Liberal religion is having a hard time these days. Mainstream Protestant Christianity is a graying movement with significant numbers of its churches closing. Pope Francis expressed his fears that in emphasizing issues of social justice the Catholic Church not suffer the same fate as these Protestant churches have. The daughters of Muslim women who gloried in uncovering their hair are succeeded by their daughters who insist on headdresses. In all three, the “fundamentalist” wings of these churches seem to be robust and, at least among Protestants and Muslims, ascendant. It should not surprise us that the Pew Research Center study has now shown that these trends are similarly true for Jews.
The middle is collapsing. It is not only that Conservative Judaism is on the decline; the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy equally points to the failure of Modern Orthodoxy to capture a wide spectrum of this constituency. Nor is there much joy in the most liberal community, Reform. The nominal identification of most liberal Jews with this movement is ephemeral — membership in Reform congregations is declining and many Reform synagogues face severe budgetary problems.
Yet, here I am, a committed Conservative Jew, unlike the author, columnist and educator Danny Gordis, who says that he no longer defines himself as being within the movement. Whatever the statistics show about other Jews, I know I can’t be any other; poll numbers are not going to change who I am.
While still in college I made the decision to explore religious sources, thinking that I should be able to find deep meaning there. I couldn’t be Orthodox — my education had included historical understandings that undermined any simple formulations of revelation or God’s hand in history, and scientific approaches that ruled out divine intervention in any traditional sense. Equally, I was too much a product of a democratic faith that blessed both individual decision-making and pluralism. And Reform didn’t seem like an option because my reason for turning to Judaism was a wish to be instructed by, and to grapple with, traditional texts and to participate in traditional life. It didn’t feel like these held a serious enough place in the life of Reform Jews.
So what should I think after the publication of the Pew study? First, just as my own personal commitment contradicts the trends described in the study, there is much that I see around me that contradicts what many conclude from it. In every major city there are interesting and exciting centers of religious life, synagogues, minyanim, havurot, which, if not formally associated with the Conservative movement, certainly would be identified as such by any outsider. They not only attract the millennial generation, it is that generation which is fueling the energy these institutions impart. I don’t know the numbers involved, but whatever the total, they are a significant and vital phenomenon.
Every Passover these days there is a profusion of new, interesting Haggadot, which even in an age of the decline of the book find an audience. The new “Mahzor Lev Shalem” — of which I am the senior editor — has sold 300,000 copies in three years because it found an audience. A new generation of Jewish writers is replacing the Roths and Bellows, composers who were born Jewish are writing pieces of Jewish music along with their classical ouvre, and the disagreements between J Street and AIPAC have touched off an exciting debate and too-long postponed conversation in the Jewish community about Israel.
Generally, I see around me a profound emptiness developing in the lives of many Americans. Technology, in the guise of mobile phones and other devices, has made the workday ubiquitous. You can always be reached and you are always on call. Indeed, work has become all-consuming for most professionals. People have less time to read, less time for cultural activities.
In this mix, the biblical injunction of Shabbat observance seems like a wonderful gift — a day when work is not permitted, a day of giving up email and Twitter and… In an age when the meaning of a life and the demands of interpersonal relations are so much up for grabs do we not need the resources of past wisdom to instruct us, to challenge us? I can’t help believing that the pendulum will swing. The emptiness of much of American life will be felt by many, and they will turn, as I did, to religious sources to sustain them.
Danny Gordis decries the way the Conservative movement got mired in halachic arguments that were irrelevant to most of its laity. But he then goes on to posit that there is an “original sin” of the Conservative movement — its decision to allow congregants to ride to shul on Shabbat. It is as if the movement could have stemmed the move to the suburbs. It couldn’t have — the urge that fostered upward mobility, the chance to make it in America of which the move to the suburbs was an integral part, was much too strong. Rather, the Conservative movement decided not to cut itself off from where Jews were. Today, the insular communities of the ultra-Orthodox will not appeal to most Jews, so who will go out and meet them where they are today?
There is no “original sin” that defines the Conservative movement. The movement to which I am attached continues to place itself in the tradition of Talmudic exposition: Judaism as a conversation and argument. There is no one way that is right, rather the plurality of opinion, the openness of the discussion, the grappling with traditional sources and with modernity provides the richness of Judaism. Can a Judaism that engages people in a serious conversation about what is the meaning of the sacred in our time, what is the place of the holy in our lives, what in the tradition still speaks to us and can inform who we are, help us establish community and be compelling for us in our own time? I hope so. I’ve bet my life on that outcome.
The nature of the future is that it consistently surprises us. It is only the future that can tell us which prophets were true and which were false.
Rabbi Edward Feld, a teacher, author and lecturer, served as rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hillel director at Princeton University.