As careful Jewish Review of Books readers have undoubtedly noticed, my interlocutors, who include some of the most distinguished and perceptive figures in Conservative Judaism, largely agree with me about the condition of the Conservative movement. As Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky writes, “there is no denying that in the last 30 or 40 years, Masorti/Conservative Jewish ideology has inspired fewer people than it once did.” In fact, says Rabbi Susan Grossman, my assessment “may have been too kind.” Jonathan D. Sarna, a leading historian of American Judaism, states that “Daniel Gordis is right” that the Pew numbers are devastating.
We also agree on several other points: the importance of studying Judaism through a historical prism, that halakha is fundamentally dynamic (even if, I believe, intentionally hesitantly so), the legitimacy of biblical criticism, and the urgent need for expanded roles for women in Jewish life. In fact, those were the ideas that drew me to The Jewish Theological Seminary some 30 years ago, and it was because I still believe they are critical that I wrote with sadness (even if I was insufficiently lachrymose for Kalmanofsky) about the cataclysmic erosion of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Noah Benjamin Bickart, and Gordon Tucker are right that Conservative Judaism’s ideas are alive and well, albeit often in institutions outside the movement. But that does raise a question: If the ideas of Conservative Judaism are so vital and continue to flourish elsewhere, why did the movement sputter? Or, to put matters less abstractly, if one goes to Friday night services on the campus of Harvard or Columbia, Penn or Maryland, why is it the Orthodox services that are packed and overflowing with energy?
There isn’t, of course, a single answer, but I would like to sharpen one point from my original essay: Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.
In the Orthodox congregation in which I grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s, many of the worshippers drove to shul, while we, the Conservative Jewish family, walked. The parking lot was chained closed and our co-parishioners knew that what they were doing was not “permitted,” but they managed (the adjacent streets were clogged with parked cars), and it never dawned on them to ask the rabbi to sanction their driving. Today, their children do not drive, in part because their rabbis held the line.
But in response to the same phenomenon, Conservative Judaism sanctioned driving on Shabbat. It eradicated that productive cognitive dissonance for its members and, in so doing, created a Judaism that was non-aspirational. And the Pew results show what happens when Judaism doesn’t push us.
While few Orthodox Jews drive on Shabbat these days, cognitive dissonance persists. For instance, many American Modern Orthodox Jews eat dairy food or fish in non-kosher restaurants. Some will do it in their hometowns, others only when they are away for business or out of town on vacation. Do they believe that this practice is halakhically justified or justifiable? They do not. They live with the tension between what they do and what they know that Jewish law, and their rabbinic leaders, demand of them. The ensuing tension means that Judaism—like their marriages, their roles as parents, their professions—demands that they grow.
But when the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled in 1952 that “Fish dinners in non-kosher eating places shall not be construed as a violation of the dietary laws,” the movement illustrated once again its determination to fashion for its adherents an easy, dissonance-free spiritual life; in so doing, it also erased the aspirational drive so central to Jewish flourishing.
What all this suggests, though many Orthodox rabbis will publicly deny it, is that a large percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are not theologically Orthodox; “revelation” and “commandment” are key words in the lexicon of their communities, but not so deep down, they’re motivated as much by sociology as theology. When the daughter of a childhood friend of mine recently married, she bought a sheitel, a wig, in order to keep her hair covered at all times. This would have been unimaginable in the crowd in which we grew up. When I asked her mother where the kids were heading for their honeymoon, she mentioned a place where I knew there was no kosher food. How were they doing that, I gently inquired? When they’re away, they eat in non-kosher restaurants, she told me.
Halakhically, eating out in such restaurants is far more problematic than not wearing a sheitel (which many would claim is not necessary at all). But intellectual consistency, the celebrated hallmark of Conservative Judaism, is not what these young people are seeking. What they want is meaning, community, closeness, and a sense of striving (incidentally, that’s what their non-Orthodox peers seek too). They have found these things in a halakhically demanding universe. And, although some of my interlocutors would scoff at their way of life, the fact is that it works.
In that community, the Jewish calendar is the metronome of life; they have homes infused with much more ritual, they learn more Torah, they intermarry much less, they visit Israel more often than their Conservative and Reform peers. They sing together and daven (which is not the same thing as worshipping) together. The best of them (not all, not enough) read just as much, think as broadly, and are as fully engaged in the modern world as their non-Orthodox counterparts, despite the intellectual tensions.
Many of the women among them find the opportunities for high-level Talmud study—opportunities that their mothers did not have—a profound indication that even in Modern Orthodoxy, feminism is alive and well. Pace Professor Judith Hauptman, most of them don’t need “ritual egalitarianism” to feel that they matter. Those who do, leave. That is what is wonderful about the American Jewish spiritual marketplace. (For the record, despite Dorff’s intentionally misleading suggestion to the contrary, nothing in my original article can fairly be construed as an endorsement of Orthodoxy.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was young and searching for a theological justification for the halakha to which I was committed in the face of the biblical criticism I was studying, I talked to my grandfather. A leading intellectual light of the Conservative movement, he had to have something to say, didn’t he? But no matter how hard I pushed, we always ended up in the same place. Why did halakha matter? It was, he told me, minhag k’lal yisrael. “This is simply what Jews do.” This is how we Jews live; it’s the ticket to belonging. “Stop all your theologizing,” he basically said to me. “Life’s real decisions are about belonging and sustaining, not about theology.” Not his words, but his point. And he was largely right.
Minhag k’lal yisrael works, but it’s working for Modern Orthodoxy—because Orthodoxy was never afraid of cognitive dissonance. Does it help that Orthodox rabbis still speak in theological terms? Yes, it does, and that would have been challenging for Conservative rabbis. It may not have worked even had we tried; there is something powerful about the theological certainty that is elusive for most of the lettered class, and that is undoubtedly the reason that Pew shows Modern Orthodoxy struggling now too.
But we could have given it a much better shot. We could have cajoled and inspired, encouraging our congregants to conform themselves to Jewish tradition, rather than working to shape the tradition to their fleeting, ostensible needs. (Rabbi David B. Starr is quite right to point to the extraordinary model of such leadership that Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath afforded us both; it’s instructive, however, that Rabbi Hilsenrath never joined the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.) We were too complacent. It didn’t matter, we told ourselves, how many of our flock were actually toeing the line. “It is peculiar for someone who is aware of, and speaking for, Jewish tradition to argue that smaller numbers mean lessened potency and fitness for survival,” writes Tucker in his response to me. (Really? His claim seems to be that because there are young Jews who are serious but not Orthodox, few of whom wish to affiliate with the Conservative movement, this proves the vitality of the Conservative movement?) Since they’re ostensibly not worried by the numbers, several of my interlocutors insist that no change in strategy is necessary. (As one observer has noted, not a single one of them actually offered a concrete suggestion of what Conservative Judaism should do.) Dorff writes:
We should do exactly what Jewish leaders … have [always] done, even when the large majority of Jews did not believe or act in the same way—namely, live and teach the kind of Judaism that Conservative Judaism represents with as much vigor and creativity as we can muster.
Kalmanofsky says he’ll “keep plugging away, hopefully, optimistically, persistently.” There’s an air of nobility to such soldiering on, but, unfortunately, it’s the nobility of Don Quixote.
I would ask my interlocutors this: Are our ideas important in some Platonic sense, simply by virtue of their existence, or do they matter because we want them to shape the future of the Jewish people? Are you as committed to the survival of the Jewish people as you are to the “rightness” of those deeply held principles? If you are, then simply soldiering on will not do. We must articulate the ideas that we believe are critical to Judaism’s survival and then we must work—doggedly, creatively, and effectively—to get them deeply rooted in as wide a swath of American Jews as possible.
We live in a frightening and uncharted Jewish world. Despite all appearances of stability, ours is a period not unlike that of almost 2,000 years ago, after the Temple had been destroyed. Then as now, it was entirely unclear what sort of Judaism could sustain our people into the future.
The Sadducees were not wrong when they insisted that they were the rightful leaders of the people and the Temple (even in its absence), their divinely sanctioned seat of power. But others in that period looked at a shattered Jewish world and chose otherwise. Essenes opted for a focus on ritual and moral purity, avoiding contact with almost everyone else. Proto-Christians, then still Jewish, had a very different vision of what Judaism could become. The rabbis dared to invent something almost unrecognizable as Judaism. Their “heretical” notions—that Judaism could be geographically decentralized, that sacred time would replace sacred space, that prayer would substitute for sacrifice, and that a learned elite would assume the leadership roles once the province of priests—must have seemed utterly absurd to many.
We are no less shattered than the Jews of 100 C.E. The extraordinarily rich, vibrant, heterogeneous world of Polish Jewry was annihilated less than a lifetime ago. When 700,000 Jews were evicted from Arab lands in the late 1940s, Jewish life all along the Mediterranean’s north coast essentially came to an end. So, too, did Jewish life in Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, for all intents and purposes.
Even before these demographic devastations, there were intellectual seismic shifts. The Enlightenment called into question theological and historical “truths” that Jews had long taken for granted. And matters have only grown more complicated. Science, feminism, and restored Jewish military power in Israel have all upended social, moral, and religious stances we once took for granted.
In this unsettled Jewish world, many groups are staking out territory. We have our Essenes today—haredim—who want as little to do with the Western world, or the rest of us, as possible. For the time being, high birth rates buttress their position, but I find it impossible to imagine that Ultra-Orthodoxy, with its rabid rejection of Western intellectualism and its reprehensible attitude to women (among many other factors) is sustainable for the long run. The future of Judaism is not (I hope) there.
What about Centrist Orthodoxy? It has built impressive social and educational institutions, created a vast lay network with impressively high levels of Jewish literacy and learning. But central to Orthodoxy’s worldview is the non-negotiability of absolute belief in the divine revelation of Jewish religious tradition. So far it appears to be working, but in the intellectual world we inhabit, can this certainty about revelation sustain itself among most well-educated American Jews for the long haul without retreat into the other-worldliness and anti-intellectualism of the haredim? One wonders.
A very different option, now the apparent choice of a preponderance of American Jews, lies at the other end of the spectrum. It claims that Judaism must be dramatically transformed, perhaps even re-invented: We should redefine who counts as a Jew (patrilineal descent), whom Jews can marry (sanctioning intermarriage), and minimize the religious dimension of Judaism. This fills me with dread, not because I am certain that it is theologically wrong—I’ve already acknowledged that theological certainty is hard to come by today—but because it seems to me utterly unsustainable. Responding in Ha’aretz to my original JRB essay, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote that:
[There are] serious Jews . . . [i]mmersed in Torah study and the work of mitzvah-doing and tzedakah-doing, [and] they are to be found in all religious streams—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Activist and spiritually alive, they are far more committed and observant than anyone in America would have thought possible a half century ago—or even two decades ago.
I wish that this were true. But as Sarna notes, it’s really only Orthodoxy that has “produced a laity that was Jewishly knowledgeable.” When one enters a sanctuary of the typical liberal synagogue in America (of course, there are exceptions), one encounters a community of thoroughly decent, well-intentioned people who simply do not know enough to be part of a real Jewish conversation. If one speaks in the typical Reform or Conservative congregation, even to the “regulars,” can one reasonably expect that they know the difference between Mishnah and midrash? Neder and nidda? Tanna and amora? If the rabbi makes an interesting comment about a Mishnah in her sermon, how many of the people in the pews even own a one-volume edition of the Mishnah to which they could refer at home should they be so moved?
Now, there will be those who will say that neder and nidda, tanna and amora are just too technical to be a basis for judging anything. I disagree. We don’t consider people even marginally literate in matters American if they don’t know the difference between the House and the Senate, filibustering versus gerrymandering, or the difference between judiciary versus legislative functions. We would be horrified if, by the end of high school, our children didn’t know these things. But the terms I’ve plucked, almost at random, are just as basic to Jewish life.
For argument’s sake, however, let’s ignore such terms. Let’s ask instead how these “Torah-studying and mitzvah doing” women and men in the pews would respond to the following question:
In what ways are Jewish values and a Jewish conception of the life well-lived substantively different from the Western, Christian, and American notions with which we’re familiar?
And how many of these congregants would be unable to answer the question but feel that they should, and (at least aspirationally) consume themselves with Torah study to get there? As Kalmanofsky writes, “We work, study, dwell, shop, eat, play, read, vote, marry, and think like our non-Jewish neighbors.” And that is precisely why serious Jews must be able to answer such questions. Starr is certainly right when he writes that “Judaism must be countercultural.” As the Pew study makes clear, liberal Judaism in America has given up its counter-cultural essence; only 60 percent assert that believing in Jesus as the Messiah puts one outside Jewish boundaries! The liberal end of the spectrum, like Central Orthodoxy, is growing at the expense of the middle, but for a wholly different set of reasons. I can’t imagine it surviving.
The middle, though, strikes me as the site of potentially the most noble Jewish religious project of our era: the belief that we can fashion a Jewish world constructed of intellectual rigor, moral nuance, the best of Western learning, substantial Jewish literacy, and a commanded devotion to the rituals of Jewish life could be the greatest legacy of our time. To preserve it, though, we need to do something, and we know what will not sustain the middle.
“Conservative Judaism’s insistence on history,” Starr correctly notes, “still seems right to me. . . . But being right . . . is not all that is required.” Sensitivity to the nuances and ironies of history as such will draw very few to Jewish life. Neither will feminism, which thankfully is abundantly reflected in varying ways from Reform through Orthodox, and throughout American culture. Judaism dare not offend our feminist sensibilities, but Americans Jews do not need Judaism as an outlet for their feminist commitments.
So what will work? All of us who care about the Jewish future must state what a viable Judaism looks like to us. This rejoinder is already longer than my original article, so, in the interests of (relative) brevity, I will name three elements that seem to me essential for a flourishing Judaism:
1. A Jewish community in which suspension of our autonomy (a commitment to Jewish ritual and time) is central.
2. A community of people with the high level of Jewish literacy that is required to be a meaningful participant in a substantive and distinctly Jewish conversation
3. A Judaism is that self-critical and morally reflective.
I will expand briefly on each.
One of the core insights of Jewish life has been that closeness to God (or, failing that, moments in which God’s presence might be felt) is achieved by the suspension of our autonomy. Limiting what we eat, what we wear, when we may make love, how we speak, how we use our time, and what we must study has been, I think, the single most important Jewish insight about building a relationship with God; it has long been Judaism’s central defining characteristic. Successful Jewish communities will continue, in significant ways, to submit to the “yoke of the commandments.”
Moreover, communities not committed to Jewish ritual obligation are also communities in which Jewish literacy does not exist. Period. The reasons for this linkage are complex and beyond the scope of this essay, but here is why it matters: If Judaism is (as I believe it is) a several millennia-long conversation, then the critical question that Yoffie and others must answer is how much one needs to know in order to be part of that conversation. And the undeniable truth is that the overwhelming majority of his “Torah-studying” Jews don’t know Rashi, have not been taught how to study Mishnah, can’t find their way around a traditional prayer book, don’t recognize the biblical allusions in Bialik or Agnon, can say virtually nothing about the intellectual and religious disputes at the heart of Zionism, and so on. They have been educated, at best, to be onlookers, not genuine participants in this conversation. Smart and successful American Jews don’t want to be onlookers. We have sold our people short, and Pew is evidence of the payback.
Third, and finally, in addition to the suspension of autonomy and a distinct Jewish voice, we also need a hefty dose of self-doubt. That has long been a hallmark of Judaism’s greatness (one need only look to contemporary Islam for an example of what happens when it is absent). But such self-criticism is almost impossible to cultivate with the theological certainties that lie at the heart of most of Orthodoxy, and it is irrelevant when Jewish tradition is simply reduced to an ethnic version of the pervasive Protestant ethos.
I do not see these elements as the basis for a movement, Capital-C Conservative or otherwise. The world of intellectual openness coupled to halakhic rigor is hard, which is precisely why what is called for is not robotically soldiering on, but seeking new partners and new ideas as we seek to teach and inspire American Jews. One possibility worth trying is a broad coalition of people who disagree strongly about matters of Jewish law and might not even be able to pray together, but who nonetheless become partners in articulating forcefully the necessity of these three elements, even as they go about implementing them in radically different ways.
This coalition could include the most intellectually courageous Modern Orthodox rabbis (including, but not limited to, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its “open Orthodoxy”). It will include the “socially Orthodox” along with the world of www.thetorah.com in which mostly Orthodox rabbis wrestle with the challenges of biblical criticism. It will include non-denominational institutions like Yeshivat Hadar and Pardes, along with the more serious Conservative rabbis and their communities. It will evoke the commitments of Magen Tzedek, the Conservative movement’s attempt to make kashrut a moral enterprise, more liberal communities like Ikar in Los Angeles and Reform rabbis who are also committed to the necessity of ritual and the centrality of study. Such a broad coalition might succeed where movements have failed; they could change the face of Jewish life in America by banding together even in the face of all their principled differences, precisely because Pew shows that time is running out.
Are we guaranteed success? We are not. Is it possible that the radical re-writing of Judaism that I find wholly unpalatable will actually save the day and that time will prove that I’m just a modern-day Sadducee? Absolutely. So let’s hear others articulate competing visions of Jewish life and arguments for why they are viable. Let’s challenge each other, not because we’re desperate to prove others wrong, but because we are Jews yearning to find partners in our preservation of what we hold dear.
At this juncture in Jewish history, we need to create a much broader conversation about what makes Judaism worth surviving and what has a chance of sustaining it. So let’s begin, without regard to our roles as stakeholders in particular movements or institutions. At this stage of Jewish history, nothing more can be asked of us, but nothing less will suffice.
Joseph Skibell, like any good historical novelist, is a dybbuk—he animates the dead.
Yirimiyahu be-Tzion is a solid work of intellectual history, devoted above all to understanding Judah Magnes as he understood himself, sympathetic but honest, and attentive to the weaknesses as well as the strengths of his thinking.
On belly dancing, big government, and the issues of synagogue and state raised by recent attempts at kashrut reform in Israel.
Without the Torah, says Rabbi Akiva, we would still be able to discover all its truths by delving deeply into the words of the Song of Songs.