Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Future of Reform and Conservative Judaism

It may not be the end of the world for Reform and Conservative Judaism, but you can see it from here.

Patrilineal descent; defining as Jewish anyone who basically thinks of himself as a Jew regardless of his parental lineage; and similar innovations have not really helped the Reform Movement in its goal to revitalize itself. Although it now touts itself as the largest movement in Judaism, at a recent meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) - that was made abundantly clear.

Despite its numbers, attendance at their Temples by members post Bar Mitzvah seems to be almost nonexistent which makes membership in their movement meaningless. (The attendance numbers begin to increase when their members reach their thirties. But my guess is that this is the result of a rudimentary attachment to Judaism which they want to transmit to their children through their Temples - which have in essence become Bar Mitzvah factories and not much else.)

The JTA reports that Reform rabbinic leaders are struggling with this issue. They are trying to figure out ways to get their people back into their Temples. And even with all the efforts expended by some of its leaders they seem to be failing without a clue as to how to proceed.

I recently wrote about outgoing URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s efforts in this regard. He recognized the bankruptcy of eliminating all Halacha from the movement. He correctly realized that Judaism without Halacha can hardly be labeled as such. There is no need to be Jewish to fulfill their primary mandate of Tikun Olam. One can ‘build up the world’ without being Jewish. Why bother with the burdensome label of being a Jew?

Rabbi Yoffie tried his level best to reintroduce Halachic observance into Reform. Realizing that one of the essential defining features of Reform requires that Halacha be non-binding, he nevertheless tried to get members to do as much as they could to voluntarily. This included studying Torah. He has had some success. There are Reform Jews that follow selected Halachos, But he has had failures too as in his Kosher dining initiative.

So they are now scrambling for ideas about how to hold on to their flock. I saw no ideas expressed by Reform leaders in this article. Only an acknowledgment that they have a problem.

The Conservative movement that once boasted the largest membership is in a similar bind. They are hemorrhaging members. Their Shuls are shrinking – many closing down or combining with others. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen has admitted struggling with issue. He has expressed regret at the movement’s allowing driving to Shul on Shabbos. He views it as a major mistake since that undermined the sense of community created by Jews living in the same neighborhood. He has encouraged the creation of neighborhoods similar to Orthodox ones where everyone lives with walking distance of a Shul.

We Orthodox are by far the smallest segment of American Jewry. And yet the leaders of both movements look to us for solutions. Why does that make any sense? We are participatory rather than passive. And as small as we are, we are growing rather than shrinking. (Although that statistic has been challenged by recent census numbers, I attribute that to a segment of Jews who are Orthodox in name only and not really practicing Jews. Their children often get little if any religious instruction. Certainly not in any formal way.)

The solution to the common problems of these movements is not where they are looking. They are looking at the fringe benefits of observance. It is not the fringe benefits that enhance our growth… although that helps. It is our commitment to Halacha.

Volunteering to do Mitzvos is not the same as doing them because God requires it of us. Gadol HaMetzuveh V’Oseh… There is greater merit in doing a Mitzvah because God requires it of us rather than doing a Mitzvah we don’t really have to do. Keeping Kosher may be an interesting experiment for a Reform Jew. But since he doesn’t have to, he can just as easily dispense with it whenever it is convenient to do so. The ability to opt out at will without any guilt makes Mitzvah observance relatively unimportant or at least less important than the reason for opting out. There is no sense of commitment. No sense of doing what God requires of us.

Leaving aside questionable theology, the Conservative movement has always claimed to be a Halachic movement – although there is some debate about that now within their own circles. The majority of its members observe Halacha more in the breach. I would posit that the typical Reform Jew and Conservative Jew have about an equal measure of Halachic observances in their lives.

So what is the answer for Heterodoxy? I am the last one to make suggestions for their survival. But I honestly do not believe they have a future. Not in the long run. Not as long as they do not emphasize the Torah’s requirement to follow Halacha and make sure their children get educated that way.

The Conservative Solomon Schechter schools are trying to do this. But I’m not convinced they are successful at it. My gut feeling now is that although they have had some successes, the majority of their students are not observant once they leave the school and enter university life – as most of them do. Reform day schools are in their infancy but the same goes for them. When Halachic observance is voluntary or not sufficiently emphasized, people will choose what to observe – and not to observe.

The truth of the matter is that education is the answer for continuity of Judaism. That was realized many decades ago by visionaries like Rav Sharga Feival Mendlowitz. If one is taught that God mandates observance and one sees that in the home, the chances are that they will live their lives accordingly when they become adults. That is the real secret of our future.

This is the lesson that heterodox movements should take from us. The problem for them is that their horse is out of the barn. For the most part there is little if any role modeling by Reform or Conservative parents who mostly live secular lives. A Reform education that does not teach Halacha as a requirement leaves little incentive to forgo the easily life of eating Treif or violating Shabbos. And a Conservative education that does emphasize observance and contradicted by what their student see in their homes cannot survive.

So in a few generations if not sooner, I predict that heterodoxy will see its own demise. Jews who belong to these movements now will eventually either intermarry, or simply abandon the unnecessary ‘baggage’ of being identified as Jewish – or in the other extreme become Orthodox as outreach organizations continue reach out to them.

So if the heterodox rabbis are serious about retaining Jews it would probably be best if instead of banging their collective heads against the wall about what to do -they worked with these outreach organizations to reach out to as many of their own members as they can.

If there is any doubt about that… well here is an excerpt from that JTA article that really says it all:

One need look no further than Yoffie’s own children, whom he talked about in his Shabbat sermon at the Reform biennial conference held Dec. 14-18 at a hotel just outside Washington. His daughter, Adina, attends a Modern Orthodox shul, and his son Adam, 28, finds temple boring and doesn’t go much at all, according to Yoffie.