Once upon a time, there was a real difference between Reform and Conservatism. Reform was based on a rejection of all the rules of the Torah, a rejection of mitzvos and age-old Jewish behaviour. Conservatism, on the other hand, was an attempt to balance Torah-true observance with modern world pragmatism, an attempt to meld traditional ritual with whatever passed for modern values at any given time. And what many people seem to forget is that Conservatism was quite successful for a long time, especially in the post-World War II years when true Torah observance was in retreat and Reform's attempts to be distinctly Jewish by avoiding any real connection to Jewish values had started to sputter.
Over the last couple of decades, however, it seems that Conservatism has lost its defining momentum and become a traditional version of Reform. From egalitarian services to increasing rejection of the masorah to endorsing sexual and marital practices forbidden by the Written Torah, Conservatism has become a ritual-heavy version of Reform, not much more. In fact, the final real difference between the two groups is that Reform, while claiming to represent nebulous Jewish values (really, politically correct secular liberal ones) makes no pretenses towards being traditional, the Conservatives still think they're operating within the bounds of halacha, a system they left behind decades ago.
In fact, I've seen it written more than one place that many amongst the Conservative movement, dismayed by declining levels of Jewish education, practice and membership numbers, think a merger with Reform is inevitable. And sometimes, real world examples come and demonstrate that this isn't simply cynical thinking:
On a recent Friday night I, a Conservative Jew and rabbi, had occasion to daven at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a large Reform congregation housed in a stunning Moorish building. Arriving a few minutes after 6 p.m., I had trouble finding an empty place to sit. To my surprise, 500 people of all ages were already seated, with prayer books open, singing and keeping time with their feet. Three rabbis and two cantors were leading the service, with instrumental accompaniment. The cantors alternated between Friday-night traditional chanting (nusach) and contemporary melodies. Also surprising to me, we recited almost all the prayers in Hebrew, with only a few interspersed English readings. Following Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv (the two main parts of the service), there was
an abbreviated Torah service — even though it was not Saturday morning. The way it began startled me. Two of the rabbis each took a Torah scroll from the ark and headed separately down the long aisles. (The third rabbi was off leading a “mishpahah” service for the kids.) As they passed, they chatted with congregants. This happens in most synagogues but never have I seen the procession take so long, perhaps 10 minutes...
Was I jealous of this Reform congregation? Very much so. As I look to Orthodoxy on the right and Reform on the left, I see vitality. People are streaming into synagogues — either because they feel obligated or motivated to do so. Adherence to halacha works for Orthodoxy, and freedom to rethink liturgy works for Reform. Both approaches are keeping Jews Jewish and that is what matters. So what is the message for Jews in the middle? What can Conservative Judaism, which lies between the two poles, offer to people? Unlike Reform, we won’t shorten prayers or introduce musical instruments. It is against halacha to do so and we, as a movement, accept halacha as binding. But the majority of our members don’t, and our shuls, it is painful to point out, are growing more and more empty. It is also troubling that many of our young people who are serious about prayer find the typical Conservative service boring. They opt out and form their own minyanim to meet their Jewish needs.I don’t have an easy response to these challenges. But here is one suggestion: In the coming year, Conservative rabbis and laypeople should visit at least 10 synagogues other than their own, some Orthodox, some Reform, and some independent minyanim. We should see what works .elsewhere and then try to adapt successful strategies to our own communities. This may be only a small step but, as the rabbis teach, even if we are not obligated to finish the job, we are duty-bound to begin
This, of course, has been a problem with Modern Orthodoxy for some time. Looking left (the YCT crowd) or right (the YU crowd) for ideas without anyone really trying to be original in the centre. Yet this outward looking is exactly what has been killing the Conservatives over the last few decades. Simply put, if you don't care about real mitzvah observance, you become Reform. If you really do care, you become frum. Other than an idealistic few in the centre, there's really nothing there to retain people. Perhaps as Conservatives rabbis go around and see that Reform and Torah observant institutions, as different as they are, can define themselves instead of looking to the sides for the boundaries of their views, they'll see that their movement has ceased to play a meaningful role in North America's Jewish community.