How Conservative Judaism Lost Everyone Else

Michah Gottlieb, a professor at NYU, has an article on the Forward’s website titled, “How Conservative Judaism Lost Me.” In it, he discusses how his commitment to what he thought were the Conservative movement’s principles–devotion to halakhah with a more modern and secular-scholarly approach to issues–led him to leave the Conservative fold.

He argues that it was exactly people like him that the Conservative movement should have been courting as new leaders, but it failed to do so, and thus lost people to modern Orthodoxy.

I suppose there is something to this in the sense of leadership and purpose. But I’m not persuaded that this problem is really what caused the diminution of the Conservative movement from its prior place as the largest of the modern American movements.

I understand Gottlieb’s frustration (and it’s nice to see a fellow IU Bloomington alum do good), but JTS (the flagship seminary for the Conservative movement) had long been described as a group of Orthodox faculty teaching Conservative rabbis who would be spiritual leaders for Reform congregants. People like Gottlieb–and, at one point, me–haven’t really been the Conservative movement’s major problem over the last twenty years.

I understand how this could seem to be the case to Gottlieb. He mentions coming of age at a time when the ordination of women was the big controversy roiling the Conservative movement, and it’s easy to see a kind of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” thing happening: Conservative Judaism compromised halakhically on this issue, lost members and scholars to either the Union for Traditional Judaism (which was initially kind of Conservative Judaism without womens’ ordination) or the OU, and decline followed.

I don’t think the numbers necessarily bear that out, however. When you look at the Pew survey results, you would have expected Modern Orthodox Judaism to have grown proportionally, and it hasn’t.

I think, instead, what likely happened is that some people fell away from Reform affiliation and refugees from an adrift Conservative movement backfilled the ranks. Other Conservative Jews likely left affiliation altogether, and some–but a more limited number–likely took Gottlieb’s path. (His contention that his path is the more common one is not based on broad evidence, but rather is anecdotal and particular to what is possible in areas like New York. There’s nothing like what Gottlieb has here in Indianapolis, where the Orthodox synagogues have pushed farther to the right and alienated the folks who had come over from the Conservative movement in the past.)

I think Gottlieb’s article is important because, while I disagree with his conclusions about how the Conservative movement should have gone about retaining its place, I do agree with his observation about the movement itself–that it is ideologically adrift. Unfortunately, so is much of American Judaism.

That said, I don’t think that the Conservative movement’s new emphasis–expressed by one rabbi as Kadsheinu B’mitzvotekha (sanctify us with your commandments)–is going to appeal to anyone outside its present ranks and perhaps some on the conservative edges of Reform and the liberal edges of the Orthodox world. What It may do, however, is staunch the flow and preserve some kind of “middle,” which Gottlieb argues is important for the continued vitality of American Jewish life.

And even the new approach advanced by the United Synagogue is a bit schizoid. Kadsheinu b’mitzvotekha–but also be more welcoming to the non-Jewish family of Jewish members.

I suspect the bigger problem for the Conservative movement is that the membership of the Reform movement is starting to look more like most Conservative Jews, while retaining enough of a liberal edge to keep some–but not all–of its present membership profile. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis talk enough like Orthodox rabbis to alienate liberal members while more conservative members will dislike the influx of LGB(T?) clergy and more favorable treatment of non-Jewish spouses.

All of this bodes ill for the continued vitality of JTS and the American Jewish University, which grew in response to the movement’s growth but will now inevitably shrink. This is particularly sad, I think, for JTS, which has in the past produced some very important scholarship and very important scholars. (Not that–as Gottlieb observes–this justifies its continued approach. And I find that realization especially disappointing because I’ve personally benefited from studying with some of its alumni.)

And all of this is wrapped up in the general lack of mission and direction. For example, the JTA article on the United Synagogue 100th anniversary convention shows that there is still navel-gazing on whether independent and alternative minyanim are harmful to synagogues–focused on the institution, not the needs of Jews themselves.

The question all movements should be asking–at the movement level, and within individual congregations–is, “What are we about?” After that, we can figure out where we are and where we should go. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement’s eternal compromise position likely puts it in the worst place of the large modern movements; it’s got a big hole to dig out of.