These are not easy times to be affiliated with Conservative Judaism. Population studies show our number in decline (with half of the people raised Conservative no longer identifying with our Movement). Growth may characterize Reform and stability, Orthodox Judaism; whereas all too often we appear frozen by malaise and fear. Our congregants look grayer than the demography of our sister denominations, and the largest Jewish denomination of all is the unaffiliated.
One tempting response is to pretend that these challenges don’t exist. Proponents of this resilient cheerfulness point out that USY continues to send more teens to Israel than does any other group, our Camps Ramah continue to grow (with new camps possibly down the line). We mustered the vitality to open a second, independent Rabbinical School (the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles), and our Solomon Schechter schools continue to shine. In most American cities, the vibrant congregation is the Conservative one, and the blue ribbon of the American rabbinate remains the Conservative rabbis. Nothing is really wrong, argues this response, we just need better PR.
This response often comes joined with an argument that the good old days were better, and that today’s changes reflect a decline in standards. Proponents note that during the 40s and 50s, Conservative Judaism was expanding numerically, new synagogues were opening in suburbs across North America, and that period evokes the Golden Age of Conservative Judaism. To move away from the styles and standards of that era, therefore, is to capitulate to lower standards and our own continuing erosion.
This denial confuses content with style, as if our message of a dynamic Torah is inextricably linked with suburban architecture or fixed seating.
We don’t do credit to ourselves or our past to deny contemporary reality. Indeed, our numbers have declined, and the challenges remain severe. But to couple this realism and honesty with a glorification of the past – as though habit and inertia are the needs of the hour – is to fuse fear to stasis – a response that both invites and deserves stagnation.
In our “Golden Age” many were affiliated with Conservative institutions without themselves affirming Conservative ideals. Many Jews joined our synagogues without attending our services, studying our sources, living our mitzvot. Many participated without encountering (or even seeking to encounter) the Ribbono Shel Olam. Conservative Judaism was notable for many positive attributes, but also for its conformity.
Conformity has failed us. When American culture turned away from ethnicity toward consumer-driven narcissism, our conventionality and timidity failed our people. I am not saying that the core convictions of Conservative Judaism are wrong – the teachings of Solomon Schechter, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Simon Greenberg, David Lieber, Robert Gordis, Elliot Dorff, and so many others continue to articulate a nuanced faith worthy of our devotion and our diligence. But we have confused traditionalism with stodginess, gradualism with paralysis.
What we need is a Conservative Judaism of hope and courage – a way of honestly distilling Torah’s wisdom through the lenses of modernity, of integrating new ethical insights into the growing structure of halakhah and mitzvot, of restoring a passionate service of the Holy One and of God’s people to the center of our spiritual concern. Rather than worrying about whether we are too Reform or too Orthodox, let us create our own agenda based on whether we are true to our own understanding of God’s will, our own take on Torah and mitzvot. Looking over our right and left shoulders precludes clear vision, and is unworthy of a tradition of living Torah. If Conservative Judaism looks eclectic to others, so be it. If that means switching melodies from those of the 19th Century to more contemporary melodies, or sitting in the round, or letting kids move around in the sanctuary, so be it.
To awaken Conservative Judaism out of its current lethargy is a crucial goal for American Jewry as a whole. The center must hold for the branches of American Judaism to remain capable of talking to each other, of a common language and a shared destiny. The center must hold to allow the liberals to find pathways to honor and engage the tradition, and for the traditionalists to be able to access academic scholarship and the realities of the 21st Century.
The work of Conservative Judaism is far from finished. But to succeed at this sacred agenda, we must do more than simply defend our past or pretend that there is no problem to be faced. Toward that end, I would propose an agenda of hope and courage, an agenda which returns us to the core convictions of Conservative Judaism, without mistaking content for form:
- Conservative Judaism must assert itself as the Learning Center of American Judaism. We cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot live what we do not practice. For too many American Jews, opportunities to engage in real learning are closed to them. Accustomed to rigorous learning in their college and professional educations, they are often limited to introductory surveys as adult education. It once might have been that we could measure Conservative vitality by synagogue attendance, but the need of today is to give Jews the opportunity to learn (even prior to imposing the need to pray). Turning our synagogues into Batei Midrash (Halls of Study), making sure that each and every Conservative synagogue creates a beit midrash in which people can encounter the classics of Jewish sacred literature (the Tanakh, the Mishnah, the Midrash, Talmud, philosophy, Kabbalah) – in translation and in the original – is the greatest priority of our time. If Conservative Judaism can become the learning address for American Judaism, the place people can come to really learn, then we can inspire them with sufficient depth that prayer and observance will follow naturally.
- Conservative Judaism must assert itself as the Diversity Center of American Judaism. Real diversity is a rare commodity. In most circles, what pluralism means is that people are free to look different so long as they think alike. But many Jewish groups maintain cohesion by mischaracterizing other groups (the orthodox are fanatics, the Reform are lazy, the Conservatives don’t stand for anything, etc). Coupling triumphalist pride with these slurs is no real pluralism. Indeed, Conservative Judaism, by placing its core in Jewish history, asserts that Judaism isn’t a disembodied idea; it is the articulated life of the Jewish people. That means that no one ideology has a monopoly on Jewish authenticity. Like any other people, many different coalitions will draw on different resources within the broader confines of Jewish culture. The Torah has 70 faces! In asserting the diversity of ways to be Jewish, Conservative Judaism remains the last great tent of the Jewish people – a place where people who are virtually Orthodox, virtually Reform, virtually secular, and all other flavors find ways to accommodate each other and to live together. Can we find a way to bring our robust pluralism into the light of day? Can we affirm it as a real value, rather than as a stopgap necessity (that might mean, for example, welcoming both egalitarian and non-egalitarian forms of Conservative Judaism, not as a temporary strategy, but as a reflection of our love for the entirety of Jewish tradition and its many paths). Pluralism and diversity, in this mode, might not be PC, but it would be exciting. And it would contribute to the strengthening of the Jewish heritage and future.
- Conservative Judaism must assert the love of the Jewish People (and of Jewish people) no less than of Judaism. Conservative Judaism started with the assertion that Judaism is the very life of the entire Jewish people, not simply a platonic idea or a disembodied philosophy. There are too many vocal leaders today who love their form of Judaism, but don’t seem to love the Jewish people (at least those outside of their flock!). And there are plenty who love the Jewish people (theoretically) but don’t seem to love actual Jews. Our approach to Judaism has been rooted in the historical reality of the Jewish people – and the gift we can give back to the entire Jewish people is our love and our welcome. That is a tall order, and parts will make everyone uncomfortable. Jewish people come in lots of different packages: politically liberal and politically conservative, Democrat and Republican, Canadian and USA, male and female, old and soon-to-be-old, disabled and not-yet-disabled, gay and straight, inmarried and intermarried, white and brown and yellow and red, born and converted, observant and secular, Israeli and Diaspora, and on and on and on. Can we really love the actual Jewish people? Can we show the world that it is possible to love specific people in the concrete rather than abstract humanity in the ideal? That remains our task and our gift.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill).