Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Back to Opinion

Real Issue for Conservative Judaism Is Authenticity

To be perfectly clear: I believe that the struggle for gender equality within Judaism has brought enormous benefits to Jewish society.

The point of my essay was to help explain why Conservative Judaism has not been able to retain its youth by reflecting on why it did not satisfy me.

When I wrote that it seemed to me that the emphasis on egalitarianism was a “distraction” from the fact that most Conservative Jews were not committed to halakha, this was because as a youth, I came to see a conflict between religious authenticity and egalitarianism.

I will explain.

In the early 80s the struggle for egalitarianism was a central focus of the Conservative movement. To be sure, the idea of civil gender equality was something that I accepted reflexively and strongly believed in. But as a Conservative Jew I also felt bound to halakha, which is not fully egalitarian.

The issue for me was whether halakha could cohere with egalitarianism. It was very important to me to I understand how this was possible.

At the time, the greatest Talmudist at JTS was Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni. He was also a personal mentor to me. Not only did he reject egalitarianism as unhalakhic — he left the Conservative movement because of it.

Ultimately, I could not understand the halakhic justifications for egalitarianism and I came to see the push for it as reflecting the Conservative movement’s lack of halakhic integrity.

I felt a divide within myself with my commitment to gender equality at war with my commitment to halakha.

Compounding matters, I could not understand why egalitarianism was such a pressing issue since I did not see women at my synagogue pressing for it which was probably due to the fact that, like most men, women in my synagogue cared little about participating in Jewish ritual.

Had I understood the halakhic justifications for egalitarianism, I’m sure that I would have enthusiastically embraced it. As things stood, I felt that full egalitarianism meant betraying halakha.

But at the end of the day, what led me to leave my Conservative synagogue was not the issue of egalitarianism. It was the fact that I felt very lonely there. I was one of the few observant youths at the synagogue and I found the service lifeless. When I came back from studying in a yeshiva in Israel I began to feel uncomfortable as many congregants made me feel that I was too religious.

Eisner criticizes men such as myself for leaving their Conservative synagogues for Orthodox ones. Should I have remained in what I found to be a spiritually unsatisfying synagogue rather than attend a more vibrant Orthodox one? There were no other Conservative synagogues in my neighborhood. My options were to stop going to synagogue or to attend an Orthodox one. I chose the latter.

I was warmly welcomed into an Orthodox synagogue where I found other halakhically-committed Jews and intense Torah study. Because of this experience, I have remained within Orthodoxy at its liberal wing, seeking greater gender inclusivity within a halakhicframework.

Eisner cannot understand my attending an Orthodox synagogue, which she finds appallingly retrograde, writing that women in Orthodox synagogues don’t teach, have leadership roles, can’t participate in the service, and sit behind a mechitzah.

While there are synagogues where this is the case, at the Orthodox synagogue that I attend, we have had female presidents, female teachers and scholars in residence, women hold services where they read Torah and lead davening, and they sit parallel to men with a low mechitzah. While I myself would like to see even more inclusivity in the service, it is important to recognize that there are Orthodox synagogues trying to balance gender inclusivity with loyalty to halakha. This is in no small part due to the efforts of those who struggled for gender equality within Judaism.

If a synagogue does not create a compelling religious space, it cannot expect people to attend simply because it is egalitarian.

Michah Gottlieb is an associate professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. His book “Jewish Protestantism: Translation and the Turn to the Bible in German Judaism” will be published by Oxford University Press.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.