Can Orthodoxy succeed where Conservative/Masorti Judaism has failed? Comments on Daniel Gordis’s ‘Cognitive Dissonance’

Jewish culture By Matt Plen 24th Jul 2014

It seems to me that there’s a disconnect between Gordis’s diagnosis and his solution. The solution – a cross-denominational, counter-cultural Judaism grounded in obligation and Jewish literacy – is something I can wholeheartedly agree with, and reflects the vision we are trying to work towards at Masorti Judaism in the UK. But the diagnosis which leads to this remedy – the idea that Conservative Judaism fell apart because of lowering of standards – is deeply flawed.

If Conservative Judaism failed because Jews are looking for authority and commitment, how does Gordis explain that only 1% of young people (according to Pew) identify with modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to the 11% who still identify as Conservative? The numbers don’t back up his arguments. Moreover, there’s a strong case to be made that the relative vibrancy of certain Orthodox congregations is a result of their exclusivity – ideological commitment is much easier to sustain when anyone who does not identify simply leaves (or does not come in to begin with). Clearly this kind of exclusivity is not a recipe for mass Jewish engagement. And where Orthodox communities are inclusive – for example in the UK – we see that they suffer from exactly the same kinds of problems that face Conservative communities in the US.

The flip side of this critique is the real elephant in the room missing from Gordis’s analysis: the deep commitment of Conservative/Masorti Jews (and many other members of the liberal Jewish world) to diversity and pluralism as matters of principle. The real challenge is not simply how to sustain a committed, literate Jewish community (which is hard enough) but how to do so in such a way that Jews of different beliefs, styles of practice, philosophical and political orientations, not to mention genders and sexual preferences will choose to join and be part of the conversation. I would like to hear some intelligent views from contemporary Jewish leaders on this pressing problem.

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