Conservative Judaism’s Uncertain Future

Recent comments questioned why it is worthwhile to discuss the Conservative movement, and why the various Cross-Currents writers seem to be spending so much time on the topic.

To answer the second question first, Cross-Currents finds itself, in Rabbi Adlerstein’s words, at the “intersection between the timeless flow of authentic Torah thought, and the ebb and tide of current affairs.” So what we’re going to talk about often depends upon the news of the day. The grand total of posts in February discussing Conservative Judaism? Zero. In January? One — a response to Rabbi Neil Gilman’s speech at the United Synagogue convention. In the past month, on the other hand, they’ve announced a non-decision on homosexual ordination and selected a non-theologian to head the theological seminary. That, plus two articles from lay leaders declaring the movement has no future — one based upon sociological observation, and the latter, discussed herein, based upon its contradictory positions on basic issues in Jewish thought — and, barring a decision to ignore them, we find much to discuss.

Recently, I was invited to write for a local journal serving the Orthodox community. I knew immediately that whatever I wrote about, I wouldn’t be re-editing my thoughts from CC about Conservative Judaism. Although it is clear that leading figures in the Conservative movement feel otherwise, I do not believe that the foibles of other movements are worthy of much internal discussion.

Cross-Currents, however, is not an internal site, and that is why such discussions are worthwhile here. We have many readers and commenters affiliated with the liberal movements, interested in what we have to say. Yes, I feel that the Conservative movement is failing overall. But no, I don’t think that means we have nothing to say to Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues. We are not rallying the troops, but provoking discussions with the very people to whom these discussions are most relevant.

Do you remember Rabbi Avi Shafran’s piece in Moment magazine, which the editors graciously entitled The Conservative Lie? Countless Conservative Rabbis denounced it, right up until Conservative Rabbi Neil Gilman agreed with its thesis in Gilman’s aforementioned address to the United Synagogue. Meanwhile, thinking Conservative Jews paid attention.

Tammi Benjamin, founder of a Conservative congregation, was one of them. And when the movement published its new Etz Chaim commentary on the Torah, she thought some more. The result was her paper, Etz Hayim and the Conservative Movement, published through the Open Access Project of Rabbi Gil Student‘s Yashar Books. She explained by email that it is her specific intent to spark discussion within the Conservative movement. It is interesting, though, that she was stonewalled by the movement when it came time to publish a compelling and well-written analysis that leads to some critical points for further discussion — and that, to date, only Orthodox sources have published it. Here is her own explanation, which she approved for publication here on Cross-Currents.

It’s true that I was inspired by Rabbi Shafran’s piece in Moment in 2001, but the real motivation for writing the article came after reading Etz Hayim’s commentary and essays, and realizing for the first time the total commitment of the Conservative rabbinate to a kind of biblical exegesis that was simply incompatible with Halakhah. As I wrote in my paper, modern biblical criticism has been a cornerstone of Conservative Judaism since its early days, but it is only now, with the publication of Etz Hayim, that the movement is so clear and unabashed in admitting it.

In the fall of 2002, I began corresponding with several leading Conservative rabbis, most of whom were involved with the publication of Etz Hayim. I gave each rabbi a copy of an essay I had written (a shorter version of the paper on Open Access), and asked him to answer the following question: How, in your estimation, can the Conservative Movement openly reject the traditional view of the unity of the Torah and yet still encourage its members to be committed to living halakhic lives? None of them was able to answer that question satisfactorily, but neither would any of them agree to help me submit this question to open and honest discussion and debate within the Conservative Movement.

So I decided to write an article and hoped to publish it in a scholarly journal which would attract intelligent and serious Jews to think about this issue. Unfortunately, my paper was rejected from JUDAISM, Tradition, Azure and Conservative Judaism, I believe because the editors of these journals found my critique of Conservative Judaism too controversial (although none of them would admit it). I was delighted when Gil Student agreed to include my article on the Open Access Project. Rabbi Student emailed me this morning that in the first 48 hours of being on-line, the article had already been downloaded 1,000 times! This is terrific, because it means I am able to reach an incredible number of Jews with my message, far more, I’m sure, than I would have had the article been published in an academic journal. My fervent hope is that as a result of pressure both inside and outside of the movement, the Conservative rabbinate will chose to change theological course. Otherwise, I believe Conservative Judaism will not last much longer.

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22 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Here is some food for today’s thought from long ago:

  2. HILLEL says:

    Dear Yaakov,

    In the light of the facts that are being exposed daily, and to avoid confusion in th minds of uninvolved laymen, I think the title “Rabbi” should be in quotation marks when used in connection with the phoney imitations in the Conservative and Reform movements.

  3. sarah says:

    It seems to me that Neil Gillman and Tammi Rossman-Benjamin speak, it is out of love for liberal yet traditional and committed Judaism.
    Assuming that orthodox writers such as Shafran and Menken are indeed coming from a position of “open rebuke and hidden love”, (and they don’t even have to love the movement, but recognize and respect the ahavat torah and ahavat yisrael that exists there too), they might want to tone down the sarcasm a little.

    I’ve only skimmed Rossman-Benjamin’s article, but she makes good points.
    For those of us with non-orthodox beliefs, I’m wondering if those who are championing her article, such as this site, would us for following her to her rational conclusion and dropping halachik observance?

    also, how is Hillel’s comment (comment #2) acceptable according to the stated requirement that comments be polite?

  4. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    I respectfully disagree with HILLEL. It’s true, the pakeshvillians (the frothing-at-the-mouth vituperative poster sticker uppers) in Jerusalem use other descriptions for Rabbis they don’t like, but it seems very small for more temperate people to do so.

    Anyway, in the Torah, idols are referred to as Elohim, and visitors as adonai. Here, too, I think it’s proper to refer to leaders of non-Orthodox movements in the manner they, or their followers have adopted. At most, one could use the Rabbi (O, C, or R) method at the first reference, but the context usually makes that unnecessary.

  5. tzura says:

    It seems to me that Yaakov was quite consistent with his terms

    “Do you remember Rabbi Avi Shafran’s piece… until Conservative Rabbi Neil Gilman…”

    (emphasis mine)

    I think specifying Conservative Rabbis as such is enough of a separation, esp. considering Rabbi Menken’s other point:

    “Cross-Currents, however, is not an internal site, and that is why such discussions are worthwhile here. We have many readers and commenters affiliated with the liberal movements, interested in what we have to say.”

    Most importantly, Rabbi Menken has hardly been coy about his disapproval of the Conservative movement in this and previous posts. He just decided not to be too sarcastic about it in a public forum.

  6. Rabbi Chaim Frazer says:

    Sarah wrote:

    “Assuming that orthodox writers such as Shafran and Menken are indeed coming from a position of “open rebuke and hidden love”, (and they don’t even have to love the movement, but recognize and respect the ahavat torah and ahavat yisrael that exists there too), they might want to tone down the sarcasm a little.”

    Having known Rabbi Menken and Rabbi Safran for years, I can assure you that their Ahavat Yisrael (Love for their Fellow Jews) is anything but “hidden”. They are overt and open in that sense of connection with and devotion to all Jews. If you have read Rabbi Safran’s Moment article, for example, you cannot help but be impressed with his deep dedication to the people of Israel. (The headline, which he did not write and which is counter to his suggested headline, should be disregarded.)

    Within that context, one can still criticize ideas, and institutions built on those ideas. That may well be “open rebuke”, but the love for fellow Jews is equally open.

    (Othodox) Rabbi Chaim Frazer

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Are people what they call themselves or what they are?

  8. HILLEL says:

    Dear Bob:

    They are what they are, but a presumably authoritative source, like CrossCurrents, can confer legitimacy on them by using a title that is normally applied to authentic teachers of Judaism.

    We have an obligation to our brethern, out of true love and concern for their spiritual welfare, to speak the truth–no matter how painful it may be.

    Sarah: a gratuitous insult falls within the guidelines; an attempt at accurate portrayal of fact does not.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    ” I can assure you that their Ahavat Yisrael (Love for their Fellow Jews) is anything but “hidden””

    I think all judgments, positive or negative, of personal attitudes should be out of bounds for this blog. The blog should be about putting ideas on trial, not their espousers.

  10. Bob Miller says:


    If, in a piece strongly criticizing a non-Orthodox movement, also calls a non-Orthodox clergyperson a rabbi, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that this confers legitimacy.

    However, I basically agree with your point (surprise!)

    My earlier comment was that the truth is the truth, regardless of someone’s pretensions. Recently, a long list of dubiously titled rabbis released a letter supporting aid to Hamas. Some people reacted to this letter as if they thought these were real rabbis. Many non-Jewish Americans now think that today’s Judaism advocates bible criticism, socialism, abortion and immorality. Is this not because they always take the label of rabbi (as in many a byline in my local newspaper)at face value?

    On the other hand, what name can we give such rabbis that doesn’t look stupid or make them look like victims? Tzura’s point that a term like conservative rabbi gets the proper idea across may or may not be correct in contexts other than this blog.

  11. Larry says:

    What would you say to a halachically serious and traditionally observant member of a Conservative synagogue who:

    *sincerely believes, after careful study, that portions of our halachic tradition are the product of historically-determined forces, rather than the inerrant and eternal Divine will as communicated to Moshe at Sinai;

    *believes with equal sincerity that portions of our halachic tradition are incompatible with other beliefs that he holds to be important on ethical grounds (such as the inherent worth of all of G-d’s creation or a woman’s right to fuller participation in the life of our community);

    *and has carefully investigated the claims made by Orthodox apologists and has found them to be both insufficient and devoid of the level of reason, proof and rational scrutiny that he seeks to apply — and demands — in all other areas of his life?

    Would you ask such an individual to leave the Conservative fold and instead to affiliate with — and feign allegiance to the beliefs of — the Orthodox world?

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Larry, if you saw that a friend was sincerely wrong about a really important principle, would you

    1. Ignore the problem?
    2. Advise the friend to hide his wrong belief?
    3. Explain why the wrong thing was wrong, or direct the friend to a source of explanation?

    You wrote as if others here had advocated option #2. I see no sign of that.

    You also described your hypothetical person as “halachically serious and traditionally observant”. If these concepts have meaning, that is only with respect to genuine halacha and tradition.

  13. HILLEL says:


    Let’s begin calling Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionis, and Gay “Rabbis” by a new Title.

    I propose “Reverend.”

  14. Yaakov Menken says:

    Hillel, there were indeed any number of Rabbis who used the term “Reverend” as recently as the 1900s, but this is unnecessary. You’re being snide.

    The English word “Rabbi” is not defined in the Shulchan Aruch. There is a well-known Teshuva in which Reb Moshe zt”l refers to a Conservative Rabbi — Reish Aleph Beis Aleph Yud.

    So, on the contrary, “Rabbi” is the new title you are looking for. “Rav” is the reserved term.

  15. HILLEL says:

    Dear Yaakov:

    I must respectfully disagree. While we wordslingers may be focused enough to make these fine distinctions, the average busy layman who is not a writer thinks that a Rabbi is knowlegable about Jewish Law and serious about morality.

    Certainly, the gentile world gets confused.

    The term “Reverend” is not meant to be snide. It merely reflects the reality that these people are more concerned with being politically-correct and imitating the non-Jewish world than in being faithful to Jewish law and tradition.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    Larry’s query may be evidence of what some would call a work in progress. Such a person may be drawn to further observance and the realization that he can be a Shomer Torah uMItzvos despite the questions, as opposed to being shown a variety of “answers” or “solutions” that seem superfically attractive but which may not stand up to the next question or inquiry.

  17. YM says:

    What would you say to a halachically serious and traditionally observant member of a Conservative synagogue who…

    From an emotional point of view, I would say that even better than his approach would be to just make up your own religion from scratch. Why limit it by tying it to Judaism? After all, doesn’t the concept that God chose the Jewish people and expects more from the Jewish people support your assertion that “…portions of our halachic tradition are incompatible with other beliefs that (you) hold to be important on ethical grounds (such as the inherent worth of all of G-d’s creation…”

    Because I know that the Torah is truth, I would have said this too, before I undertook serious talmudic study. So in the spirit of ahavas yisroel, I would recommend attending full time yeshiva for a minimum of a year (more if you can pull it off), moving to a community where serious talmud study was available, and studying Torah daily for about 10 years before deciding whether or Orthodoxy is “devoid of the level of reason, proof and rational scrutiny that (you) seek to apply—and demand—in all other areas of (your) life. My guess is that after 10 years you will conclude that Torah is a complete divine logic that gives not just profound meaning to live, but IS life.

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    Look at it this way. We answer the Ben HaChaham by providing him a complete Jewish education that is rooted in Talmud Torah,as opposed to philosophical speculation. The Ben HaRasha’s question is really a statement, as opposed to a question of someone who is searching for his or her roots because HaShem’s role is conspicuously absent from his comment. Larry’s query IMO is evidence of a person who is grappling with the difference between these two roles. Why should we dismiss his presence solely because of questions that appear to be improperly based or premised?

  19. Bob Miller says:

    It’s very hard to know where people are coming from by reading their comments in a blog. We’re tempted to pigeonhole them in familiar categories that may be wrong. After all, every person is unique. We really know nothing about Larry (or most any commenter), nor him about us, so the best we can do is to address the issues raised. Larry will find that getting really useful answers requires personal contact, including self-disclosure by him and the contact(s).

  20. Sarah says:

    Hillel: I honestly can’t think of a single situation where calling a person or group of people a “phoney imitation” is polite, whether its true or not. If it is false, its slander as well as rude. Are you that confidant that every R and C rabbi is a “phoney imitation” because you’re talking about a rather large group of people.
    there are plenty of accurate ways to say that you don’t think that Conservative or Reform Rabbis meet the halachik qualifications to be rabbis. like saying “as C and R. rabbis are not technically rabbis according to halacha, so we shouldn’t call them that.”

    This of course begs the question of what is a rabbi according to halacha. Correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that the smicha that the rabbis in the talmud had no longer exists, despite R. Yosef Karo’s attempt to revive it way back then of the real thing. which would make every rabbi a “phoney imitation”

    (Othodox) Rabbi Chaim Frazer: Having never met Orthodox rabbis Menken and Shafran, I certainly cannot speak for them personally. However, their writing (as well as that of most kiruv professionals) usually sounds condescending at best. It doesn’t really make me want to listen to them.

    I’m still curious as to why Cross-Currents is linking to an article that argues that if one agrees with biblical criticism, it doesn’t make sense to keep halacha. Rossman-Benjamin makes good points, but one possible conclusion of her analysis is that one shouln’t bother with halacha.

  21. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin says:


    As the author of the article about Etz Hayim and the Conservative Movement, I can tell you that my goal was definitely not to encourage non-halakhic behavior. Rather, in pointing out the incompatibility of biblical criticism and Halakhah, I hoped to encourage the Conservative rabbinate and educated laity to rethink the validity of embracing biblical criticism as part of Conservative theology. While biblical criticism may be a legitimate academic position, it is, I believe, a bankrupt theological position, which simply cannot sustain the spiritual life of a religious movement. Even Wellhausen, the grandfather of modern biblical criticism and himself a Protestant theologian, admitted as much (see pg. 21 of my article). However, if the Conservative rabbinate cannot, or will not, give up its embrace of biblical criticism, then I believe it is in the best interests of the Jewish world for them to give up the claim to halakhic authenticity. Otherwise, they are misrepresenting both themselves and Halakhah, and putting a tragic stumbling block before the blind.

  22. Rabbi Zvi says:

    I respect Hillel’s being uncomfortable with the title Rabbi being applied outside of Orthodoxy. I have my own opinions regarding this. I beleive we must be sensitive to others however, and not cause them pain when voincing our concerns.

    Regarding the particular topic on Conservative Judaism, I believe this was inevitable based on the entire history of the Conservative/Reform/Orthodox split.

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