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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Time To Come Home

An Unflinching Assessment of the Conservative Movement
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sincere and dedicated Conservative Jews need to face an uncomfortable fact: their movement is a failure.

To be sure, the endowments and dedications, continue unabated; construction projects, rabbinic programs and Jewish Theological Seminary chairs are still well funded. But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment - to inspire Jews to Jewish observance - not only remains unrealized, but recedes farther from the realm of likelihood with each passing year.

That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The Conservative movement (used here and throughout to mean the group's rabbinic leadership) has done all it can - many would say much more than it should have - to set less demanding standards for Jewish religious observance, and produced reams of paper purporting to justify them. It has established pulpits, produced rabbis and attracted members.

But even the movement's radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of those men and women. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29% of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat; only 15% consider themselves Sabbath-observant (even by Conservative standards); and no more than 3% observe Jewish fast-days like Ta'anit Esther.

While Conservative leaders tried mightily to put a good face on the findings of another effort, the Pew Charitable Trusts-sponsored study of their congregants conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary's Dr. Jack Wertheimer in 1996, that survey made all too clear as well that the movement was utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled by that study indicated that "it was all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths." And nearly 3/4 of Conservative Jews said that they consider a Jew anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a Gentile - the official Reform position, rejected by Conservative leaders as non-halachic. Tellingly, only about half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were even kosher, again by any standard.

The reasons for Conservatism's striking failure to Jewishly inspire its members are two: The movement is not honest, and it is superfluous.

The dishonesty lies in Conservative leaders' insistence that they accept and respect halacha, indeed that they are the most faithful heirs to the rabbis of the Talmud and responsa literature. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Executive Vice President Rabbi Jerome Epstein, for instance, has proclaimed that "We maintain that... we regard halacha as binding," adding, admirably, that "to be committed to halacha means to live by its values and details even when we don't like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient."

Admirable but outrageous. For the facts tell a very different story.

One of the most important decisions of Conservative religious law, for example, was made by a commission comprised largely of laymen, as recounted in a book about - and published by - the Jewish Theological Seminary, "Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America" (JTS, 1997). Realizing that the institution's Talmud faculty - those most knowledgeable about the pertinent halachic sources - opposed ordination of women rabbis, the then-head of the Seminary, Gerson Cohen, created a commission to decide the issue. Only one of its 14 seats was assigned to a Talmud staff member. Dr. Cohen is quoted as having confided to friends his intent "to ram the commission's report down the Faculty's throats" (vol. 2, p. 502).

More recently, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, acting dean of the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, admitted, in Conservative Judaism magazine, that "the Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda." That approach may be pragmatic, even democratic; but it is not even arguably halachic.

Only half of Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical students polled in the 1980s, moreover, said they consider "living as a halachic Jew" to be an "extremely important" aspect of their lives as Conservative rabbis ("The Seminary at 100", Rabbinical Assembly and Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987).

And more recent happenings should force all but the most heavily blindered among the movement's defenders to admit that halacha receives, at best, lip service from the Conservative leadership. In late 1997, for instance, the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school, facing the wrath of outraged students, reassessed a letter he had written them proscribing premarital and homosexual sex. It had been, he insisted after the uproar, only a "personal statement, not a matter of policy" (Forward, November 7, 1997).

As it happens, Conservative leaders' attitudes toward "same-sex" relationships are a particularly timely and telling window into the movement's true feelings about halacha.

There is an undeniable halachic prohibition - in the case of men, in the form of an explicit verse in the Torah - against homosexual activity. And while the movement is still officially on record prohibiting the same, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, has admitted that "there has always been a group within the RA that has been consistently agitating for a change in halacha" regarding how practicing homosexuals should be regarded (New York Jewish Week, April 9, 1999). "Changing" a verse in the Torah is about as blatant an abandonment of halacha as might be imagined.

In fact, though, the process has already begun. For starters, the movement's 1996 decision affirming the Torah's prohibition of the male homosexual act included a striking dissent rejecting the Torah's characterization of such male activity as "an abomination" (Forward, April 2, 1999). The movement considers such variant opinions to be authoritative options for Conservative Jews.

What is more, there already are Conservative rabbis who officiate at same-sex ceremonies without having jeopardized their standing in the Rabbinical Assembly, according to Rabbi Meyers (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 4, 2000). Conservative Rabbi Phil Graubart has even insisted that he is "committed to halakhic creativity regarding homosexuality precisely because I'm in the Conservative movement" (Jerusalem Report, June 7, 1999). And the former rector of the movement's University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Rabbi Elliot Dorf, who has written a number of rulings adopted by the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, has already openly endorsed the blessing of "gay unions" (Forward, June 12, 1998) and voiced his expectation that, as time goes on, "there will be an increasing number of Conservative rabbis who will look forward to affirming same-sex unions" (ibid, February 4, 2000). All evidence considered, it does not seem an unreasonable expectation.

And so, at the same time that Conservative leaders and teachers are waving the banner of "halacha", they are effectively trampling it. Whether the issue is sexuality, Shabbat or shaatnez, Conservative claims of fealty to traditional Jewish religious law seem little more than figurative fig leaves strategically positioned to prevent the exposure of the Conservative movement as but a more timid version of the Reform.

Halacha evolves, Conservative spokesmen protest; and indeed it does. There is often a plurality of halachic opinions in a given case, they insist; and indeed there is.

But, at least for those who accept Judaism's millennia-old conviction that the Torah and the key to its understanding, the Oral Law, are of divine origin, those facts do not provide carte blanche for obliterating the Torah's laws. There are, as always there have been, clear rules (part of the Oral Law itself) for applying halachic principles to new situations, and ample precedents delineating when legitimate halachic latitude crosses the line into dissembling.

Perhaps most important, decisions of halacha can only lay claim to legitimacy when those rules are applied by seasoned scholars who regard issues with total objectivity. What is then yielded is not the decisor's personal wish but what the system called halacha prescribes.

And when that is the case, the law of probability dictates there will be times when the result will be more lenient than one might expect, and others when it will be more demanding. Tellingly, though, and without exception, every single Conservative "reinterpretation" of Jewish law has entailed permitting something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was driving a car on the Sabbath, "egalitarian" services or the biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the "re-evaluations" have all, amazingly, resulted in new permissions. That is a clear sign not of objectivity, but of agenda - of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah wants from us, and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool for promoting one's own feelings. Whatever merit such an approach might have to some, it is unarguably and strikingly diametric to what Jewish tradition considers the truly Jewish response, what it says our ancestors declared at Sinai: na'aseh v'nishma, "We will do and [then endeavor to] hear."

The movement's disconnect from halacha, moreover, has been readily admitted by honest Conservative intellectuals. Ordained Conservative rabbi and respected scholar David Feldman put it succinctly in the Fall, 1995 issue of Conservative Judaism magazine: "Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold Halacha as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort." Rabbi Simchah Roth, who has served as a member of the Halacha Committee of the Conservative movement's Israeli affiliate, Masorti, has referred to its American counterpart's acceptance of Jews driving vehicles on the Sabbath as "untenable sub specie halakhah." At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner put it even more bluntly. "Is the Conservative movement halachic?" he asked. His answer: "it obviously is not."

What Rabbis Feldman, Roth and Kushner have conceded in recent years was actually well evident decades earlier. Sociologist Marshall Sklare, for example, in his 1955 book "Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement," asserted that "[Conservative] rabbis now recognize that they are not making [halachic] decisions or writing responsa but merely taking a poll of their membership." One might add today, "and the pulse of contemporary society's notions of political correctness."

The increasingly transparent deception on the part of Conservatism's leaders and thinkers is why a group of erstwhile Conservative rabbis abandoned the movement in the 1980s, and a large part of why the Conservative laity remains so determinedly apathetic. Canny townsfolk have always displayed a talent for discerning the real nature of their emperors' new clothes.

But what may be even more important than the Conservative movement's striking dishonesty, though, is the motivation that lies behind it. Proclaiming fealty to halacha while brazenly abusing the very concept is likely a desperate reaction to the fact, consciously confronted or not, that the historical underpinning of the movement, its very raison d'etre, has unceremoniously evaporated.

For the Conservative movement was created not, as many assume, as a liberal alternative to Orthodoxy but as a conservative (its name, after all) reaction to Reform. In the 1800s, leaders of the "Historical School" - the forerunner of what became the Conservative movement - minced no words in protesting the radical attitudes of some Reformers. When the latter declared the laws of kashrut (which they derided as "kitchen Judaism") obsolete, or when Sabbath services were held on Sunday, leading Historical School rabbis vehemently objected. The adoption of the first official Reform manifesto, the Pittsburgh Platform, and the bitterness it engendered within the Historical School were the very midwives of the Conservative movement.

Historical School personalities like Benjamin Szold and Marcus Jastrow, who had once leaned toward the Reform movement, began to stridently oppose it. Diatribes against Reform stances were regularly delivered from their pulpits.

Which leads to an obvious question: Why did the founders of the Conservative movement discount Orthodoxy as an effective means of countering the innovations of Reform? Why did they feel the need to create what they hoped would be, in effect, a new Orthodoxy?

The answer is simple, clear and timely: they expected the "old" Orthodoxy to summarily vanish.

"European-style" Orthodox Judaism - with its unwavering commitment to the entirety of the Jewish religious legacy and its stubborn refusal to tailor Jewish practice to the mores of the surrounding culture at the expense of halachic integrity - would, they thought, boil away entirely like so much overheated chicken-soup in the American melting pot. It simply lacked the stamina, the assumption went, to confront the scientific, social and technological challenges looming on and beyond the twentieth century's horizon.

Thus, Judge Mayer Sulzberger, a scholar and early supporter of the Jewish Theological Seminary, opined at the start of the 20th century that "traditional Judaism, in the sense it was understood 100 years ago, has practically yielded."

The Conservative movement envisioned itself as a safety net designed to break the fall of Jews committed to Jewish tradition when Orthodoxy inevitably petered out, as a means of conserving what might be salvaged of Jewish religious practice in the face of the threat posed by the Reform movement.

A mere century's hindsight demands that thoughtful Conservative Jews ask themselves not only if their movement has indeed emerged as a successful engine of Jewish knowledge, belief and practice - but, concomittantly, if Orthodoxy has in the interim succumbed.

This is not the place to detail the strengths of contemporary Orthodoxy. But it can hardly be denied that Orthodoxy - Chassidic, "yeshivish", "centrist" and "plain vanilla" - is, despite the many challenges and problems it undoubtedly faces, strong and formidably growing, both in numbers and in degree of observance. While the Orthodox are no more than 10% of the American Jewish population, their children comprise a full 80% of Jewish day school students (as tabulated in a recent census of day schools, commissioned by the AVI CHAI Foundation). By all objective accounts, considerable numbers of Jews who were not raised Orthodox have become part of the Orthodox community over recent years - including a multitude of scientists, academics and other highly-accomplished members of the contemporary intelligentsia. And halachic observance (in the original sense of the phrase) in the Orthodox community is stronger than at any time in American history.

For those in the Conservative ranks who, regrettably, have no interest in halacha, the Reform movement will likely become an increasingly attractive and logical option. It provides the license they seek, and without any discomfiting talk of religious law. And in light of the Reform movement's recent reconsideration of its historical rejection of traditional Jewish praxis, it may well become an even more comfortable place for many erstwhile Conservative Jews to hang their kippot.

For other Conservative Jews, though, those who truly wish to be part of a Jewish community that maintains an honest dedication to halacha and the Jewish religious tradition, the challenge will be to face the uncomfortable but manifest fact that their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals.

They will then face a further challenge, to become part of the only Jewish community that actually does espouse their ideals: the Orthodox. To be sure, the challenge will be formidable. After years, in many cases lifetimes, of sitting together with spouses and children during services, of hearing women leading prayers and chanting from the Torah, of driving to shul on Shabbat, halachically-committed Conservative Jews will not find it easy to enter what will surely seem at first a somewhat alien world. Its unfamiliarity, however, will only be a reflection of just how far the Conservative movement has drifted from truly halachic observance over the decades.

The openminded and determined, however, will come in time to understand and accept that the truly Jewish time for sitting with one's family is - as it has been among Jews for millennia - at the radiant Shabbat table, and that the Jewish time for driving and other acts prohibited on the Sabbath is from Saturday night until Friday afternoon.

There is much reason to be optimistic that sincerely tradition-minded Conservative Jews can successfully overcome the challenges before them. Many have already blazed that trail and, in any event, having the courage to recognize misjudgments and set them straight is a laudable and inherently Jewish trait (according to the Talmud, it lies in the very root of the name "Judah", the source of the word "Jew").

An attendant and equally daunting challenge, of course, will emerge to face the Orthodox world, my world: to be ready to warmly welcome once-Conservative congregants into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is a well-blazed trail and ample cause for optimism.

Because ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is not only a sublime concept, and not only an underpinning of the Jewish nation; it is a halacha, a deep and divine reality that every thoughtful Jew committed to the Jewish religious tradition knows is God's desire.


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