Commentary Magazine


Topic: Diaspora

The Diaspora’s Stake in Conservative Judaism

Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

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Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

It is true that in ancient times, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai issued widely divergent rulings and yet retained their standing as partners in a unified Jewish people. But back then there were only “two Torahs,” and adherents of those schools lived in integrated communities. Such ancient precedents have little relevance to the religious and demographic complexity of the contemporary Jewish world. Although I am sympathetic to the Conservative movement’s attempt to invigorate halakhic practice within the best tradition of talmudic jurisprudence, I don’t see how that can be responsibly executed with an eye toward the unity of the Jewish people and of Judaism itself.

Golinkin, a Conservative rabbi, responds that Conservative Judaism’s struggles have less to do with the prominent role of common law and more do to with an inability to strike the right balance:

In my view, one of the reasons for the contraction of the Conservative movement in the U.S. lies in its overemphasis on change and underemphasis on tradition. …

I personally am committed to expanding the roles of women in Judaism via organic halakhic change. I have taught the subject for over 30 years and have published two volumes of responsa on the issue, one each in Hebrew and English. Even so, I think that Gottleib’s critique is correct. The Conservative movement has focused so much on changes in halakhah that it has forgotten to stress the observance of halakhah. It is perfectly permissible to change certain laws and customs using the tools and methods of halakhah, provided that you are fully committed to halakhah and the halakhic system. I have advocated for years that Conservative Jews must be committed to tradition and willing to make changes within that halakhic tradition. Both are needed for a healthy legal system.

The challenge for someone like Golinkin, of course, is that once halakha becomes subject to cultural norms increasingly out of step with Jewish tradition, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that so much of that tradition is optional. To put it another way: what’s the use of stressing tradition if the community is empowered to break with that tradition? Any aspect of it deemed relevant doesn’t need to be encouraged, and any part deemed obsolete will be rendered as such with the imprimatur of the community’s rabbinic leadership. Further, doesn’t such a situation invert the historical relationship between rabbi and congregation?

That is the question Conservative Judaism must answer: what is sacred and untouchable? To the Orthodox, everything is sacred. To the Reform, nothing is untouchable. Can Conservative Judaism offer both without undermining them? The demographic trajectory of Conservative Judaism suggests the answer is no.

If that’s the case, what do we, as American Jews, lose? More than we seem willing to acknowledge, I think. The pluralist spectrum of American Jewish life—the mosaic—has historically played two roles that distinguished it from the rest of the Diaspora. The first is that it eventually grew to offer a menu of options uniquely American in its comprehensiveness. Whatever your particular religious disposition, American Judaism, like America itself, had a place for you in its theological marketplace.

The second was that this array of options meant each was near its closest variant on either side. It may sound contradictory, but this had its own kind of unity to it. Haredim may not have much, if anything, in common with Reform Jews, but Haredim do understand, say, the modern Orthodox. Modern Orthodox Jews have a fair amount in common with the now-rare “Conservadox”—right-leaning Conservatives—who in turn share their customs with mainstream Conservative Jews. Those mainstream Conservative Jews are theologically close to their more liberal Conservative congregants, who in turn aren’t far from practicing Reform Jews, and so on and so forth.

What happens when the center contracts, then, is that it puts distance between Jews of differing observance. It also forces a choice on many Jews, since the nuances of American Jewish life have faded. That choice sometimes results in a person choosing Orthodoxy—a result to be celebrated for its obvious contribution to Jewish continuity. But when there is no longer a stepladder to observant Judaism, and instead only a leap, that leap may be too far for some. If it’s all or nothing, then nothing will be a more viable option.

Perhaps this oversimplifies the issue, but if so, not by much. If Golinkin is right, and a renewed focus on halakhic observance and tradition can revivify Conservative Judaism, American Judaism itself will be revitalized. If not, more will be lost than Conservative synagogue membership dues.

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