Is Conservative rebranding enough?

The Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary insists his movement can be revitalized – that it is distinct and fills a religious-communal void.

Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (photo credit: COURTESY JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY)
Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary
ON A chilly February evening in Jerusalem, Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York ‒ the public face of Conservative Judaism ‒ arrived at Congregation Ramot Zion in French Hill to talk about the future of the US Conservative movement. The mood was upbeat. The Netanyahu government had just voted to establish a permanent prayer space near Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, where Conservative and Reform Jews could hold egalitarian services.
The audience of about 50 mostly comprised Israeli Anglos active in the country’s Conservative (or Masorti in Israel) movement and a smattering of Israeli-born progressive rabbis, including top Reform leader Uri Regev. Shunted aside by the machinations of Israel’s hyper-pluralist political system, ignored by most Israelis who are overwhelmingly non-practicing Orthodox, manipulated by the Machiavellian tactics of successive Israeli premiers, and confronted with unwavering antagonism from the state-empowered ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, Reform and Conservative leaders have had to make common cause in the courts and Knesset.
It is worth remembering that the Conservatives never broke away from Orthodoxy – rather, their movement emerged in dissent to Reform, which, in 1885, had jettisoned rituals such as kashrut that it said could not be rationalized on ethical grounds.
In contrast to Reform, whose mostly German constituency had adapted to the American scene much earlier, the Conservatives found followers largely among acculturated Eastern European immigrants. During the same period, Orthodox rabbinical students were also drawn to JTS, notable among them the brilliant Joseph Hertz (1872- 1946), who went on to become chief rabbi of the British Empire.
Conservatives, furthermore, did not think of themselves as the middle option between Orthodoxy and Reform, but as part of the “not Reform” bloc. The seminary was founded in 1887 with a charter that called for the “preservation” of historical Judaism. Its congregational branch, United Synagogue (founded in 1913), also declared its fidelity to “traditional Judaism.” And unlike Orthodoxy and Reform ‒ which had explicitly rejected it ‒ Conservatives embraced Zionism.
Only in 1902, as Orthodox rabbis in America dissociated themselves from JTS ‒ which they perceived as too keen to embrace modernity ‒ and formed Agudath HaRabonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada) did Conservative Judaism find itself, ipso facto, the midstream.
Halakha has always been a key divide.
Reform Judaism views Halakha as altogether discretionary and nonbinding. Conservatives have, in practice, staked out a middle ground. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, incorporated in 1929, sets Conservative halakhic policy. In coming to decisions, its rabbis review what amount to legal briefs citing Torah, Talmud, Responsa and social science.
Further, the movement places Jewish law in historical context seeing it as the product of interpretation and reinterpretation.
Whereas classical Orthodoxy views Halakha as derived explicitly from sacred Oral Law passed down by Moses, Conservative theologians like Elliot Dorff, professor of Jewish philosophy at the American Jewish University in California, see it as the product of evolution.
“Judaism has not been the same during all of the years of its existence,” he has argued.
The movement’s 1988 manifesto, “Emet Ve-Emunah,” defines Halakha as “what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.”
Thus, Orthodox Jews, for example, refrain from turning on and off electrical lights on Saturday and some will not even use Shabbat elevators. But Conservative rabbis have ruled that electricity is permitted in limited forms.
“The operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden,” according to a 2012 Rabbinical Assembly ruling authored by Rabbi Daniel Nevins. “However, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs [work] with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is biblically forbidden on Shabbat.”
By that criterion, the use of computers, smart phones and Kindles, which download information from the Internet and track usage, is akin to writing and is prohibited.
The responsum also notes that anything that would replicate the atmosphere of the work week on Shabbat should be shunned.
The movement’s ethos is to move slowly on doctrinal change. It may be hard to believe, but Conservatives embraced family or mixed congregational seating only very gradually. Unlike some Orthodox rabbis who simply looked the other way, Conservative rabbis began to permit Jews in suburbia to drive to synagogue on Shabbat in the 1950s. After years of debate, in 1969, its rabbis eventually approved prenuptial arrangements aimed at staving off situations in which a woman is “chained” to her marriage because Jewish tradition decrees that a husband must initiate divorce proceedings.
The movement has always had traditionalists and progressives pulling in opposing directions.
Starting in the 1930s, for instance, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983) had hoped to transform the Conservative movement from within by deemphasizing the supernatural and redefining Judaism as an evolving people-centered civilization.
By 1968, he was formally pulled along into a schism that saw the founding of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. The move heralded a theological break that ultimately situated today’s Reconstructionist branch on an altogether different trajectory.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the Rabbinical Assembly granted congregations the right to include women in a minyan; nowadays virtually all Conservative and Masorti congregations are fully egalitarian.
In 1980, Elaine Shapiro became the movement’s first woman cantor. By 1984, JTS had accepted its first female rabbinical students.
And, in 1985, Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman ‒ ordained in 1979 at Reform’s Hebrew Union College ‒ was among the first women admitted into the Rabbinical Assembly. The first JTS female graduate to be ordained was Amy Eilberg in 1985, who had taken most of the courses as a graduate student before women were admitted to rabbinical school.
The Rabbinical Assembly accepted samesex relationships as Jewishly sanctioned in 2006, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and then JTS, decided to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. That same year saw the movement take a halakhic stance on transsexuals, ruling that reassignment surgery changes a person’s halakhic status. At least one Conservative synagogue, the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, has hired a transsexual rabbi. Yet, it was not until 2012 that the rabbis decided on guidelines for homosexual wedding and divorce rituals and documents.
Conservatives have weighed whether to move away from matrilineal descent in determining the Jewishness of a child, but have decided not to go down that path.
Anyway, Eisen notes to The Jerusalem Report, Reform’s patrilineal policy, adopted in 1983, does not appear to have deepened the attachment of children of mixed couples to Judaism. If anything, it takes away the incentive for commitment and conversion.
Instead, he hinted during his Jerusalem talk, the Conservatives will allow non-Jewish spouses to become synagogue members – with the goal of bringing them into the community through conversion.
But Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition,” tells The Report that the lives of Conservative Jews are hardly bound by the policies of its rabbis. “The vast majority of Conservative Jews never really cared about whether they can or can’t drive to shul; their frame of reference on Halakha is simply not what the movement’s leadership thinks it is.”
It’s no secret that the Conservative movement has fallen on hard times. Affiliation is down, and money running low. Some 35 percent of America’s roughly six million Jews affiliate with the Reform movement. Just 18 percent identify as Conservative, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a 33 percent drop in 25 years. Approximately 13 percent of Conservative Jews attend synagogue services at least once a week. But about 27 percent have spouses who are not Jewish.
In total, some two million US Jews live in households where one parent is not Jewish.
Only 20 percent of all US Jews say they’re passionate about their Judaism.
About 40 percent appear to have opted out of all things Jewish. At the other end of the spectrum, some 10 percent of US Jews are Orthodox (67 percent of these identify as ultra-Orthodox.) “The Conservative movement today reminds me of Apple computers in the 1980s ‒ it had the best product in the Mac but the PC was selling much more than the Mac was,” Dorff tells The Report. “But look what has happened to Apple today! In the same way, the Conservative movement has the best product ‒ namely, the historically authentic form of Judaism that always, especially in its most creative moments, integrated tradition with modernity, and with total openness and honesty to what we can learn from science, law and culture about our own tradition in the past and how it should be practiced today and in the future.”
He attributes diminishing numbers of Conservative Jews to sociological factors.
In particular, “that young people marry, if at all, much later than they used to; that they tend to avoid joining anything; and that Jews are much more accepted in American society than they ever were before, which has some blessings but also the downside of interfaith marriages.”
As Eisen sees it, the competition comes, not so much from Reform or Orthodoxy, but from those who embrace “none of the above.”
The across-the-board abandonment of religion is part of America’s general sociological tapestry in which the fastest growing category is “no religion.”
He bristles at any suggestion that his movement has run out of steam or lost its bearings. He waves away suggestions that progressive Conservatives might simply meld into Reform and those of a more traditionalist bent find a home within enlightened factions of Orthodoxy.
Instead, in 2015 he helped initiate an effort to change the image of the movement.
Eisen says the Conservative approach to Jewish life is distinctive and worth preserving.
For instance, he says, Reform rabbinical students study very little Talmud, while Orthodox rabbinical students study no comparative religion. Conservative rabbinical students, in contrast, learn Torah and Talmud along with archeology, anthropology and history. This puts Conservative Judaism in a unique position to take Judaism forward.
In today’s America, there are just 80,000 people in all streams who are converts to Judaism. He sees the potential to grow the number of Jews-by-choice.
This new cohort of potential Jews can be formally drawn into Judaism by offering them a sense of community and meaning. In an age when many Americans suffer from isolation, depression and loneliness, Conservative Judaism can provide a framework for a life with meaning, he says. It is not enough to add more Jews, though; Jewish life needs to be “thickened,” by which Eisen means made richer in ritual, mitzvot, learning and commitment to community.
Rosenthal Kwall, who belongs to a traditionalist- led Conservative congregation in Chicago, agrees that community and tradition indeed appeal to 21st century US Jews, but says these can also be found in many Reform communities.
“The notion that Jewish millennials will be attracted to a modernized version of Halakha is not in keeping with how their generation sees life and religion’s place in it.”
An Israeli professor who specializes in American Jewry tells The Report, “Frankly, there are more reasons for American Jews to be glad to have the Conservatives around than to have them fade away. But the movement has lost its momentum. Look at the absence at the top of the kind of intellectual prestige that Jewish Theological Seminary’s major scholars once commanded,” he notes.
“That is true,” says Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Jerusalem-based Conservative leader.
“But no one has them! For whatever reason the golden age of Jewish scholarship ‒ from which I benefited ‒ no longer exists. They are not at Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, or The Hebrew University of Jerusalem either,” he points out to The Report.
When JTS had its “stellar faculty, it was one of very few places where scholars of Judaism could get positions. Now that there are many more places to get an academic job, it is not surprising that some of the best scholars teach elsewhere,” says Dorff.
Eisen and Associate Chancellor Marc Gary announced in February that the JTS compound at 3080 Broadway on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, which has been the movement’s headquarters since 1929, will be downsized. In a $96 million deal, the seminary will sell a parcel of property and air rights on the edge of the campus to a developer who will build a condominium building.
Eisen and Gary portrayed the deal ‒ which involves demolishing a library built in the 1980s and a dormitory ‒ in the best possible light. They said the seminary now looks too much like a cloister and that for the 21st century its architecture should be more outward looking.
With money from the sale, JTS will build a state-of-the-art library to house its worldclass collection of rare books as well as scroll fragments from the Cairo Geniza that Rabbi Solomon Schechter (1847-1915), a movement founder, publicized ‒ it was Solomon Wertheimer (1866-1935) who unearthed them ‒ by raising the money to move them from Egypt to Cambridge and then to JTS. The cash infusion will also be used to generate spiritual innovation, create a more inviting campus and dormitories and build the endowment fund, Eisen says.
However, none of the money will be earmarked to subsidize the financially strapped Schechter Day School network where tuition can easily run to $20,000 per year, even in elementary school.
An observer well-versed in intramural JTS politics tells The Report that Eisen’s plan to use some of the money from the real estate sale so the seminary can serve as an incubator for change in Conservative Judaism is misguided.
The “really significant developments” in the movement, the observer says, have come from the outside, citing Ethan Tucker and Shai Held as examples. Both are learned, charismatic, scions of Conservative intellectual elites – Gordon Tucker and the late Moshe Held ‒ and have wedded an Orthodox- style to critical thinking.
The approach is a “powerful, perhaps, post-modern antidote to the high-modernist scholarly orientation that mainly characterizes JTS-style Conservativism and that has unintentionally proven corrosive to belief within the movement,” says the observer.
Speaking in Hebrew, Eisen, who earned his PhD in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University, told the Jerusalem gathering the movement is betting that its future in North America will be brighter. “What is the alternative?” he asked. “To entrust 21st century Judaism to the Orthodox, who, by and large, don’t want their children to go to a university?” It is true that today’s Conservative Jews are less and less observant, he grants. On the other hand, there are enough observant, committed Conservatives ‒among them alumni of the United Synagogue Youth movement, Camp Ramah and Schechter schools ‒ upon whom to build, according to Eisen.
It’s an assessment challenged by a critic no longer active in the movement who says that while Conservative institutions “consistently produce youth who are ready for deeper religious commitment, they have nowhere to go in the mostly anodyne, boring and formal, bourgeois, risk-averse Conservative religious institutional landscape.”
In any case, identifying with a particular denomination has become less and less relevant to American Jews. Some non-denominational synagogues have flourished by refusing to label themselves.
Rosenthal Kwall agrees that Eisen is too sanguine about what the alumni can offer the movement. She says he also appears to underappreciate how well some in the Orthodox world have responded to modernity.
Rebranding Conservative Judaism alone is not the answer.
“The Conservative movement as a distinct denominational identity has a very limited future unless it can figure out a way to inspire more traditional observance,” she says.
Dorff agrees that getting Conservative Jews to be more observant is “one way to attract people to the movement, but not the only way,” while noting that “the movement is already making Judaism real for Conservative Jews in a whole variety of ways.”
For his part, Eisen discounts polls that forecast American Jewry being saved thanks to a dramatic growth and strength of Orthodoxy, arguing that there are too many unknown variables.
Fifty years ago, for example, who would have predicted that radical Islam and climate change would be among the biggest challenges facing humanity or that fluctuation in China’s economy would unsettle the American financial markets, he says.
The Conservative movement can reverse its fortunes by offering meaning, community, and Covenant (a way to tap into the spiritual “contract” between God and the Jewish people) along with robust conversion outreach, according to Eisen.
The Conservative appeal is that the movement offers a smart, non-dogmatic view of God ‒ one who commands Jews to make the world a better place. It is a brand of Judaism suited to the age, he argues.
Even those who dismiss God on a philosophical level still need him in their day-today lives. Eisen says a sense of obligation to the collective, rather than fear of heaven, can impel Jews to do mitzvot. He makes the case that people need halakhic norms that come from the community and that also hearken back to previous generations ‒ a brand available only through Conservative Judaism.
He tells doubters not to be fixated on troubling numbers. There are perhaps 15 million Jews worldwide ‒ maybe one million of whom are Conservative ‒ among billions and billions of Christians, Muslims and others.
For Eisen, these figures imply that there are enough Jews ‒ and enough Conservative Jews ‒ to turn things around.
The figures may also suggest something near metaphysical – that if Jews have survived for thousands of years in so vast an ocean of non-Jews, numbers alone aren’t the best way to assess Jewish prospects. 
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