Liberal Rabbis are no Fools

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.

The heart of the problem is this: Conservative Judaism has been a spectacular failure at raising a second generation of committed laypeople. The movement has produced brilliant thinkers and scholarship, unparalleled educational programs, and a large number of synagogues. But membership is declining, and that’s because children who grow up in Conservative synagogues rarely care much about Jewish observance — and when they do, they become rabbis, join Orthodox synagogues, or move to Israel.

He then goes on to address the decision of the Conservative movement to allow its members to drive on Shabbos, implying that this has been the single greatest contributor to the movement’s decline. This is especially interesting for the following reason. If you would ask most Orthodox Jews what decision of the Reform movement has created the greatest fissure between the two, the Orthodox would most likely respond with patrilineal descent. Thanks to patrilineal descent, there are now thousands (if not tens of thousands) of Reform Jews who are not Jewish by traditional standards. If you ask the same question about the Conservative movement, the Orthodox would likely refer to driving on Shabbos. This is the decision that told us that, once and for all, the Conservatives are not interested in following traditional Jewish law, more than mixed seating and long before the decision to ordain women. [Rabbi Joel Roth, whose defense of the current policy on homosexuality is one of two opinions up for debate before the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, also called the driving decision “untenable sub specie halachah.”]

And there is one other commonality between patrilineal descent and driving on Shabbos — these two decisions now stand condemned from within their respective movements as short-sighted mistakes, with tragic consequences of epic proportions. Each decision was intended to further Jewish continuity, and has grievously harmed it instead.

Why does a nice Jewish boy marry a nice Jewish girl? Two reasons: 1) he wants to have Jewish kids, and 2) otherwise his mother will kill him, because she wants Jewish grandkids. Thanks to patrilineal descent, however, our protagonist no longer needs to marry a Jewish girl in order to have those Jewish kids. The result is recorded in a note by Daniel Elazar, then Editor of the Jerusalem Letter of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, inserted into an article by U Penn Prof. Samuel Klausner called “The Conversion of American Jewry” and published 15 years ago:

The Reform movement itself reports a huge drop in the number of conversions to Reform Judaism since their acceptance of patrilineal Jewishness. This means that there were only a few years in which intermarriage was accompanied by a substantial number of conversions. When the intermarriage rate began to grow serious in the late 1960s there were about two decades in which this phenomenon occurred, until patrilineal descent was introduced. The Reform movement was performing about 10,000 conversions a year. Over 13 years this amounted to 130,000 converts, plus Conservative and a few Orthodox ones. But after the patrilineal decision the Reform conversion figure dropped to 1,000 a year, a 90 percent drop, because spouses felt less compelled to convert. Some in the Reform movement now realize that they shot themselves in the foot.

Now here is what Lerner has to say about driving on Shabbos:

I am convinced that the Conservative movement’s decision to allow driving on Shabbat was one of the most short-sighted mistakes that it ever made. I understand the logic of the decision, which basically claimed that Jews are moving out to the suburbs, and that if we don’t allow them to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat, they’ll drop out of Jewish life entirely. Perhaps that was true, and perhaps it wasn’t. But the effect of this decision was dramatic: No longer was driving to synagogue on Shabbat something that was tolerated by the movement for those who were unable to afford nearby housing. Instead, it became the norm and the default, allowing Jews to move wherever they wanted, knowing that they would always be able to drive to the synagogue.

I’m not saying that Jews shouldn’t drive on Shabbat. I have chosen not to, but I have many friends who do, and I respect their decision. But when most members of a synagogue live within walking distance of one another, it creates an amazing dynamic that feeds on itself — a positive feedback loop that strengthens the community. They can invite each other over for Shabbat and holiday meals. Spending time with one another in this way is a key ingredient in fostering community. When you visit someone for a Shabbat meal, you strengthen the ties at many different levels: The kids play together, the adults get a chance to talk, and newcomers to the community have an opportunity to meet their new neighbors. At each of the two minyanim we have attended in the Chicago area, we were greeted not only by friendly people who welcomed us to their community, but with numerous meal invitations, at which we managed to form some strong, continuing friendships.

When you look at this sort of thing, you realize that the longevity of the Jewish People is simply not logical. It’s not something that leaps out at you, but look at what happens to the continuity of the Jewish nation when someone tries to mess with the formula.

Those aiming to “modernize” Jewish behavior used to defend themselves with a challenge to Torah: how could the Torah, written for a nomadic tribe wandering the deserts of the Middle East, possibly deal with an era of modern transportation, digital communications, and unparalleled acceptance by the surrounding non-Jewish population? But it is now clear that when contemporary devoted Jews attempt to change the Torah’s rules to better address those very phenomena, the result is exactly the opposite of their aim. When they try to make the Torah respond better to the needs of modern Jews, they end up reducing Jewish affiliation and harming Jewish continuity.

Now whether or not we can criticize these decisions with 20/20 hindsight, the assemblies of Conservative and Reform Rabbis are not composed of fools, and they are only making their best efforts to keep their movements thriving and vibrant in today’s world. Could you or I do better? I don’t know about you, but I’d be the last to claim that I could. And it’s obvious, I think, that no individual or group could possibly have responded better to today’s world, if they were building a system for Jewish life in total ignorance of these modern phenomena, thousands of years ago.

That leaves us with two possibilities. One is that the design of the traditional system for Jewish life is the most serendipitous event in world history. The other, of course, is that it was composed by no individual or group, but rather by a Higher Intelligence. Neither could be described as anything less than a miracle.

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13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    A couple of spectacularly bad decisions were not what made these movements unacceptable or unsuccessful. These decisions and many others were the natural outcomes of the inauthentic, schismatic approaches adopted long ago.

  2. Ahron says:

    Of course if the Conservative synagogues were not ready to maintain halachic standards they could have done what Chabad, and now other Orthodox groups, do energetically: move yourself out to the suburban boondocks and plant yourself within walking distance of the Jewish populations. But that program is also risky, inconvenient and expensive. Ultimately the job was simply left to those with the committment to take it on.

    “…children who grow up in Conservative synagogues rarely care much about Jewish observance — and when they do, they become rabbis, join Orthodox synagogues, or move to Israel.”

    I have personally seen all three of these happen.

  3. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Rabbi Menken — not to nickpick, but as a Perlian, we don’t uppercase Perl these days.

  4. Michoel says:

    I didn’t see the blog itself, but even this new found recognition- that allowing driving to synagogue on Shabbat was a mistake- is far from repentance by any degree. All he is saying is- hey folks, it didn’t work…maybe had we limited it to a mile or less of a drive than it would have worked…sorry.

    I remember in a conservative nursery school being dressed up in nomad’s clothes and performing for our parents at a lunch picnic the process of the caananites turning into early Jews.

    There are no quick-fixes, or particular decisions that made their movement null and void; it’s inherent in the underlying philosophy.


  5. Jameel @ The Muqata says:

    One of the cleverest people I know, and a very respected Orthodox Rav is the son of a Conservative Rabbi.

    In fact, most of the people I know who’s fathers were conservative rabbis, are orthodox.

  6. tzvee says:

    1. It seems you are saying the the halakhic system was and is composed by some mystical force without human intervention. “The other, of course, is that it was composed by no individual or group, but rather by a Higher Intelligence.” Do you have some source or precdent for that? All of the seforim I own were written by people.

    2. The blog you cite is clearly recommending modifications and improvement in Conservative Judaism, not abandoning it.

  7. Michoel says:

    “All of the seforim I own were written by people.”

    For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of the Oral Torah is the extent to which our sages identify the source of every aspect of Jewish Law. We know what was said by G-d and what wasn’t. We know what was said by Moshe Rabeinu and what wasn’t…etc., and we even know which traditions are considered “minhag-shtus” (a wrong tradition) and what to do about such a minhag when we encounter it. In all, we have clarity in what we know and in what we don’t know.

    Regarding origins of Jewish Law, the fact that “seforim are written by people” is as irrelevant to the point of origin as the fact that they are printed on printing presses or spoken on radios (or podcasts:). It’s the difference between the source of information and the means by which it’s communicated. Confusing the two is muddled logic.

    Michoel @ Chareidio

  8. Joel Rich says:

    We know what was said by G-d and what wasn’t. We know what was said by Moshe Rabeinu and what wasn’t…etc.

    So there are no differences of opinion in the Talmud as to which laws are from the torah and which aren’t? Same thing for Moshe Rabbeinu?


  9. dilbert says:

    I think describing the Conservative movement as “null and void” is meanspirited, and wrong. As far as the underlying philosphy of the Conservative movement, do you know what it is? Actually, one of the problems that beset and still troubles the Conservative movement is that there hasn’t been a recognizable, consistant overarching philosophy that has informed all their decisions and actions. However muddled and unclear the philosphy happens to be, it is wrong to describe it as “null and void”, implying that it contains nothing of value. Using those words means either you have no idea what Conservative Judaism stands for, or are just so closed minded that nothing aside from your little narrow view of Yiddishkeit means anything to you.


    Observer have noted that sons of Conservative rabbis either become 1) Conservative rabbis; 2) modern Orthodox; or 3) non-observant. Very few become practicing Conservative laymen. And that about just sums it up.

  11. Reb Yid says:

    About the children of Conservative rabbis:

    My wife and I have thought for quite a while that there ought to be a study of this subject. We know of many ourselves, and actually they span the gamut (including those who are active and involved Conservative Jews). Many are quite distinguished professionals and “quirky”, if you will.

    It cannot be easy to be the child of any rabbi, but the children of a Conservative rabbis probably face additional pressures due to the lack of peers that share the same kind of Jewish upbringing.

    It’s really not correct for any individual, including yours truly, to make any summary judgements on this subject without doing an actual study. For that matter, I would be fascinated to see comparative results among children of Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis.

  12. Michoel says:

    Just want to point our that there are two different folks around here calling themselves Michoel. Of course I am the real one and the poster of comment number 7 is an imposter.

  13. Michoel says:

    #1. Regarding the comment above: “So there are no differences of opinion in the Talmud as to which laws are from the torah and which aren’t? Same thing for Moshe Rabbeinu?”

    That’s why I said in my comment- “we know what we know, and we know what we DON’T know – ie- in cases when there is question in the Halacha, (machlokes), we know the sides of the argument and often, even the reasoning for the question. Furthermore, the disputes themselves point to the authenticity of the underlying source by displaying how much thought and care goes into maintaining its accuracy.

    #2. Regarding the comment above: “I think describing the Conservative movement as “null and void” is meanspirited, and wrong”

    I don’t.

    But in any case, the intention was not to be, and I revise my comment #4 as follows:

    There are no quick-fixes, or particular decisions that made their movement the “spectacular failure at raising a second generation of committed laypeople” it is reported above to be; in my opinion, it’s inherent in the underlying philosophy.

    Michoel – @ Chareidio !

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