Two kinds of Jews affiliate with the Conservative movement.
Some do so out of simple discomfort with the alternatives.
They have no interest in observing the dictates of halacha
on which Orthodoxy is based and perceive the Reform
movement's approach as unsatisfyingly "anything goes." They
are Conservative Jews, essentially, by default.
There are other Conservative adherents, though, who are
sincerely determined to respect and observe halacha, who
believe that their movement represents the future of Judaism
in America, and that its commitment to Jewish religious law
is real. Many, if not all, of these Jews will come to be
disabused of those notions -- sooner, perhaps, than we
A large number of once-Conservative Jews are already in the
Orthodox camp as a result of their close examination of the
record and claims of their erstwhile movement. Many of us
know such people, and rightfully regard them as shining
examples of honesty, idealism and persistence.
But others too will increasingly come to realize, as those
Jews did, that the Conservative movement is a stunning
To be sure, the endowments and dedications continue
unabated; construction projects, rabbinic programs and
Jewish Theological Seminary chairs are still well funded.
But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment
-- to inspire Jews to Jewish observance -- not only remains
unrealized, but recedes farther from the realm of likelihood
with each passing year.
Failure to Provide any Halachic Model
That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The
Conservative leadership has done all it can to set less
demanding standards for Jewish religious observance.
But even the movement's radically relaxed standards remain
virtually ignored by the vast majority of its laity.
According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a
mere 29% of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat;
only 15% consider themselves Sabbath-observant (even by
Conservative standards); and no more than 3% observe Jewish
fast-days like Taanis Esther.
While Conservative leaders tried mightily to put a good face
on the findings of another effort, the Pew Charitable Trusts
sponsored study of their congregants conducted by the Jewish
Theological Seminary's Dr. Jack Wertheimer in 1996, that
survey made all too clear as well that the movement was
utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority
of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled by that study
indicated that "it was all right for Jews to marry people of
And nearly 3/4 of Conservative Jews said that they consider
a Jew anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a
Gentile -- the official Reform position, rejected by
Conservative leaders as non-halachic. Tellingly, only about
half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were
even kosher, again by any standard.
Those of us who have always regarded the movement's core
philosophy to be every bit as rejecting of the Jewish
mesorah as the Reform (only less honestly so) are
saddened but not surprised at those statistics. But imagine
the reaction of Conservative Jews who had sincerely believed
their movement to be a legitimate heir to the Jewish
tradition of the ages. They must now confront the reality of
its failure, and of its fundamental dissembling.
For it is no longer arguable: Conservatism simply has no
concern for halacha or for the most basic underpinnings of
what has been called Jewish belief for three millennia.
To be sure, some of the movement's leaders still talk the
talk. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Executive
Vice President Rabbi Jerome Epstein, for instance, recently
proclaimed that his movement "regard[s] halacha as binding,"
and added, admirably, that "to be committed to halacha means
to live by its values and details even when we don't like
the rules or find the regulations inconvenient." But the
facts tell a very different story.
Facts like how one of the most important decisions of
Conservative religious law was made by a commission
comprised largely of laymen. The tale is recounted in a book
about -- and published by -- the Jewish Theological Seminary
itself, Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America (JTS, 1997). Realizing
that the institution's Talmud faculty -- those most
knowledgeable about the pertinent halachic sources --
opposed ordination of women rabbis, the then-head of the
Seminary, Gerson Cohen, created a commission to decide the
issue. Only one of its 14 seats was assigned to a Talmud
staff member. Dr. Cohen is quoted as having confided to
friends his intent "to ram the commission's report down the
Faculty's throats" (vol. 2, p. 502).
More recently, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, acting dean of the
University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies,
admitted, in Conservative Judaism magazine, that "the
Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious
agenda." That approach may be pragmatic, even democratic;
but it is not even arguably halachic.
No Reverence for Halacha
What is more, tragically, only half of Jewish Theological
Seminary rabbinical students polled in the 1980s said they
even consider "living as a halachic Jew" to be an "extremely
important" aspect of their lives as Conservative rabbis
("The Seminary at 100," Rabbinical Assembly and Jewish
Theological Seminary, 1987).
And more recent happenings should force all but the most
heavily blindered among the movement's defenders to admit
that halacha receives, at best, lip service from the
Conservative leadership. In late 1997, for instance, the
dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school,
facing the wrath of outraged students, reassessed a letter
he had written them proscribing immoral relationships. It
had been, he insisted after the uproar, only a "personal
statement, not a matter of policy" (Forward, November
As it happens, Conservative leaders' attitudes toward the
Torah's code of morality are a particularly timely and
telling window into the movement's true feelings about
Though there is an undeniable halachic prohibition, Rabbi
Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative
Rabbinical Assembly, has admitted that "there has always
been a group within the RA that has been consistently
agitating for a change in halacha" regarding practices that
the Torah calls "to'eiva" (New York Jewish
Week, April 9, 1999). "Changing" a posuk in the
Torah, most reasonable people would admit, is as blatant an
abandonment of halacha as might be imagined. In fact,
though, that process has already begun.
And so, at the same time that Conservative leaders and
teachers are waving the banner of "halacha," they are
effectively trampling it. Conservative claims of fealty to
traditional Jewish religious law seem little more than
figurative fig leaves strategically positioned to prevent
the exposure of the movement as but a more timid version of
Defining Halacha Down
Tellingly and without exception, every single Conservative
"reinterpretation" of Jewish law has entailed permitting
something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was
driving a car on the Sabbath, "egalitarian" services or the
biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the "re-
evaluations" have all, amazingly, resulted in new
permissions. That is a clear sign of not objectivity but
agenda, of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah
wants from us, and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool
for promoting one's own feelings and desires. Whatever merit
such an approach might have to some, it is unarguably and
strikingly diametric to what our mesorah considers
the truly Jewish response, what our ancestors declared at
Har Sinai: na'aseh venishma.
The movement's disconnect from halacha, moreover, has been
readily admitted by honest Conservative intellectuals.
Ordained Conservative rabbi and respected scholar David
Feldman put it succinctly in the Fall, 1995 issue of
Conservative Judaism magazine: "Knowing how valiantly
the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative
Movement have striven to hold Halacha as our guide, we mourn
all the more the surrender of that effort."
Rabbi Simchah Roth, who has served as a member of the
Halacha Committee of the Conservative movement's Israeli
affiliate, Masorti, has referred to its American
counterpart's acceptance of Jews driving vehicles on the
Sabbath as "untenable sub specie halakhah." At the 1980
convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential
Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner put it even more bluntly.
"Is the Conservative movement halachic?" he asked. His
answer: "It obviously is not."
Those developments -- and future ones that will flow from
them -- will undoubtedly have a profound effect on many
members of Conservative synagogues.
For those Conservative Jews who, regrettably, have no
interest in halacha, the Reform movement will likely become
an increasingly attractive and logical option. It provides
the license they seek, and without any discomfiting talk at
all of religious law.
Those, though, who truly wish to be part of a Jewish
community that maintains an honest dedication to halacha and
the Jewish religious tradition will increasingly be forced
to face the uncomfortable but manifest fact that their
affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their
They will then face a crucial challenge, to consider
becoming part of the only Jewish community that actually
does espouse their ideals: the Orthodox. To be sure, the
challenge will be formidable. After years, in many cases
lifetimes, of Conservative practice, halacha-conscious
Conservative Jews will not find it easy to enter what will
surely seem at first a somewhat alien world. Its
unfamiliarity, however, will only be a reflection of just
how far the Conservative movement has drifted from truly
halachic observance over the decades.
The open-minded and determined, however, will come in time
to understand and accept that the truly Jewish time for
sitting with one's family is -- as it has been among Jews
for millennia -- at the radiant Shabbos table, and not while
praying. Most importantly, they will have confronted the
fact that Hashem tells us what He wants of us, not the
There is much reason to be optimistic that such sincerely
tradition-minded Conservative Jews can successfully meet
their challenge. Many, as noted, have already blazed that
trail, and we would do well to remember that having the
courage to recognize misjudgments and set them straight is
an inherently Jewish trait (according to Chazal, it lies in
the very root of the name "Yehudah," with which we Yehudim
What We Must Do
But an attendant and equally daunting challenge will at the
same time emerge to face all of us in the Orthodox world: to
be ready to warmly welcome once-Conservative congregants
into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is not
only a well-blazed trail but much cause for optimism.
After all, while many of those who come to halachic
observance by way of non-Orthodox groups have had to
overcome considerable obstacles in becoming fully integrated
into the Orthodox community, most feel that they were
welcomed with open arms and hearts.
At the same time, though, there is a common perception that
many Orthodox Jews, in the words of Professor Samuel
Heilman, "look down their noses" at other Jews.
Such perceptions cannot be allowed to persist. Orthodox Jews
who regularly and actively reach out in friendship and
ahavas Yisroel to Jews estranged from the Jewish
religious heritage must redouble their efforts.
Those who, busy with their own lives and personal
responsibilities, have given only passing thought or effort
to outreach must reconsider their achrayus toward our
disillusioned, seeking brothers and sisters.
And those -- if they exist -- who may think that there is no
hope for the non-Orthodox, that outreach efforts toward them
are pointless and that only a handful of such Jews will ever
have the ability to perceive the religious bankruptcy of the
movements with which they affiliate, must realize how
terribly wrong they are.
With the implosion of Conservatism can come an explosion of
new ovdei Hashem. Whether it indeed takes place or
not is entirely up to us.
Note: A different version of this article appears in the
current issue of Moment under the title: "The
Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs, Agudath
Israel of America.