Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article ‘Requiem for a Movement’ (jewishreviewofbooks.com) has raised the ire of Conservative rabbis across the country. There is a feeling that Gordis, who left the Conservative Movement some two decades ago, is taking pot shots at his old friends while they are down. I was a student of Danny’s when he was making the transition from Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy, and it was clearly an internal struggle for him – the intellectual rigor and integrity of the place where he had grown up, with all of its pitfalls, versus a new (for him) place which would give his family an observant community and layers of insulation from the secular/non-observant world. Where he would finally land seemed clear to us at the time, and the added layer of protection found in Israel was the last piece in the puzzle of his journey. His move to Israel was an indication that he did not believe Jewish life in America was ultimately viable, and his move to Orthodoxy illustrated his sense that Conservative Judaism was a sinking ship, at least for the kind of Jewish life he wanted to be involved in.
The results of the recent Pew Study on American Jewish life seem to support the ‘chush’ that Danny had 20 plus years ago. We don’t need to go back through the particular statistics. Suffice it to say that they painted a grim picture of liberal American Jewish life in general and the Conservative Movement in particular. Danny’s ‘Requiem’ article builds off of the Pew Study, and with his usual insightful analysis he offers a critique of the Movement that he grew up in. I won’t summarize it here, but it is worthwhile reading, and mostly (in my opinion) spot on.
That being said, what he writes is not a ‘chiddush,’ a never before thought of insight. Instead the issues he points out have long been of concern to the Movement and its leadership (diminishing affiliation, watered down Hebrew school education, dwindling service attendance, etc). The question, of course, is what can we do about it? In Gordis’ view, it is too late for the Movement to save itself, reversing the trends that the study has revealed. The facts are in, the Conservative conversation is over, and the door is closing. End of story.
In a round about way Gordis actually suggests a solution in the last section of his ‘Requiem.’ He wonders what would have happened if… the Movement had stuck to higher standards, the Movement had been more demanding in terms of observance and education, the Movement had more energetically addressed issues of deeper meaning in people’s lives. Of course what would have happened we will never know, but I wonder if the Conservative Movement Danny Gordis imagines is one where he would have felt comfortable, but many of our ‘Jews in the pews’ would have been like fish out of water. For he does not, in his analysis, address the underlying trends that the Pew Study identified – the growing percentage of ‘nones’ in the Jewish community and general community (nones are those not wanting to have any religious affiliation); the increasingly popular view among younger Jews that they are proud to be ethnically Jewish, but that they don’t want to express that religiously; the focus that younger Jews have on Jewish values like justice and moral living and intellectual curiosity. It seems to me what the study really points to is a growing group of Jews who want to feel Jewish, be Jewish, think Jewish, but not DO Jewish, at least in the way people have done Jewish for the last 75 years.
The question for Conservative Judaism is what to do about that? How can we connect with those folks, how can we give them what they want, but at the same time maintain some sense of integrity? Some of this can be worked out on a macro level, with individual rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders coming together within congregations to create a ‘millennial’ Judaism. But on the macro level we can only go so far. It is time for the Movement to write a collective response to the Gordis Requiem – I would suggest the title From Requiem to Renewal. This ‘essay’ must be written by the Movement’s best and brightest, its most creative minds. Because as a pulpit rabbi, I can only go so far. At a certain point, the Movement needs to step in, and lead the way. And not with discussions of various and sundry halachic issues, because as Gordis correctly points out, that will get us no where.
Instead, the conversation needs to be about big issues. Redefining Jewish identity. Recreating davening. Reassessing what Conservative Judaism means and what Conservative Jewish life should be about. Lets start fresh – after all, at this point what do we have to lose? And besides, isn’t that what renewal is all about?