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YU Chancellor: Reform and Conservative Judaism Dead — Con-versing with YU Chancellor Rabbi Lamm

In a recent interview, Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm expressed some pessimistic thoughts about the future of Reform and Conservative Judaism. According to the article, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking ….” He added further:

“The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK,” added Lamm, referring to the Reform Movement’s policy, starting in 1983, of recognizing patrilineal descent.

The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of US Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33% were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10% fall from the 1990 survey. In contrast, the Reform Movement was up from 35% to 38% and Orthodox Jews rose from 16% to 22%. Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement and 5% with “other types” of synagogues.

This writer does not take such a dim view of Conservative or Reform Judaism’s future. I believe there are many reasons for this: since their inception, both these movements have always attracted Jews who were raised Orthodox; even if Orthodox Judaism will eventually become the dominant denomination of Jews living in the United States, there will always be a considerable number of young people who will revolt against their parents’ orthodox lifestyle. Young people do what they do best—they reinvent their identities.

While the Conservative movement struggles with certain issues, it continues to show a resiliency that will not weaken. Lamm’s remarks remind of something Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” If I were Rabbi Lamm, I would be more concerned about the Haredization of Modern Orthodoxy, which is moving closer and closer to the ultra-right of the Orthodox spectrum.

Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm dismisses the growing presence of Ortho-feminism, remarking:

Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed. Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later… I am not a prophet.”

I must differ; already there are more and more scholarly Orthodox women who are fighting for semicha in Israel and in the United States. Already in Israel, woman attorneys are arguing cases with the traditional structure of the Beit Din (a Jewish operated court). If Modern Orthodoxy denies them this historical opportunity to function as rabbis, these learned women will fight until the change occurs. More and more progressive Orthodox yeshivot are encouraging women to study Talmud—despite the reticence of the Haredi halachic authorities.

Another one of the most glaring social issues confronting the Modern Orthodox community is the problem of freeing of women who are being held hostage by estranged husbands, who refuse to grant them a religious divorce. As the old American folk saying goes, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Should Orthodoxy fail to keep its women happy, they will end up as the next generation of Conservative Jews.

Progressive Modern Orthodox rabbis, who follow a more liberal Orthodox philosophy represented by such famous rabbis like Ben Tsion Uziel, or David Tzvi Hoffman, and Shlomo Goren, may eventually move away from Modern Orthodoxy—especially if it continues taking orders from the Haredi rabbis of Israel and the United States. I would further add that the more the Haredi  rabbis control  the autonomy of Modern Orthodox rabbis with respect to conversions, the more likely that many of these candidates will end up as Conservative or even Reform Jews–and you can take that to the bank!

If anything, Conservative Judaism is already inching more closely toward a more Orthodox-style; the Reform Siddur has raised all sorts of cackles within the movement that they are becoming increasingly more religiously traditional than they were before. Yes, change is necessary as it is inevitable; the lines separating Jewish denominations may not be as fixed as Rabbi Lamm envisions it.

The issue of accepting gay Jews is likewise going to eventually prove problematical for Orthodox gays, who incidentally have a visible presence in the Yeshiva University campus! Once again, should Modern Orthodoxy prove to be too Haredi in its attitude toward the frum homosexuals, guess where they will eventually end up?

Rabbi Lamm stresses that change should not be “rushed.” Perhaps in an ideal world, but the snail-like movement of the Modern Orthodox and Haredi world in dealing with this pressing issue and others, promises to keep Conservative Judaism vibrant for quite some time.

Now, if someone did not know Rabbi Lamm very well, s/he might think that Rabbi Lamm is expressing—in Freudian terms—“wish fulfillment,” i.e., a subtle desire to actually see non-Orthodox Judaism weaken and die. This is not the case!  This man has been a powerful voice for religious pluralism within the Modern Orthodox community for many decades; he has often taken heat for taking what the Haredi religious community considers “a heretical stance on Halachic issues.” For example:

The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said. “What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing,” he said in his speech. “I’m very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better’” than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview (Debra Nussbaum-Cohen, 1997).

As usual, Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm remains a most provocative and challenging religious thinker. I have loved reading and re-reading his brilliant theological works since the seventies and his stimulating ideas have helped shaped my mind in many countless ways. Despite whatever differences we have, Rabbi Lamm’s legacy  will be long remembered as one of the most dynamic and important voices of Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th-21st centuries.