Was the Conservative Decline Inevitable?

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Was the Conservative Decline Inevitable? A Baal Teshuva’s Perspective

by David P. Goldman

“Nowhere is [the] rapid collapse [of non-Orthodox American Judaism] more visible than in the Conservative movement, which is practically imploding before our eyes,” writes Rabbi Daniel Gordis in the current issue of The Jewish Review of Books. “In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement, then the largest of the movements. By the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the number had declined to 38 percent. In 2000, it was 26 percent, and now, according to Pew, Conservative Judaism is today the denominational home of only 18 percent of Jews. And they are graying. Among Jews under the age of 30, only 11 percent of respondents defined themselves as Conservative.”

Was this outcome inevitable? Less than five years ago I worked up the courage to daven at an Orthodox shul after two decades of regular attendance at Conservative synagogues. I am a small part of the phenomenon which Rabbi Gordis and it looked altogether different to me. Gordis, long a leader in the Conservative movement and now vice president of Israel’s Shalem Institute, thinks the collapse of the movement was avoidable. If Conservative leaders had addressed the existential imperative of their congregants and preached the meaning and significance of tradition rather than offering Halakha-lite, he believes, American Jews still would have a choice between the rigor of Orthodoxy and the self-indulgence of Jewish liberalism.

Rabbi Gordis asks:

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?

American Jews deserved more choices, and a Conservative Judaism with a different discourse at its core might have provided one. Conservative Judaism could have been the movement that made an argument for tradition and distinctiveness without a theological foundation that is for most modern Jews simply implausible; instead of theology, it could have spoken of traditional Judaism and its spiritual discipline as our unique answer to the human need for meaning.

By way of illustration of the “human need for meaning,” Rabbi Gordis quotes the Catholic historian Charles Taylor: “Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial.” Gordis adds, “That is the sort of argument that mainstream Conservative Judaism… could have and should have invoked.”

These rabbis don’t explicitly reject the Election of Israel, but merely drown it in the formaldehyde of myth

There is a problem with Rabbi Gordis’ premise. Conservative Judaism is theologically incapable of providing a unique Jewish answer to the universal search for “meaning.” All human beings require meaning. Cultures that lose their sense of meaning die out for lack of interest. Christianity proposes a meaning that applies to all people under all circumstances, while Judaism proceeds from the specific meaning accorded to a nation apart, that of Hashem’s special love for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah and the holiness of the Jewish people in their flesh. This is a notion that transcends reason, for it presumes a God of passionate, jealous love who confers blessing as much as he demands dedication. We are the “exemplar and paragon of a people” such that “world history is the history of Israel” (Rosenzweig). This is not a message Conservative rabbis can convey.

Liberal Jewish denominations have a particular problem with Parshat Zachor and its admonition (Deuteronomy 25:19) to blot out the name of Amalek from under the sun (and its Haftorah from I Samuel condemning Saul for his failure to execute the order). The idea that the biblical God would ordain the annihilation of an entire people grinds against the universalist predilection of progressive Judaism. To the extent one believes that the main events of history have something to do with divine providence, though, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hashem exterminated not merely Amalek, but also every other people that lived between the Indus River and the Pillars of Hercules. Except for the Jews, not one of them survives. Perhaps 150,000 languages have been spoken by humankind, and 6,000 are spoken today, of which perhaps a tenth are likely to survive the next hundred years. Of the extinct languages we can decipher the writing of perhaps seventy. The war chants, religious hymns, love songs, jokes and stories of all the rest are silent as stones. If it were not for the Jews, no-one would find this noteworthy; like the ancient pagans whose gods were immortal but not eternal, the extinction of the peoples would be a routine and unremarkable business. It is only because Israel is eternal and because Christianity transmitted its version of the Jewish concept of eternity to the Gentiles, that the world supposes in the first place that all cultures should carry on indefinitely. What clearer demonstration could there be that Israel is the “paragon and exemplar of a people”?

In the long view of things, it should not be a surprise that most Jews assimilate and fall away; the source of astonishment should be the fact that there are any Jews left at all. There are no Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites or Canaanites, after all, and soon there will be no Hungarians, Estonians or Ukrainians. Not long afterwards there will be neither Germans nor Italians.

With the single exception of Amalek, Jews are not admonished to hasten the demise of other peoples. But we are expected to consider in awe that, in terms of historical endurance, the Gentile nations are dust on the scales and a drop in the bucket. Just how do we truck in “meaning” in the face of such terrible events? One solution is to relativize them, and that is what the Conservative mainstream now preaches: We did not leave Egypt with signs and wonders amid the corpses of the country’s first-born, and exterminate large parts of the local population of Canaan as we settled it, say Conservative, Reform and now even one Open Orthodox rabbi. That is myth, they aver, not history, citing the academic consensus among archaeologists. Judaism therefore has no particular claim to truth, only its own truth, a salvation history, a narrative like the narrative of other peoples; we can cherish it as a myth without confronting the enormity of Election. That solves the problem of particularity, but also destroys the reason to be Jewish in the first place.

Progressive Judaism is a variant of liberal Christianity with a kippa

These rabbis destroy Judaism with their theology. They don’t explicitly reject the Election of Israel, but merely drown it in the formaldehyde of myth, so that we may be reduced to one more nation with a self-serving but false founding narrative. They teach that we are merely one of a myriad of cultures and have invented our own meaning (for example by inventing the myth of an Exodus from Egypt).

Judaism is not merely a myth nor a comforting culture; it is an obligation, a submission, a demanding personal sacrifice. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote of the pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of a mother’s first-born son (in Community, Covenant and Commitment), “The father of today, as Abraham of old, acknowledges absolute ownership of the child by God. He renounces all illusory rights and urgent claims to this child; he makes the movement of withdrawal from the most important position in man’s life – his relatedness to posterity. He retreats from an existential structure in which all – father, mother and child – are indissolubly united. It is an act of paradoxical self-transcendence, of knocking out the bottom of one’s existence, of revoking the irrevocable, and of making the leap in to the realm of the absurd. God wills the consecration of the first-born son because the emotional involvement of the parent with his first born is of the most intricate and intimate nature and the closer the relation and the more deep-rooted the commitment the father to the child, the more sublime and hallowed is the sacrifice.”

That is Judaism, and most Jews do not practice it because they want to preserve their autonomy rather than sacrifice themselves, however vicariously.

Tefillin are a sine qua non of Jewish life. A Conservative rabbi taught me to wrap tefillin, but never told me what was in the boxes—only that they were a connection to our ancient past, a living relic, so to speak. The current Reform siddur, Mishkan Tfilah, mentions the “winding of tefillin” but does not trouble to quote the scriptural texts contained in them (although it finds space for a great deal of execrable adolescent poetry). That is ritual as mere folkways, rather than a daily evocation of the awe of the Exodus and the dread of Mount Moriah.

Wrapping tefillin is not simply an historical link to our past or a pretty ritual. The purpose of the mitzvah is illuminated by Rav Soloveitchik’s account, linking Abraham’s binding of Isaac to the killing of the Egyptian first-born. This is not Judaism as “a conversation framed around profound issues and texts,” but an existential stance. We do not reflect on the text; we stand in Abraham’s shoes. That stance has sustained the Jewish people over three and a half millennia while every other ancient people disappeared, and most modern peoples head towards disappearance.

Many more Conservative Jews leave the movement for Reform than for Orthodoxy. Presumably this is because they do not wish to stand in fear and trembling before a personal God who makes such demands on us. They find more comfort in the alternative view, namely that God loves everyone in the same way with selfless affection.

That view is otherwise known as liberal Christianity. Looking back on my two decades in Conservative synagogues, it seems clear to me in retrospect that progressive Judaism is a variant of liberal Christianity with a kippa. I am one of the 4% of ex-Conservative Jews who, according to the Pew Study, moved to Orthodoxy (30% go to Reform).

The uniqueness of Israel’s election and the existential commitment demanded of every Jew are rejected out hand by the Conservative mainstream. I do not think that the Election of Israel ever was clear in Conservative thinking. My personal experience is atypical but not ipso facto irrelevant. As mentioned, I began attending an Orthodox shul five years ago. A number of things got me in the door, including the writing of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and his students, but nothing I had read quite prepared me for what I encountered. In coming to Orthodoxy I converted to a different religion altogether.

R. Soloveitchik’s God is a God who loves his people Israel and makes demands in return


My family was left wing and secular, and despite a few years of desultory attendance at a Reconstructionist Hebrew School and a regurgitated Haftorah at thirteen, I had little connection to Judaism. I was a leftwing universalist with little nostalgia for the “Jewish folkways” celebrated by the Reconstructionists. A religious experience in my mid-30s left no doubt in my mind that there was a God who heard our prayers. What to do with this experience was another matter. Reading The Sabbath by the sage of Conservative Judaism, A. J. Heschel, led me to one Conservative synagogue, and then to another more traditional one. I wasn’t one of the devout Camp Ramah kids Rabbi Gordis mentions who found their way to the “bosom of Orthodoxy.” I had to learn the observance of mitzvot from scratch; apart from Hanukkah candles and the Seder plate, my family knew none of them.

At the time I was an editor at the religious-intellectual monthly First Things. Before his death in 1974, Rabbi Heschel had been a mentor to the journal’s founder Richard John Neuhaus. Why, I wondered, had First Things never published an essay on Heschel’s theology? I set out to commission one. The essay turned out to be unwriteable. At length a young Catholic theologian explained why: Heschel’s most important book, God in Search of Man, contains page after page of liberal Protestantism, he observed. God is lonely and wants man’s company, and awaits man with a kindly glance and a twinkle in his eye, more Santa Claus than Ribbono shel Olam. It is the Attribute of Mercy without the Attribute of Justice, or precisely what liberal Christianity propounds: a God whose love for mankind is universal and selfless. In fact, orthodox Christians have more in common with Orthodox Jews than either of us has in common with our own progressive wings. We may disagree about what is true, but we agree that there is a truth.

Heschel was a man of great merit, to be sure. He represented Jewish interests at the Second Vatican Council with passion and rectitude. His meditation The Sabbath portrayed a temple in time and persuaded me to begin lighting Shabbat candles. But he also succumbed to a universalism that confounded tikkun olam with left wing political goals (“Why is it so important to you that the Communists win in Vietnam?,” Michael Wyschogrod asked him during the 1960s). If “meaning” consists of acknowledging God’s selfless love for mankind and his desire for human company, why shouldn’t Judaism focus its efforts on saving everybody from war and poverty? And what is unique about Judaism to begin with?

Then I read the newly-released English version of R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s principle work And From There You Shall Seek which Rabbi Shalom Carmy reviewed for First Things. The Rav’s introduction considers the Song of Songs, emphasizing an obvious point that escapes most readers: the lovers flee from each other as much as they pursue each other. The girl claims that she is sick with love, but when her lover knocks on her door she cannot arise from her bed; she jumps up to open the latch but he has already gone, and she searches for him through the streets of nighttime Jerusalem. Attraction alternates with repulsion, love merges with fear.

Love of God and fear of God are the same thing, for to love God means giving up so much of one’s self that the ego fears dissolution. This was not Heschel’s lonely God looking for company, who is hurt when man sins, but a God who loves Israel with jealousy and passion, whose love is fierce as death, whose passion is strong as the grave, whose seraph’s kiss burns the lips like a live coal. This is not the Christian God who sacrifices himself out of selfless love, but a God who loves his people Israel and makes demands in return. These demands are the mitzvot: they are the means that Hashem has given us to approach him.

Rabbi Gordis describes Conservative Judaism as “an option for those for whom the rigors of Orthodoxy were too great, but for whom Judaism as a conversation framed around profound issues and texts was still compelling.” That’s rather like a love affair whose main activity consists of talking about the relationship–a rarefied Judaism, a broth without knaidlach, as Heinrich Heine put it. Real love consumes our whole physical being. Judaism, as Michael Wyschogrod writes, is a religion of the body. It demands union with the beloved, with its attendant existential risk and heightened sense of being. Rarefied Judaism is not Judaism at all. There is a precise word for rarefied Judaism, and it is: Christianity.

Some fifteen years ago Rabbi David Lincoln asked the congregants of (Conservative) Park Avenue Synagogue to have understanding for the Orthodox position regarding the Kotel. Unlike Conservative Jews, he averred, “the Orthodox have a passion for prayer,” and maintain a presence at the Kotel precisely because they pray there all the time. One might add that the Orthodox have a passion for the mitzvot: these are acts of love to be performed not mechanically but with tiferet, with a sense of glory before the Holy One of Israel.

By no means do I want to suggest that Jews with a passion for prayer and mitzvot are to be found only in Orthodox synagogues, or that every member of an Orthodox synagogue evinces such passion. One finds obscurantism and rote performance in the Orthodox world, but far less than the liberal caricature of Orthodoxy portrays. One is more likely to find impassioned commitment.

The now-retired rabbi of Manhattan’s Conservative Congregation Or Zarua, Harlan Wechsler, mentioned some years ago that Chabad had hosted some 1,000 students for Rosh HaShanah. “I’m not going to exchange my knitted kippa for a black hat,” Rabbi Wechsler admonished his congregation, “but the reason that Chabad attracts such numbers is that it offers young Jews the real, unadulterated Judaism from which they were so carefully sheltered at home.” They offer commitment, a demanding relationship with a personal God, an authentic and undiluted rigor.

Rabbi Wechsler’s insight remains sound, if unheeded. Rabbi Gordis urges the Orthodox not to gloat over the disintegration of the Conservative movement, and he is entirely correct to do so. But the best thing that Orthodoxy can do for the shrinking denominations of liberal Judaism is to offer an example of “real, unadulterated Judaism.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

4 comments

  1. Very interesting post. I was wondering if you could help me make order of some of the personalities you mentioned (and some you didn’t).

    You place Heschel and Wyschogrod on opposite sides. However, they both seem to be far on the side of viewing God as a person/personality. If anything, Wyschogrod was more extreme on this point.

    As an example of this, Rabbi Meir Solovetichik, in an essay in First Things, criticizes Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, regarding an essay that the latter wrote in Tradition (1962), where Berkovits wrote that Heschel’s views of God as “all personal” were “alien and objectionable concepts” to a Jewish point of view. Meir Soloveitchik here (and in many other places) defends Wyschogrod. So where is the difference between Heschel and Wyschogrod?

  2. Prof. Wyschogrod is strictly Orthodox in his emphasis on the mitzvot and Judaism as “a religion of the body.” His presentation of God’s love for Israel emphasizes the Attribute of Justice as well as the Attribute of Mercy. This is not “God in search of Man,” that is, the abstract and general man of liberal Protestantism, but a personal God who fell in love with a specific man, Abraham, and loves his descendants for the sake of the beloved ancestor. Wyschogrod proposes a radically different concept of God’s love as well as the object of that love. Wyschogrod learned with R. Soloveitchik for six years; his concept of love is entirely consistent with the presentation I cited in U’Vikkashtem mi-Sham. I never met the late R. Heschel, who died in 1974, but I had the privilege to learn with Prof. Wyschogrod. It is very difficult to confuse their views. R. Jonathan Sacks once told me that Wyschogrod is the closest thing we have to a systematic theology. It is hard to depict Heschel as systematic.

  3. Bob, sorry to take so long to reply — I’m traveling overseas. It’s certainly possible that declining fertility can be reversed. Russia’s fertility has ticked up considerably, and it is not clear why; it may be a sign of returning national confidence after the awful situation following the collapse of Communism. But Hungary and the Baltic States seem locked in a sort of despondency that has no apparent cure. See http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/CEN-01-151013.html
    The matter of Amalek has been put just the way you describe, among others by G.B. Shaw. I think the answer is that the world towards the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. was a very different place–archaeologists call it “The Catastrophe” at the end of the Bronze Age. Everybody was exterminating everyone else and the destruction of Amalek was a matter of self-defense in the context of the period. The Jews represented no threat whatever to Germany (on the contrary, Jews had served Germany faithfully in the First World War) and there was no pretext, let along a justification, for the extermination of the Jews–only vicious hatred and paranoia.

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