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Bill Narvey

Bill Narvey: Is The Conservative Judaism Movement Dying?

by Bill Narvey, December 7, 2013

Perhaps this question is better put by asking is Conservative Judaism that our parents and grandparents knew vanishing,  is that to be celebrated or mourned and if the latter,  can and will the Conservative movement act to reverse this trend before Kaddish needs to be said?

The Conservative movement arose  in reaction to the Reform movement having its start in 19th century Germany,  when its leaders sought to serve the needs of those Jews for whom Reform Judaism was too modern while Orthodox Judaism was too old world and dogmatic.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis has recently written an important treatise, Requiem for a Movement    Gordis thus begins a discussion that Conservative Jews cannot afford to put off any longer. 

Gordis contends inter alia that:

“Could matters really have ended otherwise? To be honest, I don’t know. But we also didn’t really try. Looming unasked in Conservative circles is the following question: Can one create a community committed to the rigors of Jewish traditional living without a literal (read Orthodox) notion of revelation at its core? Are the only choices that American Jews have Orthodoxy (modern, or less so), radicalized liberal Jewishness with its wholesale abandonment of tradition, or aliyah to Israel? …

The moral of the sad story of Conservative Judaism is this: Human beings do not run from demands that might root them in the cosmos. They seek significance, and for traditions that offer it, they will sacrifice a great deal. Orthodoxy offers that, and the results are clear. Liberal American Judaism does not, and it is paying the price.

Those who will live in the aftermath of Conservative Judaism’s demise will live in an American Judaism diminished and robbed of an important voice. This is not the moment for gloating or for self-congratulation—even within Orthodoxy. This is the moment to begin to ask the question that the Pew study puts squarely in front of us: If Orthodoxy is intellectually untenable for many, and liberal Judaism is utterly incapable of transmitting content and substance, is there no option for Jewish continuity other than Israel?  There must be. Those who care about the future of the Jewish people had better embark now on the search for what it might be”.

Conservative Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, while agreeing with much of Gordis’ argument, still concludes that Conservative Judaism is  not as far gone as Gordis suggests.  See:  Write No Requiem For The Conservative Movement  Rabbi Skolnik however, recognizes that Gordis has raised important issues that must be addressed and thus calls on his Conservative movement, to earnestly embark on the discussion Gordis has begun.

What prompted Gordis’ piece was the recent troubling, if not alarming report by PEW regarding the impact of assimilative modernity on non Orthodox Jews and Jewish life in America.  Not that this most recent PEW report reflects a new phenomenon.  Every year we are confronted by such increasingly  disturbing reports. 

Taken together, these reports provide compelling evidence that assimilative forces bound up in the word modernity are taking a toll on Jewish numbers and are changing the nature, character and definition of what it means to be a non-Orthodox Jew. 

This evidence has broader implications than just  where the  Conservative Judaic movement is at and where it is headed.   Rabbi Skolnik alludes to this where he states:

 “The fundamental challenge of our movement in America remains the same today as it was a generation of two ago: to navigate the post-Emancipation tension between tradition and modernity”.    

It is however, not so much a tension as it is a contest between tradition and modernity, each pulling  the Jewish community in opposite directions and but for the Orthodox movement, modernity is winning out. 

Since the 1960’s in particular, North American society has experienced a societal trend towards liberalism recoiling against more traditional conservative thinking.  A great many Non-Orthodox Jews in particular, have been carried along with this movement and that is being reflected in the liberal path the Conservative Jewish movement is on and which the Reform movement took long ago. 

Some observe that the impetus for the Conservative movement’s modern liberal shift, is to better appeal and hold onto its congregants and  attract more, both of which are increasingly  liberal.   The argument following is that the Conservative movement, by modernizing to assure its own survival, is moving ever closer to being subsumed in the Reform movement.   That view is implied, if not expressed in Gordis’ thesis. 

Gordis’ argument actually goes beyond his dire prediction for the Conservative movement to an even more critical issue.  He contends  that the very survival of Judaism and continuity of Jewish life outside of Israel, is not found in Orthodox, Reform or liberal shifting Conservative movements.  On that point, Gordis’ poses a rhetorical question:

 “ If Orthodoxy is intellectually untenable for many, and liberal Judaism is utterly incapable of transmitting content and substance, is there no option for Jewish continuity other than Israel?” 

Gordis’ thesis on this point posits that the best chance for survival of Judaism and the continuity of Jewish life outside Israel, lies in the Conservative movement, but only if it can return to its traditional roots.

Gordis, by his treatise, is challenging the Conservative movement to begin a critically important existential discussion  that concerns not only the future of the Conservative movement, but the very future of Judaism and continuity of Jewish life outside of Israel. 

The critical question remaining is, do Conservative movement  leaders  have the courage to dare to take up the challenge Gordis has put before them?

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