The institutions of Conservative Judaism—its synagogues, its summer camps, its youth organizations, its sisterhoods and men’s organizations, its seminaries, its rabbinate—will live on. Conservative Judaism as a movement, defined as a significant number of people whose daily lives reflect the acceptance of a distinctive way of life as articulated by an intelligentsia, may not.
Recent histories of American Judaism have failed to explore in depth this crisis, perhaps because doing so would risk harm to several sacred cows. Two of these sacred cows involve settled positions on gender and homosexuality. Traditional Judaism has from the beginning drawn a sharp line between the role of men and women both within and outside the synagogue. Woman’s primary responsibility was viewed as the raising of children and because of the demands this put on her time she was exempt from many religious obligations. Women were also forbidden to be rabbis because the Bible seemed to preclude their serving as judges and acting as a judge is an important element in a rabbi’s job description. A small number of Orthodox synagogues have hired women to be de facto rabbis with the understanding that they cannot serve as judges. Conservative Judaism, in contrast, opted to remove all religious distinctions between the sexes, including the elimination of the barrier separating men’s and women’s sections in the synagogue and the stricture on the ordination of women as rabbis.
The other sacred cow involves homosexuality, particularly religiously sanctioned same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay rabbis, both male and female. Traditional Jews point to the biblical strictures against homosexuality. Recently some Orthodox thinkers have taken a more welcoming stance toward homosexuals, but this is a minority position. By contrast, the Conservative seminaries now ordain homosexual men and women and some Conservative rabbis perform same-sex weddings.
The first of the problems confronting Conservative Judaism is one of numbers. “We are in deep trouble,” declared Edward Feinstein, rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino, California, a large Conservative congregation. “There isn’t a single demographic that is encouraging for the future of Conservative Judaism. Not one.” The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 reported that the percentage of congregationally affiliated American Jews who identified with Conservative Judaism had declined from 43 percent to 33 percent during the 1990s, and this decline, as the 2011 survey of Jews in the New York City area indicated, has continued during the past decade.
Two decades ago the Conservative movement was the largest denomination within American Judaism among Jews who belonged to a synagogue. By the year 2000 it had been overtaken by the Reform movement, which had increased its percentage of affiliated adults from 35 percent to 37 percent, and the gap between the two has continued to widen. In 1985 there were 850 Conservative synagogues in North America. Since then around two hundred have either folded or merged with Reform congregations.
There is little prospect in the near term that this declension can be reversed. Reform congregations have many more children enrolled in their educational programs than do Conservative synagogues, and the Conservative movement has had more difficulty in retaining the loyalty of its youth. This demographic hemorrhaging is reflected in the fact that the number of schools affiliated with the movement and the number of children attending these schools has declined by a third during the past two decades. Not surprisingly, the Conservative movement has been experiencing financial pressures and has had to curtail its programming. Conservative Judaism has become leaner, but it certainly has not become meaner if this implies a more committed, albeit smaller, constituency.
The second problem, closely related to the first as a cause and as an effect, is one of declining morale. Judging from pronouncements from its leaders and from private conversations with several Conservative rabbis, the mood within the movement is bleak, and many of its leaders fear it has lost its raison d’être and is ideologically adrift. A narrative of decline now dominates discussion of the movement’s future. Its leaders have called for reassessment and renewal, but such bromides will be ineffective as long as the sources of its problems are not understood. Nor will vacuous calls for outreach to the unaffiliated and disaffected, or for the establishment of new spiritual communities, be successful as long as the religious message of Conservative Judaism remains so cloudy.
The central issue for Conservative Judaism is whether it can remain faithful to Jewish tradition and intellectually honest while rejecting fundamentalism, and whether it can reconcile the individualism and personal autonomy so valued by Americans with the respect for community and rabbinic precedent central to Jewish tradition. A centrist movement that seeks to be all things to all people will certainly not flourish.
For some this crisis has had a personal dimension. In one notable example the son of a prominent Conservative rabbi, who had been president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of Conservative Judaism, was ordained an Orthodox rabbi. In another the son of a Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia has become a leading Orthodox authority on the Talmud. As more than one Conservative leader has somberly noted, our failures become Reform Jews and our successes become Orthodox.
It had been the hope of the founders of the Conservative movement in the early twentieth century that it would embody a modern, Americanized version of traditional Judaism. As late as the 1920s it was often difficult to distinguish between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, and there was even talk of merging Yeshiva University (an Orthodox institution) with the Jewish Theological Seminary (a Conservative one). It was common then for graduates of Yeshiva University to be ordained at the seminary and then to assume pulpits at Conservative congregations. Conservative Judaism emphasized its loyalty to “the Torah and its historical exposition,” the observance of Sabbath and the dietary laws, and maintenance of the traditional liturgy.
When in 1902 Solomon Schechter became the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, his philosophy of “Catholic Israel” shaped the thinking of the early Conservative movement. By “Catholic Israel” he meant a big-tent Judaism that would be open to innovation and yet respectful of Jewish tradition. His “vision of a traditional service infused with English, decorum, and modern education,” writes Michael R. Cohen in his recent book, The Birth of Conservative Judaism, was perfectly compatible with what later became known as “Modern Orthodoxy.” Schechter believed that Jewish law could and must change, but this could occur only when the various segments of the Jewish people were willing to go along.
Schechter died in 1915, and later generations of JTS graduates were less committed to “Catholic Israel.” This was particularly true after World War II, when graduates of the seminary wanted Conservative Judaism to become a distinctive Jewish movement with a unique approach to Jewish law and tradition. Symptomatic of this was the change in the name of the United Synagogue of America to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The Conservative assumption was that as the immigrant population died out, European-style Orthodoxy would slowly disappear, a victim of upward social and economic mobility, acculturation, and Americanization, and that Conservative Judaism would fill the resulting vacuum. This was one of the themes of Nathan Glazer’s 1957 book, American Judaism. Orthodoxy might not totally disappear, but, Glazer argued, it would be restricted to those outside the American Jewish mainstream, such as recent immigrants, Hasidic sects, and residents of poor inner-city neighborhoods.
The decades immediately after World War II were the golden age of Conservative Judaism, and it was infused by a sense of triumphalism. From 1945 to 1965, 450 new congregations joined United Synagogue of America—more than the combined total of new Reform and Orthodox congregations. In 1956 and 1957 alone, 130 congregations joined United Synagogue. Some of these were newly-founded congregations, while others were former Orthodox congregations. By the 1960s Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination within American Judaism, and its leaders expected that the movement would continue expanding.
This sense of triumph permeated Marshall Sklare’s pioneering 1955 sociological study, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement. The movement had made “a notable contribution to survivalism and . . . provides a significant institutional framework for a possible revivified Judaism.” There was no reason “the vitality of Conservatism should not continue for quite some time.” Five years later, Conservative rabbi Max Routtenberg told his rabbinic colleagues that “the future belongs to us. The tide of Conservative Judaism is still running strongly and will yet increase in the next generation or two. It meets the needs of American Jews better than Reform or Orthodoxy. It holds within it promise of an abundant and meaningful life, and there are many who believe that this promise will be fulfilled.”
I experienced this flowering of Conservative Judaism as a boy. In January 1951, my bar mitzvah ceremony occurred at B’nai Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., an Orthodox congregation located in a small building, formerly a church. That same year the congregation moved four blocks away to a much larger building in a prestigious neighborhood one block from the home of Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, the city’s major league baseball team. When the congregation moved it changed its affiliation from Orthodox to Conservative and provided family pews so that men and women could sit together in keeping with modern social norms rather than separately as in Orthodox synagogues.
This change was sanctioned, or at least not strenuously opposed, by the congregation’s ostensibly Orthodox rabbi. It was not coincidental that the synagogue moved to the new and prestigious address and simultaneously changed its religious affiliation since both moves were responses to the same status aspirations. B’nai Israel would eventually become the largest Conservative synagogue in metropolitan Washington.
By 1951 the ties of the mostly American-born and increasingly affluent Jews of B’nai Israel to Orthodoxy had become attenuated, and they were attracted to Conservative Judaism’s more upscale image and its flexibility regarding Jewish observance. Three years earlier, the Rabbinical Assembly had rejected a resolution that its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards should be instructed “to hold itself bound by the authority of Jewish law and within the frame of Jewish law.”
In 1950, the committee sanctioned traveling in an automobile on the Sabbath as long as this was necessary to attend Sabbath services. The postwar spread of the Jewish population had made it difficult, if not impossible, for many Jews to walk to synagogue. By then the membership of B’nai Israel had spread to the furthest reaches of northwest Washington and even into the adjacent suburbs. In 1950 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards also approved the use of electricity on the Sabbath in order to enhance enjoyment of the day.
Conservative Judaism was also far more open than Orthodoxy to the demands of women for gender equality. In 1954 the Rabbinical Assembly voted in principle to equalize the status of women in Jewish law. In 1973 it allowed women to be counted toward the quorum of ten adults needed for communal prayer, and in 1983 the faculty of the JTS voted to admit women into its rabbinic program. Two years later the seminary ordained Amy Eilberg, the daughter of a Pennsylvania congressman. This was done over the protests of members of the Talmud faculty, presumably the authority on such matters.
The drive for gender equality did not go unchallenged. David Halivni Weiss, the JTS’ most distinguished Talmudist, left the seminary for a position at Columbia University and became the guru of an organization of dissident rabbis called the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, which later became the Union for Traditional Judaism (note the dropping of the word “Conservative”). The group, which included First Things board member Rabbi David Novak, even founded its own seminary in competition to JTS.
The gender question and other issues have led to debate within Conservative circles over the nature of Conservative Judaism. What is it? What does it mean to be a centrist traditional Jewish movement? What distinguishes Conservative Judaism from Reform, and are the differences large enough to justify institutional independence? Can Conservative Judaism continue to claim that it is faithful to Jewish tradition and law? Where does tradition end and innovation begin? How large can the Conservative Judaism tent be before it ceases to be Conservative?
Since the majority of the Conservative laity are indifferent to matters of religious ideology and Jewish observance, the distinctions between Conservative and Reform Judaism have become increasingly irrelevant. Both movements support Zionism, have come to terms with modern American culture, and demand little in the way of observance. Just as Protestants move easily from a Methodist to an Episcopal church, so Conservative Jews move from a Conservative to a Reform synagogue at the drop of a hat, or, in this case, the drop of a skullcap.
Conservative Judaism has also faced a challenge from the right. Orthodox Judaism in America has, to the surprise of many, prospered during the past half century. In the mid-twentieth century, sociologists of religion believed the inexorable march of secularism would force the decline of conservative religion in general and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Any resuscitation of Orthodoxy would only temporarily exhume a religious ideology incompatible with the regnant social and intellectual trends. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, however, Orthodox Judaism began experiencing a renaissance. Not only did this baffle the sociologists, but it also confounded leaders of Conservative Judaism, which now faced an unexpected and serious challenge from an Orthodoxy which refused to acknowledge it as a legitimate form of traditional Judaism.
The revival of Orthodox Judaism, writes the historian Jonathan D. Sarna, “is one of the great stories of postwar Judaism.” The 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey estimated that the share of Orthodox Jews among Jews affiliated with a synagogue had increased from 16 percent to 23 percent during the 1990s. This number has grown even more in the past decade, and it would not surprise demographers if the Orthodox percentage, because of the high Orthodox birth rate, now exceeds that of Conservative Judaism. When Marshall Sklare brought out a second edition of Conservative Judaism in 1972, he included a new chapter on “Recent Developments in Conservative Judaism.” Here he claimed that Conservative Judaism was in the midst of a “crisis” stemming from, among other things, the revitalization of Orthodoxy. “The belief among Conservative leaders that the movement’s approach to halakhah (i.e., Jewish law) had the power to maintain observance, as well as to inspire its renewal,” he said, “has proved illusory.”
The resurgence of Orthodoxy refuted the Conservative assumption that Orthodoxy could not attract the affluent, well-educated, and upwardly socially mobile, and that the traditionally-minded among them would inevitably gravitate to Conservative Judaism. During the past half century the exact opposite has occurred. Those Jews who identify with Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy are college graduates with degrees from some of America’s most prestigious universities, often prosperous and successful professionals and businessmen (and women), who worship in elegant buildings. (This in contrast to Jews living within the encapsulated yeshiva world of Monsey, New York, the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Lakewood, New Jersey.) The flourishing of Modern Orthodoxy has deprived Conservative Judaism of what it once perceived to be its natural constituency, and its contemporary discontents are due in part to its need to discover a new clientele and to define a new mission.
This has been difficult. In a 2007 article in Commentary, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at JTS, described what he termed “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism.” His article was prompted by the attempt that year of Conservative Judaism’s leaders to reconcile the opposition of Jewish texts and tradition to homosexuality with the growing agitation among the Conservative laity and rabbinate in support of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians. This attempt to square the circle has proven impossible, and the pronouncements on homosexuality emanating from the movement were, as one would expect, contradictory. This did not stop the two American Conservative seminaries from announcing that they would immediately accept homosexuals as rabbinic students or the Rabbinical Assembly from recognizing their graduates as legitimate Conservative rabbis.
The most dramatic public expression of the discontents of Conservative Judaism occurred the previous May when Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of JTS, gave the commencement address. Instead of offering the optimistic clichés typical on such occasions, Schorsch, the titular head of Conservative Judaism, bitterly attacked the movement and the institution over which he had presided for two decades.
He claimed that Conservative Judaism’s recent attempts to amalgamate truth and faith were “inane,” that “impoverishment” and “malaise” characterized those, including the seminary’s rabbinical students, who craved a “quick spiritual fix” rather than immersion in Judaism’s basic texts, and that Conservative Judaism lacked spiritual passion and suffered from “a grievous failure of nerve.” At one point he attacked “pampered and promiscuous individualists contemptuous of all norms.” It was unclear whether he was referring to that year’s graduates, to Conservative Jews in general, or to American Jewry at large, but the members of the audience believed he was talking about them and that his words were in exceedingly bad taste, to say the least.
Schorsch’s address was not merely the rant of a disappointed academic to his students for failing to live up to his lofty expectations. It was also a pessimistic prognosis by an insider of a movement he believed had seen its better days and of its flagship institution that he thought was sinking. While Conservative Jews were dumbfounded by Schorsch’s words, Orthodox Jews welcomed them. “As another Jewish heretic movement nears its end,” one Orthodox Jew wrote, “its more perceptive members take notice and wring their hands. When will they take the next logical step and return to their real roots—traditional Torah Judaism?” Another Orthodox Jew claimed that Schorsch’s speech was further confirmation of the fact that Conservative Judaism lacked “a distinctive outlook that can win support. What was built to be relevant is now the picture of irrelevance.”
Schorsch had voiced similar sentiments to his fellow Conservative rabbis two months before at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. He criticized them for pushing for the ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriages. “What ails the Conservative movement is that it has lost faith in itself,” he told his unsympathetic audience. Accepting homosexuality would remove one of the major remaining distinctions between Reform and Conservative Judaism, raise legitimate questions about Conservative Judaism’s traditionalist credentials, and prompt rabbis and lay people to leave the movement.
Neal Gillman, a professor at JTS, speaking for many within the Conservative world, thought the developments Schorsch lamented to be advances. At the 2005 convention of the United Synagogue in Boston, he had urged Conservative Judaism to “abandon its claim that we are a halakhic movement.” He offered a new definition of Conservative Judaism: “living with ambiguity.” But no change in nomenclature could conceal the major challenge to Conservative Judaism of reconciling distinctiveness with diversity. If halakhah is no longer determinative, what differentiates Conservative Judaism from Reform? And why should anyone want to live with ambiguity when there are rival movements offering clarity and certainty?
“Which way will the movement go?” Cohen asks.
Will it return to Schechter’s Catholic Israel, seeking to unite the American Jewish world behind a message of a traditional Judaism that is relevant in the lives of modern Americans? . . . Struggling between a commitment to tradition and a desire for change, between those who advocate for a broadly encompassing ‘big tent’ movement and those who seek a more narrowly defined, ideologically coherent one, the Conservative movement faces difficult choices.
These choices are made even more difficult because of the movement’s dwindling numbers and the challenges emanating from Reform and Orthodoxy. Before they even attempt to make any choices, the leaders of Conservative Judaism must decide whether they face a problem for which there are answers or whether they are confronting a condition for which there is no solution.
Edward S. Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University.