Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 23 August 2010

Slouching Towards Irrelevance

A long time ago I wrote about how the hardest part of a roof to sit on was the peak because it is so easy to slide off to either side.  At the time I was discussing how Modern Orthodoxy has to maintain a hard balancing act between the Chareidi community on the right and the non-observant on the left.  However, within the bigger picture of the so-called different streams of Judaism, it is the Conservatives who have, for many decades, struggled to maintain their position at the top of the roof.  In recent years it has become obvious that they lost this struggle and are now slipping down towards the left where the Reform wait.
In truth, there has been little to differentiate Conservatism from Reform for a while now.  Other than a slightly greater commitment to ritual, a token effort to appear like they use some kind of halachic process to make decisions and a refusal to use patrilineal descent to swell their numbers, they have philosophically and practically become Reform in all but name.
But what's in name?  Lots, apparently which is why some in the movement seek to now change the label they've gone by for over a century:

As the would-be rebranders are the first to admit, it’s not just a matter of wanting a new name — it’s also the embarrassment of the old one, which was bestowed by the movement’s founder, Solomon Schechter, in the early 20th century. “Conservative” has become a dirty word for politically liberal American Jews, who are, to say, 90% of non-Orthodox American Jews. It stands for everything to which they’re opposed. As comedian Judy Gold, a member of a Conservative congregation, told the Forward, whenever she says she’s a Conservative Jew, “you can see people’s heads exploding.” Who wants to be a metaphorical suicide bomber?Of course, the word “conservative,” with or without a capital “C,” wasn’t always such a red flag for liberals. Abraham Lincoln, who draped himself in it to defend himself against charges of radicalism, defined it as being for “the old and tried against the new and untried,” and while liberalism and conservatism have always been perceived by Americans as two different worldviews, they were not necessarily thought of as irreconcilable.
The problem, of course, is that it's easy to discard something, quite a bit harder to choose a replacement that everyone within this increasingly amorphous community will agree on.  After making a few suggestions, the article seems to think that "traditional" will be the name label when the dust clears.
My prediction is that the name will not change for a few reasons.  The first is because of inertia.  The name "Conservative" is attached to how many buildings and pieces of stationary?  This is not exactly a community flush with money.  Can you imagine the cost to take out the word "conservative" and replace it with "traditional"?
The second is one of realism.  The Conservatives are not traditional and have not been for a very long time.  Despite their slogans about being the authentic voice of traditional Judaism even they know they are stretching the truth when they claim they are being loyal to halacha and Torah as understood and interpreted by the sages down through the millenia.  One can blather all one wants about a "tradition of change" but doublespeak is a lousy way to label a movement.
In the end I continue to predict an eventual merger between Conservatism and Reform which I think will be called Reformative.  It will reduce the confusion because then, at least, there will be clear lines drawn between those who are Torah-observant and those who aren't without anyone in the middle trying to pretend they are both.


E-Man said...

Well, I have never been to a conservative temple (because of relatives) that used electric guitars on shabbos. Also, most people dress in nice clothes. However, when I have been to reform temple (again, because of relatives) this was not the case.

There still are differentiating factors, but they are being eroded. Most people I talk to that are not really affiliated, but want to say kaddish on the yortzeit will only look for conservative or orthodox shuls.

From their perspective I do not understand why, but maybe people view conservative as still more traditional than reform.

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

> "still more traditional than reform."

Hey, there's a thought... in the same way that Vaughan (shudder) brands itself as "the city above Toronto," Masorti/Covenantal could indeed bill itself as "Still more traditional than Reform."

Or play up the strengths of the non-Orthodox movements, for instance: "more punctual Judaism."

Queens said...

Check this out

Anonymous said...

Garnel, I like many of your posts, but I just don't think you've got your facts quite straight here. Yes, the Conservative movement has some similarities to the Reform movement but it's not quite fair to say they are essentially the same (I know I'm paraphrasing you a little too much).

The USCJ's CJLS is a respected group of Rabbis who truly do engage in much of the tradition of the poskim of our past. It's true they may believe to have a bit more arguing power against their predecessors than we do as Orthodox, but that doesn't mean they've thrown the mesorah out the window.

Your point is correct that Conservative Judaism is hemorrhaging members, but it is not just to the left. You see, unlike orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism has a governing body. That governing body has decided the rules and they tend to abide by them, but that doesn't mean the members are adherent to those same principles. Because there are so many "bad" Conservative Jews, those that do follow traditional halacha often feel isolated and out of place. That's why today you see zounds of children of Conservative Rabbis filling yeshivas in both America and E.Y. They just feel more comfortable in orthodoxy. To them, the only real difference between observant Conservative Judaism and orthodoxy is the egalitarianism and some of them are just willing to give it up to feel accepted.

Conservative Judaism may be dying, but that death may actually be the foundation of a more solidly grounded modern orthodoxy than a Reformative.

Feel free to disagree, I just wanted to share the perspective shared to me by some members of the CJLS

(oh and I'm RW MO BTW)

Garnel Ironheart said...

I can see the point you're making but I do disagree about the governance issue.
From my understanding, the way the RA makes decisions is to hold votes with the majority view being accepted as their "halacha". However, if the minority view gets something like 5 or 6 votes, it also gets accepted as a legitimate alternative. This has led to many of their new laws being completely voluntary. You must accept gay marriage, unless you don't. You must count women to minyan, unless you don't want to. And so on.
In addition, the flexibility they allow themselves is beyond anything reasonable, especially when they alter rules from the Written Torah which, unlike the Oral Torah, they do accord some immutability to.