The Conservative conundrum

Assimilation and fundamentalism are simultaneously ascending, a rare thing in Jewish history.

conservative synagogue88 (photo credit: )
conservative synagogue88
(photo credit: )
America in the 1950s was a country for centrists. The Democratic and Republican parties stood as closely aligned on major issues as they ever have been, sharing a belief in Cold War containment abroad and New Deal-style liberalism at home. The emerging concept of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" treated the nation's tiny Jewish minority as equal partners in heritage with the far more numerous Catholics and Protestants. The melting-pot model went unchallenged as the proper style of citizenship. So it comes as no surprise, looking back, that the immediate postwar years were the heyday of Conservative Judaism, a centrist movement for a centrist time. In specifically Jewish terms, as well, the era suited the branch. Reform Judaism remained the province of Ger man Jews with their disregard for tallit and Hebrew and their affection for organ music. As for Orthodoxy, it appeared bound for irrelevance, the atavism of a poor, aging populace left behind in decaying cities as the suburbs boomed. To their further detriment, both the Reform and Orthodox movements had proven begrudging latecomers to Zionism. Despite the presence of such individual leaders as Stephen Wise and Joseph Soloveitchik, the mainstream of each group had supported Jewish statehood only after the Holocaust made anti-Zionism morally untenable. The Conservative movement alone, born on American ground, had grasped early on that Zionism was not the cause of dual loyalties or impiety but an integral element of Jewish peoplehood. Given such history, one can only sympathize with the Conservative movement a half-century later, whipsawed by unforeseen changes. For one of the only times in the millennia of Jewish history, the forces of assimilation and fundamentalism are simultaneously ascending, stre tch ing and straining whatever lies between them. To put it in statistical terms, the Conservative branch has gone within the past generation from representing nearly half of affiliated American Jews to just one-third. Reform Judaism chose 30 years ago to ride rather than buck the wave of interfaith marriage in America. By abandoning the halachic principle of matrilineal descent as the basis for Jewish identity and not emphasizing conversion for the gentile partner, the Reform movement made itself the addres s, indeed the franchise, for hyphenated Jews. In political terms, as well, Reform caught the moment. During the first wave of feminism, Reform started to ordain women as rabbis, and decades later, women hold some of the movement's more prestigious pulpit s. Partly through their presence, Reform has also continued to be a bastion of social-justice action, most recently in the movement's opposition to the war in Iraq. In an ethnic respect, meanwhile, Reform Judaism has been becoming more overtly Jewi sh than ever before, as the German Jews with their high-church affectations have been supplanted by an incoming tide of Eastern European Jews. With that tide arrived a neo-traditional impulse, manifested in Carlebach praise-songs, the return of ritual gar b, incr eased Torah study. WHILE ALL of those changes eroded the left flank of Conservative Judaism, a parallel set of developments undermined it on the right. Orthodox Jewry benefited from being simultaneously a response to and an outgrowth of the Sixti es count er-culture. Orthodoxy's stringent rules and firm sense of community afforded answers to the dislocating, disorienting force of modernity. Yet, at the same time, Orthodoxy exuded the aura of authenticity so prized at a time when the model of the c ultural m osaic was replacing that of the melting pot. Entirely unexpectedly, American Jewry has found itself a generation or two later in what the historian Jack Wertheimer has rightly dubbed "the Orthodox moment." All the resultant anxiety for the Jewi sh centris ts was on display last week during the convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the organization that represents 800 congregations. The dilemmas of the meeting were the same ones that have been simmering for years - how to de al with int erfaith families, whether to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. But those specific issues served as proxies for the overarching, less tractable question of what, exactly, Conservative Judaism stands for and what it offers adherents. To use the language of marketing, Reform and Orthodoxy have successfully "branded" themselves. Moderation has a hard time as a slogan, much less a program, against such precisely defined competitors. The Conservative movement has generated two highly successful institutions in th e Solomon Schecter day schools and the Ramah camps. It is reasonable to assume that the children and families who avail themselves of both hail from the most-involved, most-observant end of the Conservative spectrum, the 15 or 20 percent of synagogue members who attend on Shabbat. In my experience, having belonged to a Conservative synagogue for seven years in the 1990s and reported extensively on several similar congregations, these people had a praxis very near the Conservative ideal. Wh ere possible, they walked to synagogue; most kept kosher homes; they sent their children to day-school; they welcomed the communal pressure for in-marriage. The problem, one might say, is that there are not enough of them, or at least not as many as some Conservative leaders would like. Which leaves the movement struggling for an identity that is something other than being Reform Plus or Orthodox Lite. Nobody at the United Synagogue convention parsed the dilemma more eloquently than Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary. "I have long felt that to think and live as a Conservative Jew is to live in a state of perpetual tension," he put it with bracing bluntness in a speech. He traced that tension to its very headwaters, the moveme nt's effort to adhere to halacha while trying to adapt it to modern conditions. "Theologically," he went on, "the reality is that you can't be more or less liberal. Once you deny a literalist understanding of revelation, you are willy nilly in the libera l camp." What not even Gillman could do is offer a path out, a way to vitality and relevance. If the Conservative movement puts increased energy into outreach to interfaith families and couples, as liberals in the branch suggest, then it essentially comp etes on Reform Judaism's turf. Choosing a spouse is no frivolous reflex, and Jews who decide to marry out are saying something considered about where both religion and ethnic identity reside in their value system. It takes more than an adult-education program to unmake a mind. Yet if the Conservative movement holds gays and lesbians at a theological distance, as small-c conservatives advocate, then it misses a golden opportunity to embrace some very observant and in-married (or in-committed) couples. Our evolving under standing of the biological foundations of homosexuality provides an ideal example of a situation when halacha should bend in deference to modernity. Torn between its own left and right wings, and flanked in the larger Jewish world by the Reform and Orthodox alternatives, Conservative Jewry cannot afford stasis. I am not forecasting imminent demise here. Gifted rabbis will always, and rightfully, attract followers, regardless of the condition of the movement, and exciting congregations wi ll draw members. In a post-denominational era, we are all shul-shoppers. But to say that is not to say that the center is holding. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author most recently of Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life.hht