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.

UPDATE

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

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29 Comments

  • Reading the artivle, Shapiro maintains that Conservative Jews seems to be heading back towards Orthodoxy. I hope that religious traditionalism won’t become political fundamentalism. At this point in history, that would be suicide.

  • Penny: I dentifying with Traditional or Orthodox Judaism does not mean that you suddenly become a fundamentalist. Orthodoxy encompasses a wide variety of practices and beliefs. Yes of course there are those who are very rigorous in their observance, but there are also those who identify with Orthodoxy but don’t neccessarily practice it completely. Orthodox Judaism does not equal radical religious fundamentalism.

  • Phoebe suggests that the presence of “moral, right-thinking, and intelligent people” on both sides of an issue precludes state action, e.g. the banning of abortion. In the past, such people could be readily found on both sides of such issues as slavery, colonization, the subordination of women, eugenics, and the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity. No less an “intelligent” person than Nietzsche endorsed slavery, for example.

    Can this really serve to get us off the hook when the moral going gets tough?

  • I’m not a libertarian, but the objection to anti-abortion libertarianism seems misplaced. Abortion is obviously on the border between Affects Others and Doesn’t Affect Others, so I don’t see how differences of opinion on that front mean that everything else is up for grabs.

    BTW, which fast day is associated with the smashing of the tablets? The comment about “An entire fast day is devoted to mourning the tragedy…” is simply bizarre, but is it at least associated with one of the fast days? 17th of Tammuz seems like the likeliest candidate.

  • CK- yeah, I know, I worded it badly, I was trying to work out what I meant and I didn’t get it right.

    I don’t know which country you’re posting from, or if that would even make a difference, just that here in the UK I’m worrying that as Muslims become more traditional and Jews become more traditional there’s likely to be less dialogue between them. I’ve certainly noticed that within the more traditional communities tend to associate less with those outside their communities (obviously it is more difficult when you have strict dietary regulations and/or obligations to pray at certain times) and I would hate for there to be less and less understanding of one another as a result.

  • Penny: are you Penelope? from Nano? I take it so. I downloaded a few of your tracks. Its very well done, the mix of electronica and your vocals is very intriguing.

  • “see that? that’s is your god! i love it! I wish i had a religion where my god tells me to be ruthless and be mericless. It’s funny how in other relgions god says to give chances and be mericfull! i Love jews! I get to listen to a God who tells me to destroy my enermy until there is nothing left of them..literaly!.

    That’s not the Jewish God. It’s the Israelite God. Locate the Jewish God in Jewish texts.

  • To clarify, at my beloved and brilliant co-worker’s insistance:

    The Old Testament records the Israelite God, who does not always resemble the God found in Rabbinic Texts or reflect our modern understanding of the role of God in the world.

  • To clarify my cryptic comment (I got a degree in Bible and at times it causes my brain to fog): As Judaism evolved, so did the Jewish conception of God and the Jewish record of God’s nature. The Old Testament records the Israelite God, who does not precisely resemble the God found in Rabbinic Literature, for example. Therefore, to attest that the Jewish God does not promote mercy and love because the Biblical God is, at times, illustrated as angry and vengeful is similar to arguing that African Americans are 3/5ths of a person because the original version of the Constitution says so.

  • 1) be a beautiful young woman who is not going to allow any of that sexist stuff in HER life. No kitchens and mechitzas for HER.
    2) be a still very fine-loooking older woman, who is not sure what went wrong, and who is not going to let any of that sexist stuff in HER life, (see above).
    3) collect Social Security if it is still solvent.
    4) die.

  • Jewish Mother, what is your point exactly? Are you suggesting that if a beautiful young woman chooses something other than “kitchens and mechitzas”, then she will become an older woman wondering “what went wrong”? So, does that mean that it’s back to the kitchen and mechitza in order to have a wonderfully fulfilling life??

  • Phoebe — Nice post! It would be pretty nice if some commenter on Jewlicious answered your question “b” and came up with the cure for what ails Conservative Judaism.

  • CK — It’s true that someone can be Orthodox without being a fundamentalist or even without practicing it completely, as you put it. But wouldn’t that brand of Orthodoxy suffer from the same problem as Conservative Judaism: The fact that, as Phoebe noted, “Moderation’s dull.”
    Do people get excited by the type of Orthodoxy you describe?

  • Babies alone does not sustainability make. Those babies have to grow up and be compelled enough by the movement to stay in it.

  • So much complicated stuff, so little time.

    Standing on one foot, then:

    1) Neither libertarianism nor Conservative Judaism necessarily regards itself as a compromise or hybrid “middle way,” though that’s sometimes where others place it on the spectrum.

    Committed libertarians & Conservative Jews (I’ve been the former & have sympathies; I am still the latter) see them as coherent wholes that are internally consistent. (i.e., Libertarianism = not a hodge-podge of social liberalism + fiscal conservatism, but a commitment to greater individual freedom and less government intervention in both social and economic realms.)

    2)”I’d thought that libertarianism meant that nothing could be outlawed unless it involved harming other people.”

    Presumably, then, those who are convinced that a fetus is a person are anti-abortion/pro-life. Now, whether a “pro-life libertarian” proposes to carry out this opposition to abortion through governmental legislation against abortion (which, you’re right to say, most libertarians are against or at least mighty wary of–though unless you’re an anarcho-libertarian, you generally admit some minimal role for the state, so it’s not inconceivable that you’d see this area as one where the state should act) or through some other means of voluntary action–that would presumably need to be clarified by the self-proclaimed “pro-life libertarian” in order to know exactly what they mean by the term.

    3) Phoebe writes: 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.

    Again on one foot:

    a) Depends on what you mean by “in decline”:

    Has it lost synagogue/affiliating members, primarily to Reform Judaism rather than Orthodoxy [look at the 2000-1 NJPS numbers etc.]? Yes. Dreadfully/disablingly? No.

    Does it have internal tensions? Yes. Is this a new thing or unique to this movement? No

    I wouldn’t say Conservative Judaism as a whole is “in decline” (this is not the Fall of Rome or the Temple), but it’s got plenty of challenges to confront–as does the Jewish community as a whole, and as do we all.

    b) Lots of things! But what could/should be done depends, of course, on what you think the problem is! The Shefa Network is one group that’s talking about these issues, from various points of view in the Conservative community.

    If you think that what’s wrong is that synagogues are big & impersonal & have little sense of community, you either start independent minyanim of various sorts or work to make synagogues more engaging and full of spirit.

    If you think that what’s wrong is that Conservative Judaism is dragging its feet on making real and necessary substantive change on GLBT issues, then you do things like create Keshet Rabbis and tackle the substantive halakhic issues.

    If you think that the problem (or a problem, at any rate) is muddleheaded apologetics about gender issues and whether/how it’s halakhically defensible to be “traditional AND egalitarian” rather than “traditional BUT egalitarian,” you write articles like Will the “Real” Judaism Please Stand Up?.

    If you think that what’s wrong is that the movement is driving the intermarried away (whether that’s into Reform Judaism or non-observance/non-affiliation), you focus on keruv (drawing near: outreach, engagement) of intermarried families.

    If you think that what’s wrong is that intermarried families aren’t serious enough about Judaism or Jewish continuity, you emphasize converting the non-Jewish spouse and promote edud rather than keruv.

    Or you wash your hands of it and say it’s no longer your battle–
    If you think that too much halakhic change is the problem, you split off from the
    USCJ and go UTJ or become Orthodox. If you think too little halakhic change is the problem, you go Reform or Reconstructionist.

    There’s nothing inherently small-c conservative or boring about the Conservative movement, nor is a gray-flannel-suit kind of dull moderation mandated by being in the middle of someone else’s spectrum. If Conservative synagogues or institutions are humdrum, that’s something to be dealt with–but its not a necessary consequence of Conservative ideology or approaches to Jewish life!

  • “Penny: are you Penelope? from Nano? I take it so. I downloaded a few of your tracks. Its very well done, the mix of electronica and your vocals is very intriguing.”

    Thanks Jon C, much appreciated 😀

  • Hey Jewtoo, post 12: my point was a little bit in the Middle. You can make dinner and pray in your own woman space behind the mechitza, and STILL have a degree, opinions, run a business and publish books. What I was ranting about was the poisonous ideology which I saw “claiming another victim”, coming from the rosy lips of yet another young un. This stuff kills. I would rather see you miss a publishing deadline because the kid is sick, than miss a kid deadline because you are too hand-on-hip humpfy ‘assertive’ to get into a serious legal deal with one of the hairy ones. A man. There is no way to be a liberated woman, if one has in effect decided not to be a socially functioning woman. That is like getting your hair straightened, and then claiming to be proud. You have abandoned the group. Your victories are not victories for the group.

    And it can get lonely.

    It may be worse to be lonely than to be oppressed. I never said life was a bowl of cherries. You might have to pick which problem is least bad.

    Most of the people here at Jewlicious are, to paraphrase Anthony Quinn at the end of “Guns of Navarone” NOT SO EASY TO OPPRESS.

    Don’t be scared. Make a darn decent dinner and state your views fearlessly at the table. Make sure what’s his name has paid for the food. Mostly.

  • The darn decent dinner should be kosher. It’s not hard. And think of the fun of buying all those dishes and flatware. The catalogues make it easy.

  • That is not necessarily terrible, but role reversal has big problems, though it is certainly better than solitude, starvation or sterility. It has been done. There are indeed families where Mrs. staggers in, and Mr. profers soup or tea to make her feel better, and shushes the children a little, while she puts her feet up. And listens to her horrible day doing deals with idiots so we can all eat. But that is not the way to bet. You are not flowing with the go, if you know what I mean. There are going to be unhappy voices within BOTH persons’ interior selves. Role reversal is actually a myth, in my opinion. A fiction.

  • I want to add: whatever a guy’s employment circumstance, or his wife’s, he remains the guy, and she remains the wife. It is a dance they have to maintain, sometimes carefully and with difficulty. But it has to be done. Why? Because it remains the truth, the underlying truth, the facts. The ground of existence. He’s him and she’s her. She will appreciate his help, but she will not appreciate being actually butched off, if the neighborhood gets the idea that he really does fold napkins better than she does. And makes a better dinner too. That will make her eyes flash, and not seductively, either. Dangerously. Also, if it is too widely known that they are eating her money not his, he may feel some unpleasant things and do some unpleasant things to prove that he is indeed a man. They can transcend this, but they must be very big souls to do that. The usual way is better, or anyway, vastly easier.

    So it’s not just another option among many. It’s a problem. Ultimately.

  • Jewish Mother, I’m confused? Y’know all those Charedi males that “are eating her money not his”? Do they also “feel some unpleasant things and do some unpleasant things to prove” their manlihood?

    Do you have any stats to back up your 1950’ish opinions?

  • I didn’t say people couldn’t work with and deal adequately with role reversal, SUPERFICIAL role reversal. I said that if Mrs. makes the money that does not meen her husband is any less a man, but they are going to have to work harder to make sure he in fact stays the man. I have seen that done successfully. It is not easy or ideal but it can be done. In fact the Charedim probably do it nicely and so can others. In Judaism, in particular, a woman is a woman and a man is a man no matter who earns what.

    So no worries. Love conquers all, but the facts are the facts. But you knew that.

  • This cuts both ways. A woman could worry her husband would find her career annoying and a distraction. Like, he’s having a nice evening with his wife, and ding-a-ling, somebody phones and wants to know if his wife can help with the emergency? Right now? Downtown? Help? He would have to reassure her that he didn’t mind. He might have to learn how not to mind. It can be done if you want to.

    It’s not just, ‘are you a real man’. It’s also, ‘are you a real woman’. Running off in the middle of making dinner and stuff. Who are you married to, them or me?

    Love conquers all, but you have to be determined that it shall. She can always put up a soup in the crock pot in the morning. At 4 am.

  • When two people make a marriage work, nobody gets to comment about how. Their door is closed. “It’s working, we’re happy, we have nice children, so shut up.”

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