Among the young rabbis who came to Conservative pulpits during the movement’s growth period in the 1950’s, more than a few were raised as Orthodox Jews and had attended yeshivas where some were ordained. Whatever the reasons for their move away from their Orthodox moorings – whether because of better career opportunities or ideological affinity to Conservatism – these rabbis believed that they could retain much of religious Jewish law and tradition as they served congregants who were embracing modernity and moving away from tradition. Some of these rabbis, in fact, attempted to remain Orthodox in their personal lives, sending their children to yeshiva, keeping a fully kosher home and observing Shabbos according to halacha.
Most of these rabbis are now retired. It’s hard to find a cohort of rabbinical senior citizens who are more disappointed, even disillusioned, with what transpired on their watch. Upon retirement, the tendency has been to quickly move away and to find shelter elsewhere, at times in a comforting traditional, even Orthodox, environment.
If these rabbis have changed, their congregants have changed a lot more. At the start of their careers, members of Conservative synagogues generally maintained what could be called kosher homes, they could read Hebrew and were comfortable with a siddur. Congregants wanted no part of a mechitza and they liked the idea of driving to the synagogue on Shabbos. They also wanted to be traditional in some meaningful sense.
At first slowly and then ever more rapidly, the profile of Conservative membership changed. As older members died, congregations were increasingly comprised of persons more remote from either Jewish knowledge or practice. Fewer members could daven and so fewer came regularly to the services. Keeping kosher provides a good index of what has transpired among the rank and file of Conservative Jews. Whereas a kosher home once was a staple, nowadays no more than twenty percent of Conservative synagogue members adhere to kosher food laws.
As their movement and synagogues changed, the traditionalists fought to conserve what they could within the movement or, perhaps more accurately, they fought to stem the tide of change. Intuitively, they knew that theirs was a losing battle in the larger arena of Conservative policy, yet if only because they needed to validate that which they had given their lives to they did not give in easily. Although they did not prevail within the movement, they were determined to prevail within their own synagogues. This was no easy challenge, for even there – or especially there – time and tide were running against them. Younger congregants were insistent on change, especially with respect to the role of women. For some of these veteran rabbis, the final years in the pulpit were the most difficult.
There remains within Conservatism a traditional wing. It is not without influence, but its ranks are thin and getting thinner. Relatively few of its adherents are pulpit rabbis. The traditionalists are found mainly at the Jewish Theological Seminary and other central Conservative entities. There is as a result a disconnect that is growing between what is practiced in the field and what the movement attempts to teach via its policy pronouncements. While Conservative leaders continue to insist on adherence to standards, such as the prohibition against intermarriage, at the congregational level the reality is that most members are opting for a brand of Judaism that is far more lax, that essentially allows each Jew to determine what to accept or practice. Rabbis are under enormous pressure, at times indirect but often overt, to countenance downward departures from traditional religious standards. More than a few Conservative rabbis perform intermarriages. It is not easy to be a traditionalist when tradition is being abandoned all around you.
There are reports that another standard is likely to fall. The expectation is that the movement’s religious law committee will revisit the issue of gay ordination and that when it does, the prohibition will be abandoned. This would not be surprising in view of the prevailing attitude among students at the main Conservative seminaries. For too many of them, tradition is like a railroad ticket, good one day and not good the next.
Same sex marriages are certain to remain taboo within Conservatism indefinitely, although here too at the congregational level there will be rabbis who find ways to accommodate those who believe that rabbis should officiate at such unions.
When Conservative leaders embarked on their fateful journey away from traditional practices and requirements many years ago, invariably the leniencies that they accepted were linked somehow to congregational life, as in the seminal decision in the 1950’s to permit congregants to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath. The movement has arrived at the point where political correctness is the primary catalyst for downward Judaic departures. Accordingly, what Americans generally and more specifically American Jews think about certain issues is now the determining factor for much of what passes as Conservative religious law. When the law committee gets around to sanctioning gay rabbis, there no doubt will be a sophistic recitation of sources that will serve as a pretext for an additional abandonment of our traditions.
We know that the situation of American Jewry is dynamic. More Jews are defining their identity as Jews in terms that are alien to our heritage. The Conservative movement is trapped in a dilemma. Its efforts to accommodate the winds of change have left it vulnerable to demands for further changes, for further movements away from what once defined Conservatism.
If we look at the reality of Conservative life and not at what is presented on paper, there is now less to conserve than there was just a few years ago. Less Judaism does not make for more, not even when the number of adherents is grossly inflated, as it is for both the Reform and Conservative movements. The way things are going, before long there will not be much left for Conservatives to conserve.