If Conservative Judaism Falls in America and No One Is Around to Hear It, Does It Still Make a Noise?

Conservative Judaism has made headlines lately. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of the Movement’s congregational arm USCJ, has stood shoulder to shoulder with his equivalent in the Reform Movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Linking arms with the Women of the Wall, Rabbis Wernick and Jacobs are protesting the Israeli government’s renege of its commitment to expand the pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., congregational rabbis, cantors and educators are desperately trying to educate and to reassure our congregants that the State of Israel is worthy of American support in general and American Jewish support in particular.

Additionally, as the intermarriage rates continue to grow among American Jewish young adults, the Conservative Movement made headlines when its Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis of which I am a part – proudly proclaimed that after years of review, discussion and analysis, absolutely nothing has changed … with regard to how rabbis ought to address their outreach to and welcoming of intermarried couples.

So it is against this backdrop, along with a shrinking population of Conservative Jews, that the Conservative Movement will gather t Sunday through Tuesday in Atlanta for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention. With a theme of “Dare Together,” the Conservative Movement seeks to provide its community leaders with opportunities to create new paradigms, to learn how to more deeply elevate key Jewish moments, and to renew the fire of Jewish living. By the way, with full disclaimer, I have the honor of teaching at the USCJ biennial this year. “Innovation” is the buzz word that participants are promised to hear through the three-day gathering.

Coming out of Parashat Vayishlach and its discussion of God-wrestling, I think the metaphor apropos for a Conservative Judaism coming back together for yet another biennial in an era of decline. Just as Jacob wrestled all night before re-entering the Promised Land as a new, more grown-up, more self-realized man, the Conservative Movement must come to grips with its own struggles before it too can move forward.

Key Questions Facing Conservative Judaism

  • Can Conservative Judaism survive in a world where the majority of its members are no longer immigrants to America, but have achieved the fullest potential of the American Dream?
  • Can the Movement continue to claim to be traditional when so many of its members fail to fulfill the majority of commandments?
  • Can the Movement claim to be fully egalitarian, when the majority of its women choose not to wear a tallit, cover their heads, wrap themselves in tefillin, or chant from the Torah beyond the day of celebrating their becoming b’not mitzvah?
  • Can the Conservative Movement survive in an age when Zionism is far from a foregone conclusion among American Jews, and when the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate refuses to allow a foothold for Conservative Jews in Israel?
  • Can the Conservative Movement survive while continuing to reject the performance of intermarriage and rejecting patrilineal descent as a definition of who is a Jew?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when congregations might identify as Conservative but not belong to the Movement? For example, while six synagogues in Metro Detroit call themselves Conservative, My Synagogue — Congregation Shaarey Zedek — is one of only three congregations in Metro Detroit that still affiliates with the USCJ.
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when the image of a Conservative Synagogue conveys to some an outdated mode of prayer?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when our youth leaders from USY and Camp Ramah go on to form their own small chavurot usually without cantors and sometimes even without rabbis?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when our youth leaders from USY and Camp Ramah go on to become the leaders of Modern Orthodox Synagogues?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when, if they are going to get married, liberal Jews are marrying later and later?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when, if they are going to have children, couples are waiting longer to have children and then are having fewer of them?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when the very word “Conservative” in the Movement’s name suggests (however irrelevant) a political affiliation with which more than half of the American Jewish community disagrees?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive in the 21st century when the word “Conservative” implies a rejection of innovation, the very essence of the modern technological era in which we live?
  • Can Conservative Judaism survive when the very word “Jewish” implies an “insider and an outsider” arrangement when a new generation of Americans chooses not even to define who is a man and who is a woman?

What Conservative Judaism Can Learn from Other Movements

These and more are the questions with which Conservative Jews must wrestle all night and into the break of day. To put it more succinctly, as the Conservative Movement gathers in Atlanta this coming week, I am wondering: If Conservative Judaism were to fall in America and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a noise?

I will spare you the suspense. The answer to all of the above questions of can the Conservative Movement survive is “yes.” Conservative Judaism will not succeed though by joining the Reform Movement in doubling-down on Tikkun Olam, though the mitzvot –the commandments — of caring for those in need and especially supporting Jews, Jewish institutions, and the State of Israel remain a central part of what it means to be a committed Jew. Conservative Judaism might succeed in part by chasing after some of the successes of Orthodoxy, particularly Modern Orthodoxy, in terms of supporting higher birthrate and strengthening the role of family in Judaism. Interestingly, I also think that in some ways Conservative Judaism is strengthened by the presence of Chabad and Aish in our communities. While liberal Jews utilize the services of these Ultra-Orthodox outreach groups, few of our members are taking on the identity of the Ultra-Orthodox. Rather, liberal Jews are gaining Jewish knowledge from these disruptors while at the same time rejecting their exclusion of women in leadership roles. That is to say, they are teaching us to make challah and they are facilitating our learning in chavruta, but we still want our women to read from the Torah, to lead us in prayer, and to become rabbis and cantors of our people.

I believe Conservative Judaism is becoming stronger because, more than Reform Jews and more than Orthodox Jews, we participate in and lead klal Yisrael: the organized Jewish community. I believe too that Conservative Judaism is becoming stronger because, thanks in many ways to USCJ, our local synagogue communities – our kehillot – are becoming better organized, more efficient, more fiscally responsible and more visionary in their outlook. While it is to me ironic to call a four-thousand-year-old religion “innovative,” the modes by which we deliver ancients truths and time-tested wisdom continue to expand and develop creatively on a daily basis.

This past Thursday I met with a young college student from Saginaw, Michigan, who, for her World Religions’ class, needed to do an essay on a religion other than her own. This young woman chose to learn about Judaism, she told me, because her uncle converted to Judaism and married a Jewish woman. I asked her if she knew any other Jews and she told me no. I asked her what percentage of the U.S. population she thought was Jewish; her answer: 40%. When I told her it was less than 2%, she was blown away. When I asked her what she had learned from Wikipedia about Judaism, she told me that she had researched absolutely nothing about Judaism. I looked at her quizzically. “You converted my uncle,” she told me. “You married my aunt and uncle to each other,” she said. “I figured I would start with you.”

She asked, of course, about Judaism’s basic beliefs and I told her about monotheism, about the Torah and the rabbinic writings. I told her about the strength of our history and our hope in the future. Then she asked, “what are the most important things that Jews do?” I wonder how you would answer that question: what are the most important things that Jews do?

Conservative Judaism’s Path Toward Success

Here is my answer, and here is why, as a result, I think Conservative Judaism will not only survive in the coming years, but will begin to thrive:

Judaism in general, and Conservative Judaism in particular, offers a path toward a life of meaning and purpose. Through living a Jewish life, we are given the opportunity for gratitude, obligation, and joy.

Priority #1: The Jewish Family’s Focus on Shabbat

At the very center of Judaism is the kitchen table. Our rabbis teach that when the altar of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, came crashing down some 2,000 years ago, that the Jewish home – the family table – became the focal point of our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. There is nothing more beautiful than a Shabbat or holiday meal, with blessings of gratitude, with great food, and with excellent Israeli wine. And, in the 21st century, when our families are becoming more spread out, when ever-present technology erases any sense of boundary between work and free time, the Jewish commitment to a day of rest and a day free from intrusion by the cell phone, computer and television will become that much more important … and that much more observed. The Conservative Movement’s commitment to Shabbat, including and especially Shabbat prohibitions, makes life more meaningful.

Priority #2: A Focus on Human Dignity

At the very center of Judaism is our commitment to human dignity. 36 times our Torah tells us to remember that we were strangers, and our entire system of Jewish values is based around our experiences as the oppressed minority in someone else’s land. In addition to being leading activists around the world for human rights, Conservative Judaism in particular is committed to the rights of women, of gays and lesbians, and of others traditionally excluded from the bimah. We must continue to grow in this direction and make Conservative Judaism a home for all Jews … but especially those who, shall we say, were previously on the fringes. The Conservative Movement’s commitment to inclusiveness makes our people stronger and makes our Judaism holier.

Priority #3: A Focus on Jewish Particularism

And, at the very center of Judaism, is our commitment to Jewish particularism. This notion will indeed be the greatest challenge to Judaism in the coming years. Yet, as our Torah teaches, God selected us – chose us – to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We are to be kadosh: to be separate, unique, distinct. We are told even to eat differently from our non-Jewish neighbors. The goal of kashrut is to keep our people insulated. Our mission in this world to perpetuate lives of meaning and purpose can only be achieved and continued by raising Jewish children, by encouraging Jews to marry other Jews, by promoting conversion, and by celebrating our identity as Jews.

At the same time, we recognize the Jewish value of hachasat orchim, of seeing the gentiles who have married Jews as gerei toshav, sojourners among us, and by rushing – as Avraham and Sarah did before us – to allow them to feel (somewhat) a part of our big tent. This notion of Jewish particularism is counter-cultural for liberal, 21st century American Jews, but it is vital to the survival of the Jewish people.

Learning from the Past to Move Forward

There was a time when the ego of the Conservative Movement became over-inflated, when a certain sense of hubris dominated our thinking. We at Congregation Shaarey Zedek know. Our Sanctuary was built under the assumption that for generations we would pack every one of our 1,000 chairs. We wrestle now with the lessons learned the hard way. We have been injured because of that arrogance and the assumptions that result from it.

As we learned this past Shabbat, Jacob too grew arrogant. As the dawn began to break Jacob realized that the angel with whom he wrestled would not defeat him. It was just then that the man with whom Jacob wrestled “wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him” (Genesis 32:26). And, as our Torah tells us, “that is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (Genesis 32:33).

So, like Jacob, Conservative Judaism moves forward but with a limp. May we never forget the arrogance and the hubris that led to this limp so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future. And may we be emboldened in the core values of our Movement to recognize that Conservative Judaism is not only here to stay but is here to thrive. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Recently, the USCJ released a new mission statement for Conservative Judaism. It declares, “We envision and pursue an authentic and dynamic Judaism that inspires today’s and tomorrow’s generation of Jews to seek meaning, find connection, and experience shleymut wholeness in a world that is complex and ever evolving.”

At Congregation Shaarey Zedek we echo a similar theme. In the digital age of a world at conflict, we find sanctuary in creating sacred community. Our members, clergy and staff work tirelessly, establishing relationships among members and between members and staff, including and especially our clergy. We aspire to create Shabbat and holiday experiences that are technology-free in the home and in the Synagogue.

Moreover, by creating a nurturing forum for the performance of mitzvot bein Adam la-Makom (ritual commandments between us and God) and mitzvot bein Adam la-chaveiro (ethical commandments among humankind), we are further strengthening CSZ as our spiritual home. Through joyful and contemplative, traditional and creative prayer opportunities, we provide access to a sense of spirituality. By teaching about mitzvot as part of progressive halachah—a system of walking with God, as well as teaching about Jewish history and the Jewish community today, we set before ourselves a path toward personal meaning.

Finally, we strive to perform daily acts of loving-kindness for fellow Jews, for Detroit and the Metro Detroit community, and for people in need throughout the world. We strive daily in ways small and large to live the Jewish value of ba-al tashchit: caring for the environment in the way we care for all God’s creation. We take pride in leading the community in speaking out for the right of Israel to live in peace and security as a democratic Jewish state.

At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we have experienced a tremendous rebirth in these last three years, and our rejuvenation is proof of the entire Movement’s potential for rejuvenation. Conservative Judaism allows us to live a meaningful life of gratitude, obligation, and joy. Conservative Judaism allows us to live authentic and dynamic Jewish lives. Conservative Judaism will not only survive into the future, but with a commitment to the three priorities of the Shabbat in the Jewish home, of a commitment to human dignity, and of a commitment to Jewish particularism, it promises to thrive.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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