Whither Conservatism? – I

As the title indicates, this will be (or, given my track record, might be) the first of several posts focusing on recent developments in the Conservative movement. I therefore want to preface these posts by pointing out something interesting.

When, in the past, this site has featured posts on the goings-on in the heterodox denominational world, some commenters have criticized the posters for excessive negativity, fighting irrelevant, old battles, triumphalism, etc.

How interesting, then: In the several months since Conservatism’s Committee on Law and Standards issued its long-awaited ruling on homosexual ordination and ceremonies, which was the biggest news in that movement in a long time and which frummies like us would have been expected to use as a cudgel with which to bash that movement, and the sundry other Judaisms for good measure, the number of C-C posts on the topic has been precisely . . . zero.

Similarly, on Monday, JTS let the other shoe drop on whether it would use that ruling to begin admitting professed homosexuals — whew! talk about being held for months in suspense! — and since then, again, nary a word from the inveterate hetero-bashers here.

Of course, some of those commenters demand that we simply entirely ignore developments in Hetero-land, viewing any such commentary as purposeless and illegitimate. I respectfully disagree (the reasons therefor deserve a post of their own), and so, here goes.

For me, the most telling aspect of this ordination saga was not the ruling itself, nor the UJ and JTS decisions to implement it, but the nationwide listening tour that new JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen embarked on in its aftermath to find out what movement members thought about the issue. In addition to Eisen’s circuit-riding, the movement also commissioned sociologist Steven Cohen to do an on-line poll of several thousand members — not just clergyfolk, but stockbrokers amd beauticians, too (assuming they qualify as “leaders”) — to learn where they stand on this issue and other aspects of Conservative belief.

It is this wag-the-dog form of unabashed pulse-taking, far more than any one example of the Conservative predeliction to play fast and extremely loose with halacha that Rabbi Avi Shafran documented in his infamous Moment article several years ago, that belies with finality the movement’s century-old claim to halachic fealty.

Amazingly, the very observation Marshall Sklare made in the ’50s about Conservative clergymen taking a poll of their members and ruling accordingly has finally materialized in the most public, concrete, incontrovertible way. Perhaps it took a layman like Eisen, who has no vested interest — no institutional rabbinic ego to protect, no past statements proclaiming homage to halacha to smear the egg-yoke of hypocrisy upon his visage — to finally ‘fess up.

So now that, decades later, the cat’s out of the bag, one question remains: where do all the well-meaning, tradition-minded Jews, who looked to their religious leadership to guide them in being at least somewhat loyal to halacha, go to get back lives spent in a movement that “talked” halachic commitment but “walked” religion-by-poll?

Next: a refreshing Conservative counter-example.

You may also like...

20 Responses

  1. Joel Rich says:

    While I might agree with much of the post, intellectual honesty requires me to point out that orthodoxy as well looks, in more limited circumstances, at the actions/mindset of its adherents as part of the halachik process. Thus, in certain circumscribed cases, we see the Talmud use the concepts of “if they are not prophets they are the children of prophets” and “go see what the people do” and “only make a decree that the majority of the congregation can uphold”

    Using these tools without fully understanding them and their context can lead to the type of results you describe.


  2. SM says:

    I’m not sure that pulse taking AFTER the event demonstrates that the tail wags the dog.

    And I’m not sure why asking your congregants how they react to a particular halachah (granting for the moment the Conservative movement’s right to call it that, whilst acknowledging that such a right is a matter of dubiety) is such a bad thing. It doesn’t seem to me to omply any promise to act in a particular way. It is simply taking the pulse. The exercise might determine your approach to something – think about women’s minyanim and the grief that might have been avoided if a similar exercise had been undertaken.

    Like it or not, it is tolerably clear that religious decisions are often influenced by the presumed view of the laity. CC itself has regularly bemoaned the influence that various hangers-on have on Gedolim. Given that they could not be arguing that the Rabbi in question is wrong regarding his Halachah or Torah, they can only be saying that “people” are doing this or thinking that. Save for the fact that arguably the Conservative exercise is transparent, what’s the difference?

  3. Ahron says:

    >“I’m not sure that pulse taking AFTER the event demonstrates that the tail wags the dog.”

    There is, in my view, something deeply sad and silly about taking an opinion survey (!) regarding a specific and explicit Torah commandment. (The very notion, in fact, is COMICAL!) It would be comparable to the US Supreme Court taking a public opinion poll on the Fourth Amendment, or a church taking a congregational opinion poll on whether or not they should believe in the messiahship of Jesus, or a local elections board taking a survey on whether elections “really need to be” free and fair. Whether taken before or after issuing a “ruling” such surveys are equally absurd and laughable, and obviously (come on, obviously) expose the opinion-seeking institution as fundamentally rootless–and it does so in such an ironic and delicious manner, a fundamentally political manner that invites–nay, demands!–mockery.

    It’s simply a joke. I’m sorry, but it’s simply a joke. A “Jewish” institution that is willing to openly jettison an inconvenient part of Torah is simply being ludicrous–as ludicrous as a US Supreme Court that would openly jettison an inconvenient clause of the Constitution.

    This isn’t about doctrine, or belief, or culture, or preferences, or even religion. This is about simple intellectual honesty; nothing more. And that is not subject to an opinion poll.

  4. Shira Schmidt says:

    10 b Nissan
    To SM and the comment above where you wrote:
    “The exercise might determine your approach to something – think about women’s minyanim and the grief that might have been avoided if a similar exercise had been undertaken.”
    I am intrigued by this comment but confused about whether you think the “grief that might have been avoided” is the encouragement or discouragement of the women’s prayer groups. Where are you on that issue?

  5. L.Oberstein says:

    I was raised in a Conservative synagogue and it is only by hashgacha pratit that I ever found out that orthodoxy exists. The conundrum faced by Conservative leaders is that without a learned and committed laity, the talk of halacha is only relevant to the clergy. Michael Broyde wrote an excellent article showing the irrelevance of this whole discussion. The membership doesn’t care, they do what they want. One Conservative rabbi bemoaned to me the lack of kovod he felt from his flock. The older generation had respect for a rabbi, nowadays one major reason for burnout is the fact that rabbis are little more than employees and are so told often by their presidents.

    My question to your learned readership, what can be done to keep the vast majority of Jews Jewish? Kiruv only reaches a small number.
    Can there be a division into Traditional and Liberal streams and deal honestly with the problems of Jewish survival.
    We love each Yiddishe neshoma and they are more in the temples than in the shuls, is there anything that can work

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Are we better off when such a quasi-Jewish organization pretends to follow the halacha or when it finally puts its cards on the table?

  7. Will Choose says:

    You forgot to say like a President conducting a war repudiated in a free and fair election.

  8. HILLEL says:

    There is no ;longer any point in commenting on developments in the Conservative stream.

    It has become obvious that they are just another brand of Reform, although they are moving at a somewhat slower pace.

    As Elijah, the Prophet, declared in his famous confrontation with the false prophets of the idol BAAL: “If you (Jewish People) wish to follow the BAAL idol, then follow him all the way; but, if you wish to follow the AlMighty, then follow Him all the way”–do not attempt to keep one foot in each camp.

  9. SM says:

    Shira: I’m for – I have 4 daughters! (I like to think that’s not the ONLY reason).

    But, certainly in the UK, some of the anguish might have been avoided had the religious leadership done some research as to what both Rabbonim and committed lay people found acceptable. Whatever the result, one group would have been prepped up to the likelihood of things happening which it disliked. The debate might (only might) have been more civilised and people might (only might) have avoided flinging the sort of accusations which bring Orthodoxy into disrepute.

    I am NOT saying that you poll people to determine halacha. That proposition is clearly antithetical to the survival of traditional Judaism of any stripe. I am saying that encouraging discussion before ruling on what may be halachically acceptable – whatever way the ruling goes – is sensible, courteous (which matters) and a way of educating people.

    Also, I think that dismissing something “they” do just because “they” do it is self-defeating. Surely we are self-confident enough to take the idea and leave the ideology?

  10. NLG says:

    Putting aside for a moment the critical issues of whether there is truly a “halacha” for the Conservative movement and, if so, whether it is appropriate to alter halacha based upon the laity’s opinions, for me there is another, equally fundamental issue here: one of honesty. The responsa permitting the ordination of homosexual rabbis, in doing so nevertheless affirms the Torah prohibition on intercourse between two men. Again, leaving aside for the moment the propriety of tossing aside mountains of rabbinic statements on other forms of homosexual conduct, this to me presents a question of whether these newly ordained homosexual rabbanim can truly be religious leaders within their own movement.

    Granted, few expect their rabbi to be absolutely perfect. Everyone except the most pious tzaddikim occasionally transgress. But when they do, if they are conscientious and have appropriate fear of Hashem, they admit they were wrong, resolve never to do it again, adopt a sincerely repentent posture before Hashem and ask His forgiveness and for the strength to avoid such behavior in the future.

    I do not see how this is possible, or even if it is actually expected, of these homosexual rabbanim. If it is expected of them, it seems to me the Conservatives are taking a step towards what is to Judaism a truly bizarre institution: that of the celibate religious leader, because only by resolving to be celibate can an openly gay rabbi honestly stand before his congregation and teach the word of Hashem, including encouraging the congregation to observe halacha as the movement has defined it.

    And if it is not expected, there is a serious incongruity here — that the rabbi as leader is to teach and encourage people to follow laws as set forth by their movement, even though he has no intention of following those laws himself. This is the height of hypocricy. In my view — this fundamental dishonesty alone, even without all the other considerations, disqualifies someone from such a significant position within the religious community.

  11. Reb Yid says:

    The C movement relies upon the RA’s Committee for Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in terms of setting permissible halachic boundaries.

    That said, individual institutions within the movement can decide what they want within that framework. In the JTS case, it polled movement leaders (among other methodologies) to assist it in its determination.

    There has always been tension in this process–what, precisely, is “catholic Israel” as articulated by Solomon Schechter? Some have argued that, historically, the very traditional, classics-oriented Talmud faculty at JTS (until the last few decades) held too much sway in this process and that appropriate changes came much too slowly. Tradtionalists and those who favored a more hierarchical structure have viewed developments quite differently.

    It’s tough to be a centrist movement, religiously or politically. “Purists” on both sides have plenty of reasons to bash moderates.

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    L.Oberstein: My question to your learned readership, what can be done to keep the vast majority of Jews Jewish? Kiruv only reaches a small number.

    Ori: That is the key question. Heterodox Jews, by definition, do not wish to observe certain parts of Halacha. We may ignore Judaism completely, go to a Reform synagogue that doesn’t teach Halacha as binding, or go to a Conservative synagogue where the members have varying levels of observance. Regardless of the movement’s official line, it’s very rare to hear in a Conservative synagogue criticism for not being sufficiently observant.

    The solution, if one exists, is to find parts of Judaism that interest Heterodox Jews, and package those in a way that will get to them. Jews who wouldn’t dream of going to a Beit Midrash might still go to http://www.torah.org or learn a bit of Talmud from Rashi’s Daughters ( http://www.rashisdaughters.com/ ).

    Once you get us into Torah learning, the Torah itself might do the rest.


    Rabbi Yaakov Menken, I know that torah.org asks for a denomination. What percent of the subscribers is Heterodox? What percent of the donors?

  13. Rafael Araujo says:

    NLG – your comments are very incisive and present an analysis of the homosexual ordination issue in Conservatism I had not considered before. Yasher koach!

  14. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    Running a Chabad Center in a suburban area, and know some prominent Conservative rabbis and leaders has given me an intimate insight into the state of the Conservative movement. A few thoughts
    1. The great majority are not ideologically motivated. According to a survey done by D. Cohen at Hebrew U, the ideological core is some 60,000 people, about 5% of the membership.
    2. The generation of rabbis one step from Orthodoxy and being “a bit more modern” is fading. As Professor Arthur Hertzberg told me two three years ago, “as long as I am alive there will be no gay rabbis in Conservative”. His first Yartzeit is next week.
    3. The new rabbis are spiritual searchers, who care about Judaism, and know very little firsthand, about Frumkiet and have fallen into JTS etc. As one Conservative rabbi said, “they go there believing in Yetzias Mitazvaim and leave doubting it”. They lack the deep spiritual roots of the passing generation. Just take a look at the JTS leadership. Decades ago Heshchel stood at the helm, he came from a Chassidshe family and retained a strong connection, the new head of JTS is a product not of a Yeshiva but Stanford. His world view was formed on the college campus not as the grandson of the Apta Rebbe.
    4. Most of the new generation of rabbis feel a greater kinship with Reform that Orthodoxy. In many ways the two groups are drawing together, notice the Jewish Journal last week when UJ president said he was “transdemoninational”. That’s a new way to say Conservative and Reform and coming together.
    5. This is the most important of all. They have lost 1/3 of their membership I the last decade according to the National Jewish Population Survey. In my estimation those that have left have split between Reform and primarily Chabad. Most community Chabad centers, there are over 500, are filled with refugees from Conservative. For instance in Long Beach California, the Conservative movement has disintegrated and Chabad opened large centers, the same is true in our community Orange County, there two strong Conservative, one fading away and we have ten centers with two more opening. This morning at our minyan we had two past presidents from Conservative Shuls. Many have made the exit since they want a Yiddiskiet that is not shifting every two weeks. If you count membership the way they do, come a few times a year and give a few dollars, we have picked up a few hundred thousand of them in our centers.
    Dovid Eliezrie
    [email protected]

  15. DMZ says:

    My Conservative friends thought this was big news. They were shocked to find out I didn’t care in the slightest.

    “Practicing homosexuals” (for lack of a better term) are no different than Sabbath-breakers or people who eat non-kosher in my book. I have lots of friends of the latter persuasions, and see no reason to discriminate based on the former any more than I do for the others. Halacha is halacha, in other words, and JTS has been accepting folks who didn’t actually keep it (or only kept it “officially”) for a long time. So, in my mind, the war was decided long, long ago – we’re just seeing another battle.

    So, yeah, not much to comment on. Just another step on the Conservative movement’s slide down to irrelevancy, and/or right-wing Conservatives mass exodus to the traditional movement.

    However, on a vaguely related note, I’d still like to express my support for admitting “non-practicing homosexuals” to yeshivas and seminaries. Sexual orientation itself is not really tackled in halacha, to my understanding, and it would be a shame to push away such students for no good reason (or even, G-d forbid, the wrong reasons!).

  16. Larry Lennhoff says:


    Without getting into prurient details I’d just like to say that surveys have shown that the forbidden act is not as central to gay sex as the equivalent heterosexual act. Plenty of non-Jewish gay couples, according to surveys, don’t do the forbidden act not out of religious conviction but for other reasons. Thus I suspect your analogy fails.

  17. Reb Yid says:

    A couple of comments on DE’s point #4 above:

    There is certainly a transformation of the Conservative rabbinate. Certainly until a few decades ago, the majority of Conservative rabbis came from Traditional or Orthodox backgrounds. Even though they disagreed intellectually with Orthodoxy, they understood the “taam” and could speak/understand the language of their Orthodox colleagues.

    Indeed, much of Conservatism’s growth in general in the 20th century came from its ability to synthesize ethnicity and religion in an appealing way to socio-economically mobile Orthodox Jews. That era is long gone.

    Another big reason for the shift comes from Orthodoxy. Today most Orthodox rabbis are conservative, politically speaking. I suspect as well that Orthodox congregants are more conservative than what they used to be in the aggregate, earlier in the 20th century. While the proportion of Conservative rabbis who are politically liberal may also have increased (as I suspect), it’s a mistake to simply look at non-Orthodox movements when discussing the polarization.

    Lastly–the comment about the UJ President saying he was “transdenominational”. That may be so, but in reality (as you probably know) he is an active member of an Orthodox shul. That is the shul where he davens. And this, from the president of an institution that houses a Conservative rabbinical seminary! He has gotten more than his share of flack of this over the years from the UJ, its rabbinical school, and the Conservative movement So say what you want about Conservative and Reform overall, but in the case you cite he personally relates much, much more closely to Orthodoxy than to Reform.

  18. Nachum Lamm says:

    “come a few times a year and give a few dollars”

    Is that what Orthodoxy is supposed to be, or are you content to define “Chabad” as a “movement” in the same way as “Conservative” or “Reform” are defined? Because if so, it seems like the multitudes of Conservative defectors you claim are flocking to Chabad are doing so not, sadly, because they want more religion but because they want less of it.

  19. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    Sadly Nachum Lamm has missed the point and sadly his cynicism shines through, a removed as it may be from reality.

    When Jews are members of Conservative Temples the message from the pulpit is “we don’t believe, we don’ have to keep Mitzvahs etc. etc.”. And their involvement, for most, is another stop on the road to assimilation.

    When they make the shift to Chabad Shuls the push is in the opposite direction. Towards Torah and Mitzvas. Some move all the way to Shmiras Hamtzvos , and some part. But at trend is a return to Yiddiskiet.

    Dovid Eliezrie

  20. Nachum Lamm says:

    Dovid: Cynical? Moi? I do hope what you say is true! Halevai v’amen!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This