Hoisted on their own contradictions
History provides a number of examples of ideological movements that flourish briefly and then collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. Classical Zionism is one such movement; Conservative Judaism another…
THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT is currently experiencing the same fate as Zionism: a decline brought about by an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of the movement.
Sociologist Marshall Sklare’s Conservative Judaism: an American Religious Movement charted the remarkable growth of the Conservative Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As late as 1990, the movement could still claim to be the largest denomination among American Jews. In the decade following, however, the movement lost 10% of “market share” (as the sociologists say), declining from 43% to 33% of American Jewry, with no bottom in sight.
The seeds of the decline, however, had been planted long before. Sherwin Pomerantz, a former Midwest regional president of the movement’s congregational arm, conducted a national survey in the late ‘70’s. That study showed, in his words, “the movement had no long-term capacity to replicate itself.”
The problem was that a movement that claimed to be at once “halachic” and up-to-date, was insufficiently halachic for some and not up-to-date enough for others. Sklare had already noted the fly in the ointment in the heady days of rapid growth: the claim to being a halachic movement was untenable both theologically and in terms of the actual practice of Conservative Jews. “[Conservative rabbis] now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership,” he wrote. In every area, Sklare noted a sharp decline in observance among Conservative laity. When Pomerantz spoke in 1979 at one of Chicago’s largest Conservative synagogues, he was introduced as “a Sabbath observant Jew,” as if that were a novelty.
Though the movement’s clergy were far more observant than the laity, they too were incapable of any account of how halacha and the prevailing weltanschauung could be reconciled. On the central event in Jewish history – the revelation at Sinai – the movement’s rabbis were simply incoherent. One approach described the Torah as just the human experience of an inchoate moment of Divine inspiration. Another claimed that Hashem did speak, but sometimes He changes His mind as human beings progress and become more enlightened, afra l’puma. Never mind the Torah’s insistence on its own immutability.
Reform rabbi Clifford Librach, writing in Commentary in 1999, termed an eventual merger of the two movements inevitable. He predicted that “after a lag of years for decency’s sake, on such issues as the ordination of homosexuals, sanctification of homosexual marriage, and tolerance of intermarriage,” the Conservative movement would follow Reform.
Librach’s predictions are well on the way to fulfillment. Only now the rush to abandon halacha is no longer coming only from the unlearned laity but from the clergymen and women themselves. The movement’s leading theologian, Neil Gillman, told 700 Conservative rabbis and educators last December that it is both pointless and intellectually dishonest for the movement to continue to describe itself as halachic. At most, he said, halacha could be a shifting guidepost to be consulted in light of “changing social and cultural norms.”
Rabbinical students at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary appear to be almost unanimous in favor of the admission of homosexuals. As Talmud professor Judith Hauptman explained, halacha must be evaluated in light of morality. But if morality trumps halacha, then there are no binding Divine commandments – a position Gillman has long taught at JTS.
All that is left is the moral autonomy of each individual to decide what “rituals” he chooses to keep. And that is Reform no matter how you cut it.
Ismar Schorsh, the outgoing chancellor of JTS, is fighting a rearguard action on the issues of ordination of homosexuals and sanctification of homosexual unions. He recognizes that for the movement to declare an explicit verse in the Torah to be no longer operative is tantamount to putting up a going-out-of-business sign.
But that battle will soon be lost. The signs are up.
First published in Mishpacha magazine, March 29, 2006