How Conservative Judaism Lost Me

The Reason I Drifted Away: I Wasn’t Wanted

Leaders: From left, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly; Cantor Stephen Stein of the Cantors Assembly; Rabbi Steven C. Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.
C. Scott Weiner
Leaders: From left, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly; Cantor Stephen Stein of the Cantors Assembly; Rabbi Steven C. Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

By Michah Gottlieb

Published November 05, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
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Before my bar mitzvah, I was very involved in the synagogue service. I led the end of the Sabbath morning davening each week, attended morning minyan and read the Megillah on Purim. But after my bar mitzvah, as I sought to study more Torah, I found few outlets at my synagogue. So at the suggestion of a friend who was also raised Conservative, I began studying Talmud at a local ultra-Orthodox kollel. As my graduation neared, I approached my Conservative rabbi for advice about studying at a yeshiva after high school. At the time, there was no Conservative yeshiva, and he recommended that I attend an Orthodox one in Israel.

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic.

I was also dissatisfied by what I saw as the self-preoccupation of Conservative Judaism. While Orthodoxy saw itself as fulfilling God’s will through halachic obedience, and Reform Judaism as saving the world through social justice, or tikkun olam, I was constantly being encouraged to work for the advancement of the Conservative movement. I felt no mission driving Conservative Judaism, which for an idealistic youth was highly unsatisfying.

I also sensed a certain superiority from Conservative rabbis I encountered. They constantly recounted how the Jewish Theological Seminary had attracted great scholars such as Louis Finkelstein, Saul Lieberman and Louis Ginzberg, and how by contrast Orthodoxy was unscholarly and uncritical. But already in my time those great European scholars had died or retired, and the religious value of having housed those great critical scholars was not at all evident to me.

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually my synagogue and several other Conservative synagogues in Canada dropped their membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.


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