An article entitled: “What’s wrong with Conservative Judaism?” appeared in a recent issue of the Jerusalem Report magazine. This article was authored by Myron M. Fenster, the Rabbi Emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center of Roslyn, New York, a leading Conservative congregation. As the title of the article indicates, the movement is in trouble due to a dramatic decrease in its number of synagogues and also in its general membership.
It is especially disturbing in light of the fact that in the middle of the last century the movement was supposed to be the vanguard and future of American Jewry and was so regarded then by all of the experts on the Jewish community. Orthodoxy was dead, and Reform was too assimilationist. Almost by default, the face of American Jewry would be defined by the Conservative movement.
Like many expert opinions in life, things didn’t turn out as forecast. As the title of the article in the Jerusalem Report reflects, Rabbi Fenster attributes the troubles of the conservative movement to a lack of “conviction and fervor.” I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point, even though my interpretation of “conviction and fervor” may not be exactly what he had in mind.
While making adjustments in synagogue ritual and placing the synagogue at the apex of Jewish life – even over Sabbath observance – the Conservative movement was meant to hold the line on Jewish traditions and observances and to create a sense of strong Jewish identity and self pride. Instead, it gave into becoming the lackey of Reform and devoting itself to general American social issues, which have Jewish roots and interests, but are not sufficient, by themselves, to influence and inspire Jewish uniqueness and loyalty.
Conservative Judaism, which retreated from its own original tenets and traditions on every front – Sabbath observance, kosher food, the sanctity of marriage and the requirements of divorce, became engrossed in sloganeering and projects, none of which have resonated with the Jewish soul.
What is striking to me about the current Conservative mantra is that apparently nowhere does God appear to be in the picture. They are so busy fixing the world, helping the underdog, fighting discrimination and all of the other notable clauses being espoused by our progressive society, that the Creator of the world is almost always absent from the scene.
Judaism always espoused a connection of the individual human being to the eternal God. In the jumbled jigsaw puzzle of modern society, such a connection – or even the attempt to achieve such a connection – has been ignored and abandoned. All of the commandments of the Torah are meant to forge such a connection.
Kosher is not a tradition or a societal norm – it is a way to connect with the Creator. So is Sabbath observance, thrice daily prayer, modesty of dress, discipline of speech and the intense study of Torah. All of this as been pretty much abandoned by the Conservative movement though at one time in the not so distant past it championed all of these causes and claimed philosophical adherence to them. Rabbi Fenster himself points out: “As a result, they look at Conservative Judaism as desultory and standing for nothing.” And that is why the movement needs an infusion of “conviction and fervor.” In short, it needs to stand for traditional Jewish life and values.
The Orthodox Jewish community also suffers from the fact that even though it deals thoroughly with the minute details of Jewish law and ritual, and correctly does so, in many instances, it no longer emphasizes the necessary connection with God, which after all is the basic premise of Judaism and Jewish life.
This has been an ongoing struggle throughout Jewish history. Many movements, such as the Chasidic and Mussar movements, attempted to redress this failing over the past few centuries with varying degrees of success. Conviction and fervor are necessary throughout the Jewish world and in the Orthodox camp as well.
We concentrate a great deal on knowledge and scholastic achievement. Nevertheless, our souls yearn for this spiritual connection to the Creator. Without this ingredient being present in traditional Jewish life, it would become routine, boring and eventually unattractive. In our current society, which believes so much in randomness, coincidence and the omnipotence of human beings and technology, God is pretty much written out of the picture. We only experience His presence on rare occasions, usually sad ones, in our lifetime. But with a little conviction and fervor on our part, God can certainly be introduced into our life and behavior.