Commentary Magazine


Conservative Observance, Then and Now

It has been years, if not decades, since a study of American Jewry elicited a response as passionate and widespread as the recent Pew Research Center’s, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” While the last several National Jewish Population Surveys focused primarily on the rate of intermarriage, the Pew study’s results provoked broader and deeper soul-searching—on the degree to which American Jews now view Judaism more as a culture than a religion, on the extent to which Christian belief is making its way into Jewish life (only “60 percent of U.S. Jews say a person cannot be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah”), and on the growing portion of American Jews who refuse to identify with any of the movements that have been the bedrock of American Jewish religious life.

Discussion of the Pew study has focused especially on the dramatic decline of Conservative Judaism. In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews were affiliated with the Conservative Movement, while in the new Pew study, only 11 percent of Jews younger than 30 defined themselves as such. This rapid erosion of Conservative Judaism is more than a curiosity. For decades, Conservative Judaism not only represented the “center” in American Jewish life, but it also stood for what has been, perhaps, the most important Jewish religious project of modern times: the belief that there could be a contemporary Judaism open to the intellectual insights and progress of the West, grounded in a profound and adaptive moral core, and characterized by substantial Jewish literacy and a commitment to the rituals of Jewish life. This nimble meeting of multiple worlds was the life project of both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, among the Modern Orthodox, and the great thinkers who led the Conservative Movement in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.

But the Pew study suggests that Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism are losing ground and that the American Jewish “center” is not holding. So what has happened to Conservative Judaism? A comparison of two volumes produced by the Conservative Movement itself, 33 years apart, offers some answers.

Since its publication in 1979, Rabbi Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice had been the standard reference work on Jewish ritual for Conservative rabbis, educators, and their most committed laypeople. In 2012, the Conservative Movement produced a new work to replace Klein’s. In its impressive scholarship and frequent moral clarity, The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews is a reminder of the intellectual power of Conservative Judaism. It is also a window into what has changed in the movement since the publication of Klein’s book.

The 981 pages of The Observant Life (hereafter TOL), with contributions from more than 30 authors, offer powerful evidence of what has made the Conservative Movement such a rich thread in the tapestry of American Jewish life. The book exemplifies an ongoing dialectic between traditional texts and the challenge of modernity. “Conservative Jews often must undertake an uneasy negotiation between the contemporary values we hold proudly and those ancient mores that produced Jewish norms in the first place,” Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky observes in his chapter on sexuality. Also evident is the Conservative Movement’s hallmark commitment to intellectual rigor and its tendency to complicate previously oversimplified views of Jewish life. It is, for example, commonly said that unlike Christianity, often conflicted about sexuality, Judaism has an attitude to the sexual dimension of human life that is entirely positive. Kalmanofsky’s chapter makes clear that this opinion is too simplistic. He cites Maimonides, who wrote that the reason for circumcision was to curtail a man’s sex drive and who insisted “the sages frown on all who have frequent sex…[like] roosters in a henhouse.” Here as elsewhere, TOL cites texts that are likely to make even literate and educated Jews pause and think anew.

For those curious about how Conservative Jewish practice differs from more standard (usually Orthodox) practice, TOL is a treasure trove. The volume summarizes not only the movement’s widely known positions on driving and the use of electricity on Shabbat, but also its decision to permit kohanim (men of priestly descent) to marry divorcees and the ongoing disagreement regarding observance of the second day of Jewish holidays. TOL asserts that, despite mainstream practice to the contrary, there is no reason for not consuming fish and meat together. It also claims that despite classic halachic positions to the contrary, it is “right to say Kaddish for a non-Jewish parent.” Other examples of such tradition-breaking interpretations abound.

The discussions of uniquely Conservative practice are occasionally peculiar. In the excellent chapter on Shabbat, Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz discourage the use of the Kindle e-reader, but are much more understanding of using the telephone—without explaining the distinction. When discussing the possibility of not observing the second day of Yom Tov, Rabbi Alan Lucas notes that this “innovative leniency has not gained much popularity in Conservative congregations.” So what? If this is a book about Jewish law, why does the popularity of the leniency matter?

The Observant Life is also a reminder of another hallmark of Conservative Judaism: addressing issues that too many observant communities would rather sweep under the rug. The volume thus acknowledges the blatant fact that many single adults are sexually active and raises several interesting halachic issues that emerge from this changed social reality. Kalmanofsky asks whether such women should use the ritual bath, or mikvah, and rejects the imaginative but problematic suggestion of Bar-Ilan University’s Zvi Zohar that such nonmarital relationships might be halachically sanctioned by invoking the biblical model of the concubine. It would have been highly ironic for the movement that spearheaded halachic means of expanding women’s roles in Jewish communal life to have invoked Zohar’s approach; Kalmanofsky rightly and boldly asserts that “Conservative Jews should reject this suggestion on moral grounds.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the authors even endorse the view of Rabbi David Golinkin that “one should make aliyah because living in Israel is a mitzvah [and]…enables one…to live a full Jewish life by living in a Jewish state.” Regarding the question of whether even Diaspora Jews ought to serve in the IDF, TOL asserts that the Torah “commands all Jews to consider how best they may assist in the ongoing work of defending Israel against its enemies.” Such unabashed Zionism and wholehearted recognition of Israel’s need to sustain military supremacy is a wondrous breath of fresh air in today’s environment. The Conservative Movement is the only major movement that has not had an anti-Zionist phase, and despite some chinks in the armor here and there in its leadership, the movement’s official position is still admirably committed to Zionism.

Though the authors and editors of TOL are to be commended for taking such stances, it is obvious that very few Conservative Jews will struggle with the question of whether to move to Israel simply because a Conservative rabbi says they should. That fact raises a second, related, question: On what issues do Conservative laypeople actually behave in a certain way simply because their rabbinate says they should? “Few, if any,” is the honest answer.

But TOL does afford a glimpse of where rabbis and laypeople are increasingly at odds, and where TOL seeks to support the rabbis. The phrase “absolutely forbidden” appears four times in the volume: on officiating in or participating in intermarriages, on cremation, on participating in Christian services as a worshipper, and on stealing property. Of course, it is equally “absolutely forbidden” to eat nonkosher meat or use fire on the Sabbath, but laypeople eat what they wish and do what they want on the Sabbath, regardless of what their rabbis think. With intermarriage, burial after cremation, and integrating Christians into their families, laypeople either need their rabbis’ cooperation or seek their imprimatur. Conservative rabbis are increasingly under relentless pressure on these issues; the language of TOL hints at the fault lines that Conservative Movement–watchers might want to track in years ahead.

In the differences between the Klein volume and the new volume, one sees the most telling evidence of what has taken place in Conservative Jewish life over the past three decades. Take Hebrew, for example: Klein’s text had hundreds of phrases written out in Hebrew letters; TOL has none. That may have been due to typesetting costs, or to formatting the ebook version cleanly. (Klein’s book is also out on the Kindle, and the Hebrew looks horrendous, horribly botched when phrases split over lines.) Still, the editors must have been aware that Hebrew literacy in the movement has declined dramatically in the past three decades. And, sadly, the decision to omit Hebrew is characteristic of the movement’s tendency to meet the laity where it is, instead of urging it to strive for a literacy that it could still recoup.

Beyond language, there are shifts in fundamental orientation. Klein was an avowed social conservative. He never once so much as mentioned homosexuality in his book, even though by 1979, sexual orientation had become a major issue in American society. As for the “sexual revolution,” he said that it was “in reality old-fashioned libertinism with an academic degree attached to it.” Such language may well have sounded antiquated to some of his readers in the intervening decades, but Klein was the sort of religious leader who insisted that some social mores deserved to be preserved, even if they would be observed in the breech.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s chapter on homosexuality illustrates how much has changed. It is by far the most peculiar chapter in the book, with bizarrely detailed discussions of sexual practice, a strange use of the first person, and a history, in entirely unnecessary detail, of the movement’s shifting policy on homosexuality that goes on almost interminably. (Meanwhile, the issues of women in the rabbinate or in the minyan, both critically important, get only a few paragraphs elsewhere in the volume.)

Dorff asserts that the “verses in Leviticus banning gay sex are unclear, as witnessed by the varying interpretations of those verses by contemporary biblical scholars.” That claim is intellectually dishonest. While it is true that contemporary biblical scholars have interpreted these verses (often tortuously) in a variety of ways, the verses themselves are not “unclear.” They are condemnatory. Period. What one should do about their plain meaning in light of the moral challenge that homosexuality presents is a subject of legitimate debate; but to begin the discussion by asserting that the verses are ambiguous reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge that the movement’s recent rulings on homosexuality are so radical that they call into question the movement’s claim to be halachic—at least in the way it had defined “halachic” for the better part of a century.

A similar skewing of intellectual transparency appears in Rabbi Carl Astor’s chapter on conversion. It is a source of great frustration to many Conservative rabbis that “many Orthodox rabbis do not accept Conservative conversions as valid.” He asserts that “to convert to Judaism requires a commitment to both the Jewish religion and to the Jewish people.” Alas, matters are not that simple. The rabbinic tractate Gerim asserts that Jewish law has long maintained that conversion must be “for the sake of heaven” and therefore must not be performed for the sake of marriage. But the vast majority of Conservative conversions are explicitly done for the sake of marriage. That may be better than sanctioning intermarriage, but it is still halachically problematic. Rabbi Astor should have acknowledged that.

Further complicating the conversion issue is the fact that most of traditional Judaism has insisted that conversions are valid only if the prospective convert intends to observe all of Jewish law. The Talmud (Bekhorot 30b) goes so far as to say that the conversion is invalid if the convert plans to ignore even one of the “special minutiae of the Scribes’ enactments.” Because the overwhelming majority of Conservative converts have no intention of observing Jewish law even moderately construed—Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, family purity laws, and the like—the Orthodox dismissal of Conservative conversions is not without some basis. As David Ellenson and I note in our Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policy-Making in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, there are several bold and creative Orthodox authorities who performed conversions for Jews not committed to halacha. Had TOL discussed them, it could have made a case for why Conservative conversions should be acceptable even for Orthodox rabbis. But the issue is never discussed; a major opportunity for raising questions about what constitutes a valid conversion, and therefore, ideal Jewish life, was missed. Or were the authors simply unwilling to acknowledge that while the reality of their communities affords them little option, Orthodox rejection of their conversions is not without basis?

More than anything, though, TOL is a reminder of the Conservative Movement’s abiding inability to decide if it is an academic school of thought or a way of religious life for a (rapidly shrinking) laity. TOL “is intended specifically for laypeople,” writes Rabbi Michael Katz in the introduction. But if that is the case, will laypeople (those same laypeople whom the editors apparently felt could no longer cope with Hebrew letters in the text) have any idea what this sentence means: “Using gas and electric ovens for the purposes of cooking, therefore, is permitted on these holidays (Klein, p. 98, based on the text at SA Orah Hayyim 514:1 and the Mishpetei Uziel commentary to SA Orah Hayyim 19, ed. Tel Aviv, 1935, p. 66b)”?

And if the book is designed for laypeople, why the relentless focus on “critical scholarship” and the ways in which it undermines faith? Time and again, TOL subverts classic Jewish belief structures, only to note that “Nachman Krochmal argues that it was precisely through historical study that Judaism could be made relevant and compelling for modern Jews.” Yet despite Krochmal’s protestations, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond admits that “by nature of its critical and questioning stance, what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion,’ scholarship is often a demythologizing force.” If that is so, why drag that hermeneutic of suspicion into this volume? Is the goal to demonstrate the seaworthiness of the movement’s academic ship, or to help these laypeople lead an “observant life”?

There are hungry souls in America, waiting for the religious center to speak to them in a way that will move them. But Conservative Judaism still seems addicted to the soulless language that has dogged it since the 1950s. Compare the following two sentences. Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed’s chapter on prayer, which essentially opens the book, begins as follows: “The obligation to engage in daily prayer is one of Scripture’s less well-defined commandments.” In contrast, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s introduction to prayer in the relatively new Koren Siddur, intended primarily for use by Orthodox Jews, opens by asserting that “Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God.”

What more is there to say? Is there any doubt about which mode of address will gain adherents?

Spiritual malnourishment is the malady most afflicting today’s liberal Jews. Three generations ago, Conservative Judaism helped traditional Jews make their way into the intellectual world of the West. Today, Jews take that intellectual world for granted. What they have lost are the tools of the spirit—the words and the ways that once sustained and fortified their ancestors.

That is why it is particularly astonishing that such a gargantuan volume has not even a single chapter devoted to why Conservative Jews should care about living an “observant life” in the first place. There are moments when some of the authors seem to want to try. “Halacha is what committed Jews do,” Katz writes in his fine introduction. This is absolutely true, but that is as far as the claim gets pushed. “But why must committed Jews do this?” is the obvious retort. Nothing in TOL suggests an answer. It’s bound to leave thinking but yearning Jews empty, searching elsewhere.

Conservative Judaism admittedly has a tough row to hoe. Classic claims about the authority of halacha are much harder to sustain in light of Conservative Judaism’s openness to biblical criticism than they are in classic Orthodox intellectual circles. But there are options. They run the gamut from the theological to the cultural and anthropological. The theologian Franz Rosenzweig suggested that one doesn’t always live an “observant life” because one feels commanded to do so, but that instead, it is the performance of the ritual that in turn leads to a sense of commandedness. “The individual in performing a particular law may come via that performance to hear God’s commanding voice, to sense His commanding Presence,” explains Lawrence Kaplan. Or, for those not predisposed to arguments that involve God at all, consider the critic George Steiner. Hardly an advocate of traditional Judaism, Steiner in his book Real Presences once articulated the cultural foundation that any rich society requires:

A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past…What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us. In solitude, public or private, the poem remembered, score played inside us, are the custodians and remembrances…of what is resistant, of what must be kept inviolate in our psyche.

The poem remembered, the score played inside us, custodians and remembrances—these are precisely what a halachic life provides. When we share the same scores, recall the same poems, weep to the same melodies, and mourn the loss of the same ancient edifice, we have created the kind of rich communal discourse that has always sustained Jewish life and nourished Jewish souls. It is that sort of connection to our past, to each other, to shared dreams, and to ourselves, that religious life at its best provides. The profound genius of the halachic impulse at the core of rabbinic Judaism is demonstrated each time liberal Judaism tries to substitute something new in its stead, only to watch it prove unsustainable for the long haul.

To live in the modern world is to battle daily against “the detergent tide of social conformity,” and halachic living has proven time and again that it withstands this pull better than anything else the Jews have ever invented. Contemporary Conservative Jewish ideologues seem to believe that to be intellectually defensible, every claim they make must first be marinated in a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” But that is simply not true. Perhaps, more than half a century ago, religious Jews felt wondrously liberated by engaging that hermeneutic. But no longer. The challenge today is not to liberate traditional Jews, but to bring liberated Jews back home to their tradition.

Nearly 1,000 pages of The Observant Life make clear that Conservative Judaism still has not figured out how to do this. But that does not mean that it cannot be done. Someone just has to be courageous enough to tell the truth: Not so deep down, even the skeptics among us still yearn for what it is that our ancestors had. We want the connections they had, the shared memory, the same poems and yearnings reverberating in our souls.

To survive, the American Jewish “center” is going to have to urge honesty. “Look around at Jewish communities,” The Observant Life might have said to its readers, “and ask yourselves, without pretense, what’s working and what’s not. This universe of behavior called Jewish observance is much more than a set of rituals. It is actually the only way that Jews have discovered of successfully creating a world centered around poems remembered and scores played inside us, the one way we know to safeguard the memories and practices that, at the end of the day, are the custodians and remembrances…of what is resistant, of what must be kept inviolate in our psyche. You know you want that, and we have that to offer.”

“Come join us,” the self-appointed “center” should have said, and still could. “Come home.”

About the Author

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow, and chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. He is the author of Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, published this month by Nextbook. 




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