Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article Requiem for the Conservative Movement, an analysis/reflection on the results of the Pew Study vis a vis Conservative Judaism, created a veritable firestorm of staunch defenses of the Movement from its leaders, thinkers, and rabbis. In a follow up piece from last week, Gordis responds to the responders, or as he calls them, his ‘interlocutors.’ In the course of a lengthy article (almost twice the length of his original piece) he does his best to answer his critics, and also attempts to reinforce some of the ideas from his original ‘requiem.’ There are two fundamental flaws in his argument, but also one essential truth. First the flaws.
The first comes from Gordis’ misunderstanding of what he calls ‘aspirational’ Judaism. By this he means the challenge that a faith tradition should present to its members to live more engaged and meaningful lives. A religion should be demanding, not acquiescing; it should expect its members to grow in soul (a David Wolpe phrase), not remain on a level spiritual plane. All of this is true, and you would be hard pressed to find any religious leader from any faith tradition that would disagree. Gordis’ mistake is that he takes the idea of aspirational religious life and he connects it to halachah, Jewish law. These ideas may be connected at times, but they do not need to be, and a faith tradition can be highly aspirational while having very little interest in a legalistic approach to religious life. I would argue that Conservative Judaism is highly aspirational. It encourages its members to study more, to come to services more, even to observe more seriously, and most importantly to use classic Jewish values like the importance of giving charity and the idea that all humans are created in the image of God as guiding values. But to believe that the Movement’s less stringent views of driving on Shabbat and eating out in a restaurant have had a negative impact on the Jews in the pews is simply misguided. The fact is the vast majority of Conservative Jews don’t even have these issues on their radar screens, so how can they ever be ‘aspirational’ for people?
The second flaw in Gordis’ thinking comes from the title of his rejoinder, ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’ This is what he describes as the gap between where a person is and where they feel they should be. He understands Orthodox Judaism as the movement most invested in the idea of cognitive dissonance, and believes that is one of the reasons why Orthdoxy is growing while Conservative Judaism is shrinking. Knowing some of what goes on in the mainstream Orthodox community these days it seems to me as if the opposite is true. Most Orthodox rabbis, and many Orthodox Jews, are not at all comfortable with ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Instead, as Orthodoxy’s lean to the right continues, it is less and less comfortable with ideas, values, and narratives that do not reflect the strictest definition of how one should practice and even what one should think. Gordis imagines, I guess, that many within Orthodoxy today are mini-Soloveitchiks, ready and able to keep in their minds the tension between Orthodox dogma and modern thought. The truth is there are a handful pockets where this kind of dynamic exists today, but YU is no longer one of them. They are few and far between, and the fact that rabbis ordained at such places as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah have trouble being recognized as rabbis in many Orthodox communities is all you need to know. For all of the Orthodox community’s passion, and its many strengths, cognitive dissonance is simply not its forte.
Which brings me to the one essential truth in Gordis’ new argument. He writes that in all of the responses to his initial ‘eulogy’ of the Conservative Movement, there were defenses of what Conservative Judaism is and has been, but there were not suggestions as to what it should be. I am afraid that by and large he is correct. The defenses of the Movement have been intelligently and in some cases passionately stated. They have acknowledged, with complete intellectual integrity, the Movement’s flaws while trumpeting its success, of which there are many. But there is not a sense, as you read through the responses, that anyone has a clear idea of what should be done and of how we should change. The status quo may be high quality, but if so it is a high quality product in which fewer and fewer Jews are choosing to invest. Perhaps it is time to try to get a sense of why that is the case, and in so doing to begin a conversation about what we can change to make a difference in the years to come, not holding on and fading away, but growing and glowing brighter.