When the “What would Jesus do?” bracelets became popular a few years ago, I wondered what the Jewish versions would say. Orthodox: “What would Hashem do?” Conservative: “What would the Orthodox do?” Reform: “What would the Conservatives not do?” And Reconstructionist: “What would God do if He or She weren’t Orthodox?”
Sure, that’s stereotypical and more than a little offensive. But like all jokes, there’s a grain of truth here. For the most part, Orthodox Jews are driven by a sense of divine obligation, seeing the Halacha as the road map for walking in the ways of the Lord. But while Conservative rabbis describe theirs as a halachic movement, most of their congregants don’t feel the sense of obligation that compels them to take on the full yoke of halachic behavior. Take Shabbat, for example. Orthodox Jews universally mark its 25 hours by refraining from driving, commerce, and actively using electricity, while attending four distinct prayer services. While the Shabbat morning services at Orthodox and Conservative synagogues are almost indistinguishable, it’s the minority of Conservative Jews who can describe themselves as “shomer Shabbat” during the other 22 hours.
For some, this is a failure of the Conservative movement: In trying to combine tradition and modernity, it erred on modernity’s side. One of its harshest internal critics, Jack Wertheimer, once accused the movement of a “laissez-faire approach that, in honoring individual autonomy above all else, leads to indifference if not contempt.” In a searing article for the Jewish Review of Books this month, Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes that the movement’s leaders failed to provide adherents with a “connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping.”
The essay by Gordis, “Requiem for a Movement,” has proved a lightning rod for Conservative rabbis and lay leaders. Gordis, a Conservative-trained scion of a line of Conservative rabbis, quotes the grim Pew Study statistic that only 18 percent of Jews define themselves as Conservative.
Responders like Rabbi David Wolpe, channeling Mark Twain, say that reports of Conservative Judaism’s demise are premature. Rabbi Gerald Skolnick, writing in The Jewish Week, makes the important point that Conservative Judaism was in many ways a product of its time, the post-World War II years, when the “demographic accident of the post-war baby boom” was confused with a “genuine religious/spiritual phenomenon.”
I don’t buy into the very worst forecasts about Conservative Judaism, any more than I accept the triumphalism of Orthodoxy in the wake of Pew. Nor do I hold rabbis responsible for the tectonic social changes of the past 100 years.
But if Conservative Judaism is to grow, it will have to be responsive not only to its own past and institutions, but to what Jews are telling them. I am a committed Conservative Jew, for instance, but I have an extremely hard time with the lengthy Shabbat morning service, the main event at most Conservative shuls. And I am hardly the only congregant to wander in after 10, one hour into a three-hour service.
And yet I go, even as I suspect that other movements and shuls might have a service I find more engaging. That’s partly because I’ve become a snob of sorts, and, as Pew suggests, a bit of a rarity. Although I struggle with “obligation,” I like to surround myself with folks who can access Jewish tradition on a deep level, who make Judaism part of their lives well beyond the three hours on a Saturday morning, and who at some level are unable to reconcile the tension between modernity and tradition. We want that old-time religion alongside the new stuff — but constantly worry that one will hurt the other.
That’s the sweet spot that Conservative Judaism was supposed to inhabit. It still can, but it will mean changing a number of assumptions. Conservative Judaism, like all centrist movements, carries the burden of choice. The question Conservative Jews must ask themselves is this: Would anyone take part in the rituals, institutions, and folkways of Conservtive Judaism if they didn't have to? Perhaps what the movement will learn is that many of the forms of traditional Judaism cannot compete in the marketplace of meaning, not without some reimagining.
And if so, the movement has to scrutinize the face it presents to the world — in its institutions, its publications, its brand, if I can be so crass. Chabad does this in way that has somehow attracted “non-obligated” Jews to a sort of neo-Orthodoxy. There are countless ways this can be done, but I'll start with three. First, invigorate the Shabbat experience and song book — not in a faddish way, but by identifying cantors and song leaders who have written new classics and demonstrated an ability to rouse a minyan in song. Get them out on the road, teaching the tunes and techniques in synagogues around the country. LEt the oldtimers and newcomers see the new possibilities in Jewish worship.
Put learning front and center — but I don’t mean another lecture or scholar-in-residence weekend. Conservative Judaism should be the home of innovations in quality adult education, the way top universities are pioneering MOOCs and other experiments in on-line and distance learning, or how Limmud turned a week of learning into a Jewish “Burning Man.”
And look to the way Orthodox groups have exploited new media, and brand the movement’s message on websites, in social media, even video. Conservative thinkers and ideas should be at the center of the American-Jewish conversation, not crowded out by other even-smaller movements with better media savvy.
I don’t mean to downplay the importance of “the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address,” as Gordis puts it. But, perhaps, before you can address the why, you need to tackle the what.