Commentary Magazine

Conservative Judaism

To the Editor:

As Jack Wertheimer sees it, Conservative Judaism is in a muddled state, and nowhere is this more evident than in the “different and frankly contradictory rulings” recently issued by the movement’s committee on Jewish law and standards concerning the fraught topic of homosexuality [“The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism,” September]. But the committee’s pluralistic approach, confusing as it may be to some, is not necessarily a bad thing. To quote Aristotle, “Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions.” The simple fact is that Americans in general, and Conservative Jews in particular, are divided about homosexuality, and it is useless to pretend otherwise.

The fact that we have adopted two different rulings is a testament to our commitment to the truth, and to making Judaism live in the real world, rather than in some pretend world where everything is clear and settled. Rabbis and lay people will now have to do their homework in studying the decisions and deciding which to follow, but such a process can only be salutary.

Mr. Wertheimer traces Conservative Judaism’s present tensions to two conflicting narratives about its origins. In both, the movement is conceived as a reaction to something else—either Reform or Orthodoxy. I would emphasize the positive side of the story, whereby Conservative Judaism was designed to be an authentic expression of the rabbinic Judaism of the past in a modern context. At any rate, being in the middle of the religious spectrum is not always easy, but the middle position is real—and as messy as life itself.

Mr. Wertheimer overstates other supposed ills of Conservative Judaism. He is surely right that the movement could be better organized, but he neglects to note that the Orthodox, for whom he has kinder words, have significant divisions of their own. He dismisses the social-justice concerns of many new congregations as “left-wing activism,” but social justice has a pedigree as old as the Torah’s concern for the poor and the Mishnah’s counting of acts of kindness as one of the pillars on which the world stands.

Mr. Wertheimer is also incorrect when he writes that “the former West Coast affiliate of [the Jewish Theological Seminary] now claims no allegiance to Conservative Judaism at all.” In fact, while the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) is open to the entire Jewish community, its rabbinical school educates only Conservative rabbis. My office of rector was created specifically to be the institution’s link with the other arms of the Conservative movement.

Having registered these areas of dissent, I should say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Wertheimer’s recipe for the future of Conservative Judaism: we need to teach people what they “need to know, observe, and believe if they are to connect to traditional Judaism.” But I would add that we also need to explain why one should lead such a life—we are a movement that values unfettered thought as well as traditional observance—and why we stand for an honest, egalitarian, traditional, and yet modern way to live authentically as Jews.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University
Los Angeles, California



To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer presents a lot of troubling data about Conservative Judaism. On the whole, Conservative Jews are aging and having fewer children. Significant numbers of them are intermarrying. Synagogue membership is down, and many congregations, both new and old, are choosing not to be affiliated with the movement. All of these things may be true, but I still find Mr. Wertheimer’s conclusion—that the movement is adrift, lacking a clear definition of aims and a sense of common purpose among its constituents—overly bleak.

To be sure, for anyone hoping to recapture the Conservative Judaism of the 1950’s, the outlook is indeed bleak. But we should not expect our movement to be static. And contrary to what Mr. Wertheimer believes, an accommodating posture—what he calls a “‘big tent’ approach to religious practices and expectations”—need not be incompatible with tradition. A Talmud professor of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary once quipped that it was more difficult to interpret Jewish law to say “yes” than to say “no.” We need to be flexible and contextual in our understanding of Judaism, and to see that a common purpose may coalesce around Conservative Judaism’s big tent.

The fact that certain congregations choose not to be officially Conservative does not mean that they are untouched by the movement. Their leaders might be trained in Conservative institutions, their children educated in our schools and camps and with our textbooks. It would be prudent, of course, to understand why they are not joining and to work harder at getting our message to them. But we can also learn from the success of so-called “post-denominational” communities, and offer a place for their energies within the movement.

The diversity of the Conservative constituency should be viewed as a sign of strength. Our movement can be one that meets the needs of our age by respecting the choices of individuals while helping them to live lives filled with meaning. It is no shame for Conservative Judaism to emerge as a home for “traditionalist” congregations, egalitarian ones, and those devoted to “social justice.”

We should also not lose sight of some of the achievements of recent years. Jewish learning has proliferated in Conservative communities to an extent that was unthinkable a few decades ago. Likewise, more men and women are observing rituals like tefillin than ever before. Finally, Mr. Wertheimer’s suggestion that Conservative Judaism has not had traction in the international arena is belied by the movement’s growth in Europe, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and slowly but surely (in spite of the need for more funds) in Israel.

Rabbi Charles Simon
Federation of Jewish Men’s  Clubs
New York City



To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer is right: Conservative Jews need an affirmation of what they are. But his prescription, to “focus on building a cadre of Jews who can observe Jewish rituals and conduct their spiritual lives by the Jewish calendar, who can read the Torah and grasp its inmost meanings, who are at home in the Hebrew liturgy and inspired by its grandeur,” is not enough.

Taking their cue from Louis Finkelstein, whom Mr. Wertheimer quotes, Conservative Jews should make it their task to uphold traditional observance and intellectual rigor. But they can only achieve this by embracing the Torah’s abiding drama—the relationship between the Jewish people and God—and here is where Conservative Judaism may be at its weakest.

At my Conservative synagogue, outside of the prescribed prayers and occasional references in the rabbi’s sermons, God goes unmentioned. Is this because of reticence or because of indifference? I wonder sometimes whether the idea of God has not become a kind of quaint myth in Conservative Judaism—historically important perhaps, but not anything an urbane person could take seriously.

Mr. Wertheimer, for his part, mentions God only once in his article, and that in a light aside about an “old saw.” He speaks of the grandeur of the Jewish liturgy, but not of the grandeur of the God to Whom the liturgy is addressed. Can his call to action be heeded when it focuses on institutional, social, demographic, and political issues to the exclusion of religious experience?

Eric Wolf Fried
Albany, New York



To the Editor:

I would like to add one comment to Jack Wertheimer’s excellent analysis of the state of Conservative Judaism.

He recalls the “traditionalist approach to Jewish law and observance” that was exemplified by former luminaries of the Jewish Theological Seminary like Louis Finkelstein and Louis Ginzberg. This was additionally bolstered by a coterie of outstanding scholars of Judaism who enjoyed the respect of the wider Jewish community. But scholars and scholarship do not appear to have the cachet they once did at JTS, and religious issues have been given over to politics. If Conservative Judaism is indeed to “return to its roots as a traditionalist movement,” its flagship seminary needs to become, once again, a powerhouse of Jewish learning and authoritative leadership.

Hans Fisher
Highland Park, New Jersey



To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer points out that as Conservative rabbis and leaders have become more “inclusive”—most recently by allowing gays to become ordained rabbis—membership in Conservative congregations has continually declined. In this context, his worries about the future of the movement are understandable, but he fails to notice that reinforcements may be on the horizon.

Among so-called modern-Orthodox Jews, the seeds of a new community are taking root, one that embraces the egalitarian ideals that were the early basis of Conservative Judaism. One finds, for example, well-educated Orthodox women taking on roles that have been traditionally limited to male rabbis, and new prayer groups in which women lead the services and read from the Torah.

Many of these practices sit uneasily with Orthodox rabbis and lay people of a more traditionalist bent. If there should be a schism over them within the movement, it is easy to see how the liberal fringe might gravitate toward Conservative Judaism.

David S. Mazel
Silver Spring, Maryland



To the Editor:

All honor to Jack Wertheimer for his brilliant essay illuminating the way forward for Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Joel Roth
Jewish Theological Seminary
New York City



Jack Wertheimer writes:

In my article, I identified three major areas of weakness in the Conservative movement: its numerically shrinking and aging membership; the inability of its main arms to coordinate their programs and win adequate support for the movement’s larger aims; and its ever more confused, if not contradictory, messages. It is hardly surprising that Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Charles Simon would disagree with me about the path forward. What perplexes me, however, is their equanimity. How many hundreds of thousands of members must Conservative congregations lose before the urgency of the present crisis strikes home? How many Conservative synagogues and day schools must go under or disaffiliate before the movement’s leadership decides to take appropriate action?

There is only sweetness and light in Rabbi Dorff’s view of things. Thus, Conservative Judaism, in his mythical telling, did not develop in reaction to Orthodoxy or Reform or contemporary currents; at the same time, it has always been situated in the golden mean between the other movements. Today, Conservative Judaism’s shrewd realism in addressing tough questions like the religious status of gays is to be celebrated. Its validation of “messiness” (I should point out that the committee on Jewish law and standards adopted not two but in fact three contradictory opinions on homosexuality) is somehow also supposed to win the hearts and minds of American Jews. In reality, the hemorrhaging of membership that we continue to witness suggests that pluralism alone is not a winning formula.

As for the relationship between the American Jewish University and the Conservative movement, I invite Rabbi Dorff to read the mission statement of the former; it includes not a word about Conservative Judaism. If the relationship between the two institutions is as firm as he claims, why would the former West Coast affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary distance itself from its Conservative roots?

Rabbi Simon implies that I seek to restore the crown of 1950’s-era Conservative Judaism, but I explicitly stated this was not possible. And although he criticizes my “bleak” conclusions, he appears to agree with me that the movement is currently at an ideological impasse. “A common purpose,” he writes, “may coalesce around Conservative Judaism’s big tent.” Presumably this means that there is no such common purpose at present. That a big tent per se is the vehicle that will cultivate one is something I am more skeptical about.
Eric Wolf Fried may wish to visit more Conservative synagogues; he will find that God-talk is more common in some and less common in others. At any rate, the real issue is not so much whether Conservative rabbis talk about God but how they approach the Torah and the normative life.

Hans Fisher yearns for the time when the Jewish Theological Seminary was a powerhouse of scholarship and leadership. Ironically, the great names he invokes had little to say in their time about Conservative Judaism as a movement and spent little time worrying about it. But who could disagree that scholars at the seminary today should produce good work and bring it to bear on the great Jewish concerns of our time?

David S. Mazel suggests that Conservative Judaism might benefit from a migration of modern-Orthodox Jews seeking equal opportunities for women in the religious sphere. Undoubtedly, small numbers of egalitarians have abandoned Orthodoxy for the Conservative movement, but their numbers are minuscule compared to those of defectors from the movement. I would not hold my breath waiting for a large-scale influx of disaffected Orthodox Jews. It is one of the fantasies of our time that egalitarianism is a consideration that trumps all others.

I thank my friend Rabbi Joel Roth for his gracious words of support.


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