The Decline of Conservative Judaism

Have a look at this interesting article, by Samantha Shapiro at Slate, about the decline of conservative Judaism. She writes:

Since 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary has sought to negotiate a middle ground between Orthodox Judaism, which (to vastly oversimplify) teaches that the Torah and Rabbinic law were authored by God, and Reform Judaism, which sees obedience of Jewish law, or Halakha, as a choice, not a divine mandate. Conservative Judaism, which began as a congregational movement in 1913, attempts to bridge the gap–to affirm the divinity of ancient Jewish law but also to allow changes to accommodate modern circumstances. “Tradition and change” is a movement motto.

I think this leaves something important out of the equation. Conservative Judaism was born in part out of the practical reality that most American communities can only support one synagogue. That is why a compromise between Orthodox and Reform Judaism was necessary in the first place. If all Jews were going to worship together in one place, there had to be enough adherence to law and tradition to satisfy the Orthodox, but not in so dogmatic a fashion that the Reform are driven away.

Incidentally, the whole idea of a practical compromise is something that distinguishes Judaism from Christianity. Christianity is centered around doctrine. If you disagree with the church on certain key points then you are simply not a member in good standing of that church. Judaism, by contrast, is not centered around doctrine. It is centered around law. The differing viewpoints of Reform and Orthodox Jews represent mere disagreements about how the law is to be applied in day-to-day life, not heresies to be opposed at all costs. But Reform Jews are not one whit less Jewish than Orthodox Jews.

Shapiro writes:

Schorsch argued that today, that sort of learning has fallen out of favor because students crave a “quick spiritual fix.” I think the problem is more complicated. For starters, the JTS never figured out a way to generate the kind of passion that is evident at most Orthodox yeshivas. The logical extension of Conservative Judaism’s academic scholarship is that to obey Halakha just because “God says so” is intellectually dishonest. But if that’s the case, then why not throw over religious law, like Reform Jews do? The middle-ground movement has come up with no satisfactory answer. It makes do with guilt and a sort of schmaltzy ode to tradition a la Fiddler on the Roof.

It is in the nature of compromise positions that they do not inspire much passion. And since Conservative Judaism was born out of a practical need to unite small Jewish communities containing very disparate viewpoints, it’s not surprising that it has had difficulty finding firm theological footing.

What it comes down to is that unless you live in an area with a large Jewish community, it is very difficult t live in strict accordance with what the Torah seems to require. For most people it is not an option to live within walking distance of the synagogue. And maintaining a stricly kosher home is next to impossible if you live, say, in central Kansas. This demands certain compromises.

Anyway, I recommend the entire article.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    August 31, 2006

    “But Reform Jews are not one whit less Jewish than Orthodox Jews.”

    No true in Israel. Reform Judaism is not recognized there and marriages performed by reform rabbis are not recognized.

  2. #2 Mike the Mad Biologist
    August 31, 2006

    Jason,

    I think one issue that has contributed to Conservative Judaism’s decline and Reform’s rise has been the relative acceptance of mixed marriages by many Reform rabbis and congregations (compared to Conservative). My take on the observance side of things is that many Reform congregations have moved towards the Conservative movement.

  3. #3 AlanW
    September 1, 2006

    “Incidentally, the whole idea of a practical compromise is something that distinguishes Judaism from Christianity.”
    “Reform Jews are not one whit less Jewish than Orthodox Jews.”
    Sadly, I think that Judaism is rapidly splitting into separate sects just like Christianity. I know many orthodox rabbis who do not eat at other orthodox rabbis houses because they permit different hechshers on food. Jewish singles seeking FFB partners. The Orthodox do not recognize Reform/Conservative conversions or patralinical descent allowed by Reform. In turn, many Reform people that I know are vehemently anti-Orthodox.

  4. #4 Alex
    September 1, 2006

    You guys are forgetting the newest movement in Judaism: Reconstructionism. I imagine that the Conservative movement would lose more members to Reconstructionism than Reform because most Conservative Jews I know feel that the Reform movement does not have enough meat to it. For example, a Conservative service bores you because it takes so long, while a Reform service bores you because it ends to fast. I could be wrong, my opinion is based on the congregants in my area.
    Or maybe its because Reform rabbis are the only rabbis willing to say a bracha for you’re new Lexus.

  5. #5 evolvealready
    September 2, 2006

    When my sister in-law, living in Israel, was seen wearing a kippa (She’s a Reconstructionist Rabbi) she and a couple of her friends were egged by a few Orthodox students at an outdoor cafe. Nice.

  6. #6 leo
    September 13, 2006

    The conservative movement cannot and does not “satisfy the orthodox”; nor does it make sense to the reform. These and other comments lead me to believe that the author of this stub doesn’t really understand the various movements.

    The fact is that while conservatives say that they’re movement “bridges the gap between orthodoxy and reform”, the truth is that conservatives are jews who are neither here nor there, and it is precisely that lack of definition which is causing their numbers to dwindle.

    It’s unfortunate how many intelligent jews do not understand even basic ideas in judaism nor jewish history.

  7. #7 Stephen Beller
    January 17, 2011

    The decline of all of the Jewish Religions signifagance in the world is because of its leaders lack of spirituality. The other day I was in a Minion at the Chabad House in Salt Lake City, Ut. and the Rabbi was leading the Minion commemorating his Father’s Yarzeit. And to my astonishment while he was chanting some prayers from his memory he was texting on his cell phone. Oh, how fallen are we because of our leaders lack of any inspirtaion or connection to Hashem no matter what denomination you may adhere to this internal disrespect for G-D somehow comes through to us and therefore the Synagogues are empty.
    Please reply to my e-mail.
    Syephen Beller
    stephenbeller@yahoo.com

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