Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Conservative Judaism and Mark Twain

Recently I wrote about the recent Pew report on American Jews and what it means for the Jewish community overall. Now I would like to focus on what it means for Conservative Judaism in particular.

Recently there has been a spate of articles reacting to the statistic that only 18% of American Jews currently identify as Conservative, and only 11% of those under 30 do so. This is in sharp contrast to most of the 20th century, when the plurality of American Jews identified with Conservative Judaism. The first study which did not show Conservative Judaism as the largest denomination was in 1990, when 38% called themselves Reform vs. 35% Conservative. So in the 23 years since then, our “market share” has gone down by half.

One of the more interesting articles was by Micah Gottlieb, a professor of Jewish studies at NYU, raised in the Conservative movement but today Modern Orthodox. For Prof. Gottlieb, writing in the Forward, the key failing of Conservative Judaism is its lack of halachic seriousness:

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic. . .

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. . .

Many people are thinking about how to revitalize Conservative Judaism. This is important, as the world needs a vibrant Jewish religious center. From my experience, I would recommend one thing above all else: Support and nurture the most committed Conservative Jews at local synagogues. Give them outlets for their religious curiosity and passion. These Jews may not write big checks. They may sometimes make the less committed members of the synagogue feel uneasy. But they are the future.

There is some truth in what Prof. Gottlieb writes, and in one of my Yom Kippur sermons I recounted the story of one of my friends who left the Conservative movement so that he could raise his children in a Shabbat-observant community. But these kinds of people are not the norm; the Pew report says that 4% of those raised Conservative are now Orthodox while 30% are now Reform and fully another 20% say they are of no denomination or are culturally Jewish but have no religion. I suggest that our survival as a movement depends more on retaining those who have left for Reform or secularism than those who have left to become Orthodox.

Moreover, those of us who are committed to gender egalitarianism don’t see it as a “political” issue but rather a religious, spiritual mandate.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an ordained Conservative rabbi and well-known author who lives in Israel (and with whom I shared an office suite at the University of Judaism almost 20 years ago), wrote an article in the Jewish Review of Books called “Requiem for a Movement.” At least, as one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook, he had the decency to sound sorry that we died.

According to Rabbi Gordis, Conservative Judaism died because

Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address. . .As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

Gordis’ article is somewhat schizophrenic in that while he pillories the supposed excessive focus on halacha, and our failure to acknowledge that most of our members are simply not interested in living a fully halachic life, he also criticizes our concessions:

They (the rabbis) expected less of their congregations, reduced educational demands, and offered sanitized worship reconfigured to meet the declining knowledge levels of their flocks. In many cases, they welcomed non-Jews into the Jewish community in a way that virtually eradicated any disincentive for Jews to marry people with whom they could pass on meaningful Jewish identity.

I would posit that numbers, market share if you will, is not the main criterion for the “success” of a spiritual community. Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL wrote, in an e-mail which he has given me permission to include in this article:

Enough of this despair: Conservative Judaism won! Everyone today trumpets being for tradition and change and so now we simply need to move up the evolutionary spiral and widen the range of what we mean by both tradition and change and expand our boundaries of who we speak to given a post modern context, a globalized world and an America in which Jews are the most respected group (see American Grace by Putnam)  in the country. Yes our national institutions are going to weaken. But all national legacy institutions are weakening in every domain and business from the government to the NYTimes etc. Yes we have challenges but don't confuse business model changes that challenge our particular institutions and yes jobs with good Torah that is both needed or wanted.

Mark Twain was reported to have once said “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A little more than a year ago, people were ready to write the “requiem” for Kehilat Shalom, but we are still here, with a brand-new successful religious school, a significant number of new members, and a much firmer financial footing. Yes, we have our challenges ahead of us, and the Kehilat Shalom which emerges at the end of the next few years may look different than the Kehilat Shalom of yesterday.

I agree with Rabbi Kula that the challenge we face is more to our “business model” than to our core ideas. For much of our history Conservative Judaism was sort of the “default” mode. People with memories of immigrant parents or grandparents wanted a Judaism that was basically traditional but adapted to American realities. As those memories fade, tradition becomes less compelling for some.

Beyond that, all sociological research, well before the Pew study, showed that Gen Xers and Millenials are not joiners the way their parents and grandparents were. The challenge to the dues-based model is significant, just like newspapers and music companies are trying to figure out how to respond to the advent of digital media. But we will figure this out. Like Mark Twain, the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

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