Apr 22, 2011

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard: "Conservative Judaism at a Cognitive Threshold"

Conservative Judaism at a Cognitive Threshold

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard

Adat Ari El - http://www.adatariel.org/


For many today, the Mayan civilization is closely associated with human sacrifice. But for a 3000 year period of time it was one of the most advanced the world had ever witnessed.  From 2600 BC to 900 AD and spanning from what is today Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize it developed a sophisticated culture of arts, language, and engineering.   And then suddenly it disappeared leaving behind hints of what had been.  In her book, The Watchman's Rattle, Rebecca Costa investigates why this great civilization as well as the other highly sophisticated empires of Roman and Khmer collapsed.


She suggests two primary reasons: gridlock and a substitution of belief for fact.  Faced with complicated problems, these civilizations reached a cognitive threshold - an inability to think their way out of their problems.  As a result they became gridlocked and were unable to go forward with practical solutions. Then once the society ground to halt because of its inability to solve the challenges it faced, people in desperation adopted beliefs drawn from their world that they hoped would somehow help them.  The more the problems mounted, the more they fell back on beliefs. The Mayans are a case in point; their inability to overcome the severe water shortages eventually led them to human sacrifices.


Though her work is written with an eye towards our country,  mired as we are in gridlock and a political discourse that is more and more removed from rational debate, I believe her analysis can be applied to Conservative Judaism as well.  At end of March I attended the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention - a gathering of almost 300 Conservative rabbis - in Las Vegas.  The overarching theme was, "What is our Movement's future?" since in every important demographic we are faring badly.  We are shrinking, ageing, and seemingly aimless.  When I was first ordained, there were over 800 congregations in North America; we are now under 700, with the last 10 years seeing a precipitous drop.  Our most committed youth leave, finding our their spiritual homes elsewhere, and many of the growing number of independent minyanim - perceived as the most exciting areas of religious activity - are lead by Conservative rabbis who want nothing to do with the Movement.


And yet, when I look at Los Angeles Jewry and I speak to my colleagues throughout the country, I see much that is inspiring.  I see Conservative congregations and institutions led by passionate, dedicated clergy who are profoundly devoted to God and Am Yisrael.  They speak with a voice grounded in tradition and act with love and care that embodies compassion and moral sensitivity.  They lead vibrant places of learning and community. And as a movement, Conservative Judaism has produced generations of religious leaders who have distinguished themselves in scholarship and social justice. 


I am honored to work and be associated with them.


So it has been hard for me to reconcile a movement in decline on the one hand being led by such rabbis on the other.


That is, until I attended a plenary session entitled, "Conservative Judaism: The Next Twenty Years."  The presenters were among the leading lights of the Movement, all of whom head very successful and dynamic congregations.  But as they spoke it became clear to me that we, like those ancient civilizations, have reached our cognitive threshold.  One of the speakers addressed us compellingly about our need to have a coherent ideology.  Armed with this, we will no longer be a rudderless ship, but can brand ourselves clearly, with a message that could even be distilled down to a bumper sticker. Another spoke of our need to reorganize our synagogue association, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, stating that only a centralized organization, supporting and leading the congregations, can help us out of the crisis we face.


I believe that in their words that day those speakers embodied the cognitive threshold we have reached.  The Conservative Movement has tried to formulate a coherent ideology for well over 20 years.  There have been commissions and publications that have taken up precious time and energy, and they all share one thing in common: they have failed.  At no time has anyone been able to formulate a coherent ideology that has been broad enough to take in the spectrum of those who identify with this Movement.  And yet here we were, once again debating how we need one.  


This is a discussion that has created a gridlock in our movement and it is time to let it go.  Rather then narrowing ourselves to an ideology that shackles us into including some while excluding others, let us celebrate our diversity and talk about shared values and commitments - and get on with living Jewish lives as we understand them.  


And as to the idea that without United Synagogue we will collapse, this is simply an assertion of belief with no facts to back it up.  Yes, it would be painful if United Synagogue was to fail, and I hope it does not.  And yes, it might be a difficult psychological body blow for us to absorb.  But United Synagogue is not the Conservative Movement.  And its demise might be the necessary birth pangs of a new, and as yet unforeseen, realignment of our movement.  In addition, since so many of my colleagues say that they see no tangible benefits to being a part of it, the notion that without it we are lost sounds oddly off key and not in tune with reality.  And those parts that are worthy - United Synagogue Youth (USY)  - and useful - the Joint Placement Commission that coordinates the hiring of rabbis with the Rabbinical Assembly, the congregations and the seminaries that ordain Conservative rabbis - could maintain themselves separate from United Synagogue, or at the very least be absorbed into existing institutions.  


We have reached a point in our history in which the challenges we face are so complex they threaten to overwhelm us.  We must move past this.  We must not be bogged down by gridlock and by substituting beliefs for facts.  Rather, let us focus on who we are and what we bring to this world.    Let us articulate our commitment to tradition and modernity.  Let us pour our efforts into what we know works: creating communities of vitality and passion, caring and learning. And let us live our shared values that form the basis of the covenantal relationships between us, our communities and God.


I do not know what the Conservative Movement will look in the next 20 years. But I believe that one step in a healthy direction is to change some of the conversations we are having.  Otherwise, like the Mayans, we could well become a part of history, rather than shaping it. 


Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.