In my more angsty, middle-school days, Jimmy Eats World’s “The Middle” ranked up there with my personal anthems alongside Simple Plan’s “I’m Just a Kid,” and other songs playing into adolescent angst.
However, the middle is no place to be for anyone — politically, socially, or religiously. Francine Klagsburn’s article in last week’s Jewish Week explains this, honing in on one centrist movement: Conservative Judaism.
Despite having not grown up Conservative, I now have a vested interest in the sustainability of the Conservative Movement. As a young, stalwartly traditional and egalitarian Jew, I actually share many common practices with my traditional Conservative Jewish friends. But, it seems, Conservative Judaism — Judaism’s middle— does not want to continue on that road.
However, Conservative Judaism is just that: the middle. As such it encapsulates a very wide range of people, from non-observant to observant, from theist to atheist, and it has to do so willingly because it is the center. In a world like ours, however, being just the center is not enough. Trying to hold on to so many people in a post-modern world, one that emphasizes the triumph of the individual and the disestablishment of community, is counterproductive at best, and detrimental at worst, and this is especially evident in Judaism.
(For more on this, you can read the Jewish Theological Seminary’s own Professor Jack Wertheimer, who has written extensively on the state of American Jewry in a post-modern world.)
Conservative Judaism, it seems, is arriving at the same conclusions as Orthodoxy, albeit with a bit more press in the Jewish community: there is no one body that speaks for the plurality of Jews who identify as “[Identifier] Orthodox.” Orthodoxy, as a monolithic, united entity, does not exist. And the same is true for Conservative Judaism.
By continuing to hold onto the center, and by trying to include as many people as possible within their ranks, Conservative Judaism has spread itself too thin, and has blurred all of the lines it once held. That is not to say, of course, that religious pluralism is bad, but that there are clear lines that must be drawn. There must be definitive statements on what is, and what is not, Conservative, in the same way that there are clear identifiers as to what is, and what is not, Orthodox.
Part of the problem that I see, as an outsider, is the overall “meh” attitude that Conservative Judaism, as the center, seems to take in regards to practice. While it is true that there is a wide range of practices in Orthodox communities, there are clearly defining markers that show what is Orthodox about a community—there are certain communal norms that will always be upheld, and those communal norms are visible to all. Conservative Judaism, however, seeks to include everyone.
And it can, but that generates ambivalence, not inspiration. It holds its leaders to a higher standard than its laity, and these leaders do not seem to be doing a good enough job at inspiring the laity to keep up a life in line with what Conservative Judaism stands for on paper. It does this in the name of remaining contemporary, remaining with it. “Yahaduth petuhah — khe-halakhah,” “An open Judaism — like its laws” is a statement that requires a clarification and a structure that isn’t currently present in much of the Conservative Movement.
We, living in a post-modern world, don’t need a middle ground that is accessible to all. We need niche communities, communities that serve our purposes more directly than the existing larger, big-tent Judaisms. We need pluralism and inclusion, yes, but we also need definition. We cannot all exist in harmony under one umbrella.
Conservative Judaism can and should be the movement that encourages both diversity and devolution away from institutional Judaism, a move that should not be mourned, but embraced. Conservative Judaism needs to divorce itself from its current identity as the centrist, big-tent movement, and allow for a new model of Jewish community: one that encourages autonomy and individualism, perhaps at the expense of larger institutional affiliations.
The Middle cannot be one large, umbrella, catch-all term for anyone between Orthodox and Reform. Instead, the Middle must be a place for Jews who are just that — in the Middle — to form their own communities, fostered by the encouragement not to subscribe to a denominational label, but to find a moniker that suits them best. It is time for the Conservative movement to decide where exactly it lies in the Middle, and to let those who lie outside the Movement—both to its religious right and left—to be allowed to define themselves, too. The Middle is far too broad for just one movement.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.