The Mourning After: Pew’s Unheralded Surprise


The irrelevance of Modern Orthodoxy to the American Jewish experience is one of the most intriguing revelations of the Pew report on the community’s condition — yet also one of its most overlooked. While commentators galore are busy reproaching the Conservative movement for being inauthentic, accusing Reform Judaism of being hollow, and wringing their hands over the 32 percent of Millennials categorized as “Jews of no religion,” nobody seems to be paying attention to the stark fact that only 10 percent of those identifying as Jews describe themselves as Orthodox — and just 3 percent as the Modern variety.

Further, of the entire population of Jewish Americans aged 18-29, a mere 1 percent define themselves as Modern Orthodox, itself an ambiguous term.

In the meantime, while there is no denying that the challenges confronting the Reform and Conservative movements are immense, the non-Orthodox still account for 86 percent of Jews in the United States identifying with one denomination or another, which means they continue to nurture a vastly larger segment of our people than do their more traditional cousins. Concerned, then, as I am about the Jewish future, it’s of little comfort to me to know that upwards of 90 percent of the Orthodox will marry within the faith, given that they constitute such a meager slice of the Jewish demographic.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in awe of the remarkable triumphs of Orthodoxy in so many areas: day school education, gap year programs in Israel, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observance, and so on. But with all the brouhaha surrounding the phenomenon of Orthodox resurgence, Pew has soberly sized things down to their proper proportions.

It is against this background that I find eulogies of Conservative Judaism not only to be premature but disingenuous as well, particularly when composed by those identified with the camp of Modern Orthodoxy. Daniel Gordis’ “Requiem for a Movement,” recently circulated by the Jewish Review of Books, is a particularly grating example.

“What really doomed the movement,” Gordis contends, “is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.” Personally, I can testify that such an allegation is completely incongruous with my own experience. Raised in the Reform movement, I was an outsider looking in when I first embraced Conservative Judaism some 40 years ago, precisely because it raised the “deep existential human questions” I was ready to grapple with. I’ve never looked back, though I continue to look within. Ramah camps, United Synagogue’s Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the Solomon Schechter Day Schools, the Chavurot that have sprung up in and enriched so many Conservative synagogues, and the vast literature that has been penned by the movement’s spiritual leadership all continually raise anew — and with fresh intonation — the eternal questions of faith.

Gordis also diagnoses the Conservative movement as being infected by an incurable virus of hypocrisy. It has always insisted that the halacha is binding, he observes, but has just as consistently found infinite ways to wriggle free of its strictures. He then goes on to fault its leaders for not demanding of their constituents that they uphold even the adulterated standards of Jewish law they profess to endorse.

I won’t deny the gap between what the movement preaches and what its adherents practice. That is something I have often expressed concern about myself. But I have also come to the conclusion that the “rank and file” has not been hoodwinked by this pretense as much as it has gladly played the role of willing accomplice. By maintaining the authority of halacha in theory even if not in deed, we are proclaiming the measure to which we aspire, rooting us firmly in the history of our tradition and binding us inextricably to our people across time and space

Gordis also seems to hold the Conservative movement accountable for not stemming the tide of our congregants’ abandonment of ritual. It didn’t offer “an argument for tradition and distinctiveness without a theological foundation that is for most modern Jews simply implausible; instead of theology, it could have spoken of traditional Judaism and its spiritual discipline as our unique answer to the human need for meaning.” I actually believe it did, but I won’t disagree that it might have done so more forcefully. But neither do I think that such a stance, however eloquently championed, would have made very much of a difference in what Pew actually discovered.

Conservative Jews were not waiting for their movement to sanction their behaviors before drifting away from the tenets of traditional Judaism. The Conservative movement has stood for decades as a bulwark against assimilation. Had it not provided a home for its wayward congregants, they would have abandoned the community far more quickly and in far greater numbers than has been the case.

If there is one thing that the Pew report makes evident, it is that we all live in glass houses. I agree with Gordis that this is not a time for throwing stones, but for self-scrutiny. Perhaps together we can begin to reconstruct a body politic of the Jewish nation that will be more appealing to those who have drifted away than what any one of us has to boast at the moment.

Personally, I am proud to be part of a movement that has begun to do just that. Most notably at the recent United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism convention in Baltimore celebrating the centenary of the movement’s founding. More than 1,200 attendees engaged in honest reflection and frank discourse regarding the challenges we are facing in an atmosphere that was at one and the same time candid and upbeat. No one pretended that the problems Pew highlighted weren’t real, but the emphasis throughout was on opportunity. To everyone present, it was abundantly clear that the rumors of our demise have been highly exaggerated.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the executive of The Jewish Agency, and a past chairman of the Masorti/(Conservative) Movement in Israel. The opinions expressed here are his own.