I have been thinking a lot about Conservative Judaism lately, and I have been getting quite frustrated.
First, some background: I went to a Solomon Schechter school for an undisclosed amount of time, but let's just say it was a lot of years. I have also audited a bunch of classes at List College at various times and in a whole bunch of different subjects (Talmud, Midrash, Jewish history and philosophy, Hebrew literature, etc.). When I lived on the Upper West Side for a year after college, I occasionally went to Hadar and more often went to an actual Conservative shul that had been partially taken over by young whippersnappers. When I came to grad school, the first minyan that I attended (I now attend more than one) was Conservative in a way pretty similar to Hadar. Despite all of this, I was not brought up in the Conservative movement, so I never identified with the movement or felt it was "mine." When I was in college, the Conservative minyan was lame, so I went to the Orthodox one and found I could tolerate davening with a mechitsah. I tend to "affiliate" as Conservadox because I find it is the label that fits me best and most accurately conveys to others, in one word or less, what my beliefs and practices are.
While I was growing up, my family and I used to make fun of the Conservative movement. In our defense, my father's job brought him into contact with the Conservative movement and its officials, whom my father experienced as fence-sitting even on very important issues, such as the recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and synagogues by the Israeli government. Lo those many years ago, in the '80's, there was still a fair amount of what my friend calls, "But if we do that, what will our friends at Yeshiva University think of us?" in the movement. My teachers at school who were modern Orthodox also often made fun of the indecisiveness of the Conservatives. My fellow students who identified strongly as Conservative (often the children of Conservative rabbis) did not make too many of these jokes, and I figured that that made sense, since it was their movement.
That was why I was so surprised when I got to graduate school and the Conservative minyan that I go to, where most of the other attendees could be described as self-loathing Conservative Jews. Many were brought up in the Conservative movement but find it ridiculous, as I learned when we had a Koach (the Conservative movement's college organization) speaker for a Friday night dinner, and we were talking before she got there about whether we should mention our lack of enthusiasm for the movement. Some want to become Conservative rabbis, although usually not pulpit rabbis, but view any time they might have to spend at the Jewish Theological Seminary (to say nothing of an actual, real-life, non-New-York, Conservative shul) as some sort of purgatory. They do tell jokes about the Conservative movement, particularly about the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner homosexuality teshuvah, although they hope the new Chancellor will improve matters. At a recent Shabbat dinner, some of the more involved undergraduates were saying that they will probably not end up in a Conservative shul when they get older, unless it is a minyan like Hadar, because it will not be "frum" enough.
As a non-Conservative Jew looking at this at least partially from the outside, I often think, What is WRONG with these people? I may be yet another unaffiliated wonder, but I know lots of committed Reform Jews, for whom Reform is not a synonym for "nothing," but rather a particular set of beliefs about Judaism, Torah, and mitzvot. Although the key to this is "informed choice," and so it only involves mitzvot on a very uneven basis, these Reform Jews proudly go to Temple, attend movement conventions, send their kids to Reform summer camps and NFTY (the Reform youth group), etc. They are also pretty happy with the national movement, despite all the usual Jewish kvetching. Most of the self-loathing Reform Jews I have come across are the LEAST committed (they say things along the line of, "Well, I'm Reform, I guess, but I don't see why I should do anything, unless you, Rabbi X, can PROVE to me that I have to/that God exists, etc."). Any movement will have trouble attracting/retaining its marginal members. What surprises me about Conservative Judaism is that, from my own experience, it is the MOST committed people who are dragging themselves, kicking and screaming, to identify with the movement, rather than to become un-affiliated, post-denominational, or whatever. I think that is partially because the national movement is so fractured. USY (the Conservative youth group), JTS (the Conservative rabbinical school), and the Solomon Schechter schools teach one thing, but if it doesn't seem replicable, and not too much is being done about that fact, I see how that could be depressing.
I am less qualified to talk about modern Orthodoxy. Of course it is different from Reform and Conservative; it has a weak national movement, but people like that. Its leaders seem to have an incredible hold on some members (in the Northeast and California) and much, much less of a hold on some other members (everywhere else). I don't know if Modern Orthodoxy has much of a future in the New York area, where it's "Centrist or bust!," but in other parts of the country it seems to be doing pretty well. One can hardly underestimate the importance of NCSY (the Orthodox youth group) in attracting new members.
So, what's my point here? I guess it's that I don't know what the future of the Conservative movement is. It seems likely to break in half, with one half at least trying to hold onto halakhah, even at the expense of pretzel-ing sometimes (see, above, Dorff-Nevins-Reisner), and the other half, which has basically admitted that on some key issues it is most concerned with "meta-halakhic" issues, which is, as far as I can tell, a fancy way of saying, "non-halakhic" standpoints. With these messages coming out of New York, how can one expect people at a Conservative or sort-of-Conservative shul to realize/accept that some questions have to be answered with halakhah firmly in mind, even at the risk of hurting someone's feelings? Ideally, the halakhic types would remain at JTS, with a few decamping for Chovevei (a relatively new Orthodox rabbinical school that is to the left of Yeshiva University), which is not abnormal (just as a few students at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, over a given decade will decide they want to study more Talmud and go to JTS), and the "meta-halakhic" types would go to Hebrew College or AJR or somewhere else not-so-denominational. One of the things that metaphorically kills me is that I think that, hashkafah-wise, the "meta-halakhic" rank-and-file, if not the leadership, would be happiest in Reform congregations, where at least they might meet a rabbi who has something in common with them. But then there is the difficult issue of the wide liturgical differences between two movements whose practices are, on the ground, quite similar. Maybe the new Reform siddur will help bridge the gap, or maybe, as often happens, the folks on the ground will do EXACTLY what they have been doing for years, while bloggers like me obsess about this online for the benefit of their 12 readers.
So, what do you guys think? I am especially interested in hearing from people who DID grow up Conservative on what they think the future of their movement is, but, please, everyone, feel free to let loose. One more question: Does this sort of post qualify as Lashon Hara?