masorti Jews (and many other members of the liberal Jewish world) to diversity and pluralism as matters of principle. The real challenge is not simply how to sustain a committed, literate Jewish community (which is hard enough) but how to do so in such a way that Jews of different beliefs, styles of practice, philosophical and political orientations, not to mention genders and sexual preferences will choose to join and be part of the conversation. I would like to hear some intelligent views from contemporary Jewish leaders on this pressing problem.

    Matt Plen
    Chief Executive
    Masorti Judaism (UK)

  16. A Scheiner

    I generally agree with Daniel Gordis and I agree with his point here, which I take to be, in part, that any 'stream' of Judaism must make demands of its adherents that they might be uncomfortable with or even violate, and that this "hypocrisy" is preferable to making no demands or keeping them well within the comfort zone of the general population. A group that fails to do this is probably headed for oblivion. But he does not address why Reform -- the most lacking in this area -- has grown at the expense of Conservatism. It is not because it is better for lazy Jews; in my opinion it is because it is in the process of adopting more traditional religious practices akin to Conservative Congregations, in terms of worship, Shabbat observance, kashrut and the like. I look forward to the day when many (even if not most) Reform Jews observe Shabbat and attend services routinely, pray at home, wear kippahs in their daily life (not because they have to, but because they want to and are free to), study Hebrew, Torah and Talmud, and at least make an attempt to avoid the obviously traif. As has been said "Hypocrisy is vice's bow to virtue." But I disagree with one comment by Mr. Gordis which lays underserved blame on "liberal Judaism," which I take to mean Reform Judaism. He says: "the Pew study makes clear, liberal Judaism in America has given up its counter-cultural essence; only 60 percent assert that believing in Jesus as the Messiah puts one outside Jewish boundaries!" But the Pew study shows that a significantly lower percentage of Reform Jews agree with that statement that "Jesus is OK" than Orthodox (25% v. 35%). The folks who agree most strongly (46%) have "no denomination." I think there are several halachic and theological reasons for this, but one interesting fact is that most Reform Jews reject Christianity among Jews (75%), but fully accept atheism as "Jewish" (66%). In other words, Reform Jews feel Christianity is off limits -- in part because it is a religion that implies beliefs in and about the God of Israel -- but denying the existence of the God of Israel is A-OK. That, to my mind, is the far bigger problem, that many communal leaders, including clergy, are loathe to even address. It is questionable whether Judaism can survive, at least in America, as a wholly secular identity or ideology, where it reduces to a pure nationalism or ethno-centrism that starts to look to politically correct, liberal eyes like bigotry.

  17. iddo99

    Perhaps the Rabbi would do well to learn from a 2nd grade girl in an orthodox community what the fundamentals of Judaism are. At some points he seems reconciled to jettisoning the laughable language that has been the stock and trade of liberal Judaism and on the other hand his attachment remains too strong.

    Plenty of room for improvement but dogma (the bane of the NPR crowd that R. Gordis seeks out) is central to Judaism, not a device.

    Now talk amongst yourselves.....

  18. debw32

    Though not the main topic of this discussion:
    A little open-mindedness when it comes to the Jesus/Jews issue would be appreciated. There are a few of us out there who are as committed to Jewish counterculturalism as the best of them, who strive to be active, literate, and observant, and who happen to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. I don't believe this because it's fun. Or easy. Or part of an agenda to take down my people. It's not. It's double countercultural: a lonely place to be.

  19. Dave Neil

    Daniel Godis is correct that:
    "Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational."
    Nor is it challenging enough...
    But he failed to mention a major point.
    When i was growing up in the Conservative movement- it served an important function for the people in my parents' generation (i am 50 btw) that it was a SOCIAL club.. a place to meet other families with similar backgrounds and interests so one could shmooze- have friends with other families of similar backgrounds.
    Gordis writes a lot about ideology/theology as that is where his head is at.
    Yes Conservative movement wasn't so ideological - or challenging spriritually and it didn't have to be as Jews in the 1940s and 1950s- even the 1960s and early '70s were motivated enough to belong just to have the social connections of being part of that community and making friends with such families- so their kids would become with those "good families like us". Well that died. The 3rd and 4th generation Jews didn't feel as "Jewish" as their parents- they felt more American and the effort to go to a synagogue just to have Jewish friends wasn't worth it- period. Just Bar and Bat mitzvah and then out the door.. And then things fell to the next level even lower..ONE more thing. The Reform isn't suffering as badly as Conservative ONLY because all those kids that grew up Conservative and intermarried went over to Reform since the non-Jewish spouse feels more comfortable in a place which has at least one third non-Jews in it... Once their kids marry to non-Jews (which happens 83% of the time for children of the intermarried) they will stop going to ANY synagouge and Reform will implode.

  20. daized79

    "[T]hough many Orthodox rabbis will publicly deny it, is that a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox."

    As one other commenter pointed out, it's not so much that they are not theologically Orthodox as that they are not ALWAYS theologically Orthodox--the community helps us keep the tradition in moments (and months) if doubt and crisis. There are those who are Orthoprax of course (you must be familiar with the term) and still send their kids to Orthodox schools so they at least have the ability to make a choice which other branches are unable to even make. And many Orthodox rabbis will admit both of those. :)

    "Halakhically, eating out in such restaurants is far more problematic than not wearing a sheitel."

    Not sure this is true. What do you base it in? A married woman covering her hair is biblical according to the Talmud (and even implied in the text of the Pentateuch). (Yes, there is an opinion that biblical law only requires that the hair not be long and/or loose, but it's a daat yakhid and not what Orthodox Judaism believes). On the other hand, eating otherwise kosher food prepared by goyim on pots and pans that may or may not be ben yomo with treif sounds rabbinic to me. I'm not going to be 100% positive, but you sure seem to be...

  21. daized79

    As to your article generally. I still don';t understand where you're comign from. i thought i understood establishment Conservative. The halakha is binding because hashem wants us to do it (however that was communicated), but it's more flexible than Orthodox would say (in part perhaps because Conservative has different ideas as to how the Law was given--why Open Orthodoxy won't stay Orthoprax long-term). Then I get why you would bemoan the fate of Conservative and call for more legal observance.

    But that's not what you believe. You do not seem to be believe in the binding nature halakha or any theological belief in G-d giving us Law. In fact, you say that education and intellectualism are in contradiction with even Modern Orthodoxy.

    (I am biased because I am Orthodox [though not particularly Modern Orthodox), but I am still shocked at this ludicrous statement. It would take a lot more than the current state of archaeology and historical reconstruction to lead to any real problems with believing that G-d gave our forebears laws to keep and the greatest Jewish scholars of the 20th Century have had no problem with that, e.g., Soloveitchiks, Lieberman, Weiss-Halivni, Ginzberg.)

    You say that you would adopt your grandfather's dismissal of theology. Apparently it didn't satisfy you as a child, but now you think it should. I am sure he sincerely did not believe that G-d gave us Laws to keep, but if you don't believe in that why would it fill you with dread if Reform is unsustainable. Are Irish Americans filled with dread because some of their unique Irish customs are falling by the wayside? Nostalgia for some old traditions is a very different thing than a passion to live up to your Creator's plan and to fulfill your role in Creation. You can't offer an alternative because you ultimately don't believe anything the tradition teaches. You try to look at Orthodoxy as a great social club with rules for joining, but why remain a member of your parents' outdated social club? I don't get it. What am I missing?

  22. djford

    Most American Jews – whether Conservative, Reform, or non-affiliated – appear to find a secular way of life satisfying, just as a secular way of life seems to satisfy most Christians, even Catholics, from what I observe around me.

    So it seems to me that Conservative and Reform movements need find a way to demonstrate to secular Jews (and most of their current members are secular) that they are missing something important in their lives, and to convince these Jews that it is worth the time, energy, and discipline (and money) to achieve that missing something. Can it be done by arguments or biographies (or fiction with characters) that illustrate the richness of a life of faith? By showing how grounded people of faith are? By convincing them to give it a try – because being “inside” is the only real way to experience its worth?

    Until we can demonstrate that a Jewish-lived life is more satisfying than a secular one, we are on the losing side unless some unforeseen social current deflects the strong pull of secularism.

    Can we get clues to what needs to be done by considering: (a) why people join the Traditional Jewish groups; (b) what type of personality is attracted to Traditional Jewish groups; (c) why have Evangelical Christians been so successful whereas the mainstream Protestant churches are failing?

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