The Vanishing Center

The phrase “the vital center” came into our language as the title of a landmark book of political science by the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in 1949. The strategic plan recently adopted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, more than 60 years later, invokes the same phrase in its opening paragraphs. “Conservative Judaism,” it declares, “is the essential anchor of the vital religious center of North American Jewry.”

Prof. Schlesinger’s “vital center” epitomized the postwar aspirations of many Americans. He charted a middle-of-the-road path, a liberalism more activist than the noninterventionist right and more democratic than the totalitarian left. It is not a coincidence that the postwar era was also the high-water mark of Conservative Judaism. In religion as in politics, American sentiment in the Eisenhower era favored consensus and moderation.

By the 1960s some Americans saw consensus as morally vapid, an abdication of principle for the sake of getting along. Abandoning the center, liberals fought aggressively to overturn racial segregation while the conservative 1964 Republican Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Religion in America has evolved the same way. Among Protestants, who account for the great majority of Christians in the U.S., the traditional mainline denominations have been surpassed in membership by evangelical churches, which now account for a majority of all Protestants. The growth of Orthodoxy and the Reform movement among Jews parallels this trend.

Indeed, the language of popular culture now uses “extreme” as a positive description, not to mention “radical,” “revolutionary,” and “edgy” (in sense of “cutting- edge”). Advertising and brand names speak of “extreme” fitness, music, sports, and even food. There are restaurants called “Extreme Pita” and “Extreme Hummus.” Nowadays it is hard to find people who want to be identified with the middle.

The USCJ strategic plan associates the “vital religious center” with certain attitudes: attaching great importance to being Jewish and to Judaism as a religion; marrying other Jews and having mostly Jewish friends; preferring egalitarian prayer conducted largely in Hebrew; favoring social engagement that has a distinctively Jewish take on the world; and valuing Jewish text learning. Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to Jewish law, although Conservative Judaism describes itself as a halakhic movement. The issue is problematic because, as Rabbi Brad Artson has written, “halakhah, for our congregants, provides a context, but not an agenda; an aspiration but not an obligation.” That tension between thought and action has become less tenable in a culture that sees contradictions between belief and behavior as hypocritical.

The same is true with prayer. A movement with an aging membership may well prefer prayer conducted in Hebrew because they are used to it, even if their knowledge of the language is limited. Many younger people who understand Hebrew, however – especially those who have had intense prayer experiences in Israel – gravitate to independent minyanim or to Modern Orthodox communities for more meaningful services. Those who don’t understand Hebrew, who know the liturgy only by rote or not at all, feel alienated from rituals and prayers that hold no meaning for them and seek other kinds of worship.

In short, the Conservative movement’s inclinations towards moderation and compromise have become weaknesses, not strengths. Preferences for Jewish friends, Jewish-flavored social engagement, and text study are no longer compelling reasons to join a Conservative synagogue since there are now so many other ways to pursue those interests. The strategic plan’s assertion that “this group enjoys relative high levels of Jewish demographic staying power” may be true for their Jewish identity but not for their loyalty to the Conservative movement or its institutions.

The attitudes that the plan links to the “vital religious center” may apply best to exactly the people who have left the movement and joined independent minyanim. Tacitly recognizing this, the USCJ’s strategy is to win them back by providing financial assistance and “expert consultation” to the minyans and offering them the chance to join. That is what professional associations do, but it is hard to see why the leadership of successful minyanim would value advice from a movement whose synagogues have been declining for decades.

Independent minyanim recognized from the outset that there are a lot of religiously knowledgeable young Jews who want to celebrate Shabbat with spirited singing among others like themselves. Learning from their example, the USCJ wants to “inspire meaningful prayer” in its member communities. But long-time congregants have generally settled on what they like and big changes would likely be disruptive and unwelcome, no matter what the USCJ’s tefilla task force may recommend. Meanwhile, for their part, minyanim have little incentive to pay dues to United Synagogue or subscribe to USCJ’s vision statement. The idea that the two groups might come together as fellow “kehillot” seems like wishful thinking.

Most disappointing about the strategic plan are its many generic recommendations: getting more money from private donors, conferring with other organizations, having a “serious conversation,” appointing an “independent blue-ribbon commission,” establishing task forces, changing the organization’s name. These lofty-sounding but predictable bureaucratic staples cannot begin to deal with the challenges that face individual local communities. As William Butler Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, writes regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy. He can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.