Reclaiming the Disappearing Center

Jewish Action, 16 June 2014

Conservative Judaism has long prided itself on being the happy medium between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. The recent Pew report has shown, however, that save for a few committed souls, much of its traditional base has drifted away. In a world of increasing secularization, many former adherents are no longer comfortable with the Conservative appellation and have opted instead to identify with the Reform camp— synagogue affiliation notwithstanding.

Over the years, the response of Conservative Judaism to its declining appeal has been to push the halachic envelope further and further. While there was a time in America when a Conservative synagogue and service were quite indistinguishable from many an Orthodox synagogue and service, the introduction of unprecedented innovations such as egalitarianism and same-sex marriage has undoubtedly widened the chasm between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.

And yet, not all within the Conservative camp have welcomed these innovations with open arms. When Conservative Judaism began ordaining women, a number of members broke with the movement and began the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). And when the question of same-sex marriage arose, a number of synagogues seceded from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

It is time for us to open our arms to our traditional coreligionists. Many are yearning for a place back within the classical fold and it is our duty to figure out how to open our doors to these sincere souls and congregations who yearn to be part of the mesorah that has kept our nation strong for three millennia.

Long before the days of polarized Judaism, there was a time when it was par for the course to work with Conservative congregations with the hope that they would become normalized to Orthodox practice. There are many such stories, where Orthodox rabbis entered Conservative congregations with the blessings of their teachers and institutions. Certainly not every such story culminated in success, but for some reason Orthodoxy has long since shied away from the challenge.

And in addition to the congregations, there are certainly many rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement who would welcome the opportunity to be acknowledged by their Orthodox counterparts. These individuals feel lost in a movement which they sense has forsaken them as it slowly but surely cedes traditional practice to the will of the people. And while their voices are falling on deaf ears in the Conservative movement, they would be a welcome addition to the honest halachic debate that prevails in Orthodoxy. In fact, many of those on the right of Conservative Judaism hold less radical views than those on the left of Orthodoxy. The Metivta of UTJ does not ordain women, nor does the Canadian Yeshiva & Rabbinical School. While it goes without saying that this regularization process would entail confirmation of their halachic and hashkafic knowledge and commitment, are we having the conversation?

The Orthodox community dare not be smug about the latest report on the state of American Jewry. The Pew report is only as useful as our response to it. Our responsibility extends to all our brothers and sisters. In a world of alarming assimilation rates, let us join forces with those who believe in what we believe and strive for what we strive for.