Conservative Jews Represent

As Ismar Schorsch, the highly influential chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has announced that he will retire in 2006, people have been speculating like crazy about who might be tapped to take his place and what that might mean for the future of the Conservative movement. A new newsblog/discussion site has started up to bounce around names of possible successors, share rumors and gossip, and hash out some of the questions re: what happens next. Catch the conjecture at JTS Future.
Also, a bunch of Conservative and Masorti rabbis who want to make themselves publicly known as gay-friendly have gotten a website up with each of their contact info on it, so anybody looking for a rabbi who “hold[s] that GLBT Jews should be embraced as full, open members of all Conservative/Masorti congregations and institutions” can find them. Keshet Rabbis is here.
And a bunch of other folks have put together something called Shefa: The Conservative Jewish Activists’ Network, a “forum for passionate Conservative Jews to reflect together as they increase creative energy within the Conservative Movement’s environments in an effort to bring a healthy non-institutional perspective to the worlds of Conservative Jews.”
Their site (mostly a listserv and some essays) is here.

21 thoughts on “Conservative Jews Represent

  1. For those of us who consider the Conservative movement a provincial (U.S) spinoff for Eastern European Jewry by descendants of German Jews, this is indeed great news.
    It will help tear it asunder.

  2. Ismar Schorsh “highly influential?” That khnyuk couldn’t influence his way out of a paper bag.

  3. David – why does dreaming of the failure of a Jewish movement with millions of members throughout the world, and seminaries in Argentiina and Israel, get you excited? What are you really angry about? Do you need a hug?

  4. Wow, glad to see there’s *so* little animosity and divisiveness on Jewschool. 😛 … I think people are into Conservative Judaism because it’s committed to mitzvot and the concept of commanded-ness, but not at the expense of an inclusionary spirit and sympathy for the challenges of modern life. All right, so maybe that’s just why *I’m* into it. I’m not sure how people can still deny that Judaism’s *main* survival mechanism has been flexibility and a broad-minded, compassionate re-interpretation of halakha. Conservative Jews will be around as long as, quite simply, the other movements fail to respond to their needs and/or beliefs.

  5. Conservative Jews are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the Jewish world: we don’t get no respect. We’ve got wacky science-rejecting denying-women-a-FULL-an d-EQUAL-place-in-Jewish -life Orthodox and Haredi folks to the right of us, and pass-the-bacon-while-I- marry-a-Catholic-and-tr im-my-Christmas-Tree Reform and Reconstructionist types to the left of us. And both sides think we’re sell-outs. I say we’re just taking the best from both camps.
    The rumors of our demise have been perpetually exaggerated, year after year. And yet we’re still here…and no doubt to David’s displeasure, an awful lot of ex-Orthodox types seem to end up in our ranks. I wonder why?

  6. Not at the expense of an inclusionary spirit and sympathy for the challenges of modern life.
    These are available to all streams of Judaism.

  7. Conservative Judaism was already a VERY wide spectrum – is this evidence of a polarization/rift? The movement is already the grey middle of the Jewish world – is its own grey middle evaporating, leaving radical and “conservative” wings?

  8. waitasec, I disagree. I feel like traditional Orthodox/Haredi Judaism generally (though not always) rejects “modern” issues, such as GLBT and women’s concerns, on the basis of something other than an open-minded and compassionate investigation. Granted, other Jewish streams have also turned a blind eye to certain things, but to a much lesser extent than the Orthodox community (on the whole).

  9. Aspargirl,
    The Orthodox are hardly hemorraging people to the Conservative movement – that stopped in the 50’s – the two chicks in your chavurah are statistically meaningless.
    The Conservative Movement claimed that with the ’83 decision to give women the Rabbinat and Aliyahs it would be a more powerful movement. After all – now women were no longer disenfranchised, no longer 2nd class citizens.
    But when the dust had settled, it was Modern Orthodoxy, and not the Conservative movement, what was increasingly considered the center.
    Do you really not accept that the Orthodox have gained ground over the Conservative movement in the last 25 years?
    With the gay issue, there are even less people to gain through this inclusion, and at least as many people alieanated by this “inclusion ” as with the women.
    I am thrilled – this will consolidate Modern Orthodox power and perception as the Centrist Jewish movement, and fuirther erode the Conservative Movements claim of the same thing.
    Asparagirl – you and the rest keep thinking everything is just super-duper since there is still, according to your survey, a camp to your left, and a camp to your right.
    But no one will be cheerring louder than myself when the debate over gays rages on and on until the left has won gay “inclusion.”

  10. Am I wrong that in the U.S., at least, the vast majority of Jews still consider themselves either Conservative or Reform, with those considering themselves Orthodox (whether Modern or not) numbering less than 10%? If so, how is Modern Orthodoxy the new center?
    Also, it’s kinda sad when people see all this as a fight to “consolidate power” or let certain movements triumph over others. Sorry, I’m not feelin’ the spirit of “ahavat yisrael” in that at all. People associate with one group or another for various personal reasons, external influences, etc. — not to be assholes or subvert Judaism or whatever.

  11. David- you’re a meanspirited fellow, aren’t you? Ismar Schrosch is a wonderful and thoughtful leader, teacher and Rabbi. I had the priveledge of hearing him speak once in Chicago, and was greatly impressed by him.
    “The Conservative Crisis” is one that will perpetually grip the movement for a long time to come. Given the actual and real, highly personal nature of spiritual belief and practice in America, its centrist (thought perhaps not always it central) position in the spectrum of the Jewish movements will ensure that problem for many years, even if the movement changes form, swallows another movement or splits in two and the havles ally themselves accordingly.
    This “Crisis” is only one because the movement itself is too young to fully deal with the fact that its very essense, understanding Halacha as it relates to the changing times, ensures that from time to time there will be period of crossroads and tough decisions every few decades. Ah, the fine time-honred Jewish sport of wreslting with the Torah and the Talmud. Is there anything finer, or anything more well suited to keeping an ancient tradition alive and meaningful than constantly testing its greatest teachings and arguing them to the bone? Perhaps only in teaching and assuring their application to daily life, which one might argue is the true failing of the Conservatives, but no Rosh Yeshiva anywhere could take issue with the former. They may not like the conclusions arrived at, but when did it become usser to talk about ideas within the framework of halacha?
    There may be divisiveness and even division in the movement’s future, but that would not stop it from being a force in American Jewry for years to come. After all, such division has been the basis for many a new congregation and for one of my favorite jokes, about the Island castaway found after years, having built three shuls in which to daven… you know the punchline…
    The central ground that Modern Orthodoxy is purported above to strongly hold was never that large to begin with, and has as much in common with the Conservative movement’s willingness to acknowledge and deal with modernity, and the right wing Traditional shuls who broke with it in the 50’s, as it does with Agudah. Those Traditional congregations which have survived, abd the MO movement are seeing growth and revival more due to the Orthodox community’s recent rightward shift than anything else. People like options, and these sub-movements offer them.
    The central on which the Conservative movement staked many of if its early social and halachic ground, offers only a few more (though its adherents largely don’t follow them). That wide middle ground probably looks VERY appealing to those in the MO world who’d like to increase its influence and reach, but they dare not cross that red line. Similarly, many rightist Conservative shuls look to the revival of Traditional and the success of MO shuls as a model to emulate on certain levels.
    There may come a time when the social space between black hats and knit kippahs becomes greater than the social space between MO, Traditional and right wing Conservatives (conservadox). MO and Traditional might find it better to go it on their own, and though the differences are still important enough to keep them apart, some of the right-wing Conservative shuls with them. With the Conservadox submovement at its narrow left and the Traditional submovement equally as narrow at its center, such a loose alliance, were it to somehow exist for a few brief moments on even the most superficial level, might be called the Jewish Congress of Conservative Traditional Edah Shuls (C.O.C.T.E.A.S.) or as its actually known the Union for Traditional Judaism.
    Sure, we’d have a movement with multiple standards on the Mechitza, or lack thereof, and women’s participation in the service, but alliances have been made with far larger stumbling blocks IT, not the present MO movement, would then occupy the center of American Jewry. It would reflect where the hearts and minds of most center-right Jews indeed already are. It also be the Post-Denominational Movement that some have bantered about as an idea…
    The OU would then consolidate with the Aguda, Haredim, Hasids and Young Israel. Who knows what will become of Chabad. It is, by many rights, its own movement, given its growth and staggering contributions to American Jewry. The size and appeal reform movement is really very healthy when you look at it- and we need not dive into the details for and against here, leaving a myriad of left of center movements and submovements.
    The Reconstructionists could find comfort and strength in the bosom of their mother, the sizeable and numerous left center Conservatives shuls, where the many Keshet rabbis would feel very at home. Both could get a breath of creativity from the Aleph/Renewal folks to form some new brand of “seeker” American Judaism, let’s call it the World Alliance of New Conservative, Eclectic and Reconstructionist Synagogues (WANCERS) or the Reunited Synagogues of Very Progressive Judaism (RSVP). If you let them know you’re attending, they’ll accomodate a halachic end-around for or give your an outright heter for just about anything.. I jest…
    Sorry to have a bit of fun while contemplating my own movement’s division, but morbidity breeds such humor. So we’d have four reorganized, it messily alligned umbrella movements; OU, COCTEAS/UTJ, RSVPJ/WANCERS and URJ. Its either that or it shal remain as it is now, flawed but functioning, centrist yet accepting.
    Judaism in America, in spite of its 350 years, is feeling its growing pains. We sacrificed two and a half generations on the alter of assimilatation. Now we’re comfortable being and defining ourselves as Jews in America. The Conservative movement helped a great number of us with one or the other, a blessing and a curse. But let’s wait and see before we sound any death knell.
    The hallmark of the Conservative movement has been and will likely remain its ability to reconcile halacha with modernity, and perhaps more striking if less obvious, its dedication to Pluralism in Judaism overall and within its own broad membership. Whether that combination is its enduring strength or its undoing remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the impact of the Conservative Movement in the great wide middle of American Jewry is undeniable and will, for better or worse as time will tell in whatever form it evolves or devolves into, remain there a long time.

  12. A letter I wrote a few months ago in response to a Jewish Week op-ed that made similar claims to some of the commenters in this thread:
    It is arrogant to suggest that the Conservative movement has a monopoly on nuanced thinking and struggling with Judaism, while the Orthodox and Reform movements respond to traditions by “simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.” Anyone who holds a principled position considers his/her expression of Judaism to be the optimal balance of tradition and modernity. The same claim of uniqueness might have been made by an Orthodox Jew in Flatbush who feels that Yeshiva University has gone off the Torah path but the Jews of Borough Park refuse to engage with the modern world, or by a Reconstructionist Jew who believes that the three major movements are too resistant to innovation but Jewish Renewal has gone too far, and this claim would still have been wrong.

  13. And Asparagirl, there are plenty of “denying-women-a-FULL- and-EQUAL-place-in-Jewi sh-life” types as well as “pass-the-bacon-while- I-marry-a-Catholic-and- trim-my-Christmas-Tree ” types in the Conservative movement as well. It’s particularly lovely when they’re the same people.

  14. I agree that David Kelsey’s postings are unpleasant in tone. One inaccuracy is that Conervative Judaism was, historically, the response of the Eastern European, “Ellis island” generation to American religious life, not the German comunity, which was laely reform. Its ideology simply reflected a greater religious coherence to that population, that became the dominant group in 20th century American Jewish life. This leads to a different issue, namely, that the movements of Judaism in America are less driven by ideolgy than response to sociological elements.
    I got semicha from the Rav in 1980, yet the tone of American orthodoxy, the intellectual, reflective “misnagdische” reticence of that period seems non-existent in the present climate of vulgar, monolithic “artscroll” Orthoxy.
    One rule of thumb, then, in forcasting hisotry is that the future will be driven by demographic and soical factoirs that are hard to foresee. Few would have predicted, in 1900, that the small intellectual breakaway group from reform would become the dominant movement of the 20th century in America. Similarly, in 1950 it was a common feeling that the hareidm were a doomed population. Whatever movement is dominant in 2050 will be the result of demographic and social factors that are similarly opaque. Will the left wing of orthodoxy, embodied by the Shira Hadasah minyan, the Chovevei Torah seminary, the Hartman Institute and the various gentrifying young shuls of America scoop up the right wing of conservative Judaism, while breaking with the Orthodox right? Or will the reverse happen? The crux of the discussion will be egalitarianism, I am sure; whoever fully embraces it soonest will win the next round.

  15. Hanshan,
    You wrote,
    “The crux of the discussion will be egalitarianism, I am sure; whoever fully embraces it soonest will win the next round.”
    According to you, then, the Conservative Movement already won in 1983.
    Guess they won and its’ all over.
    So why is there still “debate?”
    Why isn’t everyone happy?
    Why is the JTS in freefall?
    Because there are other issues besides “embracing” the socail revolution de jour.
    But that is always, always the emphaisis of the JTS Rabbinical youth.

  16. I don’t think that the issue of gender is resolved at all. Universally, gender is at the root of much of the religious anxiety of the last half-century, in all of the Western religions. Muslim, evangelical and Jewish fundamentalisms are all more or less the same phenomenon, but my money is that eventually, again on a fifty to one hundred year cycle, the egalitarian conclusion will win out. In that span, the Conservative movement could fragment, shrink and be subsumed to something else. Or it could survive with its structure intact, but changed. It doesn’t take long for an American religion to disappear; look at Christian Science. It was ascedndant in the early part of he century and still vital into the seventies, but which has few adherents today(because it doesn’t seem to work) and is surviving by liquidating its business and real estate holdings. By the way, I think that your inital point was correct, that much of the problem flows from the protestant nature of the movement, namely the “priesthood of the believers” notion of volition and the need to validate subjective and existential beliefs as opposed to submission to the empirical demands of the Judaism. This also may account for the movement’s relative lack of success in Israel.

  17. “but my money is that eventually, again on a fifty to one hundred year cycle, the egalitarian conclusion will win out.”
    I can only attribute this statement to prophecy and not logic or history, since the Conservative Movement has not gained since its egalitarian push 22 years ago, but lost ground and respect.
    I suspect you, like most in the Conservative camp, think what works for the Unitarians and the Methodists must work for us.
    But we are not westerners – we are a male genital mutilating (oh, I know – THAT one’s not a “gender issue”) patriarchy, whose religion and civilization aren’t adaptable to such concepts.
    Which is why the Conservative movements leadership, if not its layPEOPLE, are aware that their movement, is in fact, in trouble – and not positioned on a path to “win-out”, whether in a 50 or a huindred year cycle.

  18. so since when was spiritual validity determined by Darwinian selection?
    Its a weird world where survival of the fittest is claimed to be a standard by a representative of a denomination that has the most trouble with evolutionary biology.
    Not that it means a hill of beans, but irony is always diverting.

  19. Mostly I am voting for the new Chancellor of JTS to be the CEO of JDATE. After all the Conservative movement mostly stands for pumping out Jewish babies.

  20. “After all the Conservative movement mostly stands for pumping out Jewish babies.”
    That’s a criticism?!? The world needs Jewish babies! Lots of ’em! yay!

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