America’s Conservative and Reform denominations might merge. Beyond consolidating redundant, increasingly-under-utilized schools and shuls amid this Corona-contraction, Conservative rabbis crossed a Halachic redline by allowing Shabbat services to be streamed live. The Reformers won. Reasoning backward from results you want trumped Conservatism’s modernizing-from-within-the-tradition-forward approach. Once again in America, either-orism defeats tempering, balancing.
Denying the rumors, Conservative leaders spoke of cooperating, collaborating, living pluralism with the Reform movement, without merging. “BUT WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR” I wondered while reading their lovely-sounding mushy message which gives moderation a bad name. “I get your foreign policy – outreach. But who are you????”
Many of us loving critics have asked this question for years – only to be demonized for daring to state the obvious. In 2007, the banker-philosopher Scott Shay wrote in Getting our Groove Back that any business hemorrhaging so many customers would declare bankruptcy. Shay proposed “radical actions,” because beyond “losing numbers” the movement’s “existential crisis” had leaders who could no longer agree if Halacha – Jewish Law — was binding or voluntary.
Thirteen years later, the numbers are lower, the confusion greater. It’s unfortunate. Modern Judaism needs creative forces updating tradition thoughtfully, rigorously, Halachically. Note how Conservatives trailblazed for the Orthodox on women’s issues.
The Conservative Movement was rooted in Jewish belief and belonging, revering tradition, history, peoplehood. When I grew up, Conservative Judaism often suffered from suburban sterility, pomposity, superficiality and a confusion between zesty singing and genuine prayer. Still, most Conservative synagogues had a critical mass of serious Jews. Even many who no longer kept Shabbat fully, kept kosher homes. They were genuine Jewish patriots: generous financially, Jewishly-literate not Hebrewphobic. They read consequential Jewish books. They raised Jewish families, while passionately supporting their synagogue, their community, their people and Israel.
While proud Americans, they bled blue-and-white not just red white and blue. They wanted to conserve tradition, remaining anchored in Judaism because Judaism was not just their anchor it was their alternate eco-system to the “goyishe” work world.
At its best, Conservativism’s conservatism was liberal-minded and creative. As the Israeli philosopher Meir Buzaglo explains about Mizrahim, traditionalists treasure their parents and teachers without being “enslaved” to them. Refusing to “begin as a tabula rasa,” they cherish “the education they received.” Today, looking backward respectfully while going forward deliberately requires courage and imagination to accept “the tradition” as “a necessary condition for the possibility of change.”
But beware: constructive “change and development” cannot come without “a hard core of commitment.” It’s that commitment – and the requisite literacy to innovate delicately – that’s flagging.
Traditionally, Conservative Judaism accepted Judaism’s comprehensive framework. Judaism has survived over millennia, in contrasting environments, as a self-reinforcing spiral. Faith in Judaism’s God-based authority requires literacy which transforms consumers into stakeholders who embrace Judaism ever-more intensely as a framework for living and meaning, which reinforces faith in authority, spurring more learning, greater mastery, deeper connections, and onward and upward.
But many Jews keep falling – or jumping – off the spiral.
Ultimately, most American Jews chose to be Americans first, jettisoning their Jewish anchors, setting their GPSes on liberalism not Judaism. That’s a very American story. It’s a very Jewish story. But it’s killing the Conservative Movement.
Today, most Conservative Jews are truly liberal American Jews. They’re more worried about defying the Democratic platform than the Torah, more distressed about alienating campus Progressives than Israeli soldiers.
Most are not Conservative but Preservative Jews. They preserve nice ancestral traditions as artificial props, nostalgia-triggers. They’re Jew-ish – appreciating this colorful, family-friendly accent in their lives. But they’re not, full-Monty 24/7 Jewish, God forbid. The commitment cannot be too defining – that’s too confining: time-consuming, inconvenient, otherizing. This docility fosters a Judaism of entertaining priest-rabbis and disengaged congregants, of Jewish gesturing not Jewish learning.
The few who made Aliyah voted with their feet – as did the masses who intermarried. In both extremes, creating the locus of your life in the Jewish state or with a non-Jewish spouse, spurned your parents’ American-Jewish juggling act. Perhaps most revealing of Conservatism’s ideological exhaustion are all those USY leaders – and retired Conservative rabbis – who went Orthodox, following the logic of their commitments. Where else in America could they find the authentic, authoritative Judaism they were raised with?
As the Conservative crisis intensified, most fights centered over who belonged: women, gays, now non-Jewish spouses. That distracted attention from even harder questions: what happened once you got in? Everyone was too busy fighting at the door as the synagogue’s foundations crumbled, its walls buckled, its roof collapsed.
In my travels, I’ve met wonderful, committed, proudly-Jewish Conservative rabbis and congregants. Before they attack me, they should ask themselves: what’s the average age of our shul-goers? What’s our Hebrew school graduates’ intermarriage rate? And how much time do we spend worrying about who’s left, who’s going to show up and who will bankroll us?
The few surviving committed Conservative Jews experienced social distancing long before Corona.
Ultimately, the authentic Jew must be countercultural in the modern world, championing tradition as an opportunity – a set of keys to greater meaning and morality not handcuffs shackling you to Medieval life. Buzaglo explains: “Modern life presents challenges to traditionalists their ancestors never faced.” They don’t “join a community that simply goes along with the majority’s approach to solving these dilemmas.”
Traditionally, Conservative Jews relished that un-American heterodoxy. The newly-merged or federated Con-form movement won’t. So decision-time is here. Every Conservative congregation should spend this Shavuot asking what drives them Jewishly today, and whether that makes enough of them different enough to justify keeping Conservative Judaism alive.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .