Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Conservative Future

For a few decades now, the Conservative movement in Judaism has had identity problems.  Despite its large numbers on paper it has struggled to define itself against its opponents on the left, the Reformers, and the right, the Orthodox.  As a result it has struggled to define itself and to justify to much of its membership the reasons for continued loyalty even as its membership rolls shrank.
This shouldn't be a surprise for anyone.  Historically, Conservatism did best when two societal factors worked in its favour.  First, in the post-World War 2 era there was a revulsion towards nationalism and rigid ideology in North America.  Bland was better.  While Reform offered nothing Jewish in particular, Conservatism offered Jewish observance without the unyielding aspects that made proper Torah observance, Orthodoxy, into a seeming anachronism.  People didn't want extremes and with its middle-of-the-road approach, Conservatism was well positions to appeal to a large number of North American Jews.
The second factor in its favour was Orthodox weakness both before and after the war.  Orthodoxy had a rocky history in the New World since, back in the alte heim, most Orthodox Jews were observant more out of habit and lack of options than out of firm conviction.  Immigrants to North America often left their tefillin on the boat after arriving at Ellis Island, eager to leave the entire Old World behind.  This only accelerated after World War 2 given the horrifying conditions the Jews coming to North America had just experienced.  Again, Conservatism was in a position to appeal to many of the newcomers.  It provided a warm and nostalgic environment through its traditional approach to ritual while avoiding the rigidity that Orthodoxy had often enforced back in Europe.
What's doing the Conservatives in now is a radical change in both those factors.  For one thing, society in North America is now dividing in two different ways.  The first is the growing gap between the involved and the apathetic.  The proportion of people who somewhat care about the big issues in things like religion and politics is shrinking while the two opposite poles, the apathetics who have given up interest and the involved, who are obsessed with those issues, are filling the gap.  The push to extremes is further happening between the political and religious left and right with the number of people in the centre looking for a middling approach shrinking.
The other things is the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  From a movement threatened with extinction following the Holocaust, it has become the dominent group within the Jewish community from a religious perspective.  While the absolute numbers are small, the stuff that matters like ensuring proper Jewish education and continuity are being done well.  Reform and Conservative may have far more young people but 75% of them are going to intermarry and be lost to our nation.  The number of Orthodox who will leave and intermarry is far smaller.  As the community grows so do the number of schools and yeshivos as well as the number of Orthodox employed in general society and therefore exposing the world to the idea that one can be Torah observant and a functional member of society.
In short, if you care about religion you're either going to go to the left and be in Reform or you're going to go to the right and become Orthodox.  Very few will be enthusiastic about something that defines itself as going halfway.
So what's the movement to do?  Well so far it seems to have done everything wrong.  Desperate to shore up the bleeding, it has moved itself so far to the left that it has become almost indistinguishable in religious practice from the Reformers it once opposed.  Like Reform, Conservatism has allowed secular liberal values to replace those Torah values it once approved of.  There is still an emphasis on ritual, albeit watered down from what it used to practice but not enough to really grab anyone serious about practising Judaism. 
This article from suggests that Conservatism has two possible options.  One is to capitulate and accept that Reform and Conservatism are virtually identical.  This would lead to a merger between the two groups with a subsequent possible division within the group to cater to each set of followers while maintaining an overall unity.
The alternative the writer suggests is far more fascinating but less plausible and that's for Conservatism to get back to its roots - a movement that encourages a limited practice of traditional ritual and personal behaviour tempered by secular mores but with a serious demand that those limited requirements are strictly practiced.
With all respect to the small cadre of Conservatives who are really passionate and observant when it comes to the religion Solomon Shechter invented, I don't think the latter option is feasible.  Buildings cost money.  Clergy cost money.  Programs cost money.  A smaller Conservative movement will enter a death spiral in which dues, not able to keep up with the costs, will rise.  This will drive more members away to cheaper options, raising the costs, causing the due to rise, and so on.
The former option is far more likely for one simple reason: the biggest difference between Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox is membership requirements.  To be an Orthodox Jew one must keep kosher, Shabbos, put on tefillin everyday, etc.  To be a Conservative or Reform Jew one must take out a membership in one of their "temples".  Period.  Until Conservatism can manage to build up the intestinal fortitude to limit their membership, to say to people who don't keep kosher or daven regularly that no, they cannot call themselves Conservatives, they will simply progress downwards towards Reform until the only thing preventing the merger is the collection of egos in both movements.
Once that happens it will at least be a simpler divide to manage.


RAM said...

The Conservative philosophy was to give people whatever they wanted, dressed up as Judaism. Others are now much better at this, leaving Conservatives with no role. Serious Jews among them will latch on to some form of Orthodoxy. The others will join some other faux-Jewish denomination or drop out. Our job is not to smugly dismiss Conservatives in transition but to do our best to help them make informed decisions.

Mr. Cohen said...

Because Conservative conversion ceremonies are totally invalid, the Conservative Movement now contains large numbers of Gentiles who are falsely labeled as Jews.

Because of the Law of Matrilineal Descent, the children and grandchildren born to female Conservative “converts” are also NOT JEWISH.

Considering the increasing percentage of Conservative Movement members who are NOT JEWISH, is the Conservative Movement worth saving?

Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8:

If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely-revealed, then he or she is a heretic [apikuris].

In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law* [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].

In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.

What percentage of Reform Jews and Conservative Jews fit these categories?

Please help SUE the terrorists in court:

Thank you!

PS: * * * *

Shira Salamone said...

Been there, blogger that. :(

Shira Salamone