After the Pew report came out and after the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and sitting on the floor and weeping was over, I figured I would write something about the results. I know my blog has become more and more occasional, but if anything would shake me out my blog-silence, surely a demographic study foretelling the coming apocalypse would be it. But I found that I had nothing really interesting to say (insert variation of “when has that stopped you before?” joke here) and I found, perhaps more ominously, that anything I did try to write came out sounding lamentation-y.
Luckily for me, other people have picked up the dirge work I decided not to do. For example, here is Dr. Micah Gottlieb bemoaning the inability of Conservative Judaism to retain folks who are interested in living a halakhically observant life:
I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic.
Does one only have sensitivity to inconsistency when one is a teenager? More to the point, is it really the case that if the Movement had been more consistent in its messaging (“The Conservative Movement: Not Really That into Traditional Ritual Observance”) that Dr. Gottlieb would have been led to stay? Probably not, since it turns out what he really wanted was…a Modern Orthodox community.
I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.
I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually my synagogue and several other Conservative synagogues in Canada dropped their membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
If you are the sort of person who sees egalitarianism as essentially a “political” as opposed to a “religious” issue, then you are just not going to be happy in a community that has been ordaining female rabbis for thirty years, and has been steadily moving towards the full inclusion of women in all areas of leadership and ritual. Ditto for issues around gays and lesbians. I can see how one could perceive these issues as “political” but I—and most Conservative rabbis I know—see such questions as being of a deeply religious nature. What can be more religious than the question of where women fit into the religion? My point here is not that Dr. Gottlieb is wrong about the Conservative Movement—much of what he says is correct—but simply to point out that he is not perhaps the best person to speak about where the Movement has gone wrong. If someone is concerned about being ritually observant and does not care about issues around egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement is not for you. The Movement lost you when it made some important decisions about the place of women, and then stuck to those decisions. And I’m perfectly okay with that.
Of course, if you care about ritual observance and you care about issues of egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement may not be for you either. Just ask the folks at Hadar and any other “post-denominational” traditional egalitarian minyan. This is not an argument about whether these minyanim are really “Conservative” or not—that argument has been exhausted. The point here is that there is no reason they could not affiliate in this way; no reason, that is, except that they have absolutely no desire to do so and see no benefit from such an affiliation. We might wonder why, and we might even think there are multiple issues in play, but it turns out we’d be wrong, because (Conservative) Rabbi Danny Gordis has the real answer:
What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.
Oh, is that all? If only we had thought to address the “deep existential human questions” than we’d be sitting pretty those Reform and Orthodox Jews! Because when it comes to addressing deep existential questions, those spiffy Movements probably have a whole class on that in rabbinical school, while my Seminary years were spent taking class like Talmud and Bible and Jewish history. Jokes aside, I have to say, I do not recognize the Movement Rabbi Gordis describes here:
As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.
I do not disagree with Rabbi Gordis’ list of reasons that drive people to shul, but I think it’s odd to believe two things that seem implicit in this argument: 1) that people in pews really care and are invested in the sorts of conversations that are going on among “the leadership” of the Conservative movement and 2) that “leadership of the Conservative Movement” is even a thing that exists in the world. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I don’t really spend any time at all talking to my congregants about whether or not Conservative Judaism is halakhic or, but I do admit to talking about halakah. Although I am clearly biased, I think I do my best to sometimes address the “deep existential human questions” though I admit that something I also talk about baseball and movies. I tend to think that Conservative Jews care far more about what their local rabbi talks about than they do about what the shadowy cabal of leaders we in Movement call “The Circle” talks about in the pages of Conservative Judaism. Speaking of “The Circle”: I am not sure it exists, or of whom it is comprised, but I do know that I get Conservative Judaism and Kolot and even read those two august publications, and I can’t really say “are we a halakhic movement?” is a trending topic. All of which is to say: I do think the Conservative Movement has significant issues to address, but to claim, as Rabbi Gordis does, that our main issue is a failure to be serious about our religious message requires a level of information about local rabbis and their message to their synagogues that is not in evidence in the article.
But the Movement is clearly stumbling, and I think we would all do well to be clear-eyed about that fact. We need to be thoughtful about the reasons for our stumbles, and I think taking advice from people who have moved on to other Jewish communities—or “meandered” as Rabbi Gordis would have it—is not always the best way forward. But we do need to hear the voices of people like Sarah Miriam Liben, whose impassioned cry in the Times of Israel is what really got me off the couch and into my chair to write this post. (Full disclosure: I know Sara Miriam Liben and I think she is awesome.)
Let me be absolutely clear. I do not mean to suggest that my male friends who have chosen Orthodoxy over Conservative Judaism did so without serious thought. Nor do I mean to imply that my female friends who choose to pray in Orthodox synagogues do not feel empowered or deeply connected to the communities of which they are now a part. There are many compelling reasons, personal and not, for an individual to choose a different community, but that is for another time.
What I am saying is that deeply committed Conservative women cannot make this shift fluidly. And I find it extremely difficult to understand how being raised in an egalitarian community can be reconciled with a non-egalitarian community, and a non-egalitarian religious future for one’s family. I want to be counted in a minyan. I want to someday be able to say kadish for a loved one. Partnership minyanim do not do it for me. Sitting behind or next to a mechitza is not equal prayer for me. And being told apologetically that I do not have to fulfill the same mitzvot that are required of my male counterparts is not my Judaism.
Sara wants the Conservative Movement to work; she needs it to work actually, because the Jewish life she is looking for is something that only the Conservative Movement is trying to provide on a national scale. Sara wants observance and she wants seriousness and she wants commitment and she wants to count. That is what I want as well. I want it for Sara, I want it for my own daughter, I want it for my sons, and I want it for myself as well. And I am not ready to give up yet. Rabbi Ed Feinstein might be right that “our house is on fire.” But you know what? I’m not leaving, because though much has burned, there is much yet to be saved.