Friday, September 15, 2006

The Sad State of the Conservative Movement

Borrowing from the world of politics where bad news is often leaked in advance of it being announced officially, the Conservative movement is letting it be known that before long its "halacha" experts will do what they have been doing for a long while and give their stamp of approval to what is halachically forbidden by sanctioning gay ordination and unions. This obviously is not bad news for a large majority of those who continue to identify as Conservative. They welcome each lowering of religious standards, each new interpretation that accords with what is happening in their lives as they drift even further away from religiosity. It is bad news for Conservatism.

Actually, the movement is trying to have it both ways, a stratagem that was used previously without success. Like the old joke about the rabbi who told two people in dispute that each was right, approval is to be given to a paper arguing that gay unions are permissible and to a second paper arguing that they are not. This is a heck of a way to run a religion.

We can now understand why Conservatism is beset by tzoros, why membership is declining and Conservative schools and synagogues are being closed. Since the forces in American and Jewish life that induce support for gay unions and other misinterpretations of halacha are dynamic, it's not likely that a Stop sign will be put up any time soon on processes that are harming the movement. The facts on the ground in Conservative homes point to increased acceptance of intermarriage and patrilineality and decreased adherence to religious obligations. The reality at the Jewish Theological Seminary and other key Conservative institutions is growing student support for defining Judaism downwards. These students are the Conservative rabbis of the future and many will also be leaders of the movement. They are a far cry in both learning and commitment from their predecessors.

In some sense, it makes sense for Conservatives to move in this direction. If the movement opts for greater religiosity or just stays where it is, membership losses are certain to escalate. The Conservative's traditional wing is relatively small and there are few adherents that it can attract by strengthening religious standards. Accordingly, it may be best to follow the path of Reform, letting the traditionalists drift further away, perhaps associating with the most modern of the Modern Orthodox or the break-away Union for Traditional Judaism that was established when the Conservatives approved the ordination of women.

The problem with this approach is that the Conservatives are losing many of their best and most committed, which was a subtext of the remarkable speech given by former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch in his farewell address. He certainly is not in what is now the Conservative mainstream. What is in doubt is whether he remains a Conservative.

Another problem with the strategy of jettisoning the little that remains to be conserved is that the Reform already occupy the territory the Conservatives are moving into and they have developed a brilliant game plan for presenting their abandonment of Judaism in pseudo-religious terms.

Although it will not yield large numbers, my advice is for the Conservatives to give religion a try by tightening rather than loosening standards. This would surely mean even more defections to Reform or to the ranks of the unaffiliated, yet what would emerge is a stronger movement. Smaller would be, in short, stronger, as the Orthodox have demonstrated. The alternative, which is now the approach being taken, means a slow death for the movement.

When once before I gave unsolicited advice to the Conservatives, some Orthodox wanted to know why I might help a movement that I have sharply criticized. The answer is that what is happening is, while probably inevitable, bad news for American Jewry. This is evident in the crisis facing many Solomon Schechter schools. In the aggregate, they are significantly more religiously purposeful than nearly all other non-Orthodox day schools. Enrollment declines accompanied by financial difficulties have resulted in the closing of a number of Solomon Schechters and others are on the endangered list. They are usually replaced by transdenominational or Community day schools that are much weaker Jewishly. This translates into a loss for the Jewish future.

Conservative rabbis and leaders need to do more for Jewish education. One place to start is to provide significant funding to the movement's day schools and not to rely almost exclusively on tuition income. I am not confident that Arnold Eisen, JTS's incoming Chancellor who will be the movement's top leader, is sufficiently committed to meaningful Jewish education. He is thoughtful and talented and in a number of ways a good man, but he is not a religious figure. It is a mistake on both administrative and ideological grounds not to separate the JTS and the movement's leadership positions.

Throughout the network of Orthodox outreach activities there are Conservative Jews who are attracted by the meaningful classes and other educational opportunities. This demonstrates the eagerness of these Jews to study and to grow in Judaism. In Conservative synagogues, too often the educational pattern is Judaism light and the results reflect this.

As Conservatism continues to be challenged by membership losses, the prospect is for additional excuses to reduce what Judaism requires of Jews. This may buy some time, but not much. It will exact a large cost. Conservatism is no longer at a crossroads. That point was crossed a long time ago. What lies ahead looks bleak. The key question is not whether the movement can be salvaged because ultimately it cannot. The question is whether while it is still operational, the Conservative movement can make a contribution to American Jewish religious life.