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Charles Liebman on Conservative Judaism-1980

Charles Liebman was one of the most important sociologists of American Judaism. In 1980 he wrote The Future of Conservative Judaism in the United States. Here are some of his words from thirty years ago.

The Conservative movement will confront serious membership declines in the next decade or two. I know of no survey which suggests any other conclusion or any study that is sanguine about the future of the Conservative movement. I know of no American Jewish sociologist, regardless of his religious or denominational affiliation, who has challenged this conclusion.

This leaves Conservative Judaism with the question: where does it go from here? I have no simple solution. Indeed, in mem­bership terms I see nothing that Conservative Judaism can do that will halt its decline at least in the short run.

From his concluding remarks,

The argument is not, as some will say, a matter of interpre­tation of Jewish law. The issue of interpretation divided the left and the right of the Conservative movement in the past. Per­ haps, within the definition of what constitutes Jewish law one can reasonably argue that it is acceptable to use electricity on the Sabbath, or to ride to Sabbath services under certain conditions, or to ordain women as rabbis. But these are not the real issues, regardless of the passion they evoke. History, I feel, will judge the real issue within the Conservative movement today to be whether Jewish law is law. The question is whether, regardless of how one interprets the mandates of the law, there are obligations and duties which a Jew is commanded to fulfill regardless of whether he finds them satisfactory, meaningful, or even moral. Unless all sides can honestly answer “yes” to this question, they are not disputing the interpretation of Jewish law but whether one is bound by Jewish law; in other words, whether Jewish law is law. Traditionally this is what separated Conservatism from Reform. Today, it is what divides some nominally Conservative Jews from others.

2 Responses to “Charles Liebman on Conservative Judaism-1980”

  1. 1
    Menachem Butler:

    Charles Liebman was, indeed, “one of the most important sociologists of American Judaism,” even as he made aliyah and moved to the Land of Israel and wrote about America from afar. Reminiscing towards the end of his career, he once described in an interview that he was first drawn to the sociological craft so that he would have what to discuss during dinner parties and to pick up girls! Within the world of scholarship on the Orthodox community, Prof. Liebman’s article in Charles Liebman, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish Year Book 66 (1965): 21-97, available here ( [PDF] raised the prestige of Orthodox Judaism within the American academy at around the same time that another prominent American Jewish sociologist, Prof. Marshall Sklare, predicted, in 1957, that the scholarly history of Orthodox Judaism “can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.” Ouch. On the subsequent scholarly study of American Orthodoxy, see Chaim I. Waxman, “From Institutional Decay to Primary Day: American Orthodox Jewry Since World War II,” American Jewish History 91:3-4 (September and December 2003): 405-421. Also, for a terrific volume on Prof. Lieman z”l, see Stuart Cohen & Bernard Susser, eds., Ambivalent Jew: Charles Liebman in Memoriam (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2007).

  2. 2
    harry Perkal:

    Thanks for reminding me about Charles Liebman. THe last quote does indeed go the heart of the matter.




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