David Lerner
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The death and life of Conservative/Masorti Judaism

It remains the denomination with the most compelling and authentic responses to the intersection of tradition and modernity

The obituaries have been written, the plot has been opened and the tombstone is being carved. But before we complete the burial of the Conservative Movement, maybe we should give it another look. Let’s be sure that the patient is actually dead!

While there is no doubt that the percentage of American Jews who claim to identify with the movement has dropped precipitously (41% in 1971, 38% in 1990, 26% in 2000 and 18% in 2013), numbers do not a movement make.

But numbers are facile, so let’s begin there. The number of Conservative Jews who were truly affiliated with the movement was an inflated statistic throughout the 20th century. Most Jews who joined Conservative shuls did not join because they agreed with the movement’s practice or ideology, but rather out of convenience: it was the perfect rest stop between the Orthodoxy of their parents and what would become the Reform and unaffiliated Judaism of their children and grandchildren. It fused enough tradition to feel authentic with comfortable English sermons, family style seating and decorum that compared nicely with the norms of their Protestant neighbors.

That said, no matter how great or poor the rabbi, the synagogue, or the Ramah movement, they could not compete with the greater forces of assimilation.

The current move to extremes, to polarization, in so many areas of life from politics to religion hasn’t helped either. That has strengthened the religious streams on the perimeter, but not the vital center. Extreme positions, by their nature have more fire and brimstone, clearer and less nuanced ideologies that prove attractive to larger numbers in our increasingly fractured societies; though passionate moderation is what the world actually needs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Conservative movement has plenty of problems. Its institutions have been poorly run by leaders and administrators who were more interested in maintaining their own turf than in deeper issues of meaning. Ineptitude and ideological divisions hurt many of its organizations including most noticeably, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

Its branding is weak and confusing. The time may have come to adopt its Hebrew name and call it Masorti (Traditional), as it is known in Israel and the rest of the world beyond North America. While the numbers are small, the loss of some of its most committed young people to Orthodoxy has been demoralizing. The 1950 driving teshuvah allowing driving to shul did not help build Shabbat communities where members could walk to each other’s homes, sharing meals and spontaneous interactions.  However, the post-war move to suburbia was probably inexorable.

When we look beyond numbers to big ideas, the movement’s success has been remarkable.  Its focus on Hebrew and traditional rituals has been picked up by Reform and other liberal movements. Its halakhic egalitarianism is being emulated by modern Orthodoxy today. It continues the support of Israel that has been a hallmark since the movement’s founding; Reform and Orthodoxy now emulate that position. Its focus on academic excellence and intellectual honesty has been picked up by hundreds of Judaic studies departments around the country. Its approaches have bred institutions founded by graduates of Jewish Theological Seminary, its premier educational institution.  Although not officially part of the movement Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Kehillat/Mechon Hadar and IKAR are among its products.

Some have criticized the movement for its recent decisions about egalitarianism and welcoming gay and lesbian Jews, and even claimed that these decisions are the cause of the movement shrinkage. These decisions are not the result of focus groups and surveys, they are not made to bring in the biggest numbers, they are attempts to decipher what God and our halakhah dictate for us in this time and place, knowing what we know today.

We know that women and men both bring great gifts to this world and they are fundamentally equal (“zakhar u’nekeivah bara otam – male and female God created them” Genesis 1:27). Therefore, egalitarianism is what the halakhah requires of us.

Thus, while I participate on some level in davening in an Orthodox synagogue or a Reform temple because of my commitment to am yisrael (the Jewish people) and ahdut ha’am (the unity of the Jewish people), in neither do I feel as if I have fulfilled the halakhah completely. In one, I often miss essential parts of the traditional davening experience and in the other, I have evaded my responsibility to implement our tradition’s mandate regarding the status of women.

To share why I feel the way I do, let me tell you some of my Jewish journey. I grew up as an observant Conservative Jew – the son of a Conservative rabbi and a JTS professor. Even my maternal grandparents were highly educated Boston-born shomer Shabbat Conservative Jews. I was given a strong Jewish education at Conservative and Orthodox day schools.

Like many teens, I drifted away from traditional Jewish practices like prayer and Shabbat. When I left for college, I celebrated my first Shabbat by turning on all my electronic devices (my computer, TV, stereo, video game machine) – something that was forbidden in my home growing up. I was free.

Much the wiser, over that Thanksgiving dinner, I told my parents that “it was too bad you both became Jewish educators. You both went to great schools – you could have become lawyers or business people. Don’t you know that all religions were made up by people and they are all the same?!”

My parents were good – they just kept on chewing and didn’t react to my provocations.

Sure enough, in the course of the next year, I became involved more and more with the strong Orthodox community on my campus. When I returned the following Thanksgiving, I told them over dinner that I didn’t feel that their approach to Judaism was correct. In fact, I turned to my mother who davens each morning in tefillin and told her “Ema, don’t you realize that what you are doing is an anathema to God!”

Again, my mother and father did not overreact; they kept on chewing.

Over time, I realized that I did not have all the answers and spent more time listening. I always loved the power of Jewish community and was drawn to our people’s traditional practices, but, at the same time I was taking philosophy courses and struggling to bring these two arenas together.

The summer before my senior year, I studied with Rabbi Neil Gillman who offered me a powerful synthesis of how to approach what I considered two separate realms. He enabled me to understand that my personal practice was not at odds with a modern theology and a historical understanding of the tradition.

I could pursue ritual and halakhah, even if the metaphor of the Book of Life did not work for me.

I believe in the power of our tradition and the learning of science. The world can be created in 7 days, 7 Divine days which are equivalent to 13.8 billion years. I believe in the power of the halakhah which has produced a most intense and comprehensive legal system that offers me the deepest insights into how to live a moral, ethical and meaningful life.

I believe in the power of observance and rituals which root me in my connection to God, Torah and Israel. I believe in Jewish peoplehood, which places our people and the State of Israel in a preferred status.

I believe in history, logic and science and while I often engage in superstitious behavior (usually watching sports games), I know the limits of magical thinking. I believe in our evolving understanding of morality within halakhah – which means that thankfully, our tradition’s approach to new situations like intermarried Jews and gays and lesbians has changed in light of today’s knowledge, creating a more open and moral Judaism.

I believe in the transformative power of prayer – engaging in our thrice daily regimen. I believe in finding the most creative ways to present our people’s ancient wisdom. I believe in serious engagement with kashrut that roots me in an ancient system of eating, even as it evolves to include new ideas like banning veal because of how the animal is treated.

I believe that Judaism is the most powerful way to live one’s life.

I believe in the experience of learning – an intellectually honest approach to all of our texts that can stand up to scrutiny in any academic setting, but never blunts their influence. I believe in hesed – acts of love that are woven into the life of Jews and our narrative and rituals only serve to reinforce that.

I am an egalitarian halakhic Jew.

That’s what makes me a Conservative Jew.

Today, Conservative Judaism is turning a corner, ready for a fresh and new presentation. The future is already in place: a generation of men and women who bring new ideas and commitment. It needs a package that is as dynamic as its underlying ideals and ideas. It needs a smile and a positive outlook.

My community, Temple Emunah, is not the only Conservative shul where from twice daily lay-led minyans through High Holy Day services, from pre-school through 55+ we support each other and the world, while we enjoy learning, connecting, eating and sharing together. It is an honor to serve as their rabbi.

There is no doubt that Conservative Judaism’s ideology is solid; its challenge remains creating enough strong communities. In that area, it needs to emulate Orthodox Judaism and its sense of community.

Will it be the largest Jewish movement as it was for most of the 20th century? While anything can happen, probably not.

Will it continue to offer the most compelling, the most authentic responses to the intersection of tradition and modernity? There is no doubt that it will.

Will there be challenges as the community ages and older shul merge and close? Will there be painful decisions to be made about priorities, as funding contracts? Will there be tough competition from other movements and the overwhelming forces of assimilation? Sure, but I am happy to pit its ideology, its moral grounding, its openness, its fierce commitment to observance, its fidelity to mitzvot and its honesty against anything else I have seen.

Maybe instead of a funeral, it’s time to study harder and plan for a Bat-Mitzvah.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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