Monday, July 31, 2006

The Center Moves Left

My sense of the Conservative Rabbinate, and especially the younger rabbis, and Seminary students is that they are determined to change the ideals of the movement in a number of significant ways. The first is they have had it with the Orthodox and proto- Orthodox Rabbis who ran the Jewish Theological Seminary for almost a century. The three most important professors, Finkelstein , Ginsberg and Lieberman were all trained in Orthodox Lithuanian yeshivot, and maintained, consciously or unconsciously, much of the worldview of the Orthodox. They were important in their day because the core of the Conservative ideology was that Conservative Judaism was based with some minor exceptions on halacha. The intellectual aristocracy that these professors represented, with its other worldly devotion to scholarship and its implicit depreciation of American democratic middle brow culture, is over and gone. The next generation is going to create a different kind of movement, more populist and much closer to Reform.

Over time a few things have happened. There was this disconnect, which grew larger and larger as the years progressed between theory and practice. The actual membership has become more liberal and the Rabbis have reluctantly followed. It has become more and more difficult to think of halacha as strictly governing the lives of most Conservative Jews. The post war leadership of the movement has been living in a kind of ideological fog, pushing away the realities of congregational life and repeating mantra like the founding formulas. My favorite is: We believe in a timeless but ever evolving historical conception of Torah. This leadership squandered a great historical opportunity, and in my opinion, future historians will not be kind in their judgments. Even if their congregants were becoming independently less religious, they might have done more to stem the spiritual decline, or so I for one believe.

Second, the Orthodox have in the last 50 years waged a fierce and aggressive war against Conservative Judaism and especially the Rabbinate. The Orthodox won’t sit with Conservative Rabbis on any board, even where there are common interests, won’t recognize their divorces and conversions, and much more. The campaign has been very effective and demoralizing. The bitterness and anger in Conservative circles has expressed itself in two ways. For defensive purposes, most everyone, Rabbis and lay people alike, have turned away from Orthodoxy. Unlike their teachers, the current generation of Rabbis doesn’t care what the Orthodox say or do. The social and familial ties between these Rabbis and their Orthodox counterparts are weak to nonexistent. The general idea is if Orthodoxy engages in a politics of schism, so be it. There is no need to make the situation worse by internalizing their polemical diatribes.

The effect of the Orthodox policies towards Conservative Jews has had the beneficial consequence that the differences between the groups have been drawn very sharply, thus strengthening the sense of ideological purity in Orthodox ranks. The effect on Conservative Jewry has been the opposite. It has pushed this movement closer towards Reform. The trench warfare the Orthodox have practiced is not the only factor or even the main one, but it is considerable. When Orthodox speak of kiruv, the need to bring Jews back to the religious fold, it must be understood against a political program of non stop polemics against Conservative Judaism that has had the opposite effect, of pushing many Jews further away from traditional Jewish life. A demoralized Conservative Congregation led by a shamed Rabbi is much more likely to move to the left than the right.

I feel Jewish religious life in 25 years from now will resemble the Steinberg cartoon how America looks to New Yorkers….the five boroughs, Westchester County, Connecticut, New Jersey, the Hudson River and then ….L.A. There will be Ultra Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Orthodox Lite and then nothing until Reform Plus, Reform, Reconstructionists, Jewish Renewal and Jew- Bhu’s (Jewish Buddhists) , and at the very end a variety of experimental groups and chavuras. There is more Jewish life even after radical Judaism in families where the spouses have intermarried, and new eclectic traditions have taken hold, but that’s like Hawaii and Alaska.

W.B. Yeats might as well have been speaking of Judaism when he said "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”


At 2:25 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

You state that the twin Orthodox agenda of kiruv and rechuk - respectively reaching out to (certain) unpracticing Jews whilst shunning anybody espousing Conservative opinions - has effectively destroyed Conservative Judiasm.

In your obviously-quite-educated opinion was this outcome the desired result of the Orthodox policy? Or, is this another example of the law of unintended consequence?

My impression is that 1950's American Orthodoxy (which in fact set the current policy regarding Conservatives in stone), viewed Conservative Judiasm as a threat, as both groups were light on ritual observance, to say nothing of doctrinal purity. This fact required (according to the dominant opinion) that a clear differentiation between the two groups be put in place, specifically a doctrinal one. Over time the level of observance became the more obvious difference between the two groups.

Nowadays I sense a bemoaning of the unintended Orthodox victory even in Haredi quarters. I have some anecdotal evidence that the old Orthodox rules are now being broken by many Haredi kiruv professionals, who, for example, conduct Friday night services in Conservative shuls (more accurately, in the adjoing social halls).

But I am curious to hear your opinion on this.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

It may be an Orthodox conspiracy to destroy the Conservative movement or it may just be that people find it easier to relate to simple rules.
Ascertaining & following daas hatorah for every tiny question is easy.
Following no rules and winging it as we go along is also easy.
Trying to have one foot in both worlds may be too hard for most people (and rabbis for that matter) & hence the decline in the Conservative following.
The same can be said about the MO. Although the MO feel they are firmly rooted in Halacha, the condescending attitude of the Charedi world has a very similar effect as you describe re. the Conservative.
I personally bemoan the decline of the conservative movement. I think it offers a reasonable alternative to those who cannot live an Orthodox lifestyle & if the choices will ultimately be Reform and leftwards or Orthodox, the great majority will vote Reform & leftwards - which I personally view as a tragedy.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous MF said...

It's the same old same old cycle: everyone believes; a bunch of people start non-believing because they find the belief system too problematic; some people try to carve out a middle ground; other people come along and respond to the non-believers by going in the opposite direction and saying that you must remember the fundamentals of the belief system (this is "fundamentalism") and attract some of the non-believers; over time, most of the non-believers die off*; with almost all of the believers gone, everyone is religious once again, and the cycle repeats itself.

* There are many reasons why the non-believers consistently just die off, including, stronger beliefs lead to a stronger will to survive, almost every single belief system encourages propagation (ie, having lots of children and because of compound interest they will overwhelm the smaller group), etc. Believers have a HUGE evolutionary competitive advantage.

Note: there are lots of details that repeat within this cycle, but presented here is just the general outline.

(This is the same narrative for the origins of fundamentalism too, btw.)

At 11:29 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...the idea in your third paragraph is very interesting and can be found in the literature on Conservative Judaism, e.g. in the J.Gurock book, "From Fluidity to Rigidity." I have no doubt that the observation is true, though I am not sure if R. Moshe was fully aware of these places when he wrote his teshvas.The way I think of R. Moshe is that his sociologist, his window on America was Rabbi Henkin, if you catch my drift.

Litalives...I agree.


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