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

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17 Responses

  1. David N. Friedman says:

    I believe that Jonathan Rosenblum is correct and now the only question remaining is how the Orthodoxy is going to welcome refugees from the Conservative movement, such as myself. With the untenable contradictions of the Conservative movement exposed, the only thing left is for all well-meaning Jews to find an Orthodox shul in one’s neighborhood. But this is neither possible now practical.

    I simply cannot get over the failure of the JTS to accept normative Judaism as its over-riding belief system instead of the false gods of modern liberalism. The Conservative leadership is the problem–not my Rabbi and not the machers at my shul who easily accept halacha.

    There must be clear constraints over what constitutes a “kosher” fomulation of Jewish belief and practice.

    This will take a bit of time to sort out but it is clear to me that I can no longer affiliate at a Conservative shul–even a “right-wing” one with so many Jews (although only about 20% of the shul) ahead of me in ritual practice and Jewish knowledge.

    I am not uncomfortable with the fact that my upbringing was poor and my level of observance is under the expectation of an Orthodox congregant. I do worry, however, that I will be greeted as part of the erev rav.

    In the end, I can be clear about my own shortcomings and continue on the road to greater closeness to God or I can be ashamed of the leaders in the Conservative movement who utter beliefs contrary to the what I know to be correct for a Jew.

    It takes very little skill to understand that it is better to be Jewishly correct than politically correct. Since I have been taught that no Jew is defective if he is going up the ladder and sincere in thought and action, there is far less of a contradiction in affiliating with beliefs that correspond to my own. After all, even the erev rav initially knew which side the bread was buttered.

  2. Gershon Seif says:

    Is it indeed clear that Neil Gillman is indeed the movement’s leading theologian?

    I’ve heard that he’s somewhat of a radical voice.

  3. Yisroel Gordon says:

    The timing here is interesting. Just yesterday, a piercing critique of the Conservative English bible “Eitz Chaim” appeared on “open access”: http://yasharbooks.com/Open/#current. After an intellectually honest analysis, the reviewer, herself a founder of a conservative congregation, is forced to admit that the theology of Conservative Judaism suffers from too many internal contradictions to inspire or survive. If Conservative Judaism is doomed, what will be the fate of Conservative Jewry?

  4. Bob Miller says:

    What more can really be said on this topic? Our job is to make the truth of Torah available to those who care what truth is. People who prefer a religion of convenience will call it by whatever name gives them comfort.

  5. Michoel says:

    David N. Freidman,
    In your average Orthodox shul these days, a good percentage of the congregants grew up with with very weak backgrounds. Don’t worry about the erev rav. You will be welcomed with open arms.

  6. Joel Rich says:

    Please explain why you chose to take a swipe at “classical zionism” which is totally parenthetical to your piece. One could also point to “movements” within orthodoxy which no longer exist, would you include them in the same category?

  7. Bob Miller says:

    One issue in matching ex-Conservatives with Orthodox shuls is that the Conservatives often live scattered in suburbia. If new Orthodox recruits are far from an existing shul and need a new shul, where do you put it to make it walkable on Shabbat for at least a minyan?

    Commitment to an Orthodox lifestyle might require many of these Jews to move to new homes.

    The “Orthodox welcoming committees” need a practical plan soon to deal with the above.

  8. David says:

    The “Orthodox welcoming committees” need a practical plan soon to deal with the above.

    There are many Chabad shuls in suburban areas in which a significant and active segment
    of those that make up the minyan are traditional Conservative Jews who feel uncomfortable
    with the way their movement is going, and don’t like the format of the services at C
    synagogues any longer (more English, more liberal politics and Torah deconstructing in the
    sermons, etc.)
    There are some C Jews that actually follow the teshuva on driving to shul on Shabbat, and
    drive ONLY to shul. It sometimes happens that people like this become unhappy with their C
    shul, then begin driving to a Modern Orthodox shul, and eventualy move closer to it.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    One of the things that keep suburbanite Jews from observing Shabbat correctly is that it is difficult. Very often there is no synagogue within walking distance, and the temptation to use the TV, game system, and computer is always there. They could move to a different house and just avoid turning on the electronics, but there might be an easier solution.

    This can be a business opportunity – build a Shabbat hotel that will take Jews out of the work week by physically getting them to be in a more Shabbatly environment.

    Most cities in the US are surrounded by a rural area that is usually quite depressed. Two hours away from Dallas, for example, you can buy land for about $1000 per acre. Then, buy used single wide mobile homes for $10000 each. Build a couple of larger buildings: a synagogue and a dining hall. Also, put a playground.

    Guests drive in on Friday afternoon. They spend Shabbat in the mobile homes that don’t have the tempting electronics and have Kosher Lamps for lighting. Instead of one bedroom per child, there are three bedrooms: one for the parents, one for the boys, and one for the girls. This encourages family interaction instead of self play.

    They can bring their own food, or eat in the communal dining hall. Given that it would probably be mostly families with two parents who have paying jobs and children, they will probably prefer to eat at the communal dining hall and avoid having to cook.

    After Havdala, or on Sunday, they drive back home. You then hire local labor, which is cheap in depressed rural environments, to clean up the houses and prepare them for another Shabbat.

    When we discussed this idea on forums.torah.org, people suggested interesting food, classes, and other activities to make it more appealing. Enora had a good description: “like club med, but frum”. The point is to make the Shabbat more appealing both by removing the everyday activities and providing Shabbat appropriate activities.

    What do you think? Is this doable, or am I missing something critical? If it is doable, is somebody here capable of doing it? I know I’m not.

  10. mb says:

    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…

    I have been staring at this on and off since publication. Of all the various philosophies that have come and gone, you lump together a Conservative Judaism and Zionism!!!I am both disgusted and speechless. You were probably a proponent of both, and now you have to constanly prove you Cheredi credentials. Well you have succeeded with me.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    On an “early Friday”, most working people (working couples, especially) on a 5-day work week don’t have the time to commute home through traffic and then drive their family through traffic to a remote location. They might manage this somehow for a periodic Shabbaton retreat with popular speakers, but not weekly. But the idea could work (as a transition) if the location was closer-in. The tradeoff for closer-in is higher costs. Where the traffic density is less, the drive time problem would be less critical.

  12. Daniel Weltman says:

    How does Jonathan judge the “decline of zionism”? I mean, Conservative Judaism is easy to monitor with the criteria being jews who consider themselves conservative. Is this the same criteria that he used for his Zionism claims? Where does he get his data? I also think the post would be more correct if it did not talk about the decline of Zionism, but rather secular Zionism. For, by all counts, Religious Zionism is not dwindling in numbers or in ideology.

  13. Tzvi says:

    Where does Reform fit into the theories discussed in the article and comments?
    Did they never have this internal contradiction at the heart of the movement?
    Why won’t Conservative members join Reform synagogues and maybe even elevate them slightly in observance of ritual?

  14. Edvallace says:


    I would imagine that he meant secular zionism because RZ is still a very strong and vibrant movement. While I questioned his need to include it at all, I don’t think there are many that would claim that secular zionism is still a vibrant entity. It seems like hardly a week passes iwthouth JPost or Haaretz decrying the lack of “true zionists” by which they refer to secular zionists. The rate of yeridah is a strong indicator of this as well.

  15. Daniel Wachsstock says:

    Nit-picky math point, but a decline from 43% to 33% is a 23% decline, not just a 10% one. And that’s assuming the total number of Jews remained constant. If it declined, which I am pretty sure it did in the 90’s, then it’s an even larger drop in absolute numbers.

  16. easterner says:

    religious zionism is not vibrant in the sense that Settlementism has just been declaared assur by the secular zionist government; and religious zionists in diaspora stay in the diaspora. there religious zionism is essentially non-charediism

  17. howard sitzer says:

    well stated mr. Rosenblum,

    for precisely the reasons stated in your article i left the c movement 13 years ago and am now a proud, functioning member of the observant world. (i don’t fancy labels like charedi or orthodox). my family has all adjusted superbly and i encourage all truth seeking jews to venture out and try the same. don’t be deterred by the naysayers and the like. it takes a bit of guts but the rewards are immeasurable. at the time of this writing i am in Jerusalem with my family on motzai shabbos chol hamoed pesach. it is our 3rd year celebrating in Eretz Yisrael and we ars having a wonderful time. i wish all of you hatzlacha(success) and if i can be of any help please contact me by e-mail. Hashem awaits anxiously your returning!!

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