Do denominational labels matter?

Outside synagogue life there are few real differences between Reform and Conservative Jews.

reform stained glass 88 (photo credit: )
reform stained glass 88
(photo credit: )
Conservative Judaism is in a tizzy. The demographers have just now determined the movement's radical decline. It used to form 50 percent of American and Canadian Jews. Now it adds up to only 30 percent. At their recent meeting in Boston, Conservative Jewish leaders could talk of little else than halting the decline in their relative position within American Jewry, which some equated with the coming demise of Conservative Judaism. So two questions present themselves: First, when half of American Jewry identified with Conservative Judaism, what were the traits of American Jewry? And now that a third does, what kind of Jews are Conservative Jews a third of? And, second: Since the vast majority of American Jews are either Reform or Conservative - more than 80 percent of the whole, with about 10 percent forming one or another variety of Orthodox Judaism and the rest scattered every which way, Reconstructionist, New Age, and so forth - what difference does it make whether a Jew belongs to a Reform or to a Conservative synagogue? Do the labels stand for anything, quality of commitment, for example? Or are these brand names that conceal origin in the same generic assembly line? FOR TWO generations or so Conservative Judaism constituted half of American Jewry before and after World War II. This began with the movement to the suburbs that carried synagogues from the first to the second area to the third area of settlement after immigration, which Marshall Sklare showed in his classic Conservative Judaism provided the first large population of non-Orthodox, non-militantly-secular Jews. The second generation of American Jews had Jewish memories, to which the Prayer Book popular in Conservative synagogues, edited by Hartford's Rabbi Morris Silverman, appealed, and also Jewish knowledge and sentiment. These Jews a generation ago wanted to be Jewish, but not too Jewish, not so Jewish that they couldn't also find a place in the ranks of undifferentiated Americans. The outcome was captured by Will Herberg in his Catholic, Protestant, Jew, which argued that the three religions of American democracy evinced the same traits and qualities of a common American civil religion, in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish idioms. A Jewish community with a low rate of intermarriage and a high rate of ethnic affiliation, with keen memories of Jewish observance and a strong taste for compromise - remember "kosher style"? - voted with its feet and affiliated with Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism made its compromises. It's all right to drive to shul on Shabbat. It's all right to eat dairy out. It's all right to drink wine and eat cheese lacking a kosher mark. True, Rabbi Neil Gillman, the leading theologian of Conservative Judaism of our time in the US and Canada, shocked the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism when he said the obvious, which is that Conservative Judaism is not a halachic movement. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, a movement leader, was shocked - shocked. But all along everybody else understood that Conservative Judaism had been made up of "Orthodox rabbis serving Conservative congregations comprised of Reform Jews." WHAT THE 50/30 figures mean is the proportion of American Jewry that wants to be Jewish but not too Jewish has declined, and that the proportion that bears a different definition of itself - the Reform definition - has increased. How do Reform Jews differ from Conservative Jews? Four indicators suffice:
  • Liturgically, Reform Jews require incessant interventions of rabbinical explanation of prayers to be said. And the prayers are said in English. Conservative Jews suffice with little or no running commentary in worship, and the prayers are said (mainly) in Hebrew.
  • In Sabbath observance Reform Jews come in numbers to services on a Saturday morning when there is a bar/bat mitzva celebration. Conservative synagogues have no difficulty in assembling several - many - minyanim for Shabbat morning services, with or without a bar/bat mitzva.
  • Halachically, Conservative Jews afford the law of Judaism a vote, if not a veto. Reform Jews do not give the law the right to vote at all.
  • Conservative rabbis exhibit a higher level of Jewish literacy than Reform rabbis, measured by knowledge of classic texts in the Hebrew original. That is because they come from a richer educational background. They find it more natural to stand up for mitzvot ma'asiyot - practical obligations. And how do rank-and-file Reform and Conservative Jews resemble one another? They are both liberal to left-wing in politics, accommodating when it comes to intermarriage, and unable to boast of substantial Jewish learning. As to observance, the substantive differences among the masses of Reform and (today's) Conservative Jews outside synagogue life are trivial, if there are any at all. Yet I still think the distinctions add up to consequential difference. That is why I judge Conservative Judaism as a whole to be stronger and more vital at 30% of the community, as it is now, than at 50% of the community, as it was then. Jacob Neusner is Research Professor of Theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.