The Future of Conservative Judaism: Market Share isn’t Everything

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This is a guest blog post, written by my friend, teacher, and rabbi, Rabbi Dan Shevitz.

Rabbi Dan’s message is important. It’s a reminder that there are many of us who simply have no other religious “home” than the Conservative Movement. My personal theology, and my expression of that theology, would not be a good fit in either the Orthodox or Reform movements. So even if Conservative Judaism shrinks to 5% of the American population, maybe it doesn’t matter – it’s my 5%…

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s recent dour obituary for Conservative Judaism in the Jewish Review of Books is only one of many post-mortem analyses of how we failed. He pulled few punches in excoriating our leaders, past and present, for failing to teach properly, or market properly, and for failing to be as authentic as the competition. The competition in this case is Orthodoxy. Since they are winning, we must be losing.

If numbers give authenticity, then I suppose our show is slipping. We must be doomed, since we are not getting the market share we used to. Some writers, with either a tear or a glint of triumphalism, point to wasting Conservative synagogues renting their space to burgeoning Orthodox congregations. Soon we will be assimilated; resistance is futile.

There will certainly be some consolidations and contractions of our institutions. But let’s not confuse this with religion. I don’t subscribe to a movement because it has the greatest number of buildings, or adherents, or market share. I locate myself in a movement because of my beliefs in what is true and what is not.

It would be most unwise to radically alter our program because of declining percentages. Our institutions, whether they be few or many, are here to give expression to our beliefs.

To be precise: I expect to have pretty much the same relationship to Orthodoxy when they are in ascendancy as when they were not: nice people, mainly, but their program does not convince. I speak here not of the American modern-Orthodox, who are, numerically, as besieged as we are. Right wing Orthodoxy believes things that I do not. Most of my friends and congregants don’t believe those things, either, even if we admire and enjoy the Orthodox achievements in spirited prayer, Jewish literacy and kosher restauranting.

Let us articulate, to ourselves at least (even if the audience is thinning), what we believe:

Torah is for this world. We affirm the value of neutral science and human achievements in art and culture.

Halacha – Jewish forms of practice – is crucial to give embodiment to our values. It commands our respect but not our worship.

Ethics are universal, and Torah does not shield us from its demands. Rather, properly interpreted, it helps us achieve them.

The historical enmities between Jew and Gentile are atavisms. The Jewish agenda demands the honoring of all creatures, and there is truth to be found in the achievements, experiences, and visions of all peoples.

“The Seal of God is Truth.” Whatever else this means, it allows that authority doesn’t flow from the credentials of the speaker, but from the rectitude of the argument. Some things are wrong, even if they are said in Yiddish, or found in a holy text, or are spoken by long bearded eminences.

The search for God’s presence in this world is still of vital concern. It is robust and open ended. This means that we are still discovering new truths. Some of these will supplement old verities, some will supplant them.

Of the commandments it is proper to ask, “Why do we do these things?” It is not a rhetorical question. We seek real answers, not bromides.

We are lovers of Hebrew, of prayer, of ritual, of community, and of text; therefore we will make demands of these to serve us well, even as we respect the forms they have historically taken.

We believe in the liberation of all peoples from subjugation, even as we learn about different types of subjugation that our ancestors did not know. This historical disenfranchisement of women does not deserve to survive.

We know that we are not the sole proprietors of truth. If we are right, others are not necessarily wrong (though some of them are).

Nothing I read today convinces me that Hareidism shares these articulations. That is why I plan to remain a Conservative Jew. It is my stake in moderation. It may be that in the near future we will see a reconfiguration of the denominational landscape. There will be mergers and acquisitions. There may also be schisms representing larger fissures in the People of Israel. There will certainly be new, post-Pew studies, and the numbers will change, one way and another. Nothing, save God, is eternal, and the labels we have assigned to our communities will probably not survive very long. Institutionally, this will be upsetting. But religiously: what does it matter?

Why would anyone want to sustain an institution – any institution – that values increased numbers over the pursuit of what we hold as truth? נחמו נחמו מסורתי . Let the numbers wax or wane. One day the world will be less crazy than it is now, and there will be a center to which people can return. In the meantime, we will combine with those who share our vision, and will continue to teach our children what we know of God and God’s world.

 

Note: Rabbi Dan’s comment “That is why I plan to remain a Conservative Jew. It is my stake in moderation,” reminded me of something I wrote on the topic of being a moderate a decade ago, for parshat Pinchas, about the need for “passionate moderates.” We do need more of those…

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2 thoughts on “The Future of Conservative Judaism: Market Share isn’t Everything

  • November 15, 2013 at 8:10 pm
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    Rabbi Dan is fantastic. Glad I attend Mishkon Tephilo.

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  • November 15, 2013 at 8:18 pm
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    This essay erases all anticipatory grief for the loss of Conservatism, my spiritual and religioous home. Thanks to HaShem for you, Rabbi Dan.

    Reply

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