Religious realignments

The conservative movement has decided to admit non-Jews as members with an overwhelming vote in favor – 94 to 8 with one abstention. This decision follows a precipitous decline in membership. Steven Cohen reports in a 2015 JTA article, ‘The sheer number of American Jewish adults who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue has fallen by about 21 percent – from 723,000 adult Jewish congregational members in 1990 to 570,000 in 2013. And the number of non-synagogue Conservative Jews – those who say, in effect, “I’m Conservative, but I don’t belong to a congregation” — fell by an even more precipitous 47 percent, from 739,000 to 392,000.’

Why this decline? To paraphrase Michael Eisenberg, who writes on the problems of modern orthodoxy, First you run out of ideas and then you run out of people. A fascinating article by Professor Edward Shapiro, that appeared in, documents the ideological failure of the conservative movement to effectively differentiate itself from the reform movement.

Shapiro writes, ‘It had been the hope of the founders of the Conservative movement in the early twentieth century that it would embody a modern, Americanized version of traditional Judaism. As late as the 1920s it was often difficult to distinguish between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, and there was even talk of merging Yeshiva University (an Orthodox institution) with the Jewish Theological Seminary (a Conservative one). It was common then for graduates of Yeshiva University to be ordained at the seminary and then to assume pulpits at Conservative congregations. Conservative Judaism emphasized its loyalty to “the Torah and its historical exposition,” the observance of Sabbath and the dietary laws, and maintenance of the traditional liturgy.’

The decades immediately after World War II were the golden age of Conservative Judaism, and it was infused by a sense of triumphalism. From 1945 to 1965, 450 new congregations joined United Synagogue of America—more than the combined total of new Reform and Orthodox congregations.

But the seeds of collapse were planted in 1950. Shapiro notes, ‘In 1950, the committee sanctioned traveling in an automobile on the Sabbath as long as this was necessary to attend Sabbath services. The postwar spread of the Jewish population had made it difficult, if not impossible, for many Jews to walk to synagogue. By then the membership of B’nai Israel had spread to the furthest reaches of northwest Washington and even into the adjacent suburbs. In 1950 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards also approved the use of electricity on the Sabbath in order to enhance enjoyment of the day.’

Most conservative Jews did not restrict the use of the automobile on the Sabbath to attending services. An unintended consequence of the decision to allow the use of cars on the Sabbath, with the concomitant facilitation of suburban living, was an increased likelihood of intermarriage. Propinquity is a significant factor in mate selection. In a study titled ‘Residential Propinquity as a factor in Marriage Selection’, James Brossard observed many years ago in the American Journal of Sociology, ‘Five Thousand consecutive marriage licenses, in which one or both applicants were residents of Philadelphia, were tabulated according to the distance between the residences of the couples. One-third of of all the couples lived lived within five or less blocks of each other, and the percentage of marriages decreased steadily and markedly as the distance between residences of the contracting parties increased.’

Writing of the losses to the reform movement, Shapiro notes, ‘Since the majority of the Conservative laity are indifferent to matters of religious ideology and Jewish observance, the distinctions between Conservative and Reform Judaism have become increasingly irrelevant. Both movements support Zionism, have come to terms with modern American culture, and demand little in the way of observance. Just as Protestants move easily from a Methodist to an Episcopal church, so Conservative Jews move from a Conservative to a Reform synagogue at the drop of a hat, or, in this case, the drop of a skullcap.’

Then there’s the challenge of modern orthodoxy. Shapiro writes, ‘The revival of Orthodox Judaism, writes the historian Jonathan D. Sarna, “is one of the great stories of postwar Judaism.” The 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey estimated that the share of Orthodox Jews among Jews affiliated with a synagogue had increased from 16 percent to 23 percent during the 1990s. This number has grown even more in the past decade, and it would not surprise demographers if the Orthodox percentage, because of the high Orthodox birth rate, now exceeds that of Conservative Judaism.’

The resurgence of Orthodoxy refuted the Conservative assumption that Orthodoxy could not attract the affluent, well-educated, and upwardly socially mobile, and that the traditionally-minded among them would inevitably gravitate to Conservative Judaism. During the past half century the exact opposite has occurred. Those Jews who identify with Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy are college graduates with degrees from some of America’s most prestigious universities, ….The flourishing of Modern Orthodoxy has deprived Conservative Judaism of what it once perceived to be its natural constituency, and its contemporary discontents are due in part to its need to discover a new clientele and to define a new mission.’

Summing it up, Shapiro writes, ‘The most dramatic public expression of the discontents of Conservative Judaism occurred the previous May when Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of JTS, gave the commencement address. Instead of offering the optimistic clichés typical on such occasions, Schorsch, the titular head of Conservative Judaism, bitterly attacked the movement and the institution over which he had presided for two decades. He claimed that Conservative Judaism’s recent attempts to amalgamate truth and faith were “inane,” that “impoverishment” and “malaise” characterized those, including the seminary’s rabbinical students, who craved a “quick spiritual fix” rather than immersion in Judaism’s basic texts, and that Conservative Judaism lacked spiritual passion and suffered from “a grievous failure of nerve.”

Schorsch had voiced similar sentiments to his fellow Conservative rabbis two months before at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. He criticized them for pushing for the ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriages. “What ails the Conservative movement is that it has lost faith in itself,” he told his unsympathetic audience. Accepting homosexuality would remove one of the major remaining distinctions between Reform and Conservative Judaism, raise legitimate questions about Conservative Judaism’s traditionalist credentials, and prompt rabbis and lay people to leave the movement.

Neal Gillman, a professor at JTS, speaking for many within the Conservative world, thought the developments Schorsch lamented to be advances. At the 2005 convention of the United Synagogue in Boston, he had urged Conservative Judaism to “abandon its claim that we are a halakhic movement.” He offered a new definition of Conservative Judaism: “living with ambiguity.” But no change in nomenclature could conceal the major challenge to Conservative Judaism of reconciling distinctiveness with diversity. If halakhah is no longer determinative, what differentiates Conservative Judaism from Reform? And why should anyone want to live with ambiguity when there are rival movements offering clarity and certainty?

The continuing decline of the conservative movement over the past 12 years shows that Schorsch got it right and Gillman’s attempted reformulation of conservative Judaism was inane.

It’s not just the conservative movement that’s in trouble. Triumphalism in the modern orthodox movement is very misplaced. Aggregating the demographics of orthodox Judaism hides the fact that haredi (ultra orthodox) Jews now outnumber modern orthodox Jews by 2:1. What’s going on?

In an article that appeared in, Michael Eisenberg writes, ‘the fundamental issue afflicting both American Orthodoxy and YU: First you run out of ideas, then you run out of money.

What happened to the new ideas? Eisenberg writes, ‘American orthodoxy is suffering from a lack of ideas and ideals that are the direct result of a lack of leadership. The question is: What happened to those leaders? I think the answer is inherent in the appointment of Rabbi Dr. Berman.{President of Yeshiva University}. Like Rabbi Berman, they, the future leaders, moved to Israel. Moreover, I would argue, the ideas and ideals that animate American Orthodoxy and will, necessarily, impel it forward in the 21st century, have also moved to Israel.

The people who cared deeply about Judaism, Jewish thought, and the future of Jewish education—enough to risk their reputations and careers—moved to Israel, where they teach many of the Centrist-Orthodox American kids in Yeshivot and Universities in Israel.Perhaps, this is but the expansion of a trend that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein started 40-plus years ago when he moved his family to Israel and to where he said was the “Major Leagues of Torah.”

The core debates on our future are happening in Israel. To wit, the same discussion on women’s roles is happening in Israel but it is causing far less of a schism. There is more of a rainbow in the national and religious spectrum that accommodates it so the discussion is, in fact, more nuanced and civilized. As I referenced earlier, it is in Israel that most of the Yoatzot (female, Halakhic advisers) are trained and where the idea was birthed. Nishmat’s Rabbanit Henkin pioneered this vision almost two decades ago and Malka Bina at Matan took women’s learning to new heights. Like Rav Lichtenstein, both were American and they too made aliyah with these indispensable ideas and ideals.

There is a lot of truth in Eisenberg’s analysis but it is an oversimplification. For example, women’s megillah readings originated in the United States – not in Israel. Drisha was the first center for women’s Jewish learning. It’s in the US – not Israel. It’s not just aliyah that’s hurting modern orthodoxy. Additionally, it is challenged from the left (open orthodoxy) and the right (haredim).

What distinguishes the modern orthodox Jew from the haredi? It is Torah U’Maddah. A modern orthodox Jew feels that there is an intrinsic value in secular knowledge and that it is important to develop a world view that integrates secular knowledge with Torah. For most haredim, secular knowledge is pursued only as a way to make a living.

Open orthodoxy is very similar to the original conservative movement. Reread the third paragraph of this newsletter. Mutatis mutandis, it reads like a description of today’s open orthodoxy. Perhaps a merger of open orthodoxy and the right wing of conservative Judaism is in our future.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.
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