“Conservative Judaism” has always been a curious moniker for the “middle movement” in American Jewish life. For more than a century it followed the moderate path of “Tradition and Change” alongside traditionalist Orthodox and progressive Reform. But in recent years the movement has lunged leftward – both religiously and politically – and the name is no longer simply clumsy.
Increasingly, left-of-center Jews who use the name are (unwittingly, I hope) suggesting right-of-center Jews support liberal positions, and that’s not fair. The Talmud says a person cannot be wise unless “tocho k’bar’o” – his inside matches his outside (Yoma 72b). Out of respect for genuine conservative Jews, “Conservative” Jews need a new name, and fast.
Case in point: the kerfuffle over president-elect Donald Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon and his supposed anti-Semitism. The six most important organizations in American Jewry’s middle movement put out a press release Saturday condemning Bannon’s ideas as “antithetical to the values of our country,” and calling upon Trump to “rescind [Bannon’s] nomination” (actually, Bannon’s position requires neither nomination nor confirmation).
Most true Jewish conservatives and even some liberals have largely defended Bannon, as the evidence of his “anti-Semitism” is shockingly thin. The derogatory comments invoked by his angry ex-wife did not seem anti-Semitic to the only independent person who witnessed any of them. A writer for Tablet Magazine said she could find only “one relevant statement” suggesting anti-Semitism, a supposed six-word quote Bannon gave to a reporter at the Republican National Convention regarding his Web site Breitbart News: “We’re the platform for the alt-right.”
That quote isn’t credible, either. It appeared in Mother Jones magazine, published by the far-left Foundation for National Progress. Tellingly, “propagandist extraordinaire” Sarah Posner did not publish the supposed quote for five weeks, revealing it only after the most contentious presidential election in American history heated up. She has yet to produce a recording or other independent verification of the quote, which Bannon denies. As for the substance of the complaint, liberal darling Jeff Bezos provides a bigger platform to more hateful and pernicious things than Bannon does.
Yet people unfamiliar with the inner workings of the American Jewish community could reasonably conclude that Jewish conservatives think Bannon is a Jew-hater, based on the coverage of Saturday’s statement. Most American Christians (and many Jews) can hardly differentiate Reform from Conservative Judaism any better than the average Jew can distinguish Methodists from Presbyterians – which is not at all.
Yet the movement’s press release contained no disclaimer that Conservative (sic) Judaism is not politically conservative, and the coverage in the Jewish dailies Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel said nothing to disabuse people who might reasonably assume “Conservative Judaism” is conservative. Only the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) could be bothered to write, appropriately, “Despite what its name suggests, Conservative Judaism is a centrist denomination, positioned between the stringently traditional Orthodox and the religiously and politically liberal Reform.”
“Centrist” is accurate only in a strictly spatial sense. In 2016, “Conservative Judaism” is unabashedly liberal, both politically and religiously. Members include Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. It has held the line on intermarriage and patrilineal descent (so far), but otherwise the practical differences from Reform Judaism are more sociological than theological or political. Both movements support abortion rights, gun control, welcoming Syrian refugees, higher minimum wages, the fight against “climate change,” citizenship for illegal immigrants, same-sex marriage, and more.
By continuing to call themselves conservative – even if they keep using a capital C – the movement at best confuses people. Someone who only hears the name of this list of influential conservative Jews would think it’s about the people who wrote Saturday’s release, but those who read it would understand it’s about Republicans and libertarians who happen to be Jewish. One rabbi has actually bemoaned that the name of his religious movement “has been appropriated by the political conservatives.” Huh? It’s his movement that’s guilty of what the Sages condemned as gneivat daat, namely “stealing” someone’s knowledge by misleading people about yourself.
Journalists and others who write and speak about American Judaism would be relieved by a name change. Ron Kampeas, who covers American politics for the JTA, told me the distinction between conservative Jews and Conservative Jews was once merely annoying. But as Conservative Judaism “veered to the left politically” the two connotations of the word “now not only mean different things; they’re sometimes in opposition.”
The rebranding idea is not new to the movement, but the day is short and the work is great. Until it picks a new appellation (under consideration are Covenantal Judaism, Dynamic Judaism, and the Zionist-tinged Masorti Judaism), the people calling themselves Conservative Jews must clarify every single time they speak out in their movement’s name they do not consider themselves conservatives.