In its May 2013 issue, First Things published an article by Edward Shapiro under the title “The Crisis of Conservative Judaism”. The last phrase does not refer to conservatism in general, but to the specific branch of Judaism that goes under that name. As is well known, American Judaism is divided into three denominations—Orthodox (which is most continuous in adherence to traditional Jewish law), Reform (which is most accommodating in modifying that law in line with the alleged requirements of modernity), and Conservative (which is more or less in the middle between the first two—if you will, modernizing but cautiously).
Actually, the situation is more complicated than this trilateral division would suggest. Each of the three major denominations has internal variations. Thus Orthodoxy is a rather large tent, which includes the so-called Modern Orthodox who would be hard to distinguish from what Conservative Judaism was originally intended to be. There is the so-called Reconstructionist Judaism, presumably to be located theologically to the “left” of Reform. And the various ultra-Orthodox haredi and Hasidic groups could each one be described as a denomination of sorts—certainly the most dynamic of them all, the Lubavitcher movement. The “crisis” with which Shapiro’s article deals comes precisely from the problem of locating Conservative Judaism in this highly pluralistic spectrum.
Shapiro describes a sharp decline in numbers of American Jews adhering to Conservative Judaism—in the 1990s, from 43% to 33% of those affiliated with local synagogues. By 2000 Conservatives fell to number two in the number of members, leaving first place to Reform. (The Orthodox are still number three but growing fast, in the 1990s from 16% to 23%, largely because they have the most kids. Generally speaking, modernity and any aggiornamento with it has a negative effect on fertility.) The “demographic haemorrhage” is strongest among young people, boding ill for the future of the denomination. There is also a sense of foreboding in its leadership. This reached a certain climax in May 2012, when Ismar Schorsch, outgoing head of the Jewish Theological Seminary (the banner institution of Conservative Judaism in New York), used his commencement address to characterize the theological orientation of Conservatism as “inane” and of encouraging “pampered and promiscuous individualists contemptuous of all norms”. He fell short of suggesting that his audience should march out and join the nearest Orthodox synagogue, but the address was naturally registered with dismay.
Let me try and make some sociological observations about this development.
Max Weber (1864-1920), arguably the main founder of the sociology of religion, and the Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, were not only contemporaries but friends. Both (probably in conversation with each other) conceptualized two basic types of religious institutions: the “church” and the “sect”. The first is a large entity well embedded in society, into which individuals are born. The second is a tightly knit community, distinct from the larger society, which individuals deliberately join. For German scholars of that generation the distinction made a lot of sense. It described quite accurately the distinction between the large established ecclesial bodies, such as the Protestant Landeskirchen, and the conventicles spawned by Pietism, whose members saw themselves as belonging to the ecclesiola in ecclesia—the “little church” faithful to the truth, a subculture within the “big church”, which must compromise the truth in order to keep the allegiance of the masses. If applied to a more general sociology of religion, the Weber/Troeltsch typology is still useful but becomes wobbly. This is well illustrated by Weber’s essay “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism”, which contains his still interesting reflections about religion in America, but which puts mainline Protestant churches under the heading of “sects”, presumably because they are voluntary associations which individuals freely join.
A not very felicitous attempt to expand the conceptual trilogy was to do so by adding the term “cult”. I don’t find that very helpful: it has best be defined as a sect you don’t like. Much more useful is an addition suggested by the historian Richard Niebuhr (not to be confused with Reinhold Niebuhr, his more famous brother) in his 1929 book The Social Sources of Denominationalism. He suggested a third concept: “denomination”. As far as I know, the term originated in America, whose religious landscape it well describes, but it can just as well be applied to religion in other countries. In Niebuhr’s sense, a denomination can be defined as a “church”, a big tent into which one may be born and which does not isolate itself from the larger society, but which is also a voluntary association that one may join or freely decide to stay with. Moreover, this is a religious entity that accords other entitities the right to exist, either in practice (because there is no alternative) or in principle (in the name of interdenominational amity). Free-church Protestantism, as it first developed in the Netherlands and in Britain but then exploded in America, fits the concept very neatly. But it is pertinent to any social situation which combines religious pluralism with religious freedom. Such situations are proliferating today all over the world—which cannot be understood as either Americanization or Protestantization (for example, Catholic bishops in Latin America or Eastern Orthodox bishops in Russia are tempted to do so).
Back to America: Every religion in America sooner or later becomes a denomination, whether it likes it or not. The diversity of Protestant churches has facilitated acceptance of denominationalism. Roman Catholicism first accepted it as a practical albeit regrettable necessity, finally legitimated it theologically at the Second Vatican Council. Judaism is no exception.
Judaism in America is faced with a paradox: Traditionally understood, being a Jew is a matter of destiny rather than choice. In Jewish law, an individual is a Jew because of having a Jewish mother. One does not choose one’s mother, nor (if male) choose to be circumcised. But in American society today, remaining a Jew is in fact a matter of choice—one may sever all ties with Jewish life, even join another religion. To be sure, there are strong social and psychological pressures which, in many instances, make it difficult to exit the Jewish community. But even an individual raised in a closed ultra-Orthodox environment in, say, Boro Park or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, can take the subway to Manhattan and never come back—and he or she knows this. Empirically, Judaism in America is one faith among many. But the background of Shapiro’s story is the exuberant pluralism that exists within American Judaism. Thus the individual who escaped from Brooklyn may join a Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side, or become a Roman Catholic, or for matter become a Buddhist (a considerable number of Buddhist teachers in America have Jewish names).
The differences between the three major Jewish denominations center on the authority of traditional Jewish law. This comes out very clearly on the issues of gender, specifically on the role of women, both in general and in the synagogue, and the status of homosexuality. Both Reform and Conservatism tend to be progressive on these issues, whereas Orthodoxy does not. Needless to say, the weight of Jewish tradition, all the way back to the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, supports the Orthodox; the other two have to re-interpret (or, if you will, relativize) the tradition. This of course aligns the different Jewish denominations on the two sides of the American culture war, a fact fully supported by Jewish voting patterns. Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for over fifty years, ever since they began to break through the discriminatory barriers erected against them during (if not necessarily because of) the FDR administration. The Democratic party has become the much preferred political arm of progressives, who in turn are led by college-educated, upper-middle-class individuals—that is, by the stratum to which the majority of American Jews belongs. (As someone once quipped, “Jews have an income like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.”) No surprises there. It is therefore not surprising either that first Conservatism and now Reform have been leading among synagogue-going Jews. Given the demographic ascendancy of Orthodoxy, this may change. Orthodox Jews already find themselves in alliance with Evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics on hot-button issues like abortion, gender equality and same-sex marriage. This alliance may or may not get stronger in the future.
In a war, including a culture war, being in the middle is not an advantage. One is pressured to take sides. Neal Gillman, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, defined Conservative Judaism as “living with ambiguity”. Shapiro asks, plausibly enough: “Why should anyone want to live with ambiguity when there are rival movements offering clarity and certainty?” I for one can think of many good reasons to live with ambiguity, both theologically and politically, and so does what is probably a majority of Americans. But, on either side of the cultural divide, those who offer “clarity and certainty” make more noise and recruit most activists. Not good news for Conservative Judaism.
Judaism has become an accepted reality in America in a way unprecedented in any other modern society. Some years ago I noticed that synagogues were listed under “churches” in the yellow pages of telephone books (this has now changed—somebody should research when and why this change occurred). In survey data Jews are on the top of groups liked by people outside the Jewish community (Muslims and atheists are least liked). There are very high rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, which has caused alarm in some Jewish circles (Irving Kristol once observed, “We were worried that Gentiles would want to kill our children, now we worry that they want to marry them.”) The alarm may be premature: The Orthodox outbreed everyone else, and their children marry in rather than out.
The future of American Judaism will be mainly determined by developments outside it—the future of the American culture war (which in turn will be much influenced by the state of the American economy), the future of American power and its cultural model in the world (including its regime of religious freedom), and, last not least, developments in the Middle East affecting the future of Israel. All the same, barring catastrophic political or economic scenarios (in which case all bets are off), Judaism will continue to be an integral part of the American pluralistic scene, and it will continue to be religiously vital and pluralistic within. I would rather not try to predict what shape its denominational structure will take.