Stop Jack Wertheimer – I
Stop him before he writes again.
At least that’s what they must be saying up in Morningside Heights in the inner sanctum of the Conservative movement, in the wake of his latest Commentary salvo, The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism. As in his whole series of articles in Commentary over the last several years, describing and diagnosing the progressive disintegration of secular American Jewry, Wertheimer pulls no punches.
Here are a few of the money quotes:
Of the theological brochure the movement got around to publishing in 1988, he writes: “Significantly, it was not until the late 20th century that the movement even tried to produce a statement of principles. Attempting to harmonize irreconcilable beliefs, the resulting document, Emet ve’Emunah, was virtually incomprehensible.”
He also bears out a point made not long ago on this site by Kobre (but which appeared towards the end of a characteristically long piece, which is why some may have missed it) regarding Conservatism’s selective abandonment of pluralism, at least the intra-movement kind, with this damning indictment:
When religious traditionalists dominated the movement’s key institutions, the tactic adopted by proponents of innovation was to argue for pluralism. Rather than accept a single understanding of Jewish law, they pleaded, let multiple voices be heard. Let there be majority and minority rulings, with both treated as equally valid, and let each rabbi decide what is best for his or her congregation. During the past quarter-century, the pluralists triumphed, winning the battle over women’s religious status and most recently over homosexuality.
Now, suddenly, pluralism doesn’t look so attractive. How can it be, the innovators ask, that the Conservative movement, which trains women to become rabbis and cantors, still permits its congregations to refuse to hire women for those positions? How can a movement undertaking to ordain gay and lesbian Jews tolerate legal opinions that would bar homosexuals from positions of religious leadership?
He also dares to raise the question that has been debated by movement insiders for years, but almost always in the private sphere of the RA journal and the like: “Has the Conservative movement fulfilled its historical role, and should it call it quits?”
One must understand that this is no simple, innocuous question about a tired, has-been abstraction known as “the Conservative movement.” This concerns, and threatens, the livelihood, prestige and very self-image of thousands of movement functionaries and lay leaders. In other words, THIS IS MY PENSION YOU”RE TALKING ABOUT! And we don’t discuss these matters in public, particularly in front of those to our right and left who’d relish our demise.
But Wertheimer takes up the issue nonetheless, rejecting every current idea out there for reviving his movement and proposing his own, which we’ll discuss in Part II.
In the meantime, I conclude with the following. Writing about the significant defections from Conservatism in recent decades, Wertheimer notes the
smaller but noteworthy minority of Conservative Jews . . . gravitating to Orthodox synagogues. . . . These particular switchers tend to be among the best-educated products of day schools, summer camps, and youth programs . . . . Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them are drawn to Orthodoxy less for its ideology than for its strong communal life. They are seeking a religious support system for themselves and their children . . . .
Curiously, in this paragraph, Dr. Wertheimer, the eminent scholar, much-published historian and collaborator of the eminent sociologist Steven M. Cohen, turns into a teller of anecdotes. Suddenly, in an otherwise well-substantiated article, he is at a loss for hard scientific data and falls back on “anecdotal evidence” — gathered where and by whom? in the local mikve? — to support a claim that backhandedly seeks to convey that many –how many? — of the ba’alei t’shuva who fill our synagogues couldn’t possibly have been drawn there by our fundamentalist ideology — what well-adjusted person would fall for that? — but for the “religious support system” that enables them to go on living their Conservative ideology as Marranos in Flatbush and Monsey.
If he has the data to support the assertion, let him produce it. Until then, this seems like nothing but a retread of the deeply paternalistic canard that non-Orthodox leaders have voiced in the past about young secular Jews becoming Orthodox because they sought a refuge from their unstable, unemployed, drug-and-promiscuity- filled lives on the outside.
An open invitation (and a sincere one; if you know him, let him know about it): I’ll be happy to host Dr. Wertheimer in my black-hat, fundamentalist rabbi-led shul any Shabbos, and introduce him to our president, a charming young professional, well-adjusted fellow who not so many years ago was a leader (perhaps even president) of his Conservative synagogue and who certainly does subscribe to Orthodox ideology and loves the rabbi (and who, by the way, doesn’t wear a black hat, neither in shul nor while on his motorcycle).
Or to the numerous other well-adjusted, successful Reform and Conservative Jews I know who dragged themselves, “kicking and screaming” internally, out of their secular lifestyles to Orthodoxy because, well, you don’t ignore the truth when you find it (and find out how others have been keeping it from you, willfully or otherwise, for decades).
So much for anecdotes.
In fairness, it could well be that the initial impetus for looking into Orthodoxy is often social factors. Of course social factors are not waht cause a formerly Conservative Jew to get up early for years straight to daven with a minyon or to give up vactions to the Bahamas in favor of paying tuitions.
It seems Jack Wertheimer should not have used the word “many” when discussing the point you have trouble with. Undoubtedly, SOME Consverative Jews move to Orthodoxy for that very reason.
“You don’t ignore the truth when you find it”
Did any of the ANECDOTAL people you speak of actually use those words? Please elaborate on this truth. I’m used to hearing statements like this from Christians but not Jews.
Eytan Kobre: to support a claim that backhandedly seeks to convey that many—how many?—of the ba’alei t’shuva who fill our synagogues couldn’t possibly have been drawn there by our fundamentalist ideology—what well-adjusted person would fall for that?—but for the “religious support system” that enables them to go on living their Conservative ideology as Marranos in Flatbush and Monsey.
Ori: May I point out that this backhanded claim is actually a great compliment (intended or not)? If people join your society at the cost of obeying Halacha despite not being ideologically Orthodox, then it must be a great place to live.
I see that cross-currents is coming back after being on yom tov break. Wethheimer does have a valid point that many ortho-prax Jews are part of it because they like the environment. In our anonymous society, orthodox jewish enclaves are a haven where neighbors care about one another. Others talk about “tikkun olam” but orthodox Jews do chesed and ,as we all know, not just for members of their small sub-group. Sometimes we believe that the medicine works because the patient gets better. This is a different kind of emunah, but it is very much a reality.It’s worth keeping kosher and shabbos because the rewards in this world make it worthwhile, what happends after 120 years , we’ll find out. Saying you believe is a poor excuse for using your brain. I refuse to believe that the sun revolves around the earth, even if the Rambam wrote it.That by itself makes me an apikorus according to a certain important segment of the community, the same people who crucified Slifkin for writing what others had written long before him.
The end of your analysis was entirely too harsh, with all due respect, and I think you put words into his mouth that he never intended in any sense. When he said that the reason was not because of ideology but because of community, he was NOT suggesting that they “couldn’t possibly have been drawn there by [y]our fundamentalist ideology”. I think he was rather saying that regardless of people’s ideology, the biggest factor drawing educated Conservative Jews to Orthodoxy tends to be community and not because upon rational analysis they decide that one ideology or theology is more logical than another.
You see it especially among the most learned and the leaders of the Conservative movements – they become frustrated that there is nobody who really cares as much about Judaism as they do, that nobody else really wants to live a life defined by Judaism. Their ideology may or may not fit with Orthodoxy, but the overriding concern is a place they can live a life with people who share their worldviews and who want to live those out in reality with them.
He never suggested at ALL that they – just that that’s not the overriding factor in most Conservative Jews’ switchover when it happens. This is no “deeply paternalistic canard” – just a simple observation, and a fairly accurate one, based on many of those I have seen coming to Orthodoxy from the educated of the Conservative.
“SheKer Ain Lo RagLaYim”–falsehood has no staying power!
I am a bit surprised by your vociferous objection to his statement that “anecdotal evidence suggests” that “defections” to Orthodoxy by some of the best educated and most commited young Conservative Jews is due to the attraction of communal life rather than ideology.
On Orthodox blogs, we are trying to figure out the causes of our own teens at risk, and why some go off the derekh r”l. We certainly have no hard scientific data, and we are using our anecdotal sense as to what has gone wrong in the individual cases we have seen. I will note that none of the reasons offered have anything to do with biblical criticism, evolution, or matters of ideology. We look at parent-child relationships, atmospheres in frum schools, how “different” or intellectually mediocre kids feel about themselves in environments where intellectual brilliance seems to be the only thing valued, etc. Most of us don’t think that ideology is the reason that kids go off the derekh. I don’t see why Jack Wertheimer is not entitled to do the same.
Also, I think that the fact that we build Torah kehillos which feature schools, kollelim, shiurim, Orthodox shuls, etc. part of our ideology and Torah Jews. Failing to build a Torah community is not an accidental failure of Conservative Judaism. It shows a serious flaw at the core of their beleifs. How many of our de’oraisas and de-rabbanans revolve around promoting kehilla, unity, taking responsibility for the next generation of Torah scholars, etc.
I agree that attraction to Torah ideology is a component for every ba’al teshuva. But it is also true that “non-cognitive factors” as we call them in psychiatry, are a strong component–inspiring teachers, a sense of belonging, etc. I would bet that all outreach professionals will tell you that the varmkeit of the shabbos tisch is more important in attracting people to Orthodoxy as the concept of Shabbos.
Eytan, you would be appy to host Dr. WErtheimer, but would he be allowed to speak from your pulpit?
I would also like to echo the sentiments of other commenters who felt that you were much too harsh on Dr. Jack in the last bit of your post. I think that, among other things, you conflated two categories of people: BTs, and Conservative Jews who daven in Orthodox shuls.
Neither you nor I have stats on these two distinct groups. However, I can objectively say that there are many of both groups. Moreover, I would argue that the group of Jews who do not really beleive in the Orthodox principles of faith, but who nevertheless live a life we would broadly identify as frum, are the new center of Jewish life, flanked on their left by non-traditional Jews and ont heir right by traditionally observant Jews who maintain ahistorical and unscientific beliefs.
HILLEL, how would you explain the longevity of Christianity, Buddhism, the Shomronim, the Karai’m, and Islam? (No offense to followers of any of the above, but they do conflict with Rabbinic Judaism)
I’m more inclined to consider Avot 4:14:
ד,יד רבי יוחנן הסנדלר אומר, כל כניסה שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים.
Gathering for the sake of heaven, even with false ideals, is enduring. It is only when the gathering is not for the sake of heaven that it cannot endure.
First, I agree with nachum klafter.
Second, stop gloating. u may believe artscroll’s recast history, but a recast history does not provide lessons for the future. Our future is likely in Israel and what will emerge from the current tumult requires requires a great deal more than charedi society has been able to offer. Yogi Berra was right.
Perhaps this is anecdotal, but I have heard a fair number of observant members of modern Orthodox shuls say to me, “Ideologically I am Conservative, but, as a serious halakhic Jew, Orthodoxy is the only game in town.”
I agree with Benjamin E. above.
If you are new in town (any US town, particularly outside of the New York area) and visit the local Orthodox synagogue, the majority of synagogue members will probably be keeping Shabbat and kashrut to Orthodox standards. There will be exceptions, but those people at least know they’re falling short of the community standard, and they won’t invite a stranger to Shabbat lunch.
By contrast, if you visit the local Conservative synagogue, it will be hard to find people who are keeping Shabbat and kashrut, even to Conservative standards. If the Conservative movement did a good enough job educating you that you care about such things, you are going to have a hard time finding an adult community of observant Conservative Jews.
And this fact, I think, is a powerful indictment of the Conservative movement’s approach. If I recall correctly, the authors of the infamous driving-on-Shabbat responsum justified their decision on the grounds that lighting a fire for the purpose of propulsion is only a melacha d’rabbanan, and that as rabbinic leaders they had the discretion to set aside this prohibition because if the laity could drive to and from shul, they would be more likely to observe Shabbat in general. Even if you assume for the purpose of argument that those rabbis do have the authority to do such a thing, the history of the Conservative movement since that teshuvah suggests that their authority was not prudently exercised.
Perhaps this is anecdotal, but I have heard a fair number of observant members of modern Orthodox shuls say to me, “Ideologically I am Conservative, but, as a serious halakhic Jew, Orthodoxy is the only game in town.”
Comment by LAWRENCE KAPLAN —
A story I read in some Jewish newspaper. The parents of a MO school were discussing some proposed principles of the school. A leader of JTS who sent his children to that school-copied a paragraph of what Mordechai Kaplan wrote and suggested it for the principles ofthe school. Of course, he later stated where he got the paragraph from.
While there are many complete BT who left conservative shuls for orthodox ones, particularly the ones at RW Orthodox shuls. However on the left end of MO are the people who he is referring to who grew up conservative and in college got to know the orthodox crowd because that is who hangs around the hillel. They did not go through a great theological change as much as recognize that vibrant Judaism esists in orthodoxy moreso than in conservatism. Anecdotally this number is higher than the BT who were so strongly conservative. Those BT’s could come from anywhere reform, conservative, unaffiliated in equal numbers but the other category of commumnal BT’s are much more likely to have been strongly affiliated with conservative.
>You see it especially among the most learned and the leaders of the Conservative movements – they become frustrated that there is nobody who really cares as much about Judaism as they do, that nobody else really wants to live a life defined by Judaism. Their ideology may or may not fit with Orthodoxy, but the overriding concern is a place they can live a life with people who share their worldviews and who want to live those out in reality with them.
Absolutely. The תלמוד חכם David Weiss Halivni once wrote:
>It is my personal tragedy that the people I daven with, I cannot talk to, and the people I talk to I cannot daven with. However, when the chips are down, I will always side with the people I daven with for I can live without talking. I cannot live without davening.
Although he did not become Orthodox, his statement is something felt by some people who do become Orthodox, with frustration that they could not daven, to use his metaphor, where they were.
As a former Ramah camper, USY-er, and very active member of the Conservative shul I grew up in, who has been Orthodox for most of my adult life, I will note that both intellectual and social factors played a role in my decision to leave Conservative Judaism for Orthodoxy. Specifically – when I came to the intellectual conclusion that the Conservative version of the “halachic process” was not authentically halachic, there was no Conservative or egalitarian community that tempted me to ignore those conclusions because I couldn’t bear to leave it. Conversely, the very positive experiences I enjoyed within the Orthodox community certainly helped motivate me to embrace its ideology.
I am amazed that with only one or two exceptions, everyone who has commented has stated something that I thought would arouse more opposition, namely that orthodox practice is not necessarily indicative of emunah shleima as defined by orthodox ideoogy. It must be obvious then that Judaism is indeed a religious civilization and that much of what Kaplan wrote is descriptive of the reality. That said, I do think that such observance is hard to pass on to the next generation. The children of observant “freethinkers” (anyone remember that term) go to yeshivas and are usually really frum or not. Mordechai Kaplan was a kofer who was careful not to do “borer” on Shabbat, I once heard. That is a one generation phenomenon.
According to Maimonides, Islam and Christianity exist to prepare non-Jews for the era of the Messiah. They both preach that there will be a Messiah, and they both incorporate many positive values, so there is enough truth there to give them staying power.
Karaites and Shomronim are off the map They don’t really exit in any serious way today.
I’m not that familiar with Buddhism, but I suspect that it incorporates many positive values too, even though it is basically a form of idol-worship.
Reform and Conservative Judaism are simply corruptions of Orthodox Judaism. they have no coherent philosophy. They are artificial creations whose purpose is to make life more comfortable for their members. They are not serious about their beliefs. Hence, they are total “Sheker,” which must untimately collapse for lack of substance.
Today, they are grasping at straws to remain “Relevant”–Ordaining women and homosexuals, supporting abortion-on-demand–the whole left-wing agenda. This is not a winning formula!
See here for an interesting discussion regarding some FFB’s attachment to our ideology – http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/PYes/ArticleDetails.cfm?Book_ID=897&ThisGroup_ID=262&Type=Article&SID=47#Com_1897 .
Readers might also find this quote from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal of interest in this regard –
“Defenders of the faith are drawing crowds of thousands in person as well. Next month, the Southern Evangelical Seminary will host a National Conference on Christian Apologetics, which will include a special segment for teens. Younger people are some of the most avid consumers of apologetics texts, according to Christian author Jonalyn Fincher, who speaks to college and high-school groups regularly. She says that in the 20th century, Christians often reacted to science’s attacks on religion by “running away from culture.” But in recent years more Christians have begun to take the attitude, “If our God is the God of truth, what are we afraid of?”
BTW – if one believes ideology is the driving force, wouldn’t one expect more fall out from the recent pronouncements concerning ikarei emunah (e.g. one can no longer believe that 600o years is not literal) although perhaps the daas torah ikkar would overcome that fallout.
In order to fully understand Rabbi/Doctor Wertheimer’s statement, and Mr.(rabbi? I don’t know and dont want to insult anyone) Kobre’s response, one needs to delineate exactly what is meant by Orthodox. I assume that in this circumstance, Orthodoxy is defined by attending an Orthodox shul, and keeping kosher and Shabbat, but most importantly identifying as “Orthodox.” However, one could obviously define it more narrowly in terms of belief, levels of adherence to halacha, taharat hamishpacha, time spent learning, etc.
(True)Orthodoxy is defined by what I do. Everyone to my left is a sheigetz and everyone to my right is phony-frum. Any other questions 🙂
For what it’s worth – and I know it is antecdotal – in my non-NY community, I’d estimate that 20% of the people who daven in the MO shul have moved over from the large impersonal Conservative shul for sociological AND religious reasons. Most of them however have no intention of becoming Orthodox (although over the years a large percentage of them have moved in that direction), and as a matter of fact the shul has a few ordained Conservative rabbis (more women than men) who are still active in Conservative movement organizations.
An alternative way of reading Dr. Wertheimer’s statement is that the people that left Conservative Judaism had an Orthodox hashkafah (in some broad sense) all along. Initially, Conservative Judaism was the place for traditional Judaism in this country (as opposed to Reform). As Conservatism is abandoning the right wing, they are moving over to Orthodoxy, which is where they were all along, except that now (B”H) it is much easier to live a full frum lifestyle.
Funny. I’ve heard a number of my local Orthodox rabbis proudly claim, “the baalei teshuva in my kehilla became frum because of my wife’s chulent, not because of my shiurim.”
I guess an Orthodox rabbi can come right out and say that, but chas v’shalom if a Conservative Jew should say something that could maybe, possibly, imply something like that.
see this month’s Jewish Observer for an article on adults at risk—- ie people who are nominally O maybe even haredi, who while orthopraxic , and talmudocentric [ the core if not exclusive domain of their education], are bothered by many spiritual questions, without the proper tools to deal with the non-O, and non-torahmishamayim challenges, of the modern age, encountered in many skepto-blogs….
>Mordechai Kaplan was a kofer who was careful not to do “borer” on Shabbat, I once heard.
That’s a myth. He wrote on shabbos (at least eventually; he lived a long life and perhaps did indeed keep shabbos carefully for decades). See the article on him in the “Tradition Renewed” where this is mentioned.
I say this for the sake of accuracy, is all.
That said, Heinrich Graetz did indeed, apparently, keep shabbos meticulously (and why not? He wasn’t kofer Torah min ha-shamayim, while Mordecai Kaplan was). There’s a story that has him leining the haftarah while on a visit to England, inserting textual emendations of his own, but tying his handkerchief around his neck afterwards, so that he wouldn’t carry outside.
If someone believes in the “Orthodox Ideology”, then there is nothing Conservative Judaism can do to get that person to return to CJ. If, however, the person is participating in OJ for social reasons, then it is logical that they could get the person to return to CJ with the right community. I believe that this was Dr. Wertheimer’s point.
I thank all who have commented thus far for their enlightening contributions, and for showing me that a clarification of what I wrote is in order.
There are two distinct issues at play here: 1) My critique of what Dr. Wertheimer wrote and 2) the reality of the issue he was addressing. Permit me to address the second one first.
I am in agreement with most of comments both in regard to theory and practice, and, of course, for all us, our beliefs about these matters are only anecdotal. Thus, I agree with Michoel that the initial impetus for many looking into Orthodoxy is the social factor in the various senses in which that can manifest, e.g., need for serious religious community, need for close-knit, caring community, need to meet Jewish singles, etc. I also agree with him that long years of sacrifice and commitment evince real belief rather than social needs.
I also agree, based on personal experiences in kiruv and otherwise, with Nachum Klafter, Ilana and another commenter (after I peeled away the sarcasm encasing her comment)that, of course, the vast majority of ba’alei t’shuva come to Orthodoxy due to a combination of warmth, community, inspiring encounters and examplars along with being convinced intellectually/sensing the cogency and correctness of Orthodox belief. This is the ABC of kiruv.
But again, I hope that for the vast majority of ba’alei t’shuva, it is indeed a combination thereof and not purely social(with the initial impetus having perhaps been entirely non-intellectual, as above)and, based on my experiences, I believe this is the case. But this is decidedly not what Wertheimer was saying.
I thank Ori (whose comments I so enjoy for their perspicacity and sincerity and the good job he so often does, from the “left,” of helping some of the more deluded commenters get real)for noting that the fact that ex-Conservatives seek out the Orthodox for their community is a high compliment. I agree; I just don’t think (although perhaps I’m wrong — more on that soon) that’s what Dr. Wertheimer intended.
Interestingly, in criticizing me, Nachum amd Seth spoke of the “serious flaw” in beliefs and “powerful indictment” of approach inherent in Conservatism’s failure to create community. Heaven forfend for me to engage in such triumphalist hetero-bashing . . . (and Heaven knows what the comments would have been had I done so — see comments on Rabbi Adlerstein’s latest piece for a taste).
Now to my critique of Dr. Wertheimer, which many misread. My basic point was a combination of the following:
a) It struck me as strange for him to be citing anecdotal evidence that he doesn’t seem to be in a position to have. Sure, as Nachum notes, lots of people on Orthodox blogs can each submit their personal experiences which, taken together, constitute anecdotal evidence. And it’s fine for commenters here, such as Lawrence Kaplan and Hersh, to weigh in with their own tidbits of such “evidence” (the term itself is actually something of an oxymoron). And, in fact, at the ned of the day, Dr. Wertheimer may actually be right! More on which soon. But how does one individual, sitting in JTS, come by anecdotal evidence about a large community not his own, and data of sufficient volume to be at all meaningful? It just seems suspect. So, could he be right that for many it’s not about ideology as in the case of at-risk Ortho teens? Sure. But how would he know?;
b) He provided no details about this “evidence”; where, when, who, how many? It is so vague that it seemed very out-of-character for a scholar of his caliber to include in an article of this sort. So why do so?;
c) Reread my words. I didn’t state my critique of his statement as a given. I specifically allowed for the possibility that he’s right and indeed he may still be. I merely asked for him to base such assertions on firmer ground;
d) It is true that I speculated that he intended to “bachhandedly convey” something negative about Orthodox ideology, which I agree was not explicit in his words, although I tempered that in the next paragraph by saying he “seemed” to do so. Perhaps I should have more charitably given him the benefit of the doubt. (Whether halacha calls for that another matter).
All I’ll say is this: given 1) the demonstrable animus of Conservative leaders over decades regarding ba’alei t’shuva specifically — which is what I referred to as a “deeply paternalistic canard”, and which description I stand by, and given 2) their decades-long condescending dismissal of Orthodox ideology as benighted nonsense — as in the JTS chancellor referring to our beliefs as based on “willful ignorance” (copy of the letter on his stationary –to one of our commenters! — available upon request), Dr. Wertheimer’s impobable resort to the most amorphous anecdotal evidence to downplay attachment to Orthodox ideology on the part of newly Orthodox “pushes some buttons,” shall we say.
Perhaps Dr. Wertheimer, who, as I noted, has been more intellectually honest all along, din’t intend that, and if so,I apologize forthrightly to him.
Surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with Mr. “Rejewvenator,” that one way to reconcile my experiences with ba’alei t’shuva’s ideological commitment and those of, say, Dr. Wertheimer, Lawrence Kaplan and Hersh, is that we’re discussing tweo different groups. They’re speaking of Conservatives switching to Orthodox shuls and I had in mind actual ba’alei t’shuva, who have made a life change as a result of or followed by outreach yeshiva/seminars, etc.
Another differentiating factor may be that mine are New York-area experiences, and those of the commenters are from elsewhere, where, I suspect, more of the switching shuls but not ideology may take place for reasons beyond this discussion.
Oh, and, finally, to the commenter who instructed me to stop gloating: OK, I undertake not to gloat going forward, although I can’t “stop,” since I don’t believe I was doing so until now. I think some commenters don’t realize just how big that chip on their shoulder has grown to be.
But how does one individual, sitting in JTS, come by anecdotal evidence about a community not his own, and of sufficient volume to be at all meaningful? It just seems suspect. So, could he be right that for many it’s not about ideology as in the case of at-risk Ortho teens? Sure. But how would he know?
Sometimes those on the outside see more clearly.
With that second part of my comment, I mean to be criticising Jack Wertheimer, not you. He would like to characterize social factors as the main factor causing people to shift from the Conservative movement to Orthodoxy, and he believes that this is something separate from ideology. In other words, he does not think that this is a manifestation of anything compelling about traditional belief in Torah and Mesorah. This understandably annoys you because it reduces the teshuva of the well-educated Conservative dropouts he is describing to their wish to join better country club. Your response is to question the “anecdotal evidence” by which he makes this claim.
My objection to his statement is that the chilulk on which he bases his anecdotal observations is flawed to begin with. Failing to create a Torah community with all of its resources–social, educational, material, economic is an ideological flaw–part of a krum hashkafa, if you will. It is a failure to create a religious public. This is a central belief and core value for Torah Jews. Dinner table conversations must include Torah. My best friend should also be my chavrusa. Shabbos is the at the center of our social lives because our lives revolve around Torah. This is not an artifact of contemporary North American Jewish life. It is at the heart of Torah life.
Al derekh moshol, it is as if I own a restaurant, and some of my most devoted customers are abandoning his restuarant for another one the next block over. So I says, “Alas, my most loyal patrons have gone to a new restuarant. But my anecdotal sense is that it’s only because their food tastes better, their service is superior, and their environment is more enjoyable. But it is NOT because I am a worse chef, or a worse restauranteur!”
The pride and jow of the Conservative movement (and I would agree that this is one of the best things they have going for themselves) is Camp Ramah. The whole reason camp Ramah is wonderful is that it is a Torah Community. The problem is that it lasts only 4-8 weeks a year, and that it’s only for kids.
Having spent virtually all of my life among individuals who straddle the O and C worlds, in a variety of American communities, including the NY area (and having studied these worlds intensively), my thoughts:
–Not clear to me why EK finds JW observation offensive. It’s true of any situation–which congregation to join, which movement to affiliate with (whether intra-denominational or inter-denominational)…there are a whole host of socioeconomic and socioreligous factors at play, with ideology being just one of them (and often far from the most important). This is undoubtedly the case as well for many who send/have sent their kids to Orthodox high schools (particularly from Schechter elementary school families) where there is either no other Jewish high school alternative available, or there is a fledgling C option that is iffy, from a numbers and qualitative perspective.
–Community is a very, very important aspect of this discussion. Whether it’s 50%, 60%, 70% or higher can be debated, but anyone who has seen this phenomenon occur over the past few decades knows that it is an essential ingredient of any conversation about this topic—-ideology can be a factor but is hardly the prime one in general, IMHO.
–As others have stated, JW is condemning the Conservative Judaism for not developing a viable institutional structure 1) throughout the age cohorts, 2) for the “best and brightest”. But none of this is especially new, and JW has been saying this for a long time (see his A PEOPLE DIVDED, for example). Ismar Schorsch was also very vocal about CJ’s failure in stemming the flow to Orthodoxy–I was in a discussion where he knew the failure to address this institutionally–of providing SOME option to these folks–was all too evident in too many communities.
–I wish, as does EK, that there were some “scientific” studies that documented these trends—would love to see a study of some of the cognitive dissonance involved here. But the truth is that no such studies yet exist—we’re dealing with a very rarified population here. That said, JW has conducted or been involved with many quantitative and qualitative studies of the Conservative world, is a historian of American Jewry, has for a long time been involved in the study of synagogues and congregational life across the American Jewish spectrum. He doesn’t just sit in an ivory tower—he knows a lot of people and has visited many communities over the years. In sum, he is an excellent position to say what he has heard anecdotally over the years….
–If anything, I think JW doesn’t go far enough in explaining what has happened with Conservative defections to Orthodoxy. One component he does describe—the “best and the brightest”, which as mentioned earlier he has done for some time. This trend, I would say, has been going on for at least 20-30 years. In my opinion, there is a second developing trend of somewhat more recent vintage. While in the first component the beneficiaries (in my opinion) tend to be Modern Orthodox institutions, for the second component I would say it’s more the broader Orthodox world and even Chabad. The defectors here tend to be middle aged (or older) Jews who are simply growing more conservative, politically and socially speaking. Many in this “defecting” group are not necessarily punctilious in their observance of Jewish rituals, but are drawn to the sociopolitical conservatism of these Orthodox institutions as a refuge against the liberal social and political ethos that is now encroaching upon an increasing number of Conservative establishments.
–Here one also needs to make a distinction between the wider “BT” community whose exposure to a Jewish lifestyle is new, where I would share EK’s contention that ideology plays a much more central role (and where Modern Orthodoxy is but one of many places within Orthodoxy to benefit from this cohort), and the “best and the brightest” Conservative defectors, where the reasons have much more to do with communal/social factors (and who are more likely that BTs in general to gravitate towards Modern Orthodox/Open Orthodox environments).
–Finally, in my opinion, it is a tragedy for the Jewish world that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find both religious environments (whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox) that are accepting of a variety of different social and political worldviews. Those who are involved in both the Conservative and Orthodox worlds feel these tensions and often have to make difficult choices—often the desire for living a Jewish lifestyle among other Jews wins out, but there is also a political price to pay.
When Jack Wertheimer spoke about “Conservative Jews . . . gravitating to Orthodox synagogues. . . . These particular switchers tend to be among the best-educated products of day schools, summer camps, and youth programs . . . . Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them are drawn to Orthodoxy less for its ideology than for its strong communal life. They are seeking a religious support system for themselves and their children . . . .” He wasn’t talking about the baalei teshuva, those who grew up nonobservant who became observant. He is talking about those who grew up in kosher homes, went to synagogue every shabbos and yomtov, and were more or less observant. Having grown up in Great Neck, I went to school with this cohort, and invariably, they affiliated as Orthodox when they became adults. However, to a great extent, they brought their Conservative hashkofos with them. You can read a lot of this in the modern orthodox literature; I know because I have. The reason Dr. Wertheimer (he denies being a rabbi) cites anecdotal evidence is that there has been no hard scientific study of the phenomenon. (I asked him about this and he said there was none; if anyone should know, it’s he.)
But before we gloat over the impending demise of Conservative Judaism, let us be wary. In the past 50 years, the suburban Orthodox synagogue, catering to the nonobservant, has largely disappeared. We have the Conservative movement to thank for that. If Conservative Judaism goes, and its members flock to our shuls, they will expect to be serviced on their terms. And believe me, there are those who affiliate as Orthodox who will be more than happy to do so. If you look at “official” Orthodoxy anywhere Conservative Judaism does not exist, you will find that Orthodoxy takes its place. Look at the British Commonwealth, France, or Italy. Years ago in Great Britain, the head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews was asked what the biggest dangers to Jewry were; he replied “Gatesheadism and Americanism.” You know what he meant. When a mainline Australian rabbi was quoted as saying that Chabad was a bigger danger to him than reform, he wasn’t talking about meshichisten or the boreinu crowd.
Eytan Kobre: I never referred to my anecdotal observations as evidence. I very much agree Lawrence Reisman. Again limiting myself to my own observatons, I do not believe that the issue is either a strong community per se or ideology and belief per se. What these ”best and brightest” find in the MO comunity that they do not find in their Consevative communities is a strong commuity that takes halakhah seriously. But these best and brightest, as Lawrence Reisman said, may still adhere to their previous Conservative views about the halakhic process, biblical scholarship, etc.,
I see that Dr. Klafter and I, by somewhat different routes, have arrived at similar positions on this issue.
In the past 50 years, the suburban Orthodox synagogue, catering to the nonobservant, has largely disappeared. We have the Conservative movement to thank for that.
Sadly in general those who were not observant and went to Orthodox synagogues 50 years ago-are not going to any synagogue today Orthodox and Conservative, I include their children in the list-they aren’t going anywhere. They in gneral have not flocked to Conservative synagogues-they also have in general lsot memebers in the last generation.
In genral thy are lost to Yahadus. How much of that is due to the constant raising of the bar-see eg if one doesn’t go to a day school today one is not welcome in Orthodoxy-is an open question.
Stop him before he writes again.
At least that’s what they must be saying up in Morningside Heights in the inner sanctum of the Conservative movement, in the wake of his latest Commentary salvo,
I think this is what psychologists call projection. In my experience I hear calls for censorship far more commonly among the Orthodox than from any heterodox movemement.
Mycroft writes, “Sadly in general those who were not observant and went to Orthodox synagogues 50 years ago-are not going to any synagogue today Orthodox and Conservative, . . . How much of that is due to the constant raising of the bar-see eg if one doesn’t go to a day school today one is not welcome in Orthodoxy-is an open question.”
As a general rule, one can’t service both the observant and the nonobservant in the same institution. Both groups are looking for the affirmation of their life choices. If you cater to the nonobservant when they come, (which isn’t very often and never was), you are telling the observant that there is nothing wrong with the nonobservant lifestyle. Immediate question: Why be observant then? If you cater to the observant, the nonobservant feel harrangued and preached to, which they don’t like.
A very good portrayal of the problem is Paul Wilke’s “And They Shall be my People” the portrait of a Conservative rabbi who did try to make his congregation more observant, and found himself in danger of getting fired as a result. I recommend it to anyone who thinks lowering the bar solves anything.
As a general rule, one can’t service both the observant and the nonobservant in the same institution. Both groups are looking for the affirmation of their life choices
The Sefardi classical model disproves it-they have schuls that both observant and nonobservant go to. The non observant are not told that that what they do is proper they are just welcomed. BTW-Chabad- which I have many theological differences with-clearly has mastered how to welcome the non observant.
A hqlf century ago-schuls were much moire welcoming-even the maligned community day schools had kids who were from all backgrounds. Many of thiose who came from less traditional backgrounds have frum grandchildren today. We should be more open in our approach-that does not mean compromising on halacha. OPen in our marketing.
I read Paul Wilke’s book. It is an excellent book and a very sad one. I do not believe that Wilkes appreciated just how devestating a critique his book is of Conservative Judaism. As such, the book carries great weight, being an honest and perceptive account by an outstanding, professional, non-Jewish journalist who is meisiach lefi tumo.
I really must protest. You “hear calls for censorship far more often”. Please tell us exaclty how many times in the last year you heard such a call. Also, in the liberal, open world that the Conservative Movement is a part of, they are obligated to observe their own rules. They cannot preach tolerance and practive intolerance. preach unrestricted intellectual curiousity and practice censorship. The Orthodox code of behavior is only the Torah. And the Torah (including Chazal and the baalei mesorah) gives ample basis for cencorship. One can certainly question the wisdom of censhorhsip in modern times, or the methods of censorship, but to argue that we have to play by their rules is ridiculous. We have to play by our rules and they have to play by their rules. And it is quite clear that the heterdox movements have a long, long history of de facto censorship, althought they are far too fashionable to call it that.
LMR: As a general rule, one can’t service both the observant and the nonobservant in the same institution.
MYCROFT: The Sefardi classical model disproves it-they have schuls that both observant and nonobservant go to. The non observant are not told that that what they do is proper they are just welcomed.
The classic Sefardi model does not work in America. Among the Balkan Sephardim, the shuls populated by nonobservant have very few observant Jews. To a great extent, the few observant Balkan sephardim prefer to attend Ashkenazi synaogues that affirm the obaservant lifestyle. Furthermore, it is a common complaint among Sephardim that when a boy goes away to yeshiva, he never returns to the community. I think that says alot.
With regard to the Syrians, every mainline synagogues with a large nonobservant attendance has separate minyanim for the more observant. Furthermore, in the last 30 years, synagogues catering to the observant have sprung up and flourished. While the community is still united on many issues, a fissure is developing between the nonobservant and the observant, proving my point.
And with regard to the Syrians, the comment “The non observant are not told that that what they do is proper” may not be correct in any case. For 60 years, Rabbi Abraham Hecht’s standard sermon theme has been “This is a great community, and no one can tell us how to behave.” That message has come through quite clearly to the nonobservant attendees, as any day school teacher in the community can tell you.
Lawrence Kaplan writes of Wilke’s book that “I do not believe that Wilkes appreciated just how devestating a critique his book is of Conservative Judaism.”
40-50 years ago, it could have been just as much a critique of Orthodox Judaism, at least as practiced outside of certain enclaves, as well.
You “hear calls for censorship far more often”. Please tell us exaclty how many times in the last year you heard such a call.
Just off the top of my head, cell phone bans and internet bans. Rabbi Slifkin’s works are still on the forbidden list. So is Making of a Gadol. An O rabbi of my acquaintance was prevented by his halachic advisor from giving divrei torah at the same time in the same room as a C and an R rabbi. Jews were prohibited from marching alongside gentiles in a Sukkot parade in Jerusalem for fear of exposure to missionaries. And I have no idea how many potential books, speeches, etc. died stillborn without my ever hearing of them.
Also, in the liberal, open world that the Conservative Movement is a part of, they are obligated to observe their own rules. They cannot preach tolerance and practive intolerance. preach unrestricted intellectual curiousity and practice censorship.
Isn’t that my point? The author suggested that the “inner sanctum of the Conservative movement” must be yearning to censor Dr. Wertheimer. My point was such a reaction is more typical of O – the C zeitgeist is entirely different. Unless you are saying that the ‘inner sanctum’ would like to ban him, but are restricted from doing so by their conception of what is and isn’t practical.
And it is quite clear that the heterdox movements have a long, long history of de facto censorship, althought they are far too fashionable to call it that.
I’d be interested in examples of this.
The classic Sefardi model does not work in America
Is that because we are Ashkenazic controlled-I am Ashkenazic. In Israel Sefardi model exists for the Sefardim.
“The classic Sefardi model does not work in America
Is that because we are Ashkenazic controlled-I am Ashkenazic. In Israel Sefardi model exists for the Sefardim” It’s because in America, a large part of the secular Jewish population chooses to express its Jewish identity via synagogue affiliation. In Israel, the secular population, whether sefardi or Ashkenazi, has no use for synagogues. It has nothing to do with Sefardi vs. Ashkenazi. It’s the difference between American and Israeli society with regard to the place of the synagogue in Jewish life.
As a Chabad Schliach in a subruban area with a Shul full of refugees from the Conservative movement I can say that there is a model that is working. Whle many of these are not fully Shomer Mitzvahs they are being encouraged to greater commitment in Yiddiskiet. And as the movment slips further away from tradition I expect the numbers will continue to grow.
As for the reactions to Dr. Wertheimers article, I think he should be commended for the intellectual courage, (something some of us in the frum world could use) to clearly lay out from his point fo view the failings in the movement he has invested his life in.
Finally a note to Lawrence M Reisman, (and I don’t want to start a Chabad conversation-you can email me privately if you wish [email protected]) there is no borienu crowd (we do have meshcistim but that’s it). your statement is a simply not true.
Larry Lenhoff responding to my earlier post:
“Just off the top of my head, …. died stillborn without my ever hearing of them.”
You hopefully realize that you claimed “calls for censorship” but you have sited 2 book bans. A p’sak about cell phones or internet is not censorship. Those two book bans occurred a few years back. I don’t recommend impugning a large community that “you hears calls far more often” as if it happened every other week and then answer “just off the top of my head” with a bunch of examples that mostly do not substaniate your claim.
Me: And it is quite clear that the heterdox movements have a long, long history of de facto censorship, althought they are far too fashionable to call it that.
Larry: I’d be interested in examples of this.
For starters, a complete neglect to teach traditional sources or even acknowledge their existence in my many years of Reform Hebrew school. Even God was not mentioned.
Jack Werthheimer is IMO a very intelligent and sagacious student of American Jewish life. In many ways, he is a great fan for Torah Judaism. IMO, his columns on the CJ that he once knew are an obituary of sorts. The question remains where he will go if CJ continues its leftward drift.