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Why Orthodoxy Flourishes
Tue, 04/29/2014 - 20:00

It is with a feeling of heartbreak that I read the column of Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who bemoans the fact that the Conservative movement is on a steady decline and needs to redefine itself in order to avoid its “predicted death “ by some observers (“Key To Conservative Survival: Returning To Our Core,” Opinion, April 18).

Rabbi Epstein goes on to express his frustration over the fact that “ most Conservative Jews feel no requirement or obligation to the Conservative movement except to pay dues to their synagogues.” The fact is that every major Orthodox movement undergoes the same frustration in getting the grassroots to identify and become active with their organization. Yet Orthodoxy is thankfully flourishing and growing. 

So what is the key to Orthodoxy’s renaissance? Rabbi Epstein draws the distinction between the Conservative movement and Orthodoxy in that for “most Orthodox Jews halacha is not evolving. For Conservative Judaism halacha is both evolving and binding.” Rabbi Epstein may not catch the irony of his words. When it comes to the Orthodox, he refers to “Jews”; when it comes to the Conservative, he refers to “Judaism.” Therein lies the huge difference.

Orthodox Jews practice and believe in their faith on a personal level. There is an emotional connection. The Conservative movement, however, due to decades of compromise and accommodation with “evolving” halacha, or Jewish law, has stripped away the spiritual value.

It would do the Conservative movement well to follow the famous dictum of the 19th-century Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch: “The question is not if Judaism is up to the times; the question is are the times up to Judaism.”

Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills Kew Gardens Hills, Queens

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Rabbi Schonfeld is on to something in his comment, but the underlying problem is not the Conservative "movement", which merely provides organizational structure and rationalization of non-commitment by Jews. The Jews who don't live halakha in their daily lives tend to belong to non-Orthodox synagogues or none at all because they don't want more Yiddishkeit, to live a Jewish life that is meaningfully distinct fro non-Jewish life. The "movements" don't make Jews that way; they try to stem the tide, but there is little movements and synagogues can do to change that on a scale large enough to save USCJ and, eventually, URJ. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Anonymous has a limited valid point, but the "movements" do in fact have an impact on the kind of Judaism that their followers develop. The non-O movements kasher and rationalize non-observance, and quasi- and/or psuedo-observance, and in doing so help many families move further away from Jewish observance, especially over generations. I don't think anyone can fairly dispute this. These movements have done a lot of damage. (And I speak as someone who came from there, but did not find authenticity. Rabbi Schonfeld is bang on when he says these movements are about "Judaism", and not really supportive of Jews being observant Jews.)