There is a slowly but surely growing sense in synagogue circles that organized Jewish life, especially ‘shul life,’ is rapidly changing, and that the classic synagogue structure that we’ve known for the last 75 years or so will be a very different animal by the end of the next decade. My sense is this will have a dramatic impact on how we ‘do’ synagogue – what it means to have a bar or bat mitzvah, what it means to attend Hebrew school, what it means to affiliate, to pay dues, to attend services – all of this is changing. But what is also changing is what it means to be associated with a particular ‘movement.’ And as synagogues are talking about what they should be in the near future and how they should change, so too with the various movements, across the spectrum.
In the Conservative Movement this has generated some interesting conversations. What we know is that nationally the movement has been shrinking over the last 25 years. Fewer and fewer Jews who want to pitch their tent in the liberal Jewish community now do so in a Conservative congregation. And so the movement has been talking about who we should be, how we should define ourselves, and even what we should be called. There have been new publications that are also, in one way or another, intended to influence this conversation (a new siddur, a new humash, a new mahzor, a new description of the ‘ideal’ Conservative life). To this point, there has not been anything like a consensus among the movement’s leadership as to how we should answer these questions. If anything, there has been a bit of a retreat as institutions and individuals embrace older models and tried and true definitions that kept the movement afloat for almost a hundred years.
The recent publication of a book that is intended to summarize what the movement is and how it expects its members to live is an example of this phenomenon. Entitled ‘The Observant Life, the Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews,’ this lengthy tome is an impressive collection of extended articles and essays from some of the leading scholars produced by the movement. Each article (organized by topic) is filled with information and in depth Jewish legal analysis. Virtually every area of Jewish life is addressed, from the celebration of holy days to study to kashrut and on and on. One can not help but be impressed by the erudition of the authors and the breadth and depth of the articles. In many ways the book reads more like a code of law than anything else, almost an update to the classic reference code written for the movement by Isaac Klein, ‘A Guide for Jewish Religious Practice’ (first published some 30 years ago).
My challenge with the book is its title. Or more specifically, the book’s subtitle, ‘the Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.’ For what wisdom will the vast majority of contemporary, liberal, non-observant Jews find in a book that is largely a compendium of Jewish law, a book about how to live an observant life? And I fear the answer to that question is very little. Not because Jewish law can’t have meaning, and not because the traditional halachic structure doesn’t have a kind of wisdom, but because most of the members of our synagogues do not find meaning and or wisdom in Jewish law and they do not live observant lives, at least in the traditional sense.
The truth is there is a growing gap between how the movement understands itself and what it actually is. People join Conservative shuls today because they grew up there, or they like the rabbi, or the cantor, or the pre-school, or they have friends that belong. But very few – I would guess less than %10 – join Conservative synagogues because they want to be part of a halachically observant community. I had the opportunity to be in Israel over the summer with congregants, and we spent Shabbat in Jerusalem. Shabbat morning we went to services at Moreshet Israel, where Rabbi Frank gave a long sermon reprising his views on what the movement should strive for, primarily more observance and a greater commitment to halachah. In one extended section of his remarks he used the word halachah over and over again. Two of my congregants were sitting in front of me. I leaned forward and asked them if they knew what halachah is, and they both shook their heads ‘no.’
The point is these people are not the exception – they are the rule! And whether this is a failure of the movement or not is beside the point. These are our members. They prefer a more traditional shul, with more Hebrew in the service (although many of them cannot read Hebrew well, if at all), where Shabbat and kashrut are observed. They find meaning in Jewish life and experience, they see the world through a Jewish lens, they believe in classic Jewish values like tikkun olam and tzedakah. They are enormously proud to be Jewish, and they want to have Jewish children and grandchildren. But halachah – the traditional observance of Jewish law in every area of life – is not part of their world view. Why then, when asked to describe the movement, do we so commonly say ‘it is halachic?’ Isn’t there something more we can say? Isn’t there a book we can write about the wisdom of Conservative Judaism for contemporary Jews that our laity could read and find real meaning in?
Some of that book would be about the desire in our congregations for top quality adult education. Some of it would describe inventive social action programs, hands on opportunities for young and old to make the world a better place. Some of it might be about the importance of prayer as a tool for self growth and reflection, or the valiant struggle of the women at the wall. Some of it might be about an idea like Heksher Tzedek, or the use of mikveh for spiritual healing and cleansing. Or creative Hebrew school education initiatives. I imagine that the professional and lay leaders of our movement could think of many other things to add to this list. And I do believe it is time for us, as a movement, to write that book.