By Rabbi Berel Wein
In an article that appeared two months ago in the Jewish Review of Books, Daniel Gordis wrote about the sorry state of the Conservative movement in the current American Jewish scene. The Pew Report documented, with a great body of anecdotal evidence, the demise of this once most numerous and powerful movement.
Gordis himself is the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family that exercised great influence in the Conservative movement over the past six decades. Gordis correctly bemoans the fact that for most American Jews their connection to Judaism can only be found in halachicly rigorous Orthodoxy or in a vague liberal, upper crust, vacuous social agenda which claims somehow to be a representation of the Jewish religion.
I also bemoan this fact of American Jewish life. I have long felt that a great deal of the responsibility for the apparently inexorable demise of the American Jewish community lies with the failure of the Conservative movement in preserving the Jewish identity and self-worth of its lay adherents.
If Conservative leadership would have spent energy and creativity in preserving Jewish values, families, a spirit of the Sabbath and a sense of loyalty to fellow Jews instead of aping current social trends that were doomed to spiritual obsolescence, the movement would be stronger and vital today.
Instead it seems doomed to extinction as the title of Gordis’ article indicates. I feel that it is not an exaggeration to state that the failure of the Conservative movement to maintain itself over the past decades has contributed greatly to the sorry state of non-belief, disloyalty and lack of spirituality, which characterizes current American Jewish society.
Gordis rightly puts the blame for this failure on the spiritual leadership of the movement, which made few demands on its congregants and succumbed to every societal whim of the time. A religion, which in essence stands for nothing and allows everything, cannot in the long run remain viable and alive.
Gordis emphasizes how the (in)famous decision of the Conservative movement in 1950 to allow its congregants to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat not only helped destroy the Shabbat but also contributed to the destruction of the movement itself. People instinctively saw through the sham and realized that if it was permissible to drive to the synagogue than it must also somehow be permissible on Shabbat to drive to the golf course.
People have the ability to do as they please but nevertheless a religious movement must always remain an arbiter of right and wrong, of what is permissible and what should not be done. By blurring that line the Conservative movement lost its identity and its reason for existence.
There are many Orthodox Jews who are not really halachicly observant in all forms of technical requirements. Nevertheless they realize that Orthodoxy stands for basic principles and historical beliefs that remain valid and uncompromising in its demands on its adherents. The Jew who drives his automobile to attend Shabbat services at an Orthodox synagogue is aware that he or she is not observing the Shabbat as it should be observed.
One is entitled to behave as one wishes but the requiem for the Conservative movement was pretty much self inflicted by its dumbing down of the core principles of Judaism and severing itself from the ideas of Jewish spirituality and historical continuity.
There is a dangerous trend that exists in the fringes of the Modern Orthodox Jewish world to imitate these errors of the Conservative movement. Feminist fetishes, women rabbis, condoning what the Torah specifically forbids, and disregarding lessons of past history and current conditions will in no way guarantee the survival of the Jewish family, the Orthodox synagogue or the general Jewish society.
A greater concentration on the value systems that the Torah represents, a true sense of tolerance for others and for differing opinions and an emphasis on spiritual growth as a necessary companion for pure Torah knowledge can create a wider reach and a stronger appeal in Orthodoxy. A clear definition of what we are, a delineation between true Jewish values and passing current fads and a sense of response to the existential questions of life – who I am, what am I doing here, and of what value is my existence – is the basic core of Jewish belief, theology and history.
The Conservative movement was somehow unable or unwilling to address these basic needs of the human soul. This more than anything else has led to its decline and predicted extinction. One would hope that the Orthodox Jewish world, instead of the exulting in unwarranted triumphalism, would learn the proper lessons from the debacle of current American Jewish life.