Conservative Judaism–Didn’t hear it from me

Here is a paper I just wrote for my course celebrating the completion of Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare. The page numbers come from the 1972 Schocken edition. So anyway, this is a good book because it makes me feel validated. The basic ideas are that Conservative Judaism developed without an ideology, and its structure didn’t really encourage one. Also, it was always institutionalized i.e. “country club.” Enjoy.

A lot of what Marshall Sklare has to say is surprisingly relevant today. I thought it was interesting that he claims the Conservative movement developed as a method to keep “ethnic solidarity” (247) in a country where Orthodoxy was starting to look like an old person’s home (263-4) good for the lower classes and recent immigrants. The idea wasn’t “revolt” or a change in “content,” but Conservatism was rather really just a consequence of “disaffection” (114). From the beginning, the movement had problems defining itself, and its adherents defined their association primarily by the fact that they did less than Orthodoxy or less than “their rabbis would like them to” (203-7). It was overwhelmingly cited by laity as a difference in practice, not ideology (211-2), evidence still for Conservatism’s lack of cohesive vision. (Later, when the denominations start to look more similar and class distinctions diminished in the third settlement and onwards, ideology would become a more important consideration, since “class or status distinctions” could no longer be used [216].)

Moreover, with Catholic Israel substituting for traditional rabbinics, the laity started to feel that clarifying Conservative ideology would force them to “give up” authority to the rabbi (225). I think this has parallels to the idea now to “always question.” With this sort of idea always in mind, why defer to a rabbi? Therefore, the traditionalist approach taken at the Seminary could never actually be put into place practically. Also, if the Conservative ideology were to actually be implemented, it would mean giving sanction to all the violations of law that the laity had been committing from the beginning (227-9), for “even the most radical answer was more strict than current practice” (236). This led to two classes of Conservative Jews, the laity on the left (sometimes referred to the Leftists, who sound quite similar to Reconstructionist), and the rabbis and Seminary faculty on the right. That should sound familiar. To combat the dissonance, a new form of responsa came to form in the 1940’s after the consistent failure of traditional methods of halachic answer. The major/minor opinion format was non-binding, and was left to the local rabbis to commit or not commit to (237). The rabbis, meanwhile, were feeling misplaced, and Sklare suggests the Seminary as the place where their aspirations could be played out (188). Knowing that no one was paying attention anyway, they could argue over ideology with “no true ideological content” and “act out their traditional role without threatening” their congregants (241). The rabbis effectively lost their authority over their congregants (184), who began to think of the law as a “body of folkways” rather than something requiring rabbinic elucidation (69).

I think all this may have been started by the fact that Conservatism never committed to an ideology, as it was founded by laymen (120), and even then the only objective was to make Orthodoxy more “American.” This, then, leads to the idea that the main idea of Conservatism is simply a blend of “Jewish culture” and “an older American middle-class culture” (280). Even its biggest achievement in thought, the “science of Judaism” (which seems synonymous with “historical Judaism”), was merely a method, not a real philosophy (180). Then, since the ideology was devised so much later, it seemed “highly contrived” and could “hardly serve as a guide to present-day dilemmas” (238). Therefore, the congregants have “broken with halacha” (271) and all encouragements toward greater observance from the movement fail, with observance constantly declining (270-3).

I wonder why suddenly it became so important to keep Conservatism alive when its “suprasocial” or religious goals were failing. It was becoming larger in number to the detriment of these goals. Regarding observance of mitzvot, Conservatism has been an “abysmal failure” (270), even while succeeding in “such social achievements asmonumental synagogue buildings and prosperous congregations” (268). Sklare mentions this as a kind of battle between religion and institution, which is most evident in the Conservative movement, for whatever reason.

Early proponents of the movement would laud the “synagogue center” aspect of Conservatism, saying things like “the mother is in the Sisterhood, the father is in the Men’s Club, and the sister or brother in the Young People’s League” (150). This way of viewing Judaism is somewhat frightening to me, for it really does limit it to a (very pervasive) institution. “Spiritual values are focused on one institution instead of permeating all structures” (147), and everything being contained in one place discourages even more the apparently un-American idea of having a religion that belongs in the home as well as the synagogue (or the synagogue center, as it were). Conservatism stressed this aspect because it seemed to thrive on “ethnic survivalism” (134), as opposed to Reform, which claimed “reason,” and Orthodoxy, which claimed “revelation.”

In keeping with the theme of an “institutionalized Judaism,” other similarities between Conservatism then and now is the common “ambivalence toward the 20’s-30’s” age group for they “provide little support to the synagogue” (142-4) and its insistence on gimmicks such as “special Shabbats,” which is aptly described as a “deceptive uplift” (109). Most revealing is the idea that “for the[dues-paying] congregant, the rabbi is his rabbi,” as opposed to those who are unaffiliated (176). This seems to solidify the idea that the institution is Judaism; and the idea that it’s very important for Conservative leaders to gather the unaffiliated into a faltering Conservative movement could only be the product of a mindset that greatly emphasizes the importance of the institution. It’s interesting because the original donors of the Seminary didn’t want a split between Conservatism and Orthodoxy (193), a split which widened greatly sometime between Conservative leaders saying “Conservatism is 20th century Orthodoxy,” or “Orthodoxy is a home for the aged,” or “Conservatism adopted the best of Orthodoxy,” and Orthodox leaders’ non-cooperation with Conservative decisions, beginning in the 1960’s-70’s and continuing to today (263-4).

This book also knocks down the idea that the denominations are the result of well thought out and cohesive processes, and it validates my suspicion that Conservatism best represents (and was created to imitate) “middle-class culture,” evident by the fact that they have “trouble enlisting those who are antagonistic to the type of American culture on which the movement is based” (279-81). If this was its selling point, and if its goal of preventing the “complete alienation of the East European Jew” is complete (252), why does Conservatism continue to struggle on? What is its new task? I think that, if “Americanized” aspects such as English in services were once considered innovations, they are now considered concessions. I have never heard a Conservative Jew laud English in services as being modern, but I have often heard that it is so kind to allow these concessions for the “less knowledgable” (or less observant). Conservatism was seen as “religious observance without rejecting the less observant,” but in practice I think it is detrimental in the long run to structure an entire movement on the “big tent” idea. It seems similar to the idea of “special Shabbats,” something that may bring in more people, but lowers the quality. (I also happen to think that if a group takes their services seriously rather than relying on “gimmicks” and/or “anything goes” pluralism, self-respect will win more adherents in the long term.)

4 thoughts on “Conservative Judaism–Didn’t hear it from me

  1. Oh, Stage #2 of course. This is in relation to the English in services, maybe I should clear that up before actually submitting this.

  2. All very interesting.

    “In keeping with the theme of an “institutionalized Judaism,” other similarities between Conservatism then and now is the common “ambivalence toward the 20’s-30’s” age group for they “provide little support to the synagogue” (142-4) and its insistence on gimmicks such as “special Shabbats,” which is aptly described as a “deceptive uplift” (109).”

    So this is a description of a generation or two ago, or today? I at least am surprised if “special Shabbats” is something that’s been around for a while. Nowadays it seems to me maybe less commonly like “ambivalence” toward the 20s-30s, and more just inability to relate. Most Conservative congregations I’ve seen desperately wish they could attract more people from this crowd, but have no real chance of doing so.

    “It seems similar to the idea of “special Shabbats,” something that may bring in more people, but lowers the quality.”

    While I expect I agree with you here, it’s really not clear what “quality” refers to here, and it seems a pretty loaded word.

  3. The book was written in 1954, edited in 1972, and keeps going back and forth between the present and the “Third Settlement,” whose parameters aren’t really defined (I’m guessing 30’s-40’s?)

    I was surprised to find out both about the ambivalence and the special Shabbats. It sounds like back then, the purpose was to get people back to Conservatism (OK, this must have been 60’s-70’s). Now I assume it’s to make more money (our C shul always had a “paid dinner” afterwards, hehe), or maybe to get people who are already members more involved. There seems to maybe have been a bigger concentration on pulling in the unaffiliated that I don’t really see that much these days.

    Most Conservative congregations I’ve seen desperately wish they could attract more people from this crowd, but have no real chance of doing so.

    Yeah, I’ve seen this strange two-pronged approach, where they are really excited to see “20’s-30’s” or “young marrieds” as the book says, or “young blood” as one older lady said, but at the same time Conservatism really is based on “older American middle class culture” and just inherently the denomination would look entirely different if they actually succeeded. Luckily, their efforts are half-hearted, because if younger people actually started becoming a larger percentage of Conservative shuls, they’re have to totally change their programming etc.


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