After a spirited exploration of Reform Judaism two years earlier, last December, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem held a similar two-day conference on Conservative Judaism. The event took place in the shadow of the movement’s difficulties, not the least of which can be seen in Canada, where several former constituent synagogues have formed a union of their own.
Conservative Judaism has always seen itself as being in the centre, the authentic exponent of normative Judaism that affirms Halachah while, with historic precedent, advocating change in the spirit of the time. It distanced itself from ultra-halachic Orthodoxy and from anti-halachic “informed choice” classical Reform. But this had been easier than to find a place in our post-halachic New Age, which attracts so many today.
The normative Conservative motto of yesteryear, “tradition and change,” doesn’t seem to work well anymore. What set out to be magisterially centrist has ended up uncomfortably in the middle, often accused of being brittle and wishy-washy.
A word used by several speakers at the conference was “branding,” with its implied marketing connotations. It seems that the market in which Conservative Judaism is now competing is less interested in the centre, yet doesn’t want to go to the middle. Those who want tradition turn to modern Orthodoxy, which they consider to be more authentic. Those who want change turn to versatile Reform. To paraphrase the terminology of the Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, Jews hungry for a conventional religious diet turn to Orthodox Judaism. Those who want what he calls “religion a la carte” often choose Reform.
Conservative Judaism is now seeking an ideology that’s sufficiently different from Orthodoxy yet distinct, especially in matters of Jewish status, from Reform. It’s not easy, because those on its “right” tend to flirt with modern Orthodoxy, whereas those on the “left” may end up in Reform or similar congregations.
Conservative leaders are particularly disappointed that they haven’t done better in Israel. Though they have twice as many congregations and many more members than Reform, they’re no less shunned by the Orthodox establishment. They also seem to be ignored in most “post-secular spirituality” circles.
I surmise that, given the choice, many exponents of Conservative Judaism would be prepared to be adopted by modern Israeli Orthodoxy, but they’re not welcome there. Reform, on the other hand, would be happy to make common cause with them, yet those overtures are being consistently rejected.
Conservative Jews, therefore, may have to get used to sharing the fate of today’s religious liberals and learn to live as a minority, even when they wear kippot and keep kosher.