Liberal Judaism in Decline -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Today's report from Martin Marty on things religious concerns something we in the Christian Mainline know something about -- decline! In this case the community under consideration is liberal Judaism (Conservative and Reform branches), which are experiencing significant decline and wondering about their purpose as communities of faith. With anti-Semitism much less of an issue today (Putnam and Campbell in American Grace say that we like Jews better than any other faith community), so the question is -- what binds liberal Jews together? If you're not Jewish you may wonder why this matters. Marty suggests it matters to non-Jews because Reform and Conservative Jews are the most likely representatives of this community to engage in dialogue. Take a look and offer your thoughts.


Sightings 2/28/2011

Liberal Judaism in Decline
-- Martin Marty

“Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink: Struggling for Relevance and Funding” headlined the prime story by Josh Nathan-Kazis, in the newspaper Forward. A prime column follows it a week later, as Dana Evan Kaplan writes on “The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes.” Translation of Nathan-Kazis’s headline, for non-Jews: synagogue memberships in Conservative Judaism, a major liberal denomination, “are in free fall.” Since 2001 the decline was 14 percent, while in the Northeast, family memberships dropped by 30 percent. Meanwhile, we read, in the other large liberal group, Reform Judaism, highly-placed rabbis are working to shake things up, to reform Reform, which is also in crisis.

Sociologist Mark Chaves offers perspective but not policy help by reminding Jews that most Christian denominations are also in decline or even in travail, when local congregations progressively, or regressively, drag their feet, close their pocketbooks, and go their own way, often into decline. I could write of counter-signs of vitality in Jewish and Christian directions, but that would be a different topic for a different day. Not being a policy-maker but a reporter on varieties of perspectives, I am doing what I can to discern and describe the trends, observe the statistics and strategies—and hope. Why invest hope on the part of those of us who have no great stake in liberal Judaism?

Many of the reasons are obvious, among co-religionists who wish for the best for fellow citizens and the collegially-religious. Non-Jews who take note of religion-in-public have reasons to care because it is often liberal Jews, not the Orthodox or the non-affiliated or non-practicing, who are their natural partners in dialogue. Robert Putnam in American Grace found strong evidence that non-Jews feel “warmest” to Judaism, among the religious families in America today. (That finding itself may be a sign of the weakening bonds of liberal Judaism after the time when overt and consistent anti-Semitism helped foster cohesion and inspire energies among beleaguered Jews.)

If response to anti-Semitism is less of a binding and energizing force among Jews, many argue that the defense of Israel has its enormous part to play. But observe the polls or listen to reports of especially younger Jews, and you will hear concerns that this will not be enough to keep Judaism strong. Now for that column by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, author of Contemporary American Judaism. He notices that “triumphalism,” bragging rights and expressions by Reform as “the biggest” no longer is in place. He argues that the current “organizational malaise” obscures the fact that “the problem facing liberal Judaism is theological.” The pluralism, virtually the “anything goes” approach to liberal belief has replaced classical Reform’s emphasis on “the clear theological formulations of ethical monotheism and the mission of Israel.”

Today as Reform stresses “religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful,” in the words of Kaplan, there are few grounds for forming community and finding commitment. “Benign neglect” of theology and of witness to “the authority of God” have weakened liberal Judaism. After writing this but before you read it, I will have strolled down the block to Chicago’s Sinai Temple to hear a Sunday Sinai Symposium on, you guessed it, “Does Reform Judaism Have a Future?” Five notable and concerned rabbis will provide their answers in the afternoon session. Their audience, including this columnist, will have good reasons to pay attention.


Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink, Struggling for Relevance and Funding,” Forward, February 18, 2011.

Dana Evan Kaplan, “The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes,” Forward, February 16, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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