Conservative rabbis off target

A storm has erupted after Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote a “Requiem for a Movement” in The Jewish Review of Books. No less than seven Conservative rabbis have responded to Gordis (“A Movement Strikes Back”). The responses are revealing on three points that explain what ails Conservative Judaism. First, their argument that Conservative Judaism needs to separate from Orthodoxy fails to note that it is the Conservative slide toward Reform Judaism that is the real problem. Second, the lack of Conservative leadership is evident from their failure to discuss the movement’s demographic crisis. Finally, they provide no useful ideas as to how to revive their denomination.

First, the rabbis’ responses confirm that the Conservative movement is travelling toward the religious left, to a position closer to Reform Judaism. The seven rabbis wrote not one word of criticism of Reform Judaism, which rejects the halacha (Jewish law) that Conservative Judaism claims to uphold, but they did signal their hostility to Orthodoxy, which does observe halacha. For these Conservative rabbis there are no enemies on the left.

Such an attitude is odd because it is precisely the leftward drift that is damaging Conservative Judaism. The movement is losing members to the Reform because Reform synagogues do not pretend to make halachic demands on their members, while Conservative synagogues do.

There is a similar picture when it comes to attitudes to intermarriage, which is destroying the survival prospects of the non-Orthodox in America. Again, the Reform stance is clear and, in its own way, authentic. The Reform movement accepts marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Roughly half of Reform rabbis are willing to conduct intermarriages. Recently, the Reform movement began discussing whether its rabbis should also be allowed to intermarry.

Conservative Judaism claims to oppose intermarriage, but in practice Conservative rabbis are accommodating their congregants and moving toward the Reform position. The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, part of the Conservative movement, believes that synagogues should integrate non-Jewish spouses. One Conservative rabbi, Jaymee Alpert, already publicly recites a blessing over future intermarriages and then gives the couple the same present that is available to Jews marrying in her synagogue. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently indicated further acceptance of the intermarried by deciding to allow non-Jews to open the aron kodesh during tefilla (of the rabbis who responded to Gordis, Dorff and Kalmanofsky voted in favor, Grossman abstained). Most strikingly, Dr. Arnold Eisen, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in effect provided his blessing to the Chelsea Clinton-Marc Mezvinsky intermarriage, the most prominent such union of recent years, by attending the wedding reception.

Second, the rabbis showed a lack of leadership by failing to acknowledge the demographic damage to Conservative Judaism by its intermarriage rate of around 33%. Of course, the rabbis can point to the accompanying article by Professor Jonathan Sarna that implicitly downplayed the crisis in Conservative Judaism. According to Sarna, American Jewish movements go through cycles of expansion and contraction; what is up today is down tomorrow, and vice versa.

What Sarna misses, however, is the broader demographic context. Decades ago, when intermarriage rates were insignificant, the growth and decline of American Jewish denominations occurred mostly at each other’s expense. The community as a whole did not suffer much. Today, however, when intermarriage rates are over 50%, much of the decline of the non-Orthodox movements is at the Jewish community’s expense because people are leaving Am Yisrael by marrying non-Jews. Most of the intermarried, along with their children, are unlikely to return.

Some genuinely do not care about being Jewish, as Gabriel Roth stated honestly in Slate. Others end up leaving because they have been misled into believing that intermarriage is not a departure from Am Yisrael. A range of groups make this claim, using the euphemism “outreach” to argue that you can have a Jewish home and upbringing without a Jewish marriage. Supporters of this thesis include InterFaithFamily, the Interfaith Families Project, and Reform rabbis such as Eric Yoffie, a supposed “traditionalist.” The Pew Research Center has provided comfort to these groups with its recent claim that “Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today.”

The difficulty with this approach is that over a century of data demonstrate that the children of intermarriages rarely grow up to become Jews. Instead, these children have a weak sense of being Jewish and generally marry non-Jews, finalizing their family’s exit from Am Yisrael. Professor Steven Cohen’s research shows that the children of intermarriage have an intermarriage rate of their own of 76%. In terms of upbringing, Erich Rosenthal calculated that around 73% of intermarried families in the Washington D.C. area in 1956 were not bringing up their children as Jews. Writing in 1912, Maurice Fishberg concluded that children with a non-Jewish parent, even if raised as Jews, were more likely to intermarry than to marry Jews.

Finally, what was notable about “A Movement Strikes Back” was the paucity of useful ideas. Not one of the Conservative rabbis proposed a plan of action to get their movement back on its feet.

Yet the most obvious route to reviving Conservative Judaism is before them: rejecting intermarriage by promoting conversion to Judaism. This approach was recommended decades ago by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg z”l, one of Conservative Judaism’s greatest leaders. Hertzberg called for more flexible attitudes toward conversion in the early 1970s when intermarriage rates were climbing—they were then around 20%. He argued that the willingness of a candidate for conversion to join Am Yisrael was ultimately what counted.

The Conservative movement can finally take Hertzberg’s advice. Instead of conceding to misguided congregants, such as the Men’s Clubs, Conservative rabbis should actively promote halachic conversion for potential non-Jewish spouses. Conservative conversions would be fully acceptable to the Reform and some parts of Orthodoxy. Most importantly, by combining conversions with community and learning, the Conservative synagogue could again hold the center in American Jewish life.

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.
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