As careful Jewish Review of Books readers have undoubtedly noticed, my interlocutors, who include some of the most distinguished and perceptive figures in Conservative Judaism, largely agree with me about the condition of the Conservative movement. As Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky writes, “there is no denying that in the last 30 or 40 years, Masorti/Conservative Jewish ideology has inspired fewer people than it once did.” In fact, says Rabbi Susan Grossman, my assessment “may have been too kind.” Jonathan D. Sarna, a leading historian of American Judaism, states that “Daniel Gordis is right” that the Pew numbers are devastating.
We also agree on several other points: the importance of studying Judaism through a historical prism, that halakha is fundamentally dynamic (even if, I believe, intentionally hesitantly so), the legitimacy of biblical criticism, and the urgent need for expanded roles for women in Jewish life. In fact, those were the ideas that drew me to The Jewish Theological Seminary some 30 years ago, and it was because I still believe they are critical that I wrote with sadness (even if I was insufficiently lachrymose for Kalmanofsky) about the cataclysmic erosion of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Noah Bickart, and Gordon Tucker are right that Conservative Judaism’s ideas are alive and well, albeit often in institutions outside the movement. But that does raise a question: If the ideas of Conservative Judaism are so vital and continue to flourish elsewhere, why did the movement sputter? Or, to put matters less abstractly, if one goes to Friday night services on the campus of Harvard or Columbia, Penn or Maryland, why is it the Orthodox services that are packed and overflowing with energy?
There isn’t, of course, a single answer, but I would like to sharpen one point from my original essay: Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.
In the Orthodox congregation in which I grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s, many of the worshippers drove to shul, while we, the Conservative Jewish family, walked. The parking lot was chained closed and our co-parishioners knew that what they were doing was not “permitted,” but they managed (the adjacent streets were clogged with parked cars), and it never dawned on them to ask the rabbi to sanction their driving. Today, their children do not drive, in part because their rabbis held the line.
But in response to the same phenomenon, Conservative Judaism sanctioned driving on Shabbat. It eradicated that productive cognitive dissonance for its members and, in so doing, created a Judaism that was non-aspirational. And the Pew results show what happens when Judaism doesn’t push us.
While few Orthodox Jews drive on Shabbat these days, cognitive dissonance persists. For instance, many American Modern Orthodox Jews eat dairy food or fish in non-kosher restaurants. Some will do it in their hometowns, others only when they are away for business or out of town on vacation. Do they believe that this practice is halakhically justified or justifiable? They do not. They live with the tension between what they do and what they know that Jewish law, and their rabbinic leaders, demand of them. The ensuing tension means that Judaism—like their marriages, their roles as parents, their professions—demands that they grow.
But when the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled in 1952 that “Fish dinners in non-kosher eating places shall not be construed as a violation of the dietary laws,” the movement illustrated once again its determination to fashion for its adherents an easy, dissonance-free spiritual life; in so doing, it also erased the aspirational drive so central to Jewish flourishing.
What all this suggests, though many Orthodox rabbis will publicly deny it, is that a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox; “revelation” and “commandment” are key words in the lexicon of their communities, but not so deep down, they’re motivated as much by sociology as theology. When the daughter of a childhood friend of mine recently married, she bought a sheitel, a wig, in order to keep her hair covered at all times. This would have been unimaginable in the crowd in which we grew up. When I asked her mother where the kids were heading for their honeymoon, she mentioned a place where I knew there was no kosher food. How were they doing that, I gently inquired? When they’re away, they eat in non-kosher restaurants, she told me.
Halakhically, eating out in such restaurants is far more problematic than not wearing a sheitel(which many would claim is not necessary at all). But intellectual consistency, the celebrated hallmark of Conservative Judaism, is not what these young people are seeking. What they want is meaning, community, closeness, and a sense of striving (incidentally, that’s what their non-Orthodox peers seek too). They have found these things in a halakhically demanding universe. And, although some of my interlocutors would scoff at their way of life, the fact is that it works.
In that community, the Jewish calendar is the metronome of life; they have homes infused with much more ritual, they learn more Torah, they intermarry much less, they visit Israel more often than their Conservative and Reform peers. They sing together and daven (which is not the same thing as worshipping) together. The best of them (not all, not enough) read just as much, think as broadly, and are as fully engaged in the modern world as their non-Orthodox counterparts, despite the intellectual tensions.
Many of the women among them find the opportunities for high-level Talmud study—opportunities that their mothers did not have—a profound indication that even in Modern Orthodoxy, feminism is alive and well. Pace Professor Judith Hauptman, most of them don’t need “ritual egalitarianism” to feel that they matter. Those who do, leave. That is what is wonderful about the American Jewish spiritual marketplace. (For the record, despite Dorff’s intentionally misleading suggestion to the contrary, nothing in my original article can fairly be construed as an endorsement of Orthodoxy.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was young and searching for a theological justification for the halakha to which I was committed in the face of the biblical criticism I was studying, I talked to my grandfather. A leading intellectual light of the Conservative movement, he had to havesomething to say, didn’t he? But no matter how hard I pushed, we always ended up in the same place. Why did halakha matter? It was, he told me, minhag k’lal yisrael. “This is simply what Jews do.” This is how we Jews live; it’s the ticket to belonging. “Stop all your theologizing,” he basically said to me. “Life’s real decisions are about belonging and sustaining, not about theology.” Not his words, but his point. And he was largely right.
Minhag k’lal yisrael works, but it’s working for Modern Orthodoxy—because Orthodoxy was never afraid of cognitive dissonance. Does it help that Orthodox rabbis still speak in theological terms? Yes, it does, and that would have been challenging for Conservative rabbis. It may not have worked even had we tried; there is something powerful about the theological certainty that is elusive for most of the lettered class, and that is undoubtedly the reason that Pew shows Modern Orthodoxy struggling now too.
But we could have given it a much better shot. We could have cajoled and inspired, encouraging our congregants to conform themselves to Jewish tradition, rather than working to shape the tradition to their fleeting, ostensible needs. (Rabbi David B. Starr is quite right to point to the extraordinary model of such leadership that Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath afforded us both; it’s instructive, however, that Rabbi Hilsenrath never joined the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.) We were too complacent. It didn’t matter, we told ourselves, how many of our flock were actually toeing the line. “It is peculiar for someone who is aware of, and speaking for, Jewish tradition to argue that smaller numbers mean lessened potency and fitness for survival,” writes Tucker in his response to me. (Really? His claim seems to be that because there are young Jews who are serious but not Orthodox, few of whom wish to affiliate with the Conservative movement, this proves the vitality of the Conservative movement?) Since they’re ostensibly not worried by the numbers, several of my interlocutors insist that no change in strategy is necessary. (As one observer has noted, not a single one of them actually offered a concrete suggestion of what Conservative Judaism should do.) Dorff writes:
We should do exactly what Jewish leaders ... have [always] done, even when the large majority of Jews did not believe or act in the same way—namely, live and teach the kind of Judaism that Conservative Judaism represents with as much vigor and creativity as we can muster.
Kalmanofsky says he’ll “keep plugging away, hopefully, optimistically, persistently.” There’s an air of nobility to such soldiering on, but, unfortunately, it’s the nobility of Don Quixote.
I would ask my interlocutors this: Are our ideas important in some Platonic sense, simply by virtue of their existence, or do they matter because we want them to shape the future of the Jewish people? Are you as committed to the survival of the Jewish people as you are to the “rightness” of those deeply held principles? If you are, then simply soldiering on will not do. We must articulate the ideas that we believe are critical to Judaism’s survival and then we must work—doggedly, creatively, and effectively—to get them deeply rooted in as wide a swath of American Jews as possible.
We live in a frightening and uncharted Jewish world. Despite all appearances of stability, ours is a period not unlike that of almost 2,000 years ago, after the Temple had been destroyed. Then as now, it was entirely unclear what sort of Judaism could sustain our people into the future.
The Sadducees were not wrong when they insisted that they were the rightful leaders of the people and the Temple (even in its absence), their divinely sanctioned seat of power. But others in that period looked at a shattered Jewish world and chose otherwise. Essenes opted for a focus on ritual and moral purity, avoiding contact with almost everyone else. Proto-Christians, then still Jewish, had a very different vision of what Judaism could become. The rabbis dared to invent something almost unrecognizable as Judaism. Their “heretical” notions—that Judaism could be geographically decentralized, that sacred time would replace sacred space, that prayer would substitute for sacrifice, and that a learned elite would assume the leadership roles once the province of priests—must have seemed utterly absurd to many.
We are no less shattered than the Jews of 100 C.E. The extraordinarily rich, vibrant, heterogeneous world of Polish Jewry was annihilated less than a lifetime ago. When 700,000 Jews were evicted from Arab lands in the late 1940s, Jewish life all along the Mediterranean’s north coast essentially came to an end. So, too, did Jewish life in Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, for all intents and purposes.