One of the problems with being a moderate or middle-grounder in Western society today is that the extremes are currently where all the social action is. In a world where the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer it is becoming harder and harder to remain in the middle class. One need not look any further for an example of this trend than Judaism today.
On the right side we have the UltraOrthodox who have taken control of the definition of Torah observance and are attempting to rewrite Jewish history and law in order to make them fit their strict agenda. On the left side we have the ultra-Reform and humanists for who no secular liberal value is too secular and liberal.
And somewhere in the middle we have the Conservatives, a movement that was once the largest and most influential of the so-called streams of Judaism in North America and which today is dwindling as its moderate message - you can be sort-of religious - is rejected by more and more people searching for either observant or non-observant authenticity.
The problem for Conservativism, however, isn't that it is trying to remain in the middle in a diverging society but that its response to date hasn't been to defend that position but to rather weakly imitate its left-sided competitors. In an attempt to staunch some of the bleeding they have reached towards the Reformers and, in the process, made themselves less distinguishable from them. Indeed some might conclude that Conservatism is just Reform with a few more rituals.
Into this comes an attempt by the movement to rebrand itself. Previously the one meaningful piece of literature produced by the movement was The Guide To Jewish Religious Practice. I say meaningful because while lots of stuff has come out of the Jewish Theological Seminary, this book was the one that defined what red lines the movement had when it came to what was permissible and what wasn't. It defined the proper behaviour for a Conservative and it did so with a lot of detail. One of the ongoing jokes in some parts of the Orthodox world is that if Conservatives actually strictly observed what it preached they'd be taken a lot more seriously by the Torah-observant.
The problem, of course, is that most Conservatives either don't own the book (I wonder what percentage of Conservatives bought it vs the percentage that received it as a bar mitzvah gift from their synagogue) or never cracked the spine. It's hard to expect practice from folks who can't even find the rule book.
But now news comes that the book has been upgraded and updated. A new, larger book, The Observant Life, is expected out in the next few months and will be the replacement for the old Guide. Unlike the Guide, which pretty much stuck to an analysis of the laws regarding daily Jewish life and holidays, this one will go further and be more comprehensive:
I wonder, though, if The Observant Life will end up like the Magan Tzedek hechsher - a potentially great idea, one in which the Conservatives could really have distinguished themselves, that went nowhere because only a miniscule proportion of its target population cared about its existence.
Consider the title, for example. The Observant Life was probably chosen by those same folks at JTS who brought us the old Conservative slogan: "the authentic voice of traditional Judaism". For a long time the Conservative leadership deluded itself into thinking that its so-called Rabbinical Assembly was like a modern day Sanhedrin and that just as Chazal had supposedly voted all sorts of laws into existence and changed things they didn't like so too the RA was an authentic halachic body. Whether it was Harold Kushner openly announcing at one of their conventions that they were no longer such a thing or the ordination of homosexual rabbis, something no amount of halachic misrepresentation could accept as legitimately traditional, there is no doubt any longer that the Conservative commitment to halacha nowadays is limited to those sections of Jewish law that don't violate the tenets of secular liberalism. In short, the authors may want to bring a form of observance into the lives of their flock but not what is currently considered "observance" in North America which means a commitment to mitzvos without exception.
To be fair, the old Guide was similar but not blatant about it. Issac Klein would generally bring real halachic sources for rulings where he could but he used the handy "In a vote by the Rabbinical assembly" to justify those which violated the Shulchan Aruch. I would guess this book will do more of the same, quoting a variety of real sources where possible and the RA where it is not.
Another problem is that the book, by its nature, will spell out what is forbidden for Conservatives. On one hand, that sounds fine but on the other consider that one of the tenets of secular liberalism is that the answer "No, you're not allowed" is considered unacceptable in most situations. It's easy to say when one asks "Can I cheat" or "Can I steal" and I don't doubt the book will emphasize lots of areas where cheating and stealing, many times by Orthodox Jews, occurs and show how Jewish law opposes this.
But what about when a Cohen wants to marry a divorcee? What about when an intermarried couple where the mother isn't Jewish wants a bris? What about the young couple that wants to live together without having gotten married? What about same-sex couples? What will the book say to them? Will it have the courage to say "Look, we have rules and they aren't the same as society around them, good intentions and "I want this and it doesn't hurt anybody!" isn't enough and the answer is 'no'"? Or will it again bring in "rulings" from the RA or other fluffy statements about love and tolerance to justify wholesale breaches in real Jewish law?
That's why Conservatism has spent all its time aping Reform and not Orthodoxy even as many of their number, seeking real Jewish values and observance, drift to the right. Bringing in homosexual rabbis is easy. Telling people that only men can be counted for minyan? Not so much.
I suspect a lot of the latter because, let's face it, these authors will want to sell books and a book that tells people what they don't want to hear is not going to sell well. The authors will probably play the same game Conservatism has been for the last several decades. They will redefine observance in such a way as to minimize the difference between "Judaism" and secular liberalism so as to promote a religious life that will not offend any of their target audience.
And once again people looking for authentic Judiasm will go elsewhere.