Feb 8, 2008

The Great Divide: Conservative Judaism in the 21st Century.

So ... Shabbat Shalom, friends.

I've sort of taken on a, well, academic endeavor into Conservative Judaism. I realize that I have slowly floated away (more or less) from Reform Judaism, in which I converted. Now, I have to give the precursor that the Reform Judaism that I converted into in Lincoln, Nebraska, in my mind, is nothing like the Reform Judaism I have found anywhere else. The Reform Judaism there is filled with people who are active in the shul, everyone knows each other, the same people go to services every week, it's just very close-knit. I mean, not everyone keeps kosher or davens daily or anything, but it felt more genuine. Like the people were there because they believed in Judaism, not necessarily Reform Judaism, but Judaism itself. It never felt like church. It never felt like the Protestant Reform Judaism that I've witnessed elsewhere. I went to shul, it was shul.

But as I grow, and as I learn and explore what it means to be religious or observant or devout in Judaism, I realize more and more that what Reform Judaism is (with the exception of that which I came into, which is always the sweetest) is not the kind of Judaism that I practice or want to practice. I don't mean to offend, and I know I have Reform readers. But in my mind, it has become all the more clear that it -- in my mind, once again -- is insincere, it's like, a show. A repetitive, droning show that no one really wants to be at. The b'nai mitzvah celebrations are benign and the kids -- it would appear -- are not having to learn much of any Hebrew to become b'nai mitzvah. The people look bored, except when they're noshing at the pre-oneg or scarfing desserts afterward at the oneg. It's more about socializing than anything. It's like, belonging to a club. A club where you see people and you say hi and then you listen to some guy speak and it lasts way too long and then you go home and that's that. It feels like church to me anymore. It doesn't feel passionate. And I know that it depends on the shul, but I've been to shuls in Denver and Washington DC and New York and Nebraska and Chicago. And save for the one in New York and my home shul, I'm just not getting it. It's so suburban and benign. And the idea that I keep "somewhat" Kosher or -- G-d forbid -- go to shul every week or study the Torah portion or want to go INTO Judaic studies just astounds many of my Reform/Secular friends.

So as time has pressed forward, I have found myself more and more leaning toward Conservative Judaism. But then I realized, I really, truthfully, know nothing about Conservative Judaism except that it was birthed as a middle-ground, to keep the shtetl Jews who wanted to Americanize but keep their traditions. Reform was too lazy, Orthodox was too crazy. So what is Conservative? What does it say? What is its function? What is it all about?

And so I found a paper by Jack Wertheimer, "The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism." I read this paper with great interest last week on the train ride home from work. I often find it incredibly difficult to focus on reading anymore on the train, but this had me glued. I'll admit, too, that the "lazy" and "crazy" lines are taken right out of his paper, because his comments on the issue of what Conservative Judaism strives to achieve really struck me and actually are what made me realize that what I know about the movement could fit on a single page of paper. Says Wertheimer,

"In religion as in other areas of life, disunity and disorganization can be symptoms of a deeper confusion. A wag once memorably classified Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism as, respectively, 'crazy, hazy, and lazy.' The 'hazy,' at least, is not inaccurate."
At this point I realized that what I didn't know and now did know made sense. You have this middle-ground movement that is losing members left and right to, well, the left and right -- Orthodox and Reform. Why? Because of the hazy. Conservative Judaism, it would appear from this paper and other documents I've poked at, doesn't know what it's doing with itself. In its beginnings the rabbis had things one way and the lay community had things another way. I also didn't realize that there is no defining body of Conservative Judaism, but rather the body of rabbis and then the organization for the synagogues. What's more, Orthodox and Reform leaders predict the movement will go defunct in the next 10 to 20 years, for lack of membership.

It makes sense, of course. I am sure there are those within the movement who keep strictly kosher and walk to shul and edge on Modern Orthodox, but perhaps who grew up in the movement with parents or grandparents who came to the states and vowed to not maintain orthodoxy. And then there are those who go every now and again, enjoy a nice pork chop, but appreciate the services with their bounty of Hebrew or perhaps simply grew up in the movement. So what do these individuals do? Over time, they shift, one way or the other. It's only a natural progression, nu?

So here I am. I have a few books here from the library, including "Conservative Jewry in the United States" by Goldstein (which surveys the demographic and trends among the community), as well as "Conservative Movement in Judaism" by Elzar, which is, well, what you would expect. Avi has suggested some texts to me off the Conservative movement's website, and, well, we'll see if I can't pick those up locally or up in Skokie and then go from there.

The thirst for knowledge is strong in this one, believe that folks. I just want to understand what the movements have to say -- while knowing, of course, that within every movement are a million microcosms of different ideals and beliefs and systems of living the law. Then, perhaps, I can figure out why I feel as though I'm in this weird dimension of floating around, feeling like I don't necessarily fit anywhere, but at the same time craving the organized chaos of a Sabbath service. I mean, I feel fine at the Conservative shul. I love it, I really do. But if there is this tension and confusion that I don't know about, I'd rather be prepared than hit head-on when people start defecting to the other movements en masse. I feel like "Jews in Space" or something. Trying to find a planet that will accommodate my specifications, if that makes sense.

So with all that in mind, Chavi shall search for a place to land that has more to offer than simply oxygen and challah.

Be well, and Shabbat Shalom.


Anonymous said...

Boy do I hear you on the Protestant Reform Judaism. Both the most amazing service I ever attended and the most off-putting service I've ever attended were in Reform shuls (different shuls, of course but both Rosh Hashanah services--a Reform shul in New York City, which was a marvel of spirituality and sacred space and quite possibly the most beautiful religious service I have ever attended in any religion, and a Reform shul on the Main Line near Philadelphia, which nearly sent me screaming out of the sanctuary with Easter Sunday nightmares).

My two cents on the Conservative movement, for what they're worth (which is probably less than two cents)....

I have a love/vexed (not hate...vexed) relationship with the Conservative movement, which is the movement I'm converting through after a great deal of thought and angst on the matter, I might add. Because my location is fantastic for Jewish involvement (I'm in New Jersey) I have access to all the major American movements, so I was less constrained by what was available than a lot of potential converts.

On one hand, I love the Hebrew liturgy, I like that they're egalitarian (even if they could still stand to be more so), I like that they're moving in a more progressive direction, I like that they didn't toss halakhah out but consider it a living body of law.

On the other hand, most Conservative Jews I know are only vaguely more observant than most Reform Jews I know, they still have the "bleeding out most of the non-married adults" problem, and sometimes the fact that rather than giving one firm halakhic they tend to give two or three that basically cover all ground between "yes" and "no" drives me nuts. Like the Reform movement, the Conservative experience, in my experience with a few different Conservative shuls, highly varied by congregation. My boyfriend's parents belong to two,so I often attend two that are SO different from each other it's hard to believe that they're in the same movement. One's Conservadox (heavy on the "dox"--they're handling my conversion, because I happened to meet and like their head rabbi first), and the other's very progressive (the head rabbi's Yom Kippur speech was on how he was going to start openly performing homosexual marriages, was going to be particularly welcoming to homosexual rabbinic interns...I literally can't envision the other head rabbi getting up on the bimah and declaring that, even though I think he personally might be that socially progressive).

That being said, on the whole I still see the movement as vibrant and having a lot to speak for it and I'm coming to a more reasoned understanding of the logic behind their superficially wishy-washy seeming halakhic rulings.

Anyway, I like your posts over at JBC.org and I'm finding your personal blog insightful, so good luck and congrats on grad school.


Zohara bat Sarah said...

I'm so sorry to hear that your new community is not living up to your old one. It's a big risk to take, moving...I'm lucky that where I moved to, the community is *almost* what I want. Take your time, and you will find your home.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Alissiana: I agree that the movement has so much to offer, and I think that much of what I'm learning through my study is that there is *hope*, but that the movement will go one of two ways in order to fulfill that hope. The divide between the congregation and the rabbis though irks me, and that doesn't seem to be something that will change. I suppose that is why there is Orthodox and Reform Jews, though.

Zahava: Thanks for your comments!

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