From Jeffrey E. Schwarz

February 1, 2006
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Dear Chancellor:
As you move into your new offices at 3080 Broadway and assume your position as head of the Jewish Theological Seminary and de facto leader of the Conservative movement, we are facing the greatest challenges in our history. Partially a product of broader societal trends being played out in 21st-century America, partially a reflection of denominational developments in Judaism, but unquestionably, to some degree of the movement’s own making, these challenges beg two fundamental questions about the future of the movement:

  • What does the Conservative movement uniquely stand for (if anything)?
  • Does the Conservative movement need to exist?

Integration versus Insularity
The Conservative movement is faced with the challenge of integration versus insularity (played out through issues such as intermarriage). We continue to employ a false duality — the notion that as an individual becomes “more American,” s/he becomes “less Jewish.” In fact, younger people today realize that the opposite may very well be true. Our Judaism, our Jewish values, and sensibilities, inform and shape who we are as Americans. And, at the same time, American values inform and shape who we are as Jews. Younger Jews have no interest in a Judaism based significantly upon tribal considerations of bloodline and “laws” that directly or indirectly separate them from their non-Jewish friends and neighbors. As such, a focus on “in-marriage” grounded in the need for retaining biological and/or social particularity will continue to fail. In 21st-century America, only an engaged Jewish life synonymous with compelling content and depth of meaning has a chance of making “in-marriage” an achievable goal.

Plate Tectonics in Jewish Denominational Life

The Conservative movement faces crowding from both ends of the denominational spectrum. Ritual practice, serious commitment to the study of sacred texts, and the use of Hebrew continue to become increasingly important to the reinvigorated Reform movement. At the same time, cutting edge institutions and congregations within Modern Orthodoxy push the boundaries of what have traditionally been considered women’s roles in Orthodox prayer services, thereby encroaching upon the Conservative movement’s egalitarian bona fides. As the so-called “middle” ground continues to erode, the Conservative movement must chart a course that enables it to do more than survive, but rather contribute to the competitive Jewish marketplace of ideas.

The Conservative Movement Itself

If the Conservative movement wants to be taken seriously, it must address an elemental truth regarding halakhah. The movement calls itself halakhic, yet not only are the vast majority of its laity (and perhaps a not inconsequential number of its clergy) non-halakhic, but an undeniable critical mass of Conservative Jews do not consider halakhah to be their “commanded” path to an authentic Jewish life. In this regard the movement differs from, on the one hand, the stated position of Reform, whose doctrine and adherents do not see Jewish practice through a lens of commandedness, and on the other hand, from that of Orthodoxy, whose doctrine and adherents view halakhah as the “authentic” Jewish way. The cognitive dissonance within the Conservative movement surrounding the issue of halakhah is disturbing for those committed to intellectual integrity. From a pragmatic perspective, the constant carping from the pulpit by our clergy about the desirability of increasing levels of ritual observance is ineffective at best and may very well encourage people to stay out of the pews entirely.

The most significant act the Conservative movement made was the decision, nearly three decades ago, to ordain women. And the movement still remains traumatized by the fallout associated with that decision, leaving it seemingly paralyzed, unable to adapt to the progress that broader American society has made in accepting as equal those who happen to be other than white, heterosexual men. How else to explain the fact that Conservative congregations continue to have the right to choose to be non-egalitarian? Does the movement really want to perpetuate the second-class status of women? Moreover, the movement’s position denying ordination to men and women who openly identify themselves as gays and lesbians calls into question the movement’s raison d’etre, the idea that Jewish law can and should change and adapt.

Chancellor, avoiding change when change is needed, dodging crucial decisions while waiting for consensus to develop, can be a far riskier step than asserting the principled stance of a true leader. This may be one of the most important realizations of your Chancellorship.

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Jeffrey E. Schwarz is a Co-founder and co-managing partner of Metropolitan Capital Advisors, Inc., New York Member of Park Avenue Synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons.

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