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The Extraordinary at Limmud: Conservative and Orthodox Rabbis Talk to Each Other

November 6, 2013 – 8:06 am8 Comments

By Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb and Rabbi Adam Stein:

ebony and ivory2The following article has been written by Orthodox Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb with a gloss/commentary (in bold) by his friend and colleague, Conservative Rabbi Adam Stein (think Adam’s Isserles to Yaron’s Caro). 

Yaron: The recent Pew survey of American Jewry = has given ample fodder for much debate across the Jewish world.

When looking at the research at face value it would seem that as a part of the Orthodox movement, I have backed the winner.
[Adam: If only “Orthodoxy” were running in the Melbourne Cup!]

Yaron: According to the survey, the Orthodox have negligible intermarriage, high communal retention rates and an astronomical birth rate compared to other streams. This would suggest that in the future Orthodoxy will dominate the Jewish scene.

This analysis, however, ignores several issues.

1. No one is interested in reports of the status quo. In order to be newsworthy, a story often benefits from negativity. And this bad news story definitely caught our attention, even if its claims are eventually rejected.

2. As a statistical snapshot of the present, the research is also limited. Only 50 years ago a similar survey would have pointed to the Reform movement as the key to the future, while the Orthodox would have been slowly dying.
[Adam: Actually, fifty years ago, the surveys pointed to the Conservative Movement as the strongest in America. It was the best mix of tradition and modernity for the immigrant and second generations.]

Yaron: A few examples from only 20 years ago shows how quickly things can change:

• the Lubavitcher Rebbe was alive, and the explosion of Chabad Houses around the world was in its infancy

• the Oslo accords were just signed and were objected to by a majority of Israelis, and just squeezed through the Knesset

• In Australia the idea of having security outside a communal building would have been considered by most as an over-reaction.

If this is what the last 20 years have produced, it would be foolish to write any eulogies for heterodoxies.

3. The Orthodox world is in serious trouble, and is headed for a collapse. It has successfully built a model that will perpetuate its philosophy, but it is unsustainable.

The ideal is to maximise the time learning Torah. This could be behind the stat that only 25% of the haredim in the USA have college degrees. These are the ‘enlightened’ haredim. In Israel it would be far lower, and this is where many of the American Haredim end up.[Adam: I wonder how many Haredim in Australia get university degrees.]

Yaron: At the moment there is enough money to support the yeshivas and those who wish to learn. However how long can this last, especially with their dramatic birth rate, and economic slow-down?
[Adam: Good question, and it relates to Israel, as well as the US and here. However, another question is what do we do about our reliance on the Haredim for our ritual and halakhic needs? Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox… We all rely on the Haredim to shecht our meat, write our Torahs, and often circumcise our sons. What does that say about the “modern” movements…?]

Yaron: What will happen when the inevitable happens? It could push the Orthodox world back to when they were struggling with retention rates.

4. What will happen with the leadership vacuum when the Orthodox leaders of tomorrow make aliya?

5. Today Chabad manages to extract money from Conservative and Reform donors. What if those two movements begin to attract that money? The future direction of any movement is dependent on who has access to money. Without this, what would happen to Orthodoxy?

6. How devout does someone really need to be to perpetuate their ideology?

The report claims that adherence to ritual is the key to remaining in the fold. This implies Orthodoxy.

This claim, however, does not stack up. Bahai is the fastest growing faith in the world, yet compared to Judaism there is minimal ritual.

This is similar to many Christian sects which retain their adherents with only minimal ritual.

The issue of retention within the non-Orthodox sectors has to do with the method of transmission, rather than what is being transmitted. And I am certain they are working on it.
[Adam: Well, birth rate is certainly a huge factor, but so is making Judaism relevant to our members and potential members, and also connecting personally with them and developing relationships. We’re working on all those, but the scene in America painted by the Pew survey is quite challenging… Also, in the troubled economic times of the past several years, synagogue membership has become less and less palatable to many shule members. For many people, unfortunately, it’s like a gym membership: If I’m paying x dollars per month for this shule membership, and I’m not getting that much out of it, why don’t I just quit?]

Yaron: So how does all this relate to Australia?

At present the binding agents of our community are unraveling. The negative message of tragedy and Holocaust is becoming tired. And Zionism, which was the glue of the community, is coming unstuck with various Zionist ideologies unwilling to interact with those they disagree with.

The key is for discussion. Not with the like-minded, but with those with whom we disagree.

The disputes that created these division have their genesis over 300 years ago, and have since settled, even if we are unwilling to admit it. It is time to get over this folly and work together for our combined future.

Zionist and non-Zionist. Secular and religious.

Yes, even Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive.


Yaron, Adam, and Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black will be on a panel together at LimmudFest. The panel is titled “Why can’t we get along? Searching for common ground between Progressive, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,” and will be moderated by Naomi Goldwater. 

Limmud Fest is taking place from November 22-24. Register at http://www.limmudfest2013.com/

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  • TheSadducee says:

    ‘think Adam’s Isserles to Yaron’s Caro’

    Probably more like Cheech and Chong to be honest…

  • Jenny says:

    Isserles to Caro?

    Masorti as a commentary on Orthodoxy? I think that’s quite rude! Neither the power dynamic (leave me alone, wishful thinking is good for the soul) nor most certainly the essential integrity of the Masorti movement accords with that description.

    And Sadducee, you made me laugh, but that is VERY rude.
    (I’m Masorti)

  • Jenny says:

    sorry for the follow on – but I am confused by the definition of ‘Orthodoxy’ in this piece.

  • Yaron says:

    Good question – how do we define Orthodox?
    My best guess would be a social affiliation between groups who have a similar world view with regards to halacha.

    If it is not that… I suppose it is a collection of Jews who wish to define themselves as Orthodox.

  • Whatever next? says:

    So Yaron Gottlieb is now Rav Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch!

    You couldn’t make this up!

  • Yaron says:

    I can and did make it up.

    If only our schools taught our students to have an imagination, and possibly also a sense of humour, the community may be in a better condition.

  • Whatever next? says:

    Looks like the panel will be very balanced. Rabbi Stein will bash orthodoxy, Rabbi Keren-Black will bash orthodoxy, and Rabbi Gottleib will bash orthodoxy. Should be easy to find common ground!

    Interesting that the discussion above focused on demographics, sustainability and politics. And God was not mentioned once.

  • Yaron says:

    Whatever next

    1. Glad you can read all our minds, and you have seen that we are all one dimensional caricatures with no nuance. Of course you have to be a proper Orthodox to get that perspective.

    Of course you now have the option of writing a follow up article where you can lay out exactly what you think we will be saying. Or you could turn up to the panel and you may be pleasantly surprised.

    2. The article was about the triumphalism of the Orthodox communities with the release of the Pew research. It is a discussion about realities, and transmission of messages.

    Obviously God is ever-present, and the absence of God from a conversation does not mean the rejection of God.

    For example: various rabbi regularly write about a variety of topics on this site and in the AJN. Their failure to mention God in every article does not imply they have become secular and thrown in the whole religion thing.

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