Conservative Judaism’s Struggle for Self-Definition and Authenticity

 This past week, I went to the local sushi bar for some Nova Scotia sushi rolls. While I was there, I noticed the large screen television featuring a bout that took place at Wrestlemania. Despite some of the usual shtick, the bad guy won fair and square using a very clever wrestling trick. The scene reminded me of Jacob’s wrestling match with a mysterious and supernatural opponent in this week’s Torah portion—Parshat Vyishlach.

Jacob wrestling with the angel is a reminder that biblical stories invariably serve as metaphors about the human condition in general; they also serve as instructive lessons about the nature of Jewish identity.

Who was the strange person who attacked Jacob?

According to the Book of Hosea, it was an angel (Hosea 12:4). We wonder: Did the attack really occur? Or did it occur in a prophetic vision or dream?

Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides, and Gersonides contend that the story occurred in a prophetic dream. The psychologist Carl G. Jung explains that every aspect of a dream serves as a symbolization of the dreamer’s inner life.

Simply put: Jacob is not just fighting with his estranged brother; he is also fighting with God, with God’s emissaries. However, Jacob is also fighting with himself as well.

Jacob is not the only one fighting within himself and with God. Even today, Jews are still wrestling with God—but they don’t consciously realize it—at least yet!

The Conservative Jewish scholar, Robert Gordis wrote an interesting response to the most recent Pew Report’s prediction concerning the demise of the Conservative Movement in America. His response was eerily entitled, “Requiem for a Movement,” in which Gordis signals the death knell of Conservative Judaism.

  • Nowhere is this rapid collapse more visible than in the Conservative movement, which is practically imploding before our eyes. In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement, then the largest of the movements. By the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the number had declined to 38 percent. In 2000, it was 26 percent, and now, according to Pew, Conservative Judaism is today the denominational home of only 18 percent of Jews. And they are graying. Among Jews under the age of 30, only 11 percent of respondents defined themselves as Conservative. . .  ”Nor was what doomed Conservative Judaism the incessantly discussed vast gulf in practice between the rabbis and their congregants.  What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address (emphasis added)

Gordis’s bristling words only describes the symptoms of the problem. Intellectual answers, while important, cannot cut the “Gordian knot” of the Conservative Movement’s quandary. In some ways, the Gordian knot is an apt metaphor for our situation. According to Greek mythology, there was a legend that anyone who could loosen the famous Knot of King Gordius, he would become the Lord of Asia. Although many tried, all failed until Alexander the Great arrived. He simply took his sword and cut the knot.

Although there is a natural alliteration between Gordis and Gordius, I would argue that Rabbi Gordis still has not cut the knot that is afflicting the Conservative Movement. However, I would say that he is on the right track. It seems to me that one of the serious problems he is ignoring is the tendency for Conservative Rabbinical leaders of the movements to look only toward cognitive solutions to its dilemma. The Conservative Movement needs to reclaim an emotional connection with its faith. One way of thinking about “emotion,” is to think of it in Einsteinium terms: E = Energy, as in “Energy in motion.”

One method I have used here in TBS in Chula Vista that seems to work, is the incorporation of musical chanting and instruments during the services. It is not enough to merely sing Lecha Lodi or Shalom Aleichem, one must transform it into a mantra that serves to unleash the emotional energy that each worshiper is unconsciously yearning to express in worship. Understanding the power of the niggun (a Hassidic style melody that has no words) is vital in helping people allow the words of prayer to touch people’s hearts. In addition, we also explain the meaning and structure of the prayer in a way that makes the text spiritually challenging and relevant.

Gordis is correct about one thing:  Conservative Judaism will die unless people will see why it is spiritually relevant to our lives.

Although Judaism has a cognitive dimension to its faith, it also has an aesthetic and even gastronomical dimension as well. We serve God not just with our minds and hearts, but also with our stomachs. Every week at TBS, we have a sit down Shabbat luncheon that typically offers a salmon steak, soup, and dessert made by our loyal sisterhood. After eating and schmoozing, we sing Shabbat songs, say the grace after meals and offer a bilingual study of the weekly Parsha.

The net result: Our synagogue community continues to expand and grow because our version of Conservative Judaism is theologically heart-centered at its core and Flexidox in its practice. I know of other congregations that have tried similar approaches and are thriving.

Although some might see the Pew Report’s crisis as signaling the “death knell” of Conservative Movement, I would urge all members of the Conservative Movement to remember the words of Mark Twain: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The Conservative Movement has considerable vitality to its overall theology, practice, and attitude about the world. It will be around for a long time.

Just as Jacob’s wrestling with God led to a redefinition of his identity from Jacob to Israel, I am confident the crisis offers us a similar opportunity to rediscover who we are as Conservative Jews.

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