How Conservative Judaism Got Everything Right but Religion

February 23, 2021 | Gil Troy
About the author: Gil Troy is distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of  nine books on the American presidency and three books on Zionism, including, most recently, The Zionist Ideas.

Reflecting on his intensely Jewish upbringing, with parents who were active members of a Conservative synagogue and who sent him to Conservative day schools, Gil Troy wonders why neither he nor his brothers remained loyal to what was once American Jewry’s largest denomination. Rather than move to Reform or lose their synagogue affiliation altogether, Troy’s brothers both became Orthodox, while he himself observes Shabbat and kashrut, even if he prefers the term “traditional.” Troy tries to explain why the once-vibrant movement “flopped.”

Conservative Judaism neutered the most powerful forces that historically kept Jews Jewish. Worshipping their new promised land, lay Conservative Jews turned binding Jewish law into pick-and-choose Jewish folk-law. Judaism’s systematic way of life suddenly offered a smorgasbord, not a predetermined menu. God became a pen pal at best, never a police officer nor a higher authority.

Conservative Judaism schooled us in basic Americanism, treating religion as voluntary, pragmatic, almost transactional. These elective traditions were nice, fun, lovely, meaningful; consecrated by history, but obviously not sanctified by God. Words like holiness, sanctity, spirit, soul, even belief, were exotic strangers in our homes, schools, and synagogues.

When it came to prayer, we learned communal singing, not what it means to commune with God. As for God, He—or She—was MIA. One rabbi told me that his bar- and bat-mitzvah kids usually believed in God, but their parents didn’t; so by sixteen, the kids caught up.

In biblical terms, it was Conservative Judaism’s godlessness that failed; our God was never jealous but flexible, eminently adaptable.

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