Write No Requiem For The Conservative Movement

In the forthcoming Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, a colleague and friend of many years, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, has written an article titled “Requiem for a Movement,” referring to the Conservative movement in the aftermath of the recently released Pew Report. As one might imagine, the article has generated a great deal of “discussion” among my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate. I can only imagine that the lay leadership of our movement is similarly engaged.

Rabbi Gordis and his family have lived in Jerusalem for many years, and his passionate, personal and dramatic articles on life in Israel, particularly relating to terrorist incidents and the hardships inflicted by the intifadas, have gained him many admirers. He is a gifted writer. But along with those articles, he also wrote a controversial (and I think unfair) piece questioning the Zionist identification of Conservative rabbinical students, and now he has gone much further. Essentially, Rabbi Gordis declares the Conservative movement as a whole to be goses– a term from Jewish law best translated as near death. Having been born into a royal family in the Conservative movement -– the Gordis name is an iconic one in the history of the movement and its scholarship -– he claims that he writes this latest article with sadness.

It is not my intention here to attempt to rebut each and every one of Gordis’ indictments of the movement, because in truth, I agree with many of them. In fact, almost twenty-five years ago, I myself delivered a rather stinging indictment of the movement along Gordis’ lines in a major presentation at the Biennial Convention of the United Synagogue in Toronto, in 1989.

It seemed to me even then that the generation of rabbis and lay leaders in our movement in the immediate aftermath of World War II had been all too willing to mistake the demographic accident of the post-war baby boom with a genuine religious/spiritual phenomenon. Orthodoxy was reeling post- Shoah, and the membership rosters of Conservative synagogues, both in city and suburb, were bursting at the seams with Jews looking for a traditional yet more modern setting. There were more b’nai and b’not mitzvah than synagogues could reasonably handle, caterers were thriving, enriching themselves and the synagogues where they were located (remember when people actually wanted to have their family celebrations in synagogues?), and all seemed much more than good in the world of Conservative Judaism. As our leaders saw it then, there was no need for those rabbis to preach and teach a Judaism that actually made demands of their “Jews in the pews.” So by and large, they didn’t. It wasn’t about driving to synagogue, as Gordis mentions. That was the least of the issues. It was about creating a consciousness that living a religious life requires something of you. God requires something of you. The imperative of the observant life, which is predicated on the idea of obligation, got lost…

The Jewish world that we inhabit today did not emerge out of a vacuum. It took decades to create, and we created it. We own it. We made big mistakes. I said all this in 1989, and was rather roundly called on the carpet by many of my colleagues for airing those issues publicly.

Rabbi Gordis– as one who was raised in the Orthodox world and came to Conservative Judaism precisely because of the ideology and approach that you so easily dismiss, I can name even more regrets than you about decisions that shaped this movement over the last forty or so years, and the results of those decisions. I have spent the last thirty-two years of my life trying to deal with those results.

But here’s the thing: writing a “requiem for the Conservative movement” makes for a provocative title, but it does an enormous injustice to the truth. All around the country, and indeed around the world, including in Israel, Conservative/Masorti people like myself are working to create communities of meaning and spiritual power. There are laypeople, of all ages, who are living a meaningful and committed life as Conservative Jews. We are not dead, nor are we goses.

You mention in your article that the Pew Report makes no mention of committed Conservative Jews who, failing to find community within the Conservative movement, migrate to the Orthodox world. But you fail to acknowledge how, even more significantly “under the radar,” there are countless young Jews, almost all products of Conservative schools, synagogues, youth programs and camps, who call themselves “post-denominational” but obviously are deeply rooted in both the ideology and practice of the Conservative movement. To be sure, post-denominationalism will force changes upon the institutions of the Conservative movement, from synagogues to seminaries, but do you really think that the 18% figure who call themselves Conservative Jews is reliable when juxtaposed with the 30% who claim no denomination, many of whom are post-denominational? Is it not more likely that we are living through a time of radical redefinition of ideological and movement affiliation, but not necessarily the death of the ideology itself? The “independent minyan” phenomenon that is so densely populated by our best and brightest is the new incarnation of the Havurah movement that came to challenge the existing world of Conservative Judaism in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

It was a challenge that needed to be engaged, and it indeed changed synagogues, not to mention Judaism itself. But it did not signal the death of Conservative Judaism, or Conservative ideology. Today’s post-denominationalism is also a phenomenon that needs to be explored, and responded to creatively. But it is not yet time for our death notice.

The fundamental challenge of our movement in America remains the same today as it was a generation of two ago: to navigate the post-Emancipation tension between tradition and modernity. What has happened in the years since Rabbi Gordis’ departure is that the tension in that dialectic has weakened enormously. We Jews won. Despite the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism in certain quarters, the American experience is far more accepting of Jews and Judaism than any 18th century Jew could ever have imagined. The question now is no longer “how do we get in.” We’re in. The question is, how and to what degree to we stay out?

To live as a Conservative Jew in America in the 21st century is, despite the enticing allure of an “alien culture,” a privilege that Diaspora Jews have rarely known. It is a blessing, not a curse. The challenges that it presents are daunting for Jewish continuity, but its myriad opportunities for religious expression have generated creative religious forms that have enriched Judaism, even as they have challenged its traditions. What Rabbi Gordis calls our “infatuation” with biblical criticism is part of a larger search for answers to precisely those questions that Rabbi Gordis says religion is supposed to be involved with. How do I know what God wants and expects of me? How am I to “hear God’s voice” without subscribing to a literal understanding of our ancient sacred texts? What does “sacred” mean to me in the 21st century? How do Jewish law, and millennia worth of Jewish customs and practices, afford me the opportunity to live a spiritually enriching and fully engaged life in a world that welcomes my involvement? What does “obligation” mean in a world defined by radical choice? Yes, our “market share” is down, and we have great challenges before us. But it is not because we are failing to ask deep and probing questions about meaning and faith.

Rabbi Gordis and other Israelis who lecture Diaspora Jews about their identity crisis are hardly in a position to boast about the state of religious life in Israel as some kind of model for us. The struggle that we willingly engage to find meaningful religious expression in the modern era is not a regular feature of Israeli society, where the overwhelmingly secular population actively avoids religion and its leaders. Their feelings towards religion are powerful, often visceral, and largely negative.

There is no denying that, here in America, we face serious problems of alienation from Judaism, and our movement is hardly exempt from them. But there is a significant difference between alienation and active dislike. One doesn’t care; the other cares, but in a negative way. Even the most casual perusal of Israel’s newspapers will lead one to understand where that negativity about religion comes from. As regards religion and its practice, no– Israel is no model for us.

Both as a proud Conservative rabbi, and as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I would respond to my friend and colleague Rabbi Gordis that reports of our imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. Every last one of us who has given the best years of our lives to this struggle, and continues to do so, understands the problems, and the gravity of the situation. Our response, however, is not to buy burial plots, but rather to work diligently and with passion to try and secure a future for this movement that has nurtured us, and that we love. These are indeed tough times for us, but the more appropriate response than a requiem is to roll up our sleeves and get to work, and that is exactly what we are doing.


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.