Monday, March 20, 2017

Sliding to the Left

Intermarriage. Is this the new normal for Conservative Judaism
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall has written another insightful article in Commentary responding to the direction the Conservative Movement is going. She suggests that recent innovations will have the opposite effect from the one they intended.

I have always had a fascination with Conservative Judaism. In many ways their founding fathers had the same thoughts Modern Orthodox leaders of their day had. They saw the challenges of the new world in America where assimilation endangered our very existence as Jews. They felt – with some justification – that the American Jew could not relate to the Orthodox European rabbis that had come here to serve them. They felt the need to train American rabbis that understood the culture. 

This was the same rationale Dr. Bernard Revel, founder of Yeshiva College (later to become YU) had. He felt the need to relate to the American Jew on American terms. In his day Jews sought to fulfill the American dream the same way their non Jewish counterparts did:  by going to a good university, and getting the kind of education that would enable them to get good jobs. If there was any chance of getting them to continue their religious studies and thereby better insuring their commitment to observance, Orthodoxy would have to accommodate them.

Weren’t Orthodox and Conservative Judaism trying to do the same thing? Keeping Jews Jewish by via Halacha while participating in modernity? I used to think, ‘Why could we not work together?’ ‘Why do we have to fight with each other when our goals are ultimately the same?’

And yet, Orthodox rabbis saw Conservative Judaism as completely unacceptable. It had to be fought!  They were right. What started out as a noble cause to conserve Judaism has turned into something quite different. History is a great teacher.

I know why we have succeeded and they have failed. There are several factors. While they believed in Halacha in theory, they ignored it in their members practices. In the misguided attempt to keep them in the fold they looked the other way while their members ignored fundamental Halachos like Shabbos. Focusing mostly on issues relating to Tikun Olam. That is still true today. Even though there are Conservative Jews that still observe Kashrus as their rabbis interpret it and observe Jewish holidays, it would hardly be considered observance by Orthodox standards (in most cases).

Orthodox rabbis never compromised on the need to follow Halacha. If a Jew did not observe Shabbos,– even though he might have been accepted as a member in an Orthodox Shul, there was clarity about it being a violation of Halacha.

More importantly, however, was the fact that Orthodox rabbis knew that Jewish education was the key to our salvation.

It was a struggle to build day schools that could accomplish this. But once the mass immigration of religious Holocaust survivors arrived, many of them demanded it. Day schools mushroomed. Orthodox Jewish education has succeeded beyond its builders wildest dreams. And saved us from extinction.

Meanwhile the Conservative Movement was focused on the synagogue. They believed that as long as a Jew belonged to a Shul they and their children would retain their Jewish identities. Armed with an approach which was tolerant of non observance, the movement exploded to become the largest denomination of Jews in America. But that did not last. As we all know the Conservative movement is now dying a not so slow death. They have lost members in droves. By the time they realized what Orthodoxy already knew, their attempt to rectify it via their own educational system, Solomon Schechter - was too little too late.

Part of their problem was that most Conservative Jews consider their synagogue membership expense to be too high. They felt that synagogue membership was expendable. Also, as much as many of them might have liked to send their children to a good Conservative day school, the tuition was so high that Jewish education too was considered expendable. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars per child when they can get a quality secular education in their highly regarded suburban public schools for free? Conservative Jews believe that their children could learn how to be Jewish in the home. That has not worked out so well for them.

Most Orthodox parents on the other hand understand the value of a day school education and were willing to sacrifice in order to send their children there.

This is the dilemma the Conservative movement faces. For which they are now scrambling to find a solution. But as Professor Kwall notes, the latest innovation of opening up membership to non Jews is clearly the wrong one. Another mistake in the wrong direction.

The idea of dealing with intermarriages by allowing non Jewish spouses to become members is a bad idea. It gives ‘permission' to other young Conservative Jews to do the same thing. This is as bad a mistake as was their 1950 responsa allowing their members to drive to Shul. Which they were doing anyway only now it was with the permission of their rabbis. That they limited driving only to Shul and back home was basically ignored by most of heir members.

That was a mistake and destroyed any chance of creating a Kehilla (communal) structure. Something JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen admitted and lamented. He attributed Orthodoxy's success to the necessity of needing to live walking distance from a Shul. Thus creating and maintaining a Kehilla. (He was wrong in attributing our success to that. It contributes to it - but it is not the reason for it. As noted, education is the reason for our success.)

Professor Kwall points out Conservative Judaism is going in the direction of Reform. I don't see how anyone can stop it. Their membership is dwindling and their response has always been to go leftward. 

Ironically, for their part, Reform has done a 180. Although the very idea of practicing any ritual was anathema to Reform’s founders, they are now advising their members to embrace as many rituals as possible albeit without considering any of them mandatory. With Conservatives moving left and Reform right - it is even more likely that there will be a merger someday. Although the Conservative Movement does not yet accept patrilineal descent, it can’t be that far off if they are now accepting non Jews as members and embracing intermarried couples. All while some of their rabbis are beginning to perform intermarriages. The  chasm between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism widens as acts like these become standardized.

There are a couple of other impediments in that regard. The egalitarian ideal as practiced by their synagogues is incompatible with Orthodoxy. As is a belief system that legitimizes an allegorical view of the events at Sinai (and all the other events described in the Torah).

In the current sociological climate, I do not see too many Conservative Jews gravitating to Orthodoxy.

But still. As the Conservative movement continues to slide to the left, our doors continue to remain open. For those who want to live a meaning full Jewish life, I see very little alternative other than a commitment to observe the Torah as it has been handed down to us and applied to the times (including our own) throughout Jewish history.

There was a  time when a Conservative rabbi saw one of his congregants becoming Orthodox as a positive thing. I know of some formerly Conservative Jews who were influenced to be more observant via their experience at the movement’s summer camp program, Camp Ramah. They eventually gravitated to Orthodoxy - to the cheer of their counselors and/or rabbis.  But I am afraid that this phenomenon is decreasing. How could it not when they are going in the opposite direction?