Why Conservative Judaism is Ailing

The above is the more polite title (the one found in the title bar) of an article that appeared yesterday on Slate.com. The title as found on the page is “One Mad Rabbi: Conservative Judaism gets a kick in the pants.”

Had I written a headline like that, it would undoubtedly have been termed “mean-spirited, bigoted,” and “hateful,” words used by a recent correspondent to describe his opinion of Cross-Currents overall. I assert that the reader was projecting his own feelings in the case of Cross-Currents, but wonder what people will say about the referenced article — given that it was written neither by myself nor any Orthodox Jew, but by Samantha Shapiro, who writes that “I grew up in the Conservative movement, and my religious ideals line up with it in many ways.”

Earlier this summer, Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, kicked off his retirement with a graduation speech that was the religious scholar’s equivalent of Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup head-butt. Schorsch’s speech was a farewell not just to the most recent class of rabbis but to the school he ran for the last 20 years, which is the central institution of Conservative Judaism. Amazingly, given the context—an auditorium full of major donors and a freshly minted class of graduates and their families—Schorsch sounded few notes of inspiration and hope for the future. Instead, he offered his honest appraisal of Judaism’s Conservative movement, which he helped build: Basically, it stinks!

Since 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary has sought to negotiate a middle ground between Orthodox Judaism… and Reform… Conservative Judaism, which began as a congregational movement in 1913, attempts to bridge the gap—to affirm the divinity of ancient Jewish law but also to allow changes to accommodate modern circumstances. “Tradition and change” is a movement motto.

In his graduation speech, Schorsch called this motto “inane” and used the words “impoverishment” and “malaise” to characterize the movement. Conservative rabbinical students? They “crave instant gratification.” Etz Hayim, the edition of the Bible recently published by the Conservative movement and used by its synagogues around the country? “Their Rabbinic authors go through the paces without passion.” Schorsch explained just how bad the volume is by comparing it to the biblical story in which Moses smashes the tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments when he sees the Israelites fashioning a golden calf. Now, in case you don’t know much about the Jewish view of golden calf building, aka idol worship, let me say, it’s pretty bad. An entire fast day is devoted to mourning the tragedy of the smashing of those tablets. Did I mention Schorsch wrote the foreword to Etz Hayim?

Ismar Schorsch’s speech was so blistering and unforgiving in its criticism, that were the Cross-Currents writers possessed of even a fraction of the mean-spirited or bigoted nature of which we were accused, one writer or another would surely have trumpeted the speech under a title such as “we told you so.” Instead, we greeted it with silence, because there really wasn’t much more to say. His criticisms were often painfully accurate, but Schorsch failed to voice them at a time when he could actually have done something. Instead, the skipper waited to be relieved before pointing out that the ship was sinking. Why didn’t he rail against the Etz Hayim Bible before it was published, rather than writing its foreword?

Yet Shapiro brings up an interesting point:

Many of the heavy-hitters from Schorsch’s golden era of Conservative scholarship were not trained solely in the institutions of liberal Judaism. Solomon Schechter, Mordecai Kaplan, and Abraham Joshua Heschel came out of Orthodox yeshivas, or religious centers of learning. Although they later studied Jewish texts as these writings would be studied at a modern secular university, they first studied them traditionally. They came to historical biblical criticism with a vigorous training in the more reverent style of Jewish learning, where the highest form is learning leshma, or “for its own sake.”

Schorsch argued that today, that sort of learning has fallen out of favor because students crave a “quick spiritual fix.” I think the problem is more complicated. For starters, the JTS never figured out a way to generate the kind of passion that is evident at most Orthodox yeshivas.

I think she is mistaken to argue that “many” of the leading Conservative scholars had Orthodox training, as Schorsch is to claim that this level of learning has “fallen out of favor.” Louis Ginsburg grew up in Kovno, Saul Lieberman studied in Slabodka, Louis Finkelstein was trained by his father Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein — and by age sixteen “had already mastered several tractates of the Babylonian Talmud.”

Ditto Arthur Hertzberg, who studied in the Hebrew Parochial School, which would become the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, and with his father, Rav Tzvi Elimelech Herzberg — my wife’s grandfather. According to Rav Yaakov Ruderman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, “Uncle Arthur” had mastered hundreds of pages of Talmud before his Bar Mitzvah.

How can Schorsch point fingers at the Etz Chayim authors and the Rabbinical students, as if they were responsible for the decline in scholarship? That type of dedication to learning did not “fall out of favor” at JTS; it never existed as a native product. The Conservative movement has never created a new generation of scholars able to satisfy Schorsch’s standards — and in this context, I should mention that Schorsch himself was unsatisfactory to Arthur Hertzberg, given what the latter remembered from his father.

The “passion” found in yeshivos is absent from JTS only for the most obvious of reasons. It is no longer common to find a former yeshiva student who has come to JTS; that phenomenon met its end as yeshiva education strengthened while the Conservative movement drifted to the left. Those trained within the Conservative movement, who find the pages of Talmud filled with the thoughts of long-dead Jewish intellectuals, will never replicate the passion of those who find therein the living words of G-d.

Earlier in this century, the common wisdom was that Orthodox Judaism would die out in America, outmoded and irrelevant. Instead, it’s the American Jewish center that’s eroding. Conservative Judaism, once the most popular Jewish denomination in the United States, has recently taken second place to the more clearheaded Reform movement. About 33 percent of American Jews affiliate with Conservative Judaism, down from 38 percent 10 years ago. And interestingly, as the Reform movement swells, to a lesser degree, so do the numbers of Orthodox.

Unsurprisingly, I have a different view. The Reform movement grew initially because the children of Conservative parents were looking for a more casual, more innovative, and less restrictive form of Judaism. In our day, it is growing largely due to patrilineal descent and the welcoming of non-Jewish partners. The Orthodox appear to be growing slowly only because the non-observant, elderly attendees of Orthodox congregations are only now being outnumbered by the exponential growth within the ranks of the observant. That is what will radically change Jewish demographics in the years ahead — already, the 2001 NJPS survey revealed that the plurality of young Jews are Orthodox, and that gap is only going to widen if trends continue.

It is true that the Conservative “center” is ailing, and that things are moving to the extremes. But Ms. Shapiro should not imagine that the liberal extreme ends with Reform — the adoption of liberal values over Jewish ones leads inevitably to setting aside Judaism altogether.

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22 Responses

  1. HILLEL says:

    As another Jewish heretic movement nears its end, its more perceptive members take notice and wring their hands.

    When will they take the next logical step and return to their real roots–traditional Torah Judaism.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    If the parents do not keep Mitzvot, do you see any way to get their teenage children, who are living with them at home, excited about learning Torah?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Conservative Judaism has advocated cautious adaptation to the times, but, in fact, it was really designed for a specific time (early to mid-20th century) and a specific popular attitude (keep mostly Hebrew services with a traditional ambience, dump some mitzvot and beliefs overboard but not others), a kind of nostalgia.

    We’re now well into a new period in which fewer and fewer people who want to identify as Jews share the above attitude. Some now want the whole package of Judaism, and others want to dump the whole package except the recipes, symbols and life-cycle events. Because other movements have already staked out positions in synch with one or the other of these wants, Conservatism now lacks room for a distinctive outlook that can win support. What was built to be relevant is now the picture of irrelevance.

  4. Robbie says:

    Just as side note – Conservative Judaism grew out of the Reform Movement, not the other way around…

  5. Aaron says:

    As a person who grew up in the Conservative movement and attended JTS I can say that your comments are pretty accurate. Ismar Shorsch was right on the money with what he said in his speech at graduation and it is no suprise people got angry at him for what he said. From my experience at JTS I believe that some of the Rabbinical students could graduate without even learning a page of Gemara. Not only that, but I felt the majority of students were in the Rabbinical School because they looked at is as a Graduate School and a profession they can go into because they can make over a 100 grand a year if they get a large congregation.
    After being in JTS for a 1 and a half years I transferred to YU after not being able to take any real Jewish Text based class. I was only allowed to take philosophy, history and modern hebrew classes. Intro to Bible was not a Tanach class but rather a Biblical Criticism class. I was very misled which is how I ended up there and I was very happy when I left.

  6. Norm says:

    What do you mean when you say “I was only allowed to take philosophy, history and modern hebrew classes.” They don’t offer classes in philosophy or hebrew?

  7. Micha says:

    A few disjointed points:

    1- There is no passion in Conservative study because inherently their goal aims away from passion. Conservative Judaism values scholarship, an objective and therefore DISpassionate study of the facts. The concept of becoming one with the material, to produce a da’as Torah (Torah-think, not meant in the common idiomatic usage), is inherently subjective. Even from back in the days of the Historical School, by leaving the system to look at it from the outside they took a road that was bound to lead away from passion.

    2- The Breslauer Historical school came from German Reform and the Haskalah. And yes, the Conservative Movement of the US adopted their worldview. However, JTS was originally Orthodox, founded by the same people who founded the OU. The population broke away from Orthodoxy, even though the mindset was one created by a breakaway from Reform.

    3- The ill health of the Conservative movement is a bad thing from the Orthodox perspective. The entire “ba’al teshuvah” movement represents 10% of American Orthodoxy or about .8% to 1% of the total Jewish population. Compare that to intermarriage rates. Without Conservative, far more will simply unaffiliate and leave the people altogether. This is not a time for the Orthodox community to gloat. Instead, we need to think about how we’re going to put out a safety net to catch those we can.


  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “The ill health of the Conservative movement is a bad thing from the Orthodox perspective. The entire “ba’al teshuvah” movement represents 10% of American Orthodoxy or about .8% to 1% of the total Jewish population. Compare that to intermarriage rates. Without Conservative, far more will simply unaffiliate and leave the people altogether. This is not a time for the Orthodox community to gloat. Instead, we need to think about how we’re going to put out a safety net to catch those we can.”

    Agree. Conservative is not “chapping” our kids. Who says its demise is davka good for the cause of g-d.

  9. Aaron says:

    Norm- JTS has a certain cariculum that you need to follow. This curriculum includes all of these philosophy, history, Hebrew and “Bible” classes. Once you are finished with these you usually have enough credits to graduate. The will not let you take other classes until you have completed these. So before you even have a background or a good Jewish education you are turned off right away. Of my entire class from when I was there, I believe I am the only one who is observant. What does that say about the institution??

  10. L.Oberstein says:

    I would like to see some new people writing in, it seems the same guys are talking to each other all the time. The comments on Conservative Judaism are correct. JTS produces rabbis who may be sincere but they are quickly disillusioned by the low level of knowledge and observance of their congregants. The pressure to modify Judaism to fit whatever the congrgation wants is more than the rabbi can resist. For example, they count women for the minyan in Montgomery (where I come from)simply because ,otherwise, there wouldn’t be 10 people to count. The last time i attended a Conservative service was several years ago in Fort Worth,Texas when my sister had a renewal of her wedding vows up on the bima shabbat morning. It was more like ‘selections from the service’ as they had to cut out almost everything because the rabbi talked too long and they had added narishkeit.
    The rabbi was very sincere but frustrated that his conregants had low aspirations. The main problem is that it is very hard to get the young people to take observance seriously. How could my sister’s grandson show up for Friday night dinner if he had to play football at his exclusive private school.Being a Conservative rabbi is a difficult job.
    Maybe they get paid so much because otherwise no one would do it.

  11. Ahron says:

    I went to a heavily Conservative day school and can only amplify and reamplify the observation of “no passion”.

    A short story: When I was in 7th grade I davened in the Conservative minyan at this school. When we came to “ahava raba” right before the morning shema, we sang the opening part of it in a popular tune but with some sort of variation so that we stopped the singing right before the word “ahava” (“love”) in “talmud toratecha b’ahava” (“the learning of your Torah with love”). I presumed (in 7th grade!!!!) that the reason we stopped singing out loud right before “ahava” was because in the Conservative minyan they didn’t want to encourage us to study Torah with love or passion but rather with dispassionate academic distance and criticism. I am deadly serious.

    Now, I have no idea why the minyan sang the tune in this fashion. It may have just been one of the many local variations that invariably develop in popular tunes. But even as a 7th grader I knew (or perhaps better, deeply sensed) that the Conservative movement did not want us to study Torah with passion and committment, and so based on my experiences with Conservative teachers/rabbis at the school I found a logical explanation for their omission of the word “love” from our prayers. They didn’t want “love”. They just wanted us to “study”. In essence they wanted us to always be outsiders peering in to the Torah from behind a microscope.

    Does any rational person intend to bequeath this bizarre way of “life” to their children?

  12. Ahron says:

    Another note is in order. The very notion of a “conservative” movement–conserving some elements of halacha while discarding others–can only originate from viewing the Torah as a mere rulebook, and after having dismissed its identity as a derech, a path and process intended to lead the Jewish nation to fulfill its mission and destiny, including leading humanity and humans to a relationship with each other and the Divine. From that angle the decline of the Conservative movement would be positive insofar as it includes the decline of an inaccurate idea, and of a lifestyle whose profound falsity can be sensed from afar.

    But feelings of triumphalism would be both irrelevant and unjustified. It’s certainly not as though the gates of Orthodox yeshivos are being barged through by teams of Jews interested in the real content of Judaism. The ‘ba’al teshuva movement’ is as much trickle as movement. Orthodox leaders have largely failed in their attempts to transmit Jewish content to wider audiences, and often the problems are ones of both substance and technique. Perhaps this is natural and fine, but for the millions of Jews poised to be caught up in a Conservative decline the results will not be pretty (although a switch to the genuinely more clearheaded Reform camp (as noted by Ms. Shapiro) might be preferrable to the sophisticated fog clouds of Conservativism).

    Ultimately no outside group can take too much credit for the natural decline of a movement that practically named itself “entropy”.

  13. ben meir says:

    I am concerned we are ignoring one important aspect while considering the position or value in the Conservative movement. We have tons of Baalei Teshiva over at our home and we hear this time and agian – they were told to be strong and proud Jews. There was a very strong emphasis placed on a sense of Jewish identity, just very little exposure to any version of real Judaism or any real “meat on the bone”. But that identity is what eventually caused them to investigate real Torah Yiddishkeit.
    Let me tell you a story (i have told this so many times – probably no use in using a pseudonym). Shortly after I left Kollel I found myself at a business lunch. As I was tucking into my delectable fruit plate, the fellow next to me refuses the macaroni and cream sauce that was accompanying his chicken and leans over to me and tells me how he never eats milk and meat (that was the second surprise – the first was that the guy was Jewish). Now being the learned Jew that I consider myself I simply shrugged at him, knowing (smirking) inside that according to many (most?) Rishonim there is no prohibition on milk and meat if the meat is unkosher. Meanwhile another Jewish colleague had just produced a jazz recording of Christmas tunes. I will leave it to the readers to guess which one I met two years later, sitting at an event with a big Kippa on his head.
    I learnt a life lesson – Never belittle a sense of Jewishness, no matter how weak or poor it is in actual knowledge.

  14. Aaron says:

    L.Oberstein –

    You may be right about Conservative Rabbis being who may be sincere but you are wrong about some other things. “but they are quickly disillusioned by the low level of knowledge and observance of their congregants.” I dont know where you are getting this from. Many of these Rabbis have a low level of knowledge and observance themselves so how they be disillusioned. I also would like to say that growing up in the COnservative movement and being to many different Conservative Shuls, each shul has their core group of members who are observant and knowledgable so I guess if the Rabbis you are talking about are dissillusioned than they are not as sincere as you think.

    “renewal of her wedding vows” Since when do Jewish people do this?? Especially on Shabbos?? This is what the Conservative movement now calls a Jewish service??

    Being a Conservative Rabbi is a hard job because many conservative congregants don’t respect the Rabbi and will not listen to anything he says and will openly disrespect him right in front of his or her face and not care.

  15. Michoel says:

    “Gloating” is never an appropriate Torah reaction. However, I see the decline of the C movement as %100 positive, without apology. It is not for us to make the Jewish world frum or the save it from intermarriage. It is for us to make every possible effort. Hashem will do the rest. When there is less sheker in the world, Emes becomes more accessable to those that want it.

  16. Shira Schmidt says:

    7 b Ellul
    See Rosner’s blog on the Haaretz website where he also discusses at length the Slate article by Samantha Shapiro.

  17. Jonathon Ament says:

    As the author of the NJPS report on Religious Denominations, whose statistics have been cited here, I have a few comments:

    It is true, as Yaakov Menken states, that the youngest cohort of Jews have an Orthodox plurality, relative to the other movements. And taking this even further, households belonging to Orthodox synagogues have more children (in absolute numbers) than do households of any other movement.

    But in both above examples, the limiting factor is that it only refers to those affiliated with synagogues–less than 50% of US Jews. There are clearly many more young Jews out there who either do not affiliate with a synagogue (at least at this time) and/or with a particular denomination. An analysis based upon self-identification provides a somewhat different picture than one based upon synagogue affiliation.

    While in the short-term, it is true that the Orthodox population is likely to grow and the Conservative population is likely to decline, long-term predictions are another story. Reform triumphalism in America reigned during the middle to late 19th century, while–as has been alluded to earlier–earlier this century the prospects for Conservative Judaism looked promising, while Orthodox Judaism was dismissed as a case study of “institutional decay”.

    Some would make the case that a new era of Orthodox triumphalism has begun. If history is any lesson, such attitudes–while in the short term, perhaps on the mark–should be tempered with a great deal of caution.

  18. Reb Yid says:

    I find Schorsch’s comments to be a bit chutzpadik–he has contributed to the cultural shifts that he described.

    Schorsch has been an outspoken critic of admitting gay rabbinical students. I have personal knowledge that this is why certain candidacies for the JTS Chancellor position were quashed. Not that Arnie Eisen is opposed to gay rabbis, but Schorsch did not want a successful who would forcefully and unilaterally advocate for change.

    In arguing this position (which was in line with the JTS Commencement address), the Chancellor claimed that there was no halachic basis for admitting gay rabbis and is appalled at the culture within JTS that has encouraged this.

    Yet back in the mid 1980s, Schorsch was singing a different tune as a newly appointed Chancellor. JTS and the RA had gone through a lenghty process that finally led to the admission of females to the rabbinical school. To be sure, there were those on the Conservative “right” who did not like the nature of this process, and/or claimed that halacha had been diminshed as a consider, but there was a process.

    When it came to female admission to the JTS cantorial school, however, Schorsch decided on his own–by fiat–to admit them. There were no special commissions and in fact there was no process at all. This even though technically speaking from a halachic perspective the female cantor issue was potentially more problematic than female rabbis…

  19. aryeh says:

    America is a marketplace of ideas. Having no religion associated with the state has enabled new religion to grow and prosper, e.g. the phenomal success of the Mormons, a totally new religion.
    The question is what is conservative judiasm selling. I don’t think they have been selling anything one can identify since R. Saul Lieberman left us. They apparantly have not found anything that appeals to Europeans or Israelis as well.
    If they wish to sell scholarship, I suggest that they find some great scholars. If they wish to sell religious enthusiasm, go for it. At present most conservative shuls I am aware of, just seem to jump from approach to approach and hope they find something.
    The failure of the establishment to respond to the emotional needs of the congregants already had its revolt. It was called Chassidut.

  20. Judith Cohen says:

    One only has to look so far as the level of observance of Conservative congregants to see the failings of the Conservative movement. In most (if not many) large urban Conservative congregations a small fraction of the congregants are Shomer Mitzvot (as per the standards set by Conservative doctrine). What percentage of Jews who affiliate with Conservative observe Kashrut or Shabbat? What percentage of Conservative Jews actually know the standards of observance set by the movement at all? What percentage of their children intermarry or maintain (or increase) their parents’ level of Jewish observance & practice? As Conservative moves farther to the left, what little knowledge there has traditionally been decreases among its constituency. The Conservative movement’s answer is to reach out to non-Jewish spouses and seek out converts to increase their numbers. But without any kind of real committment to Jewish observance, these conversions will not stand the test of time. Within 1 or 2 generations at most, the offspring will be either unafilliated Jews or not Jews at all. In Los Angeles where I live, the most striking difference between Reform and Conservative congregations is that Conservative synagogues maintain kosher standards in their kitchens and at their functions. Conservative’s failing has been to demand something, but not enough. Those who do not want to be bothered go to Reform, and those who want real substance, move toward Orthodoxy. It is as they say, “nishta hein, nishta heir”. The parents have made an informed choice to observe less, the next generation does not even know there is an option to observe more. When shul attendance and home observance takes precedence over high SAT scores, karate classes and soccer practice, kids will get the message that their Jewish heritage is something to keep and treasure. If Torah & Jewish observance and values are a priority in the home, kids will be more committed. This is our only hope for the future of the Jewish people.

  1. August 31, 2006

    […] Well, not literally—but when I read the following comment to an earlier post, I did think about it. The topic then was a Slate magazine article which covered Ismar Schorsch’s “parting shots” at the Conservative movement, delivered during his final graduation address as the Chancellor of JTS. […]

  2. September 4, 2006

    […] Reuven Lerner is a Web/Database consultant, PERL programmer, writer (for Linux Journal and O’Reilly), and resident of Modi’in, Israel. He is also the son of a Conservative Rabbi, graduate of a Schechter high school and Ramah camp, and was active in both USY and the Masorti movement in Israel. The resulting combination of logical thought and imbued dedication to Jews and Judaism comes out in his latest blog entry, in which he discusses the same Slate magazine article that came to my attention last week—but his critique is obviously coming, in his words, from “someone from within the system.” And his critique is far more scathing than my own. […]

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