A guestpost from Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
A little more than 130 years ago, at a Cincinnati hotel, a small group of rabbis departed in a huff from the dinner celebrating Hebrew Union College’s first class of ordained American rabbis. There was just too much traif on the menu, and the culinary baccanalia was indicative to them of a Judaism that had just gone too far in an acculturative direction. Shortly thereafter, the Conservative movement was founded. From this point forward, American Judaism would proceed with three very robust and successful movements, with millions of members finding spiritual meaning in three very distinct iterations.
At one point the largest of the three major Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism has experienced a much-reported slump in recent years; as the Pew survey revealed, only 11% of American Jews identify as Conservative Jews.
Equally as troubling are the falling affiliation rates within the Reform movement. A larger and larger number of Jews are choosing to simply not define themselves within a movement, or to eschew organized religion altogether.
Much handwringing has transpired over the Pew Survey’s results. However, no bold proposal has yet to be laid down, at a time when we the American Jewish leaders need to re-evaluate our direction in the 21st century. So let me make one.
Let’s merge Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Why would you say such a thing?
I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this. The last well circulated discussion of a merger between the two, however, was less mutual collaboration of like-minded souls, and more a suggested hostile takeover. The rabbi who suggested it back in 2004 assumed that Conservative Judaism was doomed to go the way of the dodo, and essentially offered that C. Jews should convert or die. Not surprisingly, this did not begin a dialogue of brotherhood and mutual cooperation.
But there are a lot of good reasons that the two should merge.
1) It would make American Judaism stronger.
2) We are more theologically and philosophically aligned today than ever before.
3) Although there are some real hurdles, it is absolutely possible, from a practical standpoint.
4) And last, it would be a moment for rebooting, rebranding, and rebirthing that might attract many of the Jews who find themselves alienated and adrift from the organized Jewish community.
Better Living through Unity
The fragmentation of an American Jewish community into different sects is a historical fact for 4000 years. From the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah, to the Pharisees and Sadducees; Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai to Ashkenazi and Sephardi; we have a history of splitting up. Sometimes it’s necessary, and in other times the division weaken us and spells our disaster.
Everyone is trying to read the latest Pew survey to figure out what it means. Many, I might add, seem to be using it to bolster their already well-worn opinions on the bright or bleak future of the American Jew. I am no prophet, nor am I a demographer. But I find it hard to read the Pew survey as good news. American Jews are attending synagogue less than ever before; Jews are becoming members of synagogues less than ever before. The individual synagogue, and the movements to which they belong, have fewer members, less money, and more of an uphill struggle.
Having a unified front of liberal Judaism: Jews that accept the equality of the sexes; that recognize the equal rights of homosexuals to engage in loving and sanctified relationships; that acknowledge that Judaism changes through time; and desire to put God, Torah, and Israel in their lives; would improve our collaboration, our cooperation, and our effectiveness.
When asked why people join their synagogue, there are a variety of reasons. Usually, people respond that it is where they grew up or their parents or grandparents belonged, or that they liked the pre-school, or the rabbi, or that it is the closest to their house. It is fairly rare to find a Jew who chooses a shul solely on the ideology of the shul. Even more to the point: if you asked 100 Reform or Conservative congregants about the core beliefs of their movement, I suspect that no more than 10 would be able to accurately explain what defines their movement as opposed to the others. If Jews are not joining synagogues for ideological reasons, why are we still separating synagogues by ideology?
A merger between Reform and Conservative would allow for a merger of some of their national organizations in such a way that would cut overhead, eliminate redundancy, expand programming and create a larger resource pool, both in capital and in people. A merged United Synagogue and Union of Reform Judaism. A merged Rabbinical Assembly and CCAR. Conservative Judaism would once again have a college campus presence. The Reform movement could have a robust yeshiva and Gap-year program in Israel, and reach into a deep talent pool of Ramah grads with strong Hebrew skills. The UAHC/Ramah Summer camps would cover more kids in more regions with more special activities than ever before.
And the two could collaborate much more effectively on their international programs, not only in Europe and South America but in the place with the most dire need for progressive Judaism: Israel.
We mostly agree; We even agree that it’s ok to disagree
Reform and Conservative ideology has come a long way since 1885. That was the year that the Reform movement’s ‘Pittsburgh Platform’ rejected the belief in a messiah, the need for a state of Israel, and the components of Mosaic law that lacked an ethical or moral component (like abstaining from shellfish and putting on tefillin). Back then, it made perfect sense for a movement that rejected those reforms, but wanted to be more modern and willing to engage in the modern, scientific and academic world.
For the past two decades, however, the Reform movement has come full circle, embracing more traditional observances. While HUC still churns out plenty of rabbis who do not keep kosher, many are traditionally observant, and HUC is ok with that. When I was a kid growing up in a Los Angeles mega-shul and decided to wear a tallit and kippah to Yom Kippur in 1990, I got a lot of strange looks. In my father’s generation, the venerable Rabbi Egdar Magnin would declare ‘Sir, please remove your kippah in this synagogue.’ Those days are long over.
Meanwhile, Conservative Judaism has embraced things once thought unthinkable. Instrumental music in Shabbat services. Women rabbis. Homosexual marriage. But more importantly, the personal practices of Conservative Jews is virtually identical to that of Reform Jews, not counting the rabbis. Most Conservative congregants do not keep kosher or observe Shabbat in the traditional sense; it has long been observed that the biggest difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism isn’t the ideologies but rather the distance in practice between the rabbi and their congregants. Merging would simply acknowledge the status quo- it is hard to tell a Conservative Jew from a Reform one, in terms of practice.
Both movements embrace a ‘big-tent’ Judaism in which a variety of practices within a certain range is perfectly ok. So why not expand both sides of the tent a little? A congregation in which some folks come regularly, and some do not; some are more stringently observant, and some not at all; some Jews engage in text study and Jewish exploration, and some are more interested in social and cultural outlets for their Jewish life. Not only would all of those things be acceptable in a new ‘Liberal’ movement- most of things already are occurring in ever Reform and Conservative synagogue in the US.
Philosophically, it might be best for both movements to embrace the notion that the individual Jew should choose to do the traditional mitzvot, or not. The new movement could have a halachic and non-halachic wing. Or perhaps this is already unnecessary- both Reform and Conservative Jews are encouraged to perform mitzvot. The only real difference is in the nature of what it means to transgress a mitzvah: is a person who violates a commandment repudiating the entire system? Are they in a Rosenzweig-ian state of ‘not yet’ ? Or did they just not do one mitzvah? The Reform movements 1999 ‘Statement of Principles’, calls the performance of mitzvot “the means by which we make our lives holy.” While not ‘binding’, it sure sounds like each and every mitzvah has the potential of being personally relevant and important. The new movement Judaism might do well to adopt some take on this language, rather than assert, as Conservative Judaism has until now, that all mitzvot are ‘binding’ on Jews who, until now, have made no indication that they accept that premise.
Agree or disagree on these matters, both movements would accomplish more tackling these issues together than they would separately.

Can we do it? Yes We Can! (But there are some necessary compromises to work out)

There are clearly a number of questions that would need to be addressed in a merger. How would it affect congregations and rabbis right now? Probably not a lot. Most rabbis and shuls would continue to do many of the same things they already do. In shuls with two or more rabbis, it might affect future hiring more dramatically- synagogues would be more diverse and more able to attract a broader population if it drew rabbis from both sides of the ‘tent’: a Reform and a Conservative.
What would the prayer service look like? Services in some synagogues might change. Synagogues that offer only one kind of service would need an ‘alternative’ minyan, with more English or music, or a ‘traditional’ minyan with more Hebrew. Smaller shuls might have to rotate their services from one week to the next. Many congregations in the US already do some of these things already.
With regard to rabbis performing intermarriages: the new movement would permit rabbis to decide for themselves. Boom. Done. That is the Reform movement policy already, and it looks like Conservative is moving in that direction.
Synagogue kashrut might be a touchy issue. Both movements would have to agree to a compromise. Reform shuls would have to eliminate ‘high treif’- shellfish, pork, mixing meat and milk. Sorry, Temple Sinai of New Orleans, but no more crawfish boils in a merged movement. Formerly-Conservative shuls would need to accept three sets of dishes in their shul kitchens: Kosher milk, Kosher meat, and Kosher-style, with two separate prep areas, strict kosher and kosher-style. For smaller synagogues where kitchens aren’t big enough for this accommodation, they simply keep the kitchens as they are; kosher or not, dairy or meat.
Rabbinical schools wouldn’t have to change at all; HUC, JTS, and AJU could (and ideally, should) keep turning out very different types of rabbis with different skill sets and areas of focus. Congregations would be stronger with a more diverse group of rabbis with very different attitudes towards prayer, Torah, God, and Halacha.
The one sticking point, and it is very large, is the problem of who is a Jew. Reform Judaism holds that one Jewish parent, mother or father, can be Jewish for a child to be considered a Jew. Conservative (like Orthodoxy) has maintained the opinion that a child must have a Jewish mother to be considered a Jew.
I’ll be quite frank in saying I don’t know how to solve this. For the Reform to surrender patrilineal descent would suddenly alienate a significant number of its members; for Conservative to accept Jews of only a Jewish father is a reversal of their halachic view that would be intolerable for many rabbis. Perhaps a compromise could include some kind of ‘affirmation ceremony’, like a conversion, for any child of only one Jewish parent (mother or father). Although this issue is the hardest to solve, the game-changing importance of a merger should encourage us to not allow this difficulty to de-rail the entire endeavor.
A new name for a new era
Both Reform and Conservative are terrible names for movements, and outdated. Starting over together with a new name is a great opportunity to truly clean the cobwebs and develop something that reflects a effort at moving in new direction with a new partner.
Reform Judaism was a kind of cool idea for a name, but really, it has never worked. I don’t think there’s a rabbi in America in any movement who hasn’t nearly lost their mind in the presence of a Jew calling themselves ‘Reformed’. The word Reform, despite the great contributions of Isaac Mayer Wise and Eugene Borowitz in crafting it and defining its parameters, is just a terrible name for a movement, and at this point, it is time to move on. It is a word that implies constant change: something that people, deep down, don’t want out of their religion. It is also a word that implies that the movement IS constantly evolving, which it isn’t. A huge movement like the Reform movement changes slowly and methodically.
Conservative Judaism has always been confused with being a political label, or a term that describes a lack of desire to be interesting, contemporary or innovative, i.e. “we can’t do something radical or out-of-the-box… we’re C(c)onservative!” What a terrible tag to hang on your synagogue. And yes, for those in the know, it stands for a lot more than that. But if you are trying to draw an unaffiliated 20 or 30-something Jew through the door, the name is certainly not value-added. More than a few people have suggested a name change already, such as Covenantal Judaism. That’s not bad, but very specific in its theological implications.
I like ‘Liberal Judaism’ for the new movement. Or perhaps ‘Progressive Judaism’. Both are already used as place-holders for the two non-orthodox movements, so just merge them and make it official. A new name would bring new people in who had written off the old movements because they thought they knew them. A new name might better describe the movement. And a new name would be an opportunity to truly go in a new direction.
Perhaps I am misreading the Pew survey, and Jewish movements are doing just fine. Or perhaps I am mistaken and the Conservative and Reform movements are only in need of some minor tweaks in order to restore their former glories. But I see two strong movements with more in common than the things that separate them, with a chance to build on each others successes and create a stronger movement that would be in the best interests of Judaism. I say let’s merge. We could even throw another banquet. We might want three sets of dishes this time, though.