The following is an excerpt from Chapter X of Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry
by Mr. Scott A. Shay and published by Devora Publishing (December 1, 2006)
(Numbers in brackets refer to my footnotes ["fn"] at the bottom of the entry.)
The Causes for the Conservative Movement's Decline
Conservative Jews feel that the Movement's lack of effective leadership and institutional failings have caused the Movement's decline. As Professor Susan Hodge writes, "It is a half joking, half bitter catchword among some of us that the Conservative Movement has contempt for Conservative Jews. The Movement also has self-perpetuating bureaucracies that are out of touch with us and don't respect or even welcome us, the ordinary Jews living our lives." Dr. Jacob Ukeles, a consultant to The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote after his involvement in a three-year effort to design a strategic plan to reorganize The United Synagogue's twenty-two separate departments and fifteen regional offices that progress has been "glacially slow." As of 2006, five years have passed since The United Synagogue first identified the need for institutional reform, yet little has changed. The Conservative Movement bureaucracy makes the U.S. Department of Agriculture appear positively dynamic. To put it bluntly, the leadership of Conservative Judaism is floundering in a bureaucratic quagmire.
The Conservative Movement's recent failure to address the decline of Conservative Jewish education in a constructive way underscores the laity's criticism of the Movement's leadership. Because of a lack of vision and a spirit of frustration, some Conservative leaders have begun to gratuitously criticize the Movement's flagship day schools, the Solomon Schechter system. While correctly bemoaning the Conservative Movement's failure to devote anywhere near adequate attention or resources to congregational schools, some have gone a step further by calling for an end to the "overemphasis on day schools." Others have claimed it was a "massive failure to put the emphasis we do on day schools" and that "the damage done has been horrendous." Rather than simultaneously accentuate the positive aspects of day schools and advocate additional focus on congregational schools, Conservative leaders are pitting one form of education against another needlessly. Tragically, this unnecessary fighting has contributed to the stagnation of Solomon Schechter Day School enrollment and has led many of the Movement's best and brightest leaders to focus solely on non-denominational community day schools. Moreover, none of this bickering has led the Conservative Movement to devote additional resources to Hebrew schools; rather, all recent additional resource allocations to Conservative Hebrew schools have come primarily from community organizations such as the UJA-Federation of New York and groups of national unaffiliated philanthropists. The Reform Movement has contributed most of the new methods for teaching and organizing Hebrew schools. For many Conservative Jews, the fight over Jewish education is only the most recent example of the Movement's lack of leadership.
There are also, to be fair, external reasons for the accelerating decline of the Conservative Movement. A fundamental reason for the Conservative Movement's success from 1945 until the 1970s was that the Movement corresponded to American society's general desire for "moderation" and "homogenization" and occurred at a time when Americans generally, and Jews specifically, moved to the suburbs. As Marshal Sklare argues, in his book Jews on the Suburban Frontier, the combination of these two phenomena created the perfect environment for Conservative Judaism to flourish. Sklare claims that the Conservative Movement was in a way tailor made for the "Lakeville" or suburban Jew. The 82% of Lakeville Jews who were born Orthodox but wished to flee Orthodoxy were looking for a synagogue environment that was comfortable and not so concerned with theology. These Jews were naturally drawn to Conservative synagogues, because they had a lot of Hebrew in the service, including all the traditional parts of the service (such as Musaf), and a Jewishly observant and devout rabbi. Conservatism's primary virtue was that it did not fall under either "extreme" of Reform or Orthodox. In recent decades, however, American society has become more comfortable with diverse and more narrowly focused groups. Few people still feel the need to moderate their views to become more comfortable with diverse and more narrowly focused groups. Few people still feel the need to moderate their views to become part of a larger group, and emerging adults no longer need a "compromise synagogue" between their practices and the practices of their parents. Instead, young Conservative Jews today want a Judaism that focuses on their own spiritual needs. The result of this social shift has been the steady decline of Conservative Judaism over the past two decades.
Unfortunately, it seems as though the Conservative Movement leadership has deliberately ignored the societal changes around them. The Conservative Movement leadership can be compared to the character "Hem" in the widely read parable of "Who Moved My Cheese." In this story two "little people," Hem and Haw, discover that after many years of finding and enjoying cheese from one spot in a large maze, one day the cheese is suddenly no longer there. In fact, the cheese had been slowly diminishing over time; Hem and Haw had simply not noticed. But although Haw leaves his old spot – albeit with much tribulation and some self-doubt – and ultimately succeeds in finding a new spot with more cheese than ever, Hem refuses to leave. Instead, Hem nurtures his confusion and resentment about the possible reasons why there is no more cheese but takes no action. He just keeps blaming others for the movement of the cheese, and yet is still somehow comforted by being able to go to the same place where there used to be cheese even though it no longer offers any food. Although the parable holds out some hope, Hem presumably starves to death. Conservative Jews in the pews and working pulpit rabbis have been witnessing the slow decline in the Conservative Movement's leadership for years and are understandably central organs. Others have just voted with their feet.
Additional Controversies that threaten the Conservative Movement
The Conservative Movement is currently grappling with two issues that threaten its ability to remain unified. These issues are the ban on gays and lesbians entering rabbinical school and the coexistence of egalitarian and non-egalitarian congregations within the Conservative Movement.
Currently, the Conservative Movement is polarized between those who do and do not support the coexistence of egalitarian and non-egalitarian synagogues. In approximately 90% of North American Conservative synagogues, men and women participate equally in all aspects of prayers and Torah reading. These synagogues refer to themselves as egalitarian. In the other 10%, women's participation is limited to some degree by traditional halachic constraints that relate to women leading services, being counted in the minyan and participating in the Torah service. Men and women sit together in all Conservative congregations. At the December 2005 biennial conference of the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Menachem Creditor was both enthusiastically supported and bitterly resented for a speech that urged the Movement to expel non-egalitarian Conservative synagogues from the Movement. On the one hand, Creditor's supporters feel that it is impossible to coexist with non-egalitarian synagogues as a matter of principle; on the other hand, Creditor's critics, especially Canadian Conservative rabbis, who are the spiritual leaders of most of the non-egalitarian congregations, found it hard to comprehend that the Movement leaders were threatening their congregations with expulsion when they had been part of the Conservative Movement for decades and were practicing what was the normative Conservative Judaism of just a few decades ago. This particular rift not only involves a dividing line within American Conservative Jewry, but also highlights the split of American non-Orthodox Jewry from its international brethren on key issues. For example, Canadian Reform Jews have not recognized the American Reform position on patrilineal descent. Furthermore, Canadian Reform Jews have not been successful in getting the CCAR to reexamine the issue. In the Conservative case, some American Conservatives are lobbying to expel the Canadians if they do not comply with the American view.
The second major issue threatening to split the Conservative Movement is the question of gay and lesbian rabbis. Although it seems clear that a decisive majority of both Conservative laity and rabbis endorse the acceptance of openly gay and lesbian individuals to Conservative rabbinical and cantorial schools as well as collegial assemblies, a change of policy in favor of gays and lesbians nonetheless faces very tough hurdles from a purely halachic perspective. And, while some Conservatives believe that halacha should simply be set aside on moral grounds, others who deeply believe in Conservative halacha contend that there are grounds for a revision of halacha known as a takana, and that this course of action must be pursued before any official pronouncement can be made. In the meantime, the current policy is that gays and lesbians are not admitted to Conservative rabbinical school; however, if a Conservative rabbi post-ordination "comes out," he/she may continue to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and a practicing rabbi. Although the status quo has functioned in practice, the issue nevertheless threatens to split the current Conservative configuration, because advocates of both approaches to gay and lesbian clergy feel passionately that they will not be able to stay within the Movement if the decision goes against their view.
The narrowing of vision of the Conservative Movement has resulted in other departures from the Movement. Many of the offshoots of Conservatism were once some of the most exciting groups within the Movement. Groups such as the Union for Traditional Judaism, the Havurah devotees, and the Reconstructionists are offshoots of Conservative Judaism, and new or revitalized synagogues are led by ordained Conservative rabbis who have either left the Movement of rounded new institutions pointedly unaffiliated with the Conservative Movement. Neither B'nai Jeshurun ("BJ") or Kehillat Hadar, both of New York, Shaar Hashamayim of Montreal nor Ikar of Los Angeles, could find a place within the Conservative Movement for their vibrant and rapidly growing congregations. These new offshoots are a boon to American Jewry, but a loss to Conservative Judaism.
Jewish Commitment among Conservative Jews
With all of the controversy and confusion about what it means to be a Conservative Jew, only half of Jews who call themselves Conservative actually belong to a Conservative Synagogue (or any synagogue for that matter). It is, however, critical to note that although the number of Conservative Jews who do affiliate with a synagogue continues to decline, their Jewish commitment is highly and arguably rising, if measured by their commitment to Jewish practices. The intermarriage rate among "synagogue" Conservative Jews was 17% from 1980 to 1990, and only 12% a decade later. This rate is far below the overall American Jewish average of 46% for 1991-2001. Thus, though the number of Conservative Jews is declining, their commitment to Judaism is increasing. The fundamental question for Conservative Jews should be: how can more Jews find Conservative Judaism meaningful? In my view, the Conservative Movement should review how the Reform and Orthodox Movements responded to existential challenges with radical solutions that enabled them to rebuild their bases.
Reform and Orthodox Responses to Existential Threats
Over the past century both Reform and Orthodox Jewry have responded to existential threats, resulting either from a decline in leadership or unresolved controversies, by allowing their constituents a margin of freedom. As a result, neither Orthodox nor Reform Jewry today is uniform; rather, both encompass a broad spectrum of practices within boundaries defined by the center. This response was revitalized both groups enormously.
Reform was able to avert demographic collapse by abandoning a fixed theology. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Reform Movement's membership dwindled to fewer than 10% of American Jewry. (Reform's crisis then was worse than today's Conservative crisis.) In response to this drastic decline, the Reform Movement jettisoned its highly ideological and partisan Pittsburgh Platform of 1887 and replaced it with a framework for Reform Judaism instead of a fixed theology. This approach permitted Jews with very different theological stances to coexist within the Reform Movement and even the same synagogues. Moreover, during this period, Reform laity gathered the courage to completely change the way the Movement's institutions were led. The laity called on leaders to honor different positions within Reform Judaism rather than making religious decisions binding on all Reform Jews. Thus, at the December 2005 Union of American Hebrew (Reform) Congregations convention, the prayer services ranged from yoga-oriented silent prayer groups to a minyan that closely resembled a left-wing Conservative service. By abandoning a fixed theology, Reform has re-made itself into a vibrant, dynamic, and wide open movement that would be unrecognizable to a Reform Jew of the 1920s.
Orthodoxy's incredible and unexpected revival in the past several decades has taken place for two principal reasons: first, its willingness to include more diversity under the umbrella of orthodoxy and second, a wider focus on day schools. Although some outside observers perceive Orthodox Jewry as monolithic, it is actually diverse and growing in its diversity. In addition to the four variations of the fervently Orthodox […], there are at least three other groups: Centrist Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and a nascent "Egalitarian-light" Orthodox. Each of these groups feels that their members are "commanded" by halacha and a passion for lifelong Jewish learning. At the same time, these groups also exhibit significant variations at the level of basic practice and regarding certain ideological foundations. For example, the Chasidic concept of "the Rebbe" differs greatly from the concept of "Rabbi" or "Rav" in other streams of Orthodoxy. A chasid is essentially born following a certain rebbe because a Chasidic devotee follows the rebbe of his clan. In all other streams, an adult individual presumes the right to select a rabbi whose approach to Judaism is consistent with his personal beliefs. These groups also vary considerably in the role of women within the synagogue service and within the community.
Orthodoxy today incorporates different roles for women. In all streams to the left of the Chareidim, women's roles in formal prayer services and in learning have grown significantly. Women on the left wing of Orthodoxy have also been pushing for rabbis to revive formerly minority opinions that would enable Orthodox women to participate in the Torah service portion of prayers. Thirty years ago Orthodox women formed the first "women's davening groups." In these groups, women prayed separately from men and conducted the entire service, including the Torah portion, themselves. Some halachic adjustments were made to the standard service, but some Orthodox women felt spiritually invigorated by having "a service of their own." Recently, a few left-wing Orthodox minyanim have adopted the hybrid regular service/women's davening group for Shabbat morning first introduced by Congregation Yedidyah of Jerusalem. In this service, men and women pray shacharit (the morning prayer) separated by a mechitsa and led by a male cantor. Men and women then go to separate rooms for the Torah service, both sexes come together again for mussaf. In the last few years, the search for halachic innovations to permit more women's participation has lead to the Shira Chadasha/Darchei Noam style service wherein women actually lead prayers for some portion of the services (at the same time as men present on the other side of the mechitsa) such as Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei DeZimra. Women there also participate fully in the Torah service, with the men present on the other side of the mechitsa. Women's learning has grown tremendously in all streams of Orthodoxy. In many streams, a year of post-high school Jewish learning for women has become as de rigueur as for men. Though a Chareidi man would find it anathema to pray at a Shira Chadasha style minyan, and a woman used to Yedidyah might be unwilling to attend a Chareidi service because she would find it unfulfilling, both of these Jews would consider themselves Orthodox and commanded by halacha. This lack of uniformity is played out in other areas, from dress to educational methods: there is no one Orthodox rabbinical organization that can claim to speak for all Orthodox rabbis. There are several meaningful Orthodox rabbinical associations, in contrast to the Conservative and Reform Movements, which each have only one.
This lack of uniformity has allowed the Orthodox to broadly delineate and differentiate what might at first glance seem like a small range of the Jewish denominational spectrum. All streams of Orthodoxy have embraced day schools […]. But more importantly, the intense drive for Jewishly educating children energized all parts of the movement. With this, Orthodoxy became by far the fastest growing movement in America over the last twenty years.
The Conservative Movement has the potential to undergo a similar radical transformation, if its members are willing to fundamentally reconceptualize their understanding of what it means to be a Conservative Jew and install an entirely new leadership. This transformation will make Conservatism the first post-denominational movement. While this may sound like a contradiction, upon closer examination it is not. Post-denominationalism is not the same as non-denominationalism. Non-denominational Jews are those who do not belong to any movement because they are simply less attached to Judaism. They may be Jews married to non-Jews, children of intermarried Jews or simply disaffected from Judaism. Most non-denominational Jews are on the exit lane from American Jewry. By contrast, post-denominational Jews may be highly interested in being Jewish but feel disaffected from the Movements as they are currently configured. Many of these Jews are lapsed Conservative Jews who have not found a new denominational home in which they are comfortable. Also, unlike non-denominational Jews, post-denominational Jews have core Jewish peoplehood values such as culture, an interest in Israel, a wish to perpetuate the Jewish people and a desire to educate their children Jewishly. At the same time, post-denominational Jews have a wide variety of narrow approaches to the religious part of being Jewish. The "Conservadox" have a somewhat expansive view of traditional halacha, but consider halacha binding. Other post-denominational Jews approach God through more purely spiritual practices. As important as Judaism is to them, these Jews do not view the strict observance of traditional halacha as a way to help them find meaning in their lives.
Reinventing Conservative Judaism
Because there is no way that the Conservative Movement can encompass the entire spectrum of post-denominational mini-Movements in a theologically consistent manner, it should stop trying to bind all of its members to one theology. Instead, it should create boundaries that leave room for a wide range of practices. Recent Conservative leadership feels encroached on by members on the left and the right only because it wants to resolve the differences between them by drawing a straight party line somewhere down the middle. The narrowness of the middle, however is only the result of the Conservative leadership's own lack of imagination. As the case of vast variations within the Orthodox and Reform Movements demonstrates, the middle can also be wide. Consider the following analogy from the physical world. The length of any coastline such as the Costa del Sol, or the Cliffs of Cornwall, will vary considerably depending on how it is measured. If a surveyor measures the coastline by advancing 1000 yards per measurement, he would get a much different measurement than if he advanced up the coastline 10 yards at a time. In the latter case, more nooks and crannies would each become meaningful parts of the measurement, which would be substantially larger. The measure of the coastline would be larger still if the surveyor advanced one yard a time. For American Jews there are many meaningful crevices and nooks that are defined away by the leadership of the Conservative Movement when they try to measure their boundary as one straight line from top to bottom. Instead, the beauty of a theological landscape only becomes clear when each sub-peninsula (i.e. mini-Movement) on the coast displays its own texture and magnificence. When the Conservative Movement decides not to resolve major theological questions such as the gay/lesbian issue, the key women's participation issues, the binding nature of halacha and Schechter Day School versus Hebrew school controversy, the middle will become very large indeed.
In lieu of a uniform theology, the Conservative Movement must declare several boundary principles which are in the reach of practicing and non-practicing Conservative Jews as well as post-denominational Jews. I will propose a list of these principles, but such a list is obviously up to a new Conservative leadership to devise.
1. Observance of Shabbat, Jewish Holidays and kashrut in some form;
2. Weekly synagogue attendance;
3. Commitment to making Torah learning a life long endeavor;
4. Commitment to a serious Torah education for children, meaning day school or effective Hebrew school in conjunction with youth groups, camping and Israel programs;
5. Tzedakah, ethical behavior and social action;
6. Commitment to Israel;
7. Traditional determination of Jewish peoplehood (i.e., matrilineal descent or conversion).
This is not a large list and it is not particularly ideological. One can believe or not believe in halacha and embrace each principle; however, all new Conservative Jews should be able to recognize and appreciate the commonality of those who abide by these seven principles. Within the framework of these seven principles, there is a lot of room for variation. Some mini-Movements within the new Conservative umbrella will deem other additional principles to be binding. It may be that some Conservative Jews will not feel comfortable davening in another Conservative synagogue linked with a different mini-Movement; this should not be viewed as an obstacle, as it happens all the time among the Orthodox. Likewise, some Reform Jews don't understand yoga minyanim while others do not like mostly Hebrew services. Perhaps different mini-Movements will want to establish their own rabbinical seminaries. That too is okay. The more seminaries there are, the more avenues to approaching Jewish learning there will be. Some mini-Movements will feel comfortable with openly gay and lesbian rabbis and some will not. Some on both sides can feel loyal to the common principles of the halacha. We can also hope the rancor over the binding nature of halacha, which is now largely theoretical, will quiet down as Conservative Jews press towards a common practice of the common denominators of Judaism.
The conservative Movement can flourish by creating a high-quality common infrastructure for a highly engaged community of Jews who have different beliefs yet also respect each other. The Conservative Movement must make its Hebrew schools engaging and effective […]. Conservative synagogues must also create a seamless integration of youth groups, summer camps and Israel programs for its youth. Everyone can agree on the imperative of these steps. The Law Committee of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, which presently issues opinions that are either ignored by the laity or which divide the Movement, should be abolished. In its place, a Fences Committee should be established to define the boundaries of the Conservative Movement. Each mini-Movement would establish its own Law or Practice Committee. These smaller Law Committees would be more responsive to their mini-Movements, which will hopefully lead their constituent members to actually take their rulings seriously.
The Conservative Movement should shift its focus away from theology toward creating comfortable places for Jews to express their Judaism. The overall Fences Committee should not be empowered to opine on the rightness or wrongness of the mini-Movement's legal rulings; rather, it should only determine if a constituent mini-Movement has violated one of the fundamental principles or add a principle if there is a broad and deep consensus within the overall Movement to do so. Constituted as such, the new Conservative Movement will no longer have the urge to expel groups that do not express majority opinions, as long as they express authentically Jewish ideas and abide by the seven principles. By shifting away from ideology, theology and theoretical debate, Conservative Judaism will create comfortable places for Jews to express their Judaism. In short, all the streams of the new Conservatism can commonly support these comfortable places.
Some Conservative synagogues may offer multiple comfortable places which each have their own approach. A few avant-garde Conservative synagogues such as Ansche Chesed of New York already offer several different minyanim on Shabbat morning and thus already function like a microcosm of what could be the new Conservatism. If different groups can and do happily coexist in the same physical space by focusing on being a community bound by practice as opposed to the purity of ideology, imagine how well they could live together within the same Movement. And, since the focus of the seven principles is to create a realistic common denominator, Conservative Jews who do not and would not want to keep all aspects of halacha can still find their place within the Movement. The goal of these principles is to eliminate the "contempt" that Jews in the pew currently feel from the elite intelligentsia of the Conservative Movement. A focus on practice would also end the present and embarrassingly ineffective push for "compliance," and replace it with a push for cooperation, education and growth from wherever a Conservative Jew stands. Conservatism must change its attitude from shunning Jews to inviting them into the Movement.
In April 2006, the Conservative Movement took a step towards renewal by appointing a non-rabbinic chancellor to JTS who had no previous official tie to the Conservative Movement. Professor Arnold Eisen, previously of Stanford University, will assume his new post on July 1, 2007. This appointment carries much promise and some risk. Professor Eisen is an outstanding scholar and passionate and engaging speaker who will bring a new spark to the Movement. However, since Professor Eisen's appointment, the Law Committee is still moving forward on a global decision on the issue of openly gay clergy, thus demonstrating the Movement is continuing to make divisive decisions without first clarifying the core principles of Conservative Judaism. There is a great risk that leaders in the Conservative Movement might be tempted to think that they have made their bold move by appointing a non-rabbi as chancellor of JTS, and thus shy away from re-imagining the Movement, be it by synagogue members, the intermediate organization, or the rabbis. Any change in the Movement must embrace all disaffected segments of the Movement through an open architecture that is as expansive as possible.
On December 6, 2006, the Law Committee of the Conservative Movement once again created theological confusion for Conservative Jews. After lengthy deliberation, it approved three contradictory halachic (Jewish legal) opinions that both forbade and approved homosexual behavior. As a result of the decision, four members of the committee immediately resigned. These opinions have also laid an unclear road map for the ordination and acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy and may lead to a fatal schism for the Conservative Movement. This most recent failed attempt at creating a unified halachic framework for the movement demonstrates once again that the movement would be better off adopting boundary principles rather than trying to adopt unified theological or legal rulings on controversial issues. The Conservative Movement has just spent too much time trying to square circles. It is time to try something else.
Ideally, a new post-denominational Conservatism will link all of its tributary streams into one diverse Movement that links all Jews through "time and space. This new form of Conservatism will nurture Jews spiritually through practices that create powerful emotional sources and bolster, as Freud terms it, the "shared Jewish psychic structure" that supports a strong Jewish identity. If that can be accomplished, Conservative Jews can focus on theology later. The new leadership of the revitalized Conservative Movement can demonstrate that there is not just one meaningful and acceptable ideological stance between Reform and Orthodoxy, but an abundance of comfortable places along the spectrum. The new Conservatism would not be an ideology in the sky but an achievable set of practices that will dramatically strengthen American Jewry and challenge Orthodoxy and Reform to continue to grow.
* * *
The Conservative Movement is currently locked in a self-defeating cycle of self-criticism and introspection, which is focused on reconciling irreconcilable theological positions. The Conservative tailspin is further compounded by organizational and management failures. These developments have alienated rank and file members. American Jewry needs the Conservative Movement to reinvent itself as a broad-spectrum association based on practice, not theology. The new Conservatism can be a comfortable home to a host of mini-Movements, each offering a more personal meaning to its members. The focus of the broad new Conservative Movement should be on increasing Jewish practice and involvement in a way that will challenge its members to reach achievable goals. Through these efforts, Conservative Jews will pioneer and illuminate the vastness of the terrain between Reform and Orthodoxy.
I have arranged the following footnotes: links with relevant information or brief clarifications of specific ideas Mr. Scott A. Shay writes about in the above excerpt.
fn5. Likely a reference to Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life
fn6. This piece was published before America's JTS and the American Jewish University had announced their accepting of qualified homosexuals to their rabbinical and cantorial schools. Yet, the "ban" does still apply at the Conservative rabbinical schools in Argentina and Israel (as well as the rabbinical schools in Hungary and UTJ's ITJ with historical Conservative Jewish connections.)
fn9. This is still true for the Conservative Rabbinical schools outside of the United States.
fn15. I believe that this is in fact a reference to Shaar Hashomayim
fn17. Now the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)
fn19. http://www.geocities.com/shira_hadasha/ or http://www.shirahd.org.il
fn20. I believe that this is in fact a reference to Manhattan's Darkhei Noam
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