Before going to college, libertarianism always struck me as an appealing ideology, if I were the sort to follow political ideologies. All that freedom! That classically liberal combo of fiscal conservatism (to shock my hippie friends) and social liberalism (no one who grew up in NYC can be a real conservative), who wouldn’t like it? But then I went to a meeting of the University of Chicago‘s libertarian club, and I realized the problem with the whole thing. A guy at the meeting announced that he was a pro-life libertarian (and if you went to the University of Chicago, you probably know who I mean, since with a stance like that, he was sort of famous.) Well, good for him right?

I wasn’t so sure. I’d thought that libertarianism meant that nothing could be outlawed unless it involved harming other people. While some see abortion as harming other people, others do not, so it’s fair to say there’s no consensus on the matter, even among moral, right-thinking, intelligent people. This alone makes abortion different from, say, murder. So even if you personally believe abortion’s bad news, if you are a libertarian, shouldn’t you just let people figure this out for themselves? Perhaps I’m way off– the pro-life really believe abortion is murder, that the pro-choice are in fact pro-genocidal, etc., etc.– but my overall sense of libertarianism was that “harm” could be defined any number of ways, and to say that a system ought to only outlaw the things it has to outlaw is not saying much at all, as any libertarian might place “harm” at a different place.

Similarly, despite not being religious, I’ve thought, for as long as I’ve thought about these things, that if I had to pick, it would be Conservative Judaism. Why? Because it’s a bit of both. Unlike Reform Judaism, there isn’t the Sunday school for kids, mandatory left politics, and, in the background, the history of German Jews doing their darndest to convince their countrymen that their synagogue was really not so unlike a church. And then, unlike Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism would include far less of the sexist and otherwise socially conservative aspects of tradition. A middle road, who could complain? As Samantha M. Shapiro describes the movement in Slate, “Conservative Judaism, which began as a congregational movement in 1913, attempts to bridge the gap—to affirm the divinity of ancient Jewish law but also to allow changes to accommodate modern circumstances. ‘Tradition and change’ is a movement motto. ”

Shapiro sets out to discuss “Why Conservative Judaism is Ailing,” and from what I can tell, the problem with Conservative Judaism is much the same as that with libertarianism. In both cases, the appeal is also the problem: where do you draw the line?

Schorsch argued that today, that sort of learning has fallen out of favor because students crave a “quick spiritual fix.” I think the problem is more complicated. For starters, the JTS never figured out a way to generate the kind of passion that is evident at most Orthodox yeshivas. The logical extension of Conservative Judaism’s academic scholarship is that to obey Halakha just because “God says so” is intellectually dishonest. But if that’s the case, then why not throw over religious law, like Reform Jews do? The middle-ground movement has come up with no satisfactory answer. It makes do with guilt and a sort of schmaltzy ode to tradition a la Fiddler on the Roof.

Take the issue of the ordination of gay rabbis. It’s a no-brainer for Reform Jews, who allow it because they place precedence on personal choice above biblical mandates, and for the Orthodox, who bar it because they believe that the Torah strictly prohibits gay sex. But for Conservatives, it’s a crisis, because the movement lacks a clear theology to navigate between the poles of tradition and change, even as the gap between them becomes ever wider. As a result, the decision to admit openly gay rabbinical students to JTS has been bitterly contested, tabled, avoided, and fought over for the last half-dozen or so years. Schorsch has said in previous interviews that advocates for the ordination of gay rabbis are bending and manipulating Halakha rather than looking at it honestly. His despair over this issue surely motivated some of the ferocity of his speech.

But Conservative Judaism has never adequately explained how its rabbis or congregants should decide which aspects of modern times are worth adjusting the law to, and which aren’t. The decision in 1972 to ordain women rabbis at JTS wasn’t advocated by the institutions’ Talmudic scholars but by a committee of lay people. They made many strong moral and ethical arguments for ordaining women, but they couldn’t ground their stance coherently in Jewish law.

While plenty of successful arguments exist for why a middle road ought to be taken, none do to explain how such a road should be defined. But the arguments for a middle road are so strong that it’s worth giving it a shot. Finding a place between extremes is a process, and can’t be done ahead of time with hard-and-fast rules. But Shapiro mentions two problems, really. The first is what the moderate approach should be, and the second is how to make moderation exciting. That, unfortunately, is impossible. Moderation’s dull! It’s so much more fun to go all-out. As much as I’d like to see Conservative Judaism succeed, I don’t quite see how to get large numbers of people revved up about it.

N.B. I’m posting this here because I’m assuming the Jewlicious readership knows a gazillion times more about Conservative Judaism than I do, so I’m wondering a) if Shapiro’s correct that the movement’s in decline, and b) if so, why that is, and what could/should be done about it, if anything.


Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy blog has some interesting thoughts on this, as do the commentors to the post.

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