A Conservative (Judaism) Lament

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Check out Michah Gotlieb’s piece in the Forward about the state of Conservative Judaism. It’s a nicely put together mini-memoir, and it’s a great thing to see a modern Jewish thought and philosophy colleague pitch in to current public debates about American Judaism. Michah observes how Conservative Judaism has lost the hold on the center of American Judaism that it used to hold once upon a time. And I think he’s right to pinpoint as a problem the incessant focus of Conservative Judaism on what’s good for “the movement.” But it’s one thing to lament. It’s another thing to realize that Orthodox Judaism might simply make more sense to someone like Michah, who leans that way anyway, and for whom there would have been no adequate options for more involved and intense forms of study and practice in the Conservative Movement when he was young.

What about the girls, though? I wonder why Michah puts the onus for the crash of Conservative Judaism on egalitarianism and the politics of egalitarianism, without which it could be argued that Conservative Judaism would be much worse off, demographically and spiritually.

I don’t know. I can only speak for myself. I go to Anschei Chesed in New York every Shabbat, and drag the kids there where they hang out with friends and rule the roost, before heading out to Central Park. Sometimes it’s sleepy and kind of quiet at shul, which can be nice, actually. And sometimes the mood is electric when the place is packed and there’s something decent to drink and to eat at kiddush downstairs. The problem with Conservative Judaism is the problem with American Judaism which is the problem with American Religion after being dominated by rightwing religion and religious politics since the late 1970s (!). Liberal Judaism will have to figure itself out in a new liberal milieu that is the age of Obama, the Information Age, etc.

Vibrant intellectual community is nice. But I would not underestimate the power of food and a bottle of single malt scotch to attract and hold together a religious congregation –that and the unruly wildness of children. In New York, most Orthodox congregations have figured that out. The mechitzah and the racism and the rightwing politics I can do without. I started going to shul in graduate school because I wanted to learn about Jewish prayer only to find out that I like the aesthetic and intentional structure, sound, and space of liturgy. I like a lot the cavernous vault of the main sanctuary at Anchei Chesed. And I can deal with a little dullness. If I were ever to leave Conservative Judaism, it would be because of the food. After awhile, it’s the sight of tuna fish and egg salad and the faint smell of mayonnaise that turns your stomach.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to A Conservative (Judaism) Lament

  1. Amyclae says:

    ” But I would not underestimate the power of food and a bottle of single malt scotch to attract and hold together a religious congregation”

    It’s a shame that the great food and spirits of the early Christian movement have been reduced to some hard tack and a sip of boxed wine. Perhaps we should all start a new religious revival, in both Judaism and Christianity, for food that is more… Evocative? Why not a nip of Jack Daniels to celebrate.

  2. joel hecker says:

    Zach, while we orthodox Jews have really mastered the single-malt niche on prayer and drink, don’t think that emigration will serve you well by se’udah shlishit–we have the same egg salad and tuna fish. (Perhaps that’s why the Ba’al ha-Tanya got rid of eating a third meal entirely) 🙂

  3. ej says:

    I think there might actually be an epidemoligical law that the fat content of the kidush is inversely related to the liberalism of the congregation. My friend attends the service at the ritzy but truly beautiful North Shore Congregation Isreal (Reform) ,in the plush suburb of Glencoe. She tells me the choice of organic danadelions and kale from the shul garden are stoically consumed by the loyal but miniscule minyan of worshippers. In a decent shtibel the chulent all by itself can trigger a cry of “Is there a doctor in the house?”, not to speak of the kugels and all the rest. There must be a rabbinical responsa somewhere what to do if the only way to increase shul attendence is by increasing the incidence of coronary heart disease in the congregation. Maybe the solution to the crisis in CJ is an old time kidush followed by 15 minutes of interval training.

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