Why Conservative Judaism is ailing.

Why Conservative Judaism is ailing.

Why Conservative Judaism is ailing.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Aug. 28 2006 7:23 AM

One Mad Rabbi

Conservative Judaism gets a kick in the pants.

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Still earlier, in 1961, the Conservative movement issued a ruling permitting driving on Shabbat—but only to synagogue. Orthodox Jews, by contrast, observe the prohibition against driving and build their neighborhoods around their synagogues and each other's homes. There is something powerful about this decision: The foundation of the community is a countercultural value that requires some sacrifice in the name of a higher purpose. While it might be possible to read Jewish law to permit driving on Shabbat or ordaining a woman rabbi, both of those choices seem motivated by a reluctant acquiescence to the demands of the time rather than by a deep and reverent reading of the texts. Orthodox Jews also change the law—you won't find any of them following the Torah's injunction to forgive all loans every seven years, or to stone a rebellious child—but they do so in a way that has internal coherence.

Liberal denominations of any faith tend to make a religion out of tolerance and humanistic values. But this misses some of the point of faith. There is a sweetness, intensity, and pleasure that comes from religious practice that isn't wholly rational.


Earlier in this century, the common wisdom was that Orthodox Judaism would die out in America, outmoded and irrelevant. Instead, it's the American Jewish center that's eroding. Conservative Judaism, once the most popular Jewish denomination in the United States, has recently taken second place to the more clearheaded Reform movement. About 33 percent of American Jews affiliate with Conservative Judaism, down from 38 percent 10 years ago. And interestingly, as the Reform movement swells, to a lesser degree, so do the numbers of Orthodox. And as sociologist Samuel Heilman shows in his recent book, Sliding to the Right, the form of Orthodoxy that's on the rise is the more extremist and isolationist sort—the congregations and movements that are deliberately at odds with American norms.

The project of looking squarely at the demands of our time and Jewish texts is both true to Jewish tradition and badly needed at this particular historical moment, and I wish it didn't seem to be faltering. People of all faiths who are trying to hold the middle ground need to get up a little more "nerve," as Schorsch put it—some oomph, confidence, joyfulness. Although I don't think he said it in the right way or at the right time, I hope some of Schorsch's zeal makes it way to staid suburban synagogues.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.