It’s hard to be in the middle. Politically, the far right has put mainstream Republicans on the defensive, and the left has sent centrist Democrats scurrying to identify with populism. Religiously, fundamentalism on the right has opposed any form of change, and an aggressive atheism on the left has mounted a war against traditional beliefs. Yet, while the extremes may sometimes foment revolutions, the middle keeps society going. And the middle is the hardest place to be.
“I’m a Conservative Jew, always in the middle,” I’ve often said jokingly to explain some moderate position I’ve taken in one area or another. But now the Conservative movement has come under attack, not from extremist groups but from within the movement itself. In recent months, ever since the Pew Research Center’s survey documented a devastating drop in the number of Jews affiliated with Conservative Judaism, a dispute has raged in this newspaper and others about that fall-off. The most damning criticism came from Daniel Gordis, himself a Conservative rabbi, now living in Israel, in his “requiem” for Conservative Judaism published in The Jewish Review of Books. Although there have been a slew of answers to him, mostly from the movement’s professionals, as a passionately committed Conservative Jew, I feel a need to join the conversation.
Ironically, some of my passion for the movement grew from being a congregant in Belle Harbor, Queens, of Daniel Gordis’ grandfather, Rabbi Robert Gordis, one of the most influential spokespeople for the movement through his sermons and books. That, and studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. And spending summers in Camp Ramah. The Conservative Judaism I absorbed from all those sources challenged the Orthodoxy of my earlier years by making me think seriously about what I observed and why, what our texts taught and why I instinctively loved them, what Judaism had to offer within the larger constellation of religions. What I absorbed from these sources also was a deep and abiding understanding of the ethical thrust of our religion. That understanding led to my involvement in Jewish feminism and the effort to give women full equality within the movement.
Daniel Gordis takes a swipe at “the movement’s infatuation with biblical criticism,” yet critical scholarship is one of the most intellectually exciting contributions of this denomination. Understanding the similarities and differences between the flood story in the Bible and those in other early cultures, for example, does not diminish the Bible but opens broad vistas into the world in which our religion developed. If biblical criticism challenges the traditional belief in the entire Torah as revelation from God, it also invites us to see divine inspiration throughout it.
Too intellectual? It has been said that the numbers have fallen because people want a more spiritual orientation. Maybe. But numbers are tricky. JTS’ David Kraemer teaches Jewish texts to a “Torah group” of some of the city’s leading writers and artists of varying ages. If asked, few, if any, would identify with Conservatism; most are unaffiliated. Yet, to a great extent their understanding of Judaism is shaped by the Conservative ideology they imbibe along with professor Kraemer’s fine teaching. Should they be counted as Conservative Jews?
Then there are the non-denominational or “independent minyanim,” whose members do not want to be officially affiliated with any movement. Most of these people are young, and most are products of the Conservative movement — the Solomon Schechter schools, United Synagogue Youth, and Camp Ramah. They are seeking their own spiritual paths, as young people do, but many embrace the Bible and textual study no less than did earlier generations. Back in the 1970s, the chavurah movement also rejected established congregations for different kinds of minyanim and a countercultural interpretation of the texts that reflected those times. When they grew older, many of the chavurah members became Conservative and community leaders.
I don’t mean to minimize the dangers in the Pew study’s findings. The news of a vast decrease in Conservative membership has been distressing and frightening for the movement, and Conservative leaders need to keep grappling with ways to reverse those statistics. Reaching out to non-denominational groups might be a start. Those on the inside need to show these young people that the Conservative tent is broad enough to incorporate their ideas and practices and could, in fact, be invigorated by them. The Conservative movement has been too important to individuals and the community to fade away. It has influenced Reform Judaism in its move closer to tradition. It has influenced the Modern Orthodox in their move toward including women in religious ritual and leadership. It has been a consistent voice for Klal Yisrael, all the Jewish people, and willing to compromise to keep the community together.
In short, it has held the middle, so hard to do, so necessary for Jewish life.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.