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Why Conservative Judaism is a Failure

Hmmm.. a glance over the past few posts makes it look like this is a blog about the abject failure of the cops in the US.  To correct that, I’ve decided to blog about one of my favorite organizational failure: Conservative Judaism.

Now don’t ge me wrong, I dig the whole Jewish thing. Really. So much so that I became a Jew, although it took me over a decade to finally knuckle down and do it.

So, some fairly sarcastic background for those of you that aren’t familiar with the major categories of Jews:

First, ya got the “Orthodox”. These range from the radical right black hat crowd to the more centrist Lubavitch (who still dress funny). Wouldn’t think of eating a non-kosher meal. These are the ones that TV shows make fun of.

At the other extreme, you’ve got Reform Jews. Think Unitarian, but with a bit of Hebrew thrown in. Thinks the idea of Lobster Bisque appetizer and pork chop main course is fine. Never heard of kosher.

Then ya got the Conservative Jews. They are a lot harder to describe, because they are everything in between. Some of them would fit in just fine with an orthodox community, but have decided to be a bit more mainstream, and call themselves conservative. Some of them are really reform Jews, but know that mom and dad (or maybe gramma) would freak out if they knew.

Of course, that exposes the real root of the problem with conservative Judaism – they identify themselves by what they are NOT. The most common description I hear from conservative jews is “I’d be reform/orthodox, except for (insert whatever pet peeve you care for here)”. Conservative Jews know that the Rabbi should keep kosher, and follow all of the rules that an orthodox Jew would follow, but as longa s the rabbi does, no one in the congregation has to bother. The Temple’s Hebrew School has to teach the kids to read and speak Hebrew, know the Torah inside out, and be able to expound on the history, culture, and rituals of Judaism, but as soon as the kid is 13 and has their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they can forget it all. Oh yeah, and don’t expect to see/hear/experience/ or discuss any of it at home, because “thats why we send you to Hebrew School”.

In the past few years, conservative Judaism has crashed. While the Orthodox and Reform populations have continued to grow, Conservative Judaism is withering. Congregations are shrinking, and temples are being forced to merge or close down. There is an old saying among non-Conservative Jews that conservative Jews are on a stepping stone to assimilation, reform, or orthodoxy. Why? Because Conservative Jews have set themselves up to be as orthodox as they choose, but to also be as mainstream as possible. Reform Jews had the good sense to simply admit that they wanted tobe mainstream, and punted the majority of the “baggage” that orthodoxy carries with it, and have openly admitted that they are more interested in being “normal” than in being Jewish. The conservatives tried to walk a middle line.

The end result is that the Conservative Jews that were truly interested in continuing to live a more traditional Jewish life were scorned, and pushed out. The folks that were comfortable with the fact that they wanted to be mainstream went reform to start with, or slowly wandered out of the conservative temples where the services had too much Hebrew, expected at least token following of ritual (at least in the synagogue), and were simply too traditional for the truly “liberated” jew.

What is left of Conservative Judaism? There ARE a few left after all:

The families that are so invested in the local temple that they simply can’t walk away from all that money spent to get the family name plastered on the windows, door frames, pews, and whatever other random bit of furniture was big enough to hold a name plaque.

The people who still need to feel that they are “better Jews” or “more Jewish” than those reform Jews over there (even though the only difference is that the “conservative” Jew goes to high holiday services at a conservative shul, whereas the reform Jew goes to the reform shul).

The otherwise orthodox Jew that has some issue with Orthodoxy in general, and chooses to affiliate with a Conservative shul, even though they know that they’ll always be outcasts and viewed as extremists.

Of course, the fact that Reform Judaism is moving towards being more traditional is also eating into the Conservative Jewish population. As the Conservative movement has moved more left, the Reform movement has moved more right, so there really is very little (if any) difference between the two – at least in reality. There are all kinds of  “real differences” that people will pontificate about, but when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t much difference. Walk into a conservative shul one weekend, and try a reform shul the next. Once you’ve tried a half-dozen of each, you’ll realize that many of the reform shuls are much more traditional than many of the conservative shuls, and many of the conservative shuls are much more liberal than many of the conservative ones.

So there ya go. Conservative Judaism is failing because of an identity crisis. They’re really (mostly) reform Jews that are simply unwilling to admit it, and as they admit (or die off, and their kids admit it) Conservative Judaism is fading away.

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One Response

  1. When we lunch on Friday (are we still lunching on Friday?) you’ll have to explain this to me… you lost me somewhere in the middle…

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