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.

In the weeds

I’ll be out of town and away from the blog for most of the rest of the week. I’m headed on Thursday to the Baltimore area to attend the Fall 2013 CLAL Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat.

But I wanted to put out a blog post about what I’ve read so far, and where my concerns lie.

Much of the reading material is on how to make effective, growing congregations with a clear sense of mission. And so, after I finished the reading materials, I decided to do a bit of extra reading; that’s how I ended up reading parts of Wolfson’s Relational Judaism.

Having read the first few chapters, however, I’m not overly impressed. Wolfson is committed, rightly or wrongly, to the community and synagogue structures we have. I understand this impulse, and it’s important to some extent to use the resources that exist to build the future. But I sense that, if the structures turned out to be unhelpful, Wolfson would not be willing to see them go away or at least be radically altered.

And so, I went sniffing around for other resources. Fortunately, I know someone who works in the realm of congregational consulting in the non-Jewish world and was able to point me to some good resources, including the work of Brian McLaren.

If you’re Jewish, you likely have exactly no clue who McLaren is. McLaren is one of the leading advocates of something called the emerging church movement. That movement is challenging much of the received orthodoxy of what it is churches are called to do, how they encounter social needs at large, and how they encounter changes in the world both at the congregational level and the theological level. It’s about mission, about meeting people where they are and making change in the world, allowing the ultimate mission of Christianity–which McLaren identifies as doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven to make earth more like heaven–to shine through, not the factional dogmas that are so easily identified with modern Christianity. (I first encountered McLaren eight or so years ago, when I picked up his book, Generous Orthodoxy, as part of an interfaith reading group a former student of mine had organized at her home.)

McLaren takes a lot of heat.

We need some of that in the Jewish world. Not just mission, but leaders willing to take some heat.

So I started to read McLaren’s Everything Must Change. I’m not far in–about five chapters (the chapters are quite short, about 10 pages each, and there are about 30 of them in the book). Even after that, I can see we’re in the weeds in the Jewish world. We’re not changing–we’re not, at the broadest levels, really thinking about change, except to wonder with perplexity on the fringes about why it is younger people won’t affiliate and other members are falling away.

I can’t imagine, yet, someone saying to, say, the General Assembly of the United Synagogue that “everything must change.” Why? Because all of these organizations–CCAR, United Synagogue, the OU, etc.–are focused on affiliation.

And while I am affiliated with a specific movement, I recognize the need for pluralism, to meet people where they are, and to make congregational life not about affiliation but about engagement.

For the most part, we don’t do this in the Jewish world. We need to–fast. I’m hopeful that what I learn at the CLAL retreat will contribute to that.

In the meantime, I think we have it exactly backward. We’re deep in the weeds.