The Conservative Movement: The Masorti Movement that Isn’t

In 1979, a group of American olim who stemmed from Conservative synagogues in the United States founded an Israeli branch of that American movement. They chose the Hebrew name “Masorti,” perhaps recalling the founding principles and intent of the Conservative movement. But by implying a substantive connection to the heritage and principles of Jewish tradition, calling Mesorah in Hebrew, the group misleads the Israeli public. In no way can the Masorti movement be described as consonant with our Jewish Mesorah.

The Conservative movement first arose in reaction to the excesses of Reform – notably the graduation dinner of the first rabbis of Reform’s Hebrew Union College, which became known as the “treife banquet” for its non-kosher culinary selections. The Conservative mission, then, was ostensibly to inspire Jews to retain Jewish observance; the reality is alarmingly different.

Reform leaders proudly state that there is no Reform standard of Jewish practice; to them, individual autonomy is paramount. The Conservatives, on the other hand, claim to follow Halacha as a binding obligation, which logically should preclude them from following Reform’s lead in most areas of Jewish practice. Yet even prior to the establishment of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi JD Eisenstein observed that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals [of Reform] are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.”

A scan of American Jewish history credits Rav Eisenstein with near-prophetic insight. The Conservative movement routinely delays adoption of Reform deviations from tradition for no more than a few decades – during which it unearths new “Halachic” positions which fortuitously coincide with the Reform viewpoints which it desires to emulate. As the Reform movement has moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservatives have followed it further out to sea.

In the 1950s, for example, the Conservatives advocated a “program for the revitalization of the Sabbath” which endorsed driving cars to synagogue on Shabbat as “an expression of loyalty to our faith.” Members of Reform Temples, of course, had been driving on Shabbat since purchasing their first automobiles.

The Reform movement began to discuss ordaining women as pulpit rabbis in 1922, yet took 50 years before actually doing so. The Conservative movement spent little more than the next decade visiting and revisiting the issue, in order to gradually reach the same foregone conclusion. In the end, it put this clearly-Halachic question to a vote by the entire faculty of JTS – including nonreligious educators in the Hebrew language and other topics – in order to ensure the motion would pass.

The Reform Hebrew Union College allowed openly homosexual rabbinical students beginning in the late 1980s, a decision affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1990. JTS began to accept gay rabbinical students seventeen years later.

The Reform movement decided in 1983 to accept the child of a Jewish father as Jewish; within thirty years the debate moved from whether Reform Rabbis should officiate at intermarriages, to whether Reform Rabbis can be intermarried themselves. The Conservatives first sided with Jewish tradition: in 1986 their Committee on Jewish Law and Standards unanimously forbade holding even the reception following an intermarriage in a Conservative synagogue. Today, however, many Conservative synagogues offer both synagogue honors and voting memberships to non-Jews, even after divorce from a Jewish spouse. “Some of my most committed congregants are non-Jewish,” affirmed Rabbi Stewart Vogel, leader of Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles, California. The movement dropped its long-standing ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders in late 2014.

Though these changes may each begin in America, they reach Israel soon thereafter. Notably, Israel’s Masorti movement banned driving to shul on Shabbat in 1992 – but not because, as Conservative Rabbi J. Simcha Roth of the Masorti Halacha Committee put it, the original decision was “untenable sub specie halachah.” Rather, it was because the underlying reasons for “leniency” do not apply in Israel.

Other decisions made in America, then, naturally apply globally. One Israeli Conservative Rabbi referred to the absurdity of debating whether Israel’s Masorti movement could ordain women, once JTS was doing so. Any of those American women, he pointed out, could make Aliyah, join the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and serve on its Va’ad Halakhah.

This being the case, the Masorti desire for Israeli recognition does not mean mere acceptance of their current positions. Once Pandora’s box is opened, it cannot be easily closed. What the Masortim demand includes carte blanche acceptance of changes that it may make at any future time, while it continues to take its cues from a Reform movement that already ordains transgender rabbis.

There are two other reasons why the Masorti movement cannot be separated from the Reform. The first of these is that in Israel they act as one. The Masortim do not point to their claim of adherence to Halacha as grounds for acceptance – on the contrary, they join Reform in a united demand for Halachic standards to be vacated entirely.

And the second, even more critical point of commonality is that neither is ultimately successful at conveying Judaism to future generations. According to the Pew Survey of 2013, barely one-third of children raised in the Conservative movement remain with the movement as adults. Nearly as many switch to Reform. A similar segment switches to even more detached liberal movements, to the “Jews of no religion,” or to the growing population of those self-identifying as non-Jews. The Conservative movement, once dominant in America, now comprises merely 18% of American Jews, and only 11% of those under 30.

The Conservative movement has reached a point of no return; its members reject opportunities for deeper involvement. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census found that enrollment in the Conservative Solomon Schechter school system plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Similarly, the Conservative network of Ramah summer camps attracts less than five percent of camp-age children from Conservative member families, in part because the camp, with morning prayers and frequent references to Jewish ethics, is perceived as “too religious.”

While Masorti advocates claim that official recognition in Israel would enhance overall Jewish religious observance, the numbers tell a very different story. According to a 2009 survey by the Guttman Center, two-thirds of Israeli Jews “always” or “frequently” light candles on Shabbat, avoid eating Chametz on Passover and eat only Kosher food throughout the year. The Pew Survey of 2013 found that barely one-third of Jews in the Conservative movement “always” or “usually” light Shabbat candles, and even fewer keep Kosher even within their own homes.

The situation of the Conservative movement is sufficiently grave that its congregational arm has hired a branding agency – ironically, one named “Good Omen” – in order to develop a new “position statement” for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.”

When even the Conservative movement itself must acknowledge that it is out of touch with its American members, this is not the time for its inaptly-named Israeli branch to demand recognition of non-Halachic Judaism in Israel. One must suspect that their new activism is a method of shoring up support in their own home country. Before meddling with the millenia-old definition of Judaism still honored in the Jewish state, the movement should be called upon to demonstrate greater retention and historical continuity on its home territory.

This article was first published on Arutz-7.

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