Friday, December 13, 2013

Ill, Not Dead

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the greatest American essayist and one of my personal culture heroes, wrote famously in “Self Reliance” about the pointlessness of yearning to have one’s views accepted by the world. “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” he asked rhetorically. “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” It’s a great quote, one that has come back to me many times over the years since I first came across it years ago.  And it came back to me again just this last week as I received The Jewish Review of Books in the mail and read Daniel Gordis’s shrill, mean-spirited diatribe castigating our Conservative movement as something between a disappointment and a disaster. (I haven’t written much to you about Emerson and the effect his writing has had on me over the years, but I will.) If you don’t get the magazine at home—although I recommend it to you as something definitely worth reading—you can access Gordis’s essay by clicking here.  If you are a life-long affiliate of the movement, as am I, you won’t like what you find there.

He’s not the only one. Just lately, in fact, there have appeared a whole series of essays forecasting the imminent end of Conservative Judaism and either suffering over or reveling in its forthcoming demise. The Pew Report didn’t help. I wrote at length about that report when it first came out last fall and commented on what seem to me to be its flaws and its virtues. (For readers reading electronically, click here to read my previous letters in that regard.) But although there was—and there remains—a lot to say regarding the larger portrait of Jewish life presented in Pew, I’d like today to write specifically about one specific part of the picture, the part that concerns the state of denominationalism and post-denominationalism in the American Jewish community today.

According to Pew, 35% of American Jews identify with the Reform movement. (That is to say that they self-identify with Reform. Whether they actually belong to Reform temples or are affiliated with any organizations that exist within the umbrella of the Reform movement is obviously another question entirely. The same detail applies to all the numbers that follow.) 18% identify with the Conservative movement. Just 10% responded that they self-defined as Orthodox and another 6% said they identified with smaller movements, particularly with Reconstructionism and Jewish Renewal. That adds up to 69% of American Jewry, which leaves over 31% that responded that they do not self-identify with any specific version of Judaism at all. Who those people are, a full third of whom indicated that they are Jewish “by religion” yet who appear not to have embraced any specific version of Judaism, I’m not sure. But I’m more interested today in discussing the future of our movement than in wondering about people who have consciously chosen not to affiliate formally with the religion with which, when asked formally, they say they identify.

Clearly, our numbers are down. In 1971, 41% of American Jews self-identified with the Conservative movement. By 2000, that number was down to 26%.  Now, as noted above, it is 18%. And the recent spate of synagogue mergers, a phenomenon covering the entire country, only seems to confirm that downward trend in that fewer affiliates obviously need fewer synagogues to serve their spiritual needs. And, if things continue to decline, then it seems reasonable to suppose that even those newly merged larger congregations will eventually have to merge with other super-congregations if they are to stay afloat financially.

The question to ask, however, is not really how many Conservative Jews there are in the world or how many synagogues exist to serve them, but what exactly happened and why the same movement that once attracted over forty percent of our co-religionists now draws fewer than twenty percent. On this specific topic, I have lots to say.

Some of it has to do with the failure of the suburban model in general. We built enormous synagogues in suburban neighborhoods based on the assumption that families would prosper in those places and then, once their children were grown, move away to make room for new families with young children. That must have seemed cogent at the time, but, as we all know now, that’s not how communities work. People don’t move away so fast. In most suburban settings, there are no apartment houses nearby into which empty-nesters might move to make room for new young families in the synagogue’s natural catchment area. And the few that do exist are often beyond the financial capabilities of people seeking to spend less, not more, as they grow older and contemplate retirement. Eventually, there are no new lots to build on…and the neighborhood once populated by thirty-year-olds is suddenly—although not that suddenly—with seventy- and eight-year-olds.

And then there is the demise, equally unanticipated but no less real, of the concept of the ethnic neighborhood. Huge synagogues were built in Jewish neighborhoods. Churches of various Christian denominations too were built in neighborhoods and suburban towns that featured a large enough number of likely constituents to make it likely that the institution would survive. To speak from personal experience, the Queens County of my youth—and this is surely true of Long Island as well—was a study in peaceful balkanization: the Greeks lived in Astoria, black people lived in St. Albans, Germans lived in Ridgewood, and Jews lived in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills…and that was how things were. No one seemed offended or, at least within my personal ambit, especially irritated by the situation as it came to exist. People wanted to live among their own people. And it was practical too that way in that the institutions that served specific ethnic or religious groups could be built in the places that those people lived and worked. But that too turned out to be a chimera as the walls of racial and ethnic discrimination tumbled down and people, slowly at first but then in droves, lost their interest in living solely among their own kind. Our own neighborhood is a good example of that specific phenomenon…but so is the neighborhood I grew up in and so, other than St. Albans, are all the neighborhoods listed above.

And then, on top of all that, America has also experienced a dramatic across-the-board decline in religious affiliation itself. In 1963, for example, a full 90% of Americans self-identified as Christians of one variety or another and a mere 2% said that they had no religious identity at all.  By 2010, the percentage of Americans who described themselves as having no religion was seven times as great. And the percentage who self-defined as Christians had itself declined by more than 20%.

But our problem has to do more with poor urban or suburban planning, or with general trends in American life.

At least in part, we are the authors of our own misfortune. We have a vacuum of leadership that is unparalleled in our movement’s history. Of the major institutions that serve the Conservative Jewish world, only one—my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary—is headed by a serious scholar who has earned the right to speak forcefully and authoritatively on behalf of the movement. And to a certain extent—and particularly just lately—Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen has begun to do just that.  (Click here to see his latest attempt forcefully to promote Conservative values and institutions.) But Chancellor Eisen is not a rabbi. He speaks with neither the bearing of a great religious leader nor with the vocabulary of such a leader. I’m sure he’s doing his best, but the days when the movement had a clear, if not quite titular, head in the chancellor of JTS—I’m thinking particularly of the more than three decades of Louis Finkelstein’s tenure in that office—appear to be long gone.  And the chancellorship is only part of the problem. There was a time when the greatest names in Jewish thought were affiliated with JTS, and through the school with the movement it served. When Jewish theology was Abraham Joshua Heschel, his day job—when he wasn’t writing the books that helped to define an entire generation of theological thought—was as professor of Jewish thought at JTS. But although the faculty is today filled with able, reasonably well-published scholars, there simply are no latter-day Heschels or Finkelsteins at the helm. Nor is there anyone even remotely in their category in leadership positions in the movement’s other institutions.

And yet…even that is only part of the story. It seems to me that what we have really experienced is a drop-off of affiliation that has, paradoxically and a bit cruelly, coincided with wide-spread acceptance of the specific combination of adherence to tradition and openness to change that was forged in our Conservative institutions and which has now won the hearts and minds of so many outside our orbit.  The old-style, know-nothing, I’m-right-because-everybody-else-is-by-definition-wrong style of Orthodoxy lives on in ḥaredi and hasidic circles, but is nothing like the kind of Open Orthodoxy that is characteristic of, say, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Nor does it live on at Yeshivah University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. The old-style, tradition-is-the-enemy-of-modernity style of Reform is so far from what Reform preaches today that it almost seems impossible to imagine Reform clergy seriously, let alone passionately, inveighing against Shabbat observance, kashrut, or b’rit milah as institutions inimical to “real” Jewish spirituality. I know Reform rabbis who put on t’fillin. I surely know Orthodox rabbis who do not think women to be too flighty or unreliable to sign a k’tubbah and who feel hamstrung by a movement so in the thrall of its extreme right ring that it simply cannot permit them to act on their principled beliefs. All this, in my opinion, is Conservative Judaism writ large now that the idea of creating a version of Judaism that embraces traditional observance and strict intellectual and spiritual integrity has found its place in the Jewish world almost as a foundational idea that feels so obvious and so basic that it feels like the kind of axiomatic, self-evident approach that has no origin at all!

As a result, it seems to me that we need to look away from the numbers and keep on doing what we’ve always done best. We should continue to promote a kind of big-barn Judaism that is open to all, that does not impose ritual requirements on any who would join us and learn from us, and that has no place in its ranks for misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, anti-intellectualism, or unearned arrogance. We need to continue to promote the idea of spiritual integrity above all else, and to explain to any who would listen that that core concept implies the impossibility of serving a God defined as the ground of morality in the universe by acting immorally, unjustly, or inequitably. We need to continue to put forward the idea that the covenantal concept requires not that we slavishly imitate our ancestors, but that we continue to evolve ethically, intellectually, and morally in our ongoing attempt to serve God honestly and successfully. And we need to understand that our specific brand of intellectual honesty in the context of spiritual development is the core value that makes religion distinct from superstition.  These, to my way of thinking, are the values that have motivated us over the last century and that have led to the creation of truly great Jewish communities. And they are all ideas that have grown directly out of our Conservative movement.

Many have responded to Gordis’s article. Of what I’ve read, however, two essays stand out as exceptional in terms of their vision, Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s response essay entitled, “Eight Families and the 18 Percent,” which you can find on-line by clicking here, and Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s article, “Living in the USA,” which you can access by clicking here.  Both are passionate, intelligent responses to Gordis and I think all my readers will profit by considering what these two of my colleagues—both of them my friends of many years—have to say. On the same website,, you will also find responses to Gordis by Susan Grossman, Elliot Dorff, Noah Bickert, Judith Hauptman, David Starr, and Jonathan D. Sarna. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find them all neatly listed and briefly summarized here.)  You’ll also find a long set of far shorter response to Gordis’s article, many of which appear to have been written by people who live on planets other than Earth.  In short, we have our work laid out for us.

Daniel Gordis is entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine. I believe that, despite our missteps and mistakes in the past, our specific brand of Jewish life—one that attempts to integrate unfettered intellectual integrity, traditional observance, and a ground-level refusal to act immorally merely because traditional endorses behavior we now recognize as outside the pale of normal ethical behavior—that Conservative Judaism has a profound message to bring to the world. That we have put our faith in institutions that appear no longer to serve the needs of an ever-evolving Jewish world is surely something we need to address and rectify. But the ideational ideas upon which the rest of it all rests, that substructure retains its cogency and its comfort for me. For better or worse, this is where I live. And this specific brand of Jewish life is my m’kom torah, the place in the Jewish world that feels to me the most like home.

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