Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Future of Conservative Jewry - A Third Option

DePaul University Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall (JTA)
In yet another frank view of the demise of Conservative Judaism, (there has been a one third drop in Conservative movement affiliation) Professor Roberta Kwall offers her view of how to salvage what’s left of it. She offers two options. One is to combine with Reform. This is a logical choice which she says is based on facts on the ground. She correctly points out that Reform Judaism has in recent years reversed course and has encouraged more Mitzvah observance.

Although there is somewhat of a rift in Reform Judaism about that, I believe the thrust of the movement is going in that direction. I recall as a young boy growing up in Toledo, that when my father and I passed a Reform Temple on the way to Shul on Shabbos he told me that the rabbi of that Temple does not allow a Kipa to be worn. Today, many Reform rabbis wear a Kipa themselves.

The Conservative movement has gone the other way. What was once an essentially observant movement (as they defined observance) the label Conservative is now being questioned by some of their brighter lights for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact the vast majority of their members are generally no more observant then their Reform counterparts. And the fact that their pulpit rabbis do little to change that.  Why not merge the two? What can be lost? From her op-ed in JTA: 
Visit most Conservative synagogues on a Saturday morning when there is not a bar or bat mitzvah and likely you will find mostly an older crowd. Where are the children of Conservative Jewish baby boomers? According to sociologists of American Judaism as well as anecdotal evidence, the really serious ones often migrate to modern Orthodoxy or attend independent prayer groups (minyans) that lack an official denomination. Many of the others put their Judaism “on hold” until they have a family, at which point many find Reform a better option for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is intermarriage. 
According to Professor Kwall this makes a lot of sense since Reform accepts and performs intermarriage ceremonies. Indeed there is something to be said for strength in numbers. And there is the fact that their views about social justice tend to be identical.

In my view that will do little to change the tide of increasing assimilation by most of its membership out of Judaism – considering themselves secular without using that word as a modifier for Jews.

Professor Kwall’s second and I think her preferred option is as follows: 
The alternative is for the Conservative movement to narrow its audience by refining its mission. A tribute to Conservative Judaism is that it has produced a core group of Jews whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews.  
The difference between those modern Orthodox Jews and a newly defined Conservative movement would be its egalitarian component. While I disagree with the Conservative movement about how observance is defined, I agree that this is the better of the two options. I also agree that if one goes to the most extreme portions of the left in Modern Orthodoxy (Open Orthodoxy) - one will find little difference between the two groups. At least on the surface.

Professor Kwall does not address belief systems. But I think it is safe to say that OO and the Conservative movement are not too far apart on this issue. Their statement of principles known as Emet Ve’Emunah (boy… that sounds familiar!)  maintains that the ‘Emet’ of their movement recognizes the ‘truth’ of science - when it seems to contradict any literal interpretation of the Torah. It also recognizes modern scholarship as a legitimate form of analyzing the bible. Both movements accept it as valid but do not require belief in it.  And while OO still has not gone all the way with their version of egalitarianism (eg. they still require a separation of the sexes during prayer in their synagogues via a Mechitza) they have done just about everything else in that department.

Using Professor Kwall’s second option, I think there is room for realistic compromise between the Conservative movement and OO. With a little bit of tweaking on both sides, they could form an entirely new movement with a lot more people in it – albeit still small in comparison to Reform or the current Conservative movement.

On the downside – a version of this was tried in the past when some left wing Traditional Shuls (without Mechitzos) combined with the right wing of the Conservative movement calling themselves Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ - not to be confused with United Torah Judaism, the Charedi political party in Israel which has the same initials). I don’t think the Union for Traditional Judaism is a force of any significance in Judaism today.

My own view on this is that both the Reform and Conservative movements (combined or separate) will become extinct at some point in the future. All the breast beating in the world will likely not change that. What about those sincere Jews like Professor Kwall who believe the best road to salvation is a more observant lifestyle? Open Orthodoxy does seem like a decent alternative. But I believe they would be best served by joining mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. Since OO seems to have put themselves outside of Orthodoxy by crossing some lines - why not go a bit further and becomes part of the future?

I will admit that it is an uphill battle to disabuse them of the notion that full bore egalitarianism is an important cog in 21st century Judaism. But I don’t think it is an impossible task. This is one reason I lament the fact that OO has crossed so many lines. They are the obvious destination for Conservative Jews that want to be observant. As Professor Kwall noted, Modern Orthodoxy is where many of them now reside. It wouldn’t surprise me if this means mostly OO.

What about the ‘Emet’ they see – which Orthodoxy does not accept? I believe that can be answered by what happened to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, whose books reconciling Torah and science were banned a few years ago by R’ Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected rabbinic leader of the Charedi world at the time. He called them heresy. However, that Rabbi Slifkin believed what he wrote, did not disqualify him as an Orthodox Jew – even according to R’ Elyashiv. Only his books were banned. Not him. Rabbi Slifkin continues to be part of the Orthodox world even according to the right.

What about those views? I think what R’ Elyashiv meant was that even though he considered those views heretical he did not ostracize those individuals that believed them. Although they were mistaken, those mistakes were based on misunderstandings and not on an inherent heresy. As long as they were observant they would be fully acceptable Orthodox Jews.

When sincere Jews come from a place like the Conservative Movement seeking to become Orthodox - where these views were accepted as fact - one can surely say the same thing about them. Their views are mistaken. But their motives and actions are pure. This is in contradistinction to a movement that accepts those views. Like Open Orthodoxy or the Conservative Movement. Such movements are no better than the books that tout them. (This should not be taken as commentary about Rabbi Slifkin’s books which I personally do not believe are heretical.)

Back in the 1990s, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an article in Moment Magazine asking Conservative Jewry to consider ‘coming home’ to Orthodoxy. Therein he pretty much assesses the Conservative Movement the way Professor Kwall does. I think his request is now more meaningful than ever.