Thursday, April 22, 2021

Right Idea - But Too Late

Zoom religious service (Temple Aliyah)
It might surprise some people to know that I lament the imminent demise of Conservative Judaism. Not because I agree with their version of Judaism. I do not. I consider it illegitimate. As have all the leading rabbinic leaders throughout its over 100 year history. They all rejected any cooperation with their rabbis in religious matters because of the appearance of granting them legitimacy. 

This was true across the board of Orthodox rabbinc leadership. Including Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Who only quibbled with other rabbinic leaders about cooperating on non religious matters of mutual interest for the Jewish people. Right wing leaders forbade that as well. Rav Soloveitchik permitted it. 

Be that as it may, I have always agreed with this view – albeit differing a bit in how it should be implemented. The obvious reason for this stringent approach was that the appearance of legitimacy would move some Jews to erroneously think that becoming a Conservative Jew was just a Hashkafic issue. Kind of like choosing to become a Chasid. 

And yet still - I lament their imminent demise. Because even though they were wrong in what they did, for a time they were the home of most American Jews. Who felt they could be Americans in the fullest sense of the ‘melting pot’ spirit of the time. They could suspend much of their observance in order to take full adavantage of what America has to offer. Not the least of which was maintaining  jobs requiring them to work on Shabbos. After their leadership gave their approval to driving to Shul on Shabbos most Conservative Jews ended up driving anywhere they chose. With little if any criticism from their rabbis. 

While that was clearly no way to practice Judaism, they at least felt they were Jews. Much of their culture was Jewish culture – even if it didn’t exactly follow Halacha.  Holidays like Chanukah were celebrated. Seders were held on Pesach. Synagogue pews were filled on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And perhaps most importantly intermarriage was considered a cardinal sin. 

Unfortunately that type of Judaism was not sustainable - as we now see. There is currently a 70% rate of intermarriage among non Orthodox Jews. Sometimes even with the blessings of parents. When assimilation becomes more important that ones religion, it doesn’t take much to abandon it. Especially in our day - being constantly bombarded with cultural values that are anathema to Judaism

It is because of the full assimilation of American cultural values, accompanied by ignorance about one’s religious values, that many young Jews raised in such families ask, What is the point of being Jewish at all? If our values are all the same, we might as well, abandon a religion that is nothing more than a name. 

Some very bright Conservative thinkers have said much the same thing to explain what is happening to their movement. Adding that if their synagogue rabbis don’t begin to focus more on their members being a little less assimilated and little more observant of Halacha (as they interpret it)  - their movement is indeed doomed.    

There has been a lot of angst expressed by Conservative rabbis on this issue - trying to solve their existential problem.  Radical changes have been suggested in how to conduct their services - designed to get young people back into the pews . Most of which have nothing to do with Judaism. You are not going to attract people to any legitimate form of Judaism by hosting a Friday night Kumsitz at the beach. You might attract people to that event. But you won’t be selling them Judaism. You will be selling them a beach party. 

All these thought occurred to me when reading a JTA article by Conservative Rabbi  Eli Garfinkel. He correctly observes that his movement’s reliance on  the Zoom minyanim  that arose as a result of COVID is not a prescription for the movement’s survival.   Even leaving aside the Halachic impermissibility of virtual minyanim,  it is not a  sustainable solution: 

Zoom Judaism is not working.

What Zoom provides is not real community. At the end of the day, digital fellowship is pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.

Zoom meetings and rooms do not fulfill the fundamental needs of Jewish community, which are very much physical in nature... 

I recognize that Zoom has been a lifesaver for the physically challenged and that it has quickly brought about a revolution in Jewish adult education. My concern is that some Jewish leaders believe that the pandemic has given us license to reimagine a largely digital synagogue as a permanent replacement for real, physical Jewish community. This belief is predicated on the idea that Jews will continue to find Zoom Judaism compelling long after the novel coronavirus is finally vanquished.

Jews will not find Zoom Judaism compelling.

He is absolutely right about that. The problem is that the fully assimilated non observant Jew that comprises most of this movement’s members will hardly want to return to a synagogue he had increasingly been avoiding even before COVID. Zoom makes it so easy to participate. But it won’t last. It’s novelty will wear off. And will more quickly be abandoned that actual Shul attendance was. Of which COVID completely weaned him off of anyway. 

The Conservative Movement  is yet another casualty of COVID. Even though it was on a fast track to oblivion, COVID has accelerated it.

I regret that this last bastion of at least cultural Jewish awareness will no longer be an  influence on American Jews. As long as there was at least some attachment to his Judaism - even if it was only cultural - there was hope of reaching out to them and showing them what authentic Judaism is supposed to look like. And perhaps appeal to that ‘pintele yid’ - the tiny little dot of Judaism that exists in every Jew. No matter how far removed they have become from it. 

But when one stops caring at all about being a Jew, it is almost impossible to reach him. With recent surveys showing massive hemorrhaging of Jews out of Judaism, it will be nearly impossible to reach out to the 90% of us that are like that. The Conservative Movement has lost its ability to stop it. If they ever had it in the first place. 

From my 21st century perspective what they did was only delay the inevitable. The original membership knew what it meant to be a Jew – even if they didn’t want to be fully observant.  Now several generations later, it isn’t even a memory anymore. 

I sympathize with Rabbi Garfinkel. I agree with his perspective. He’s right about the virtues of Zoom services. There are very little if any real value in them as a remedy for their existential crisis. What he thinks should be done will likely not happen. At least not in any grand scale. Sadly, it’s too late. The horse out of the barn.