Monday, February 18, 2008

Why is the Conservative Movement Worse Than Every Other Movement?

This post got me thinking.

It's no secret that the Conservative movement has major problems. It originated in the late nineteenth-century as a denomination for Jews who didn't want to reform as much as the Reform movement but didn't want to do the whole Orthodox thing, either. While leaders of the movement will insist that it has a more intricate philosophy than "not Orthodox and not Reform," the truth is that it's been struggling to define that philosophy since its inception, and I don't think there was any time throughout the movement's history when it didn't seem at risk of fragmentation.

None of this bothers me as much as it seems to bother so many people I talk to. This may be partly because I don't really consider myself a Conservative Jew. It's not that I'm ideologically post-denominational; it's just that I don't really think of "Orthodox," "Conservative," and "Reform" as labels that belong on people. There are Conservative rabbis (I often rely on one for halakhic opinions) and Conservative congregations (I attend one), and there are Conservative responsa and position papers, which I read with interest because some of them reflect approaches to Judaism that approximate my own. But as for me, I am simply a Jew. So it doesn't bother me that the movement doesn't always reflect my ideals, or even that it doesn't seem to have a clear-cut mission. From my perspective, the movement's function is to serve as an umbrella organization for similarly-minded Jewish leaders to build and sustain communities, grapple with contemporary issues, and educate the next generation. Granted, it doesn't always do these things very well, but it hobbles along. And since I don't generally expect much from religious institutions (or institutions in general), I'm not seriously disappointed.

But Katrina makes an observation that I don't think I ever fully appreciated: Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement seem uniquely disenchanted with it. Yitz Greenberg is supposed to have said that it doesn't matter what denomination you belong to, as long as you're ashamed of it (I know I've quoted this before, but it's good), and I always thought that the disillusionment shared by so many of those committed to Conservative Judaism was just a healthy realization of their movement's flaws. On the other hand, Katrina claims that Jews committed to the Reform movement generally seem pretty gung-ho about it, and I've known a fair number of Jews who seemed quite enthusiastic about modern Orthodoxy as well. On the other hand, I've rarely met a Conservative rabbi or educated layperson who didn't regard the Conservative movement with positive contempt. Maybe there really is something wrong with this picture.

32 comments:

Zach said...

I'm currently working on an article about the Conservative movement one year after the same-sex union/rabbinic ordination ruling by the law committee, and my Google Blog Alerts directed me to your writing. Engaging, measured, not clogged by thick and sticky language, you write about religion well and with modest authority. Keep writing.

FormerYUGuy said...

As I considered posting over there, there's a reason people would bitch about the C movement over R.

R doesn't demand anything in particular of their followers, so what is there to bitch about? Yes they might say "Tikkun Olam" is important, but important doesn't equate to "chiyuv/tizvui".

C does demand of their followers, except as everyone mentions, barely anyone follows it. Hence, it's difficult to provide anyone (observant or not) with what they need.

A difference b/w modern orthodoxy is that MO is proactive. not everyone might meet what it demands, but it provides the needs for those who do. It also does a decent job of knowing the humans are humans and therefore have faults, but faults don't preclude someone from being a functioning member of the community.

Though DH's view that "progressive orthodoxy" is C judaism in all but name is the same view my father who grew up in the C movement had when I told him about it.

In some ways its funny, they have the same view of orthodoxy that my 90+ year old grandmother had. "The difference b/w conservative judaism and orthodoxy is that the men and women don't sit together in shul". So the "progressive orthodox" keep the mechitzah. In some ways my grandmother was a product of her generation, as the may have been the main difference in some observable fashion in the 40s and 50s. It's amusing that the "progressive orthodox" want to keep it as the only difference (as in practice, it seems many would want to get to the egalitarianism of the C movement, just they want to be able to keep the name of "orthodoxy" at the same time).

katrina said...

Former YU guy: I think that you are unfairly criticizing Reform Judaism without knowing very much about it. I don't know that, of course, but I do want to ask: Have you ever been to a Reform Temple? Do you know any practicing, identifying Reform Jews? The Reform movement does not make "demands" of its members, but it has expectations of them: That they learn about and consider various mitzvot, including Shabbat, kashrut, and Tikkun Olam and make an "informed choice" about observance. Ultimately the Jews in any movement will make their own decisions.

Zach said...

I've heard it summarized thusly: Crazy, Lazy, and Hazy.

The Orthodox are Crazy -- they bury dishes in the backyard if a drop of milk touches the wrong plate

The Reform are Lazy -- "just be a good person" is about as much as they'll ask

The Conservative are Hazy -- not quite one or the other...

katrina said...

Zach, you're a journalist. That's a bit oversimplistic, isn't it?

Zach said...

First, that was commentary, not objective observation.

Second, I did not claim it as my own analysis.

Third, I learned it from Ari Goldman, former New York Times reporter and current New York Daily News religion columnist, in a class called Covering Religion at Columbia University.

Fourth, there is no fourth, because conventional journalists abide by the rule of threes.

Sunkist Miss said...

Interesting observations Elf & Katrina. I started to write a response, and then it was much too long, so I think I'm going to write my own post, when I get around to it. :)

elf said...

Zach: Thanks. I will try to keep writing (although I'm never very consistent about it). I agree with Katrina that the "crazy, lazy, hazy" quote is ridiculously simplistic, but I don't know what context Ari Goldman made it in, so I won't blame him. Anyway, good luck with your article.

formeryuguy: You seem to be suggesting that people complain about religious movements only because of the demands they make. But most of the complaints I hear about the Conservative movement don't have to do with its being too demanding. People seem to be more concerned about its lack of firm principles and a clear mission. I think if people felt that way about the Reform movement, they'd be complaining too, demands or no demands.

FormerYUGuy said...

Elf, that isn't what I said.

If a religion places demands on you, and you buy into those demands, but you see your peer group not buying into those demands, you'll feel alone and asking the question "do I belong here"

O (and MO) if you buy into their haskafic system, you have a decent size peer group (as percentage of movement)

C if you do, you don't have that.

R, as it places no demands, if you buy into it, you have no issue that some people do and some people don't as that is exactly your belief system so again, you have the peer group.

Anonymous said...

Elf, your authority isn't modest, it's quite impressive. You, on the other hand, are modest.

But I don't know what simply a Jew is, except a guy in a brown fedora at the back of a Young Israel at 11:00 on Shabbes. Apart from that, simple Judaism is only for the most engaged and ideologically complicated people. If we really didn't expect much from institutions, we would be indifferent to whether or not we belonged to them.

I don't think Conservatives are really more disenchanted, but maybe the language of disenchantment is more natural in the Conservative Movement. And then again, Conservatism gets the disenchanted people passing through it in either direction. Sometimes they stop in the middle, but their sense of disenchantment doesn't stop. Is that too psychological a theory?

-- The Pahad Yitzhak

BZ said...

On the other hand, Katrina claims that Jews committed to the Reform movement generally seem pretty gung-ho about it

Perhaps the grass is always greener. As a Reform expat (who remains ideologically committed to Reform Judaism), I'm pretty disenchanted with the Reform movement too.

BZ said...

The Reform movement does indeed make demands, at least on paper. It demands that Jews become educated enough to make decisions about their own Jewish practice (in theory, a higher level of education than is needed to be a practicing Jew in other denominations, where it should be sufficient to know what to do) and take responsibility for making those educated decisions. Obviously, this isn't what happens in practice among most self-identified Reform Jews or members of Reform congregations (nor do the movement institutions provide the resources to make it realistically possible), but that's no different from the fact that most self-identified Conservative Jews or members of Conservative congregations don't fulfill what the Conservative movement demands on paper.

And therefore, this...

If a religion places demands on you, and you buy into those demands, but you see your peer group not buying into those demands, you'll feel alone and asking the question "do I belong here"

...indeed describes how many disenchanted Reform Jews have felt.

FormerYUGuy said...

I don't really believe the reform movement demands of its followers that they be able to make the decision as you list it.

They might say that a jew can choose to learn and decide what they want to do, but they can also choose not to, and both are valid in the spirit of freedom and choice.

In some ways one could then say that "Reform Judaism" is "liberalism done jewish" as there's a focus on the freedom of the individual to choose (much like one might say that reconstructionist judaism is humanism done jewish, and kaballah center is scientology done jewish, unsure what the equivalents for C and O are).

BZ said...

The CCAR's Centenary Perspective says "Judaism emphasizes action rather than creed as the primary expression of a religious life, the means by which we strive to achieve universal justice and peace. Reform Judaism shares this emphasis on duty and obligation ... Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge."

While the specifics of practice are subject to individual autonomy, the responsibility to choose "on the basis of commitment and knowledge" is not.

Again, whether or not members of Reform communities actually do this is an entirely separate question; we're talking about what the movement says on paper. Do you have a citation for your position?

FormerYUGuy said...

Not an expert on the reform movement. here's a reference though

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Judaism_(North_America)#_ref-2

the reference isn't wikipedia, but the quote.

I'd also make the point that "called upon" is that it doesn't equate to a "tzivui". There's no demand, just a call. There's also the irony of still refering to things as "mitzvot" when one places them in the role of autonomy.

I can't reveal my name said...

There are Conservative rabbis (I often rely on one for halakhic opinions) and Conservative congregations (I attend one), and there are Conservative responsa and position papers, which I read with interest because some of them reflect approaches to Judaism that approximate my own. But as for me, I am simply a Jew.

Interesting. That's pretty much how I feel about Orthodox Judaism-- it provides the communities and goods and services which enable me to live my life in the way which I do, but I'm not really "an Orthodox Jew" in an idealogical sense. And I'm very frustrated with certain things about Orthodox Judaism, such as the way it treats women. (The super-duper MO world treats its women much better than the more right-wing world, but I no longer associate with the super-duper MO world, because I don't feel that they provide me with the requisite goods and services to enable me to live life the way I want to.)

I can't reveal my name here, lest my community find out, but I'll send you an e-mail identifying myself.

BZ said...

I'd also make the point that "called upon" is that it doesn't equate to a "tzivui". There's no demand, just a call.

Mai nafka minah? If we're talking about the vast gap (in both the R and C movements) between the ideal practice implied by the movement's declared principles and the actual practice of the movement's affiliated communities, then what difference does it make whether they use the language of "demand" or "call upon" to describe that ideal practice?

There's also the irony of still refering to things as "mitzvot" when one places them in the role of autonomy.

Not really. In all Jewish movements there are different posekim interpreting the mitzvot autonomously and arriving at different conclusions about how the mitzvot are to be observed. The difference between C/O and Reform in this regard is simply that in the theoretical version of Reform Judaism, each individual is authorized to be such a posek for him/herself.

Former YU Guy said...

a movement who believes that everyone is able to gain enough knowledge to decide the intracies of jewish law for themselves is a bit "out there" in my opinion.

I have an easier time accepting the statement that "halacha is not binding" over "it's up to each individual to plumb the depths of halacha to determine whats binding upon them".

We don't expect everyone to be a physicist, an electrical engineer or a even say a musician to be able to use an enjoy what we have in life, but under your definition, everyone has to be a rabbi.

I find it hard to believe that any leader of the reform movement would really go that far. Historically, I believe, it's also not what the movement stood for,

BZ said...

I have an easier time accepting the statement that "halacha is not binding" over "it's up to each individual to plumb the depths of halacha to determine whats binding upon them".

You're not the only one! That's why, on the ground, the former is more common.

Former YU Guy said...

But I was saying on a jewish philosophical level as well, not just on a practical level.

We don't see anywhere in jewish history that every single person is expected to have the knowledge to make every halachik decision themselves.

I really don't believe this claim of reform approach to halacha, not just that "that's the way its on the street".

richardf8 said...

"We don't see anywhere in jewish history that every single person is expected to have the knowledge to make every halachik decision themselves"

Indeed, and this is why the CCAR has a responsa committee, and for any given issue a Reform responsum does an excellent job of citing the sources for all angles (and I've even seen them cite Igrot Moshe) of an issue, as well as offering their own opinion, with any controversies within the committee noted.

The Responsa Committee is thus a very different thing from Poskim, or the CJLS, as it is not so much their function to render binding decisions as it is to facilitate the educated, autonomous decision making process of the asker.

elf said...

Lots of interesting comments.

BZ: Your statement about the ideal of individual autonomy requiring a higher level of education makes sense, but do you really think that many Reform Jews feel betrayed by the movement for that reason? This isn't a facetious question -- you would know better than I would. I just haven't met any other Reform Jews who seem bothered by that in particular. (Again, my experience is quite limited, so I'll trust your answer.)

formeryuguy: You're right, I misunderstood you. Tell me if I have you right this time: In the Orthodox and Reform communities, the ideal of Jewish practice is closer to the reality than in Conservative communities, and that's why Conservative Jews who try to adhere to the ideal feel so isolated and frequently angry at the movement. If that's what you're saying, I think there may be something to it. Still, I have heard Reform-affiliated Jews complain that few people within the movement “engage“ tradition the way they're supposed to, instead opting for the easy way out (very little observance).

Yitzhak: You flatter me, but I really don't know what this “authority“ thing is that people keep mentioning.
Could you elaborate on your comment about “simple Judaism“ being for ideologically sophisticated people?

richardf8: Interesrting point.

Former YU Guy said...

quoting all sources doesn't help one make a decision. It might digest them, but it doesn't help the majority of people.

One can make an analogy to medicine. Do we still need doctors? Why not make all our own medical decisions ourselves.

Elf: I take it a step further than what you are saying.

What I'm saying is that even if you are a "committed reform jew" who "enages tradition", under your reform "haskafa", those who don't are doing something that is 100% valid. It might not be ideal, but it's valid way of life.

In the Conservative movement, if you are comitted, you are doing what you are supposed to do, but the rest aren't and that's a problem.

BZ said...

Former YU Guy writes:
One can make an analogy to medicine. Do we still need doctors? Why not make all our own medical decisions ourselves.

Doctors are needed (as decision makers, not only as providers of resources) because there is a consensus (albeit an evolving one) in the medical community about which treatments will be most effective in treating a given condition, and doctors have the knowledge of this medical consensus that is needed to make the correct decision.

So this analogy makes sense in a halachic worldview in which there is consensus about which decisions are "correct". In that view, rabbis' decisions are recognized as correct either because they are presumed to have more knowledge and be more capable of getting at the truth, or because their status as rabbis gives them the authority to legislate normative halacha.

Reform Judaism does not have such a worldview, and therefore this analogy does not hold. Different people making informed autonomous decisions might arrive at different truths, and there is no objective test for which one is more correct (as there would be in a scientific field such as medicine, or in a religious worldview that assigns this power to rabbinic authority).

BZ said...

Elf writes:
BZ: Your statement about the ideal of individual autonomy requiring a higher level of education makes sense, but do you really think that many Reform Jews feel betrayed by the movement for that reason?

I don't have quantitative data, so I can't speak for "many", but I can speak for myself and other people I know and say yes. This ideal requires a high level of education, but the movement's institutions provide neither the tools for attaining this level of education nor communities in which this level of education is socially acceptable among non-professionals.

Former YU Guy said...

bz: The Reform movement does indeed make demands, at least on paper. It demands that Jews become educated enough to make decisions about their own Jewish practice (in theory, a higher level of education than is needed to be a practicing Jew in other denominations, where it should be sufficient to know what to do) and take responsibility for making those educated decisions.

formeryuguy: under your definition, everyone has to be a rabbi

bz: In that view, rabbis' decisions are recognized as correct either because they are presumed to have more knowledge and be more capable of getting at the truth.... Reform Judaism does not have such a worldview... Different people making informed autonomous decisions might arrive at different truths, and there is no objective test for which one is more correct

Personally, I think you've contradicted yourself.

BZ said...

How so?

BZ said...

I can't tell which angle you're aiming at, but I'll preemptively note that I never said that
1) being educated enough to make decisions for oneself gives one the authority to make decisions for others,
or
2) since there's no objective test to determine who's right, let's just say the hell with it and do whatever we feel like

Former YU Guy said...

1) Being educated enough to make decisions for yourself, while not saying you have authority to make decisions for others does mean you have the jewish knowledge to make decisions for others (authority is a separate subject).

I don't believe one needs to go to school to "gain authority". I do believe that the schooling that "Rabbis" get is not to gain authority, but to gain knoweldge.

From an orthodox pov, authority is really only gained with time and experience, there are many people who have similiar levels of knowledge, but significantly different levels of authority.

2) At the end of the day, if there's no way to say what objectively fits within the criteria, then yes, everyone will do what they feel like and you have to be content with that.

How one defines "fitting within the criteria" is a much larger discussion. From an orthodox perspective, I'm somewhat partial to R' Henkin's statement about fitting within a consesus. Once you diverge from a consesus (unsure how to define what percentage is large enough to have a somewhat of a consesus) you place yourself outside of orthodoxy (ala these parternship minyanim on which I've challanged some goers on how their halachik philosophy differs from R Joel Roth's, and they don't have good answers , "we hauve a mechitzah" is not a good answer).

Anonymous said...

The problem with Conservative Judiasm is the name.

Orthodox means "correct" and the Orthodox community therefore gets to walk around feeling that what they do is correct.

In my opinion, the conservative movement would be better off changing its name Masorti Judiasm, which happens to be the name that it goes by in Europe. It means "traditional".

Right now, American Judiasm has the fundamentalists calling themselves "correct" and the middle of the road folks defining themselves in response to the more lenient reform movement.

If the folks in the middle had the strength to yell very, very loudly that they were the traditional sect, maybe they'd feel a lot better about who they are.

---matt

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