The Crisis of Conservative Judaism and the Perils of Moderation:

Slate's Samantha Shapiro documents the recent decline of Conservative Judaism, which despite its name is actually a moderate denomination that seeks to carve out a middle ground between liberal Reform Judaism and traditionalistic Orthodoxy. Conservatism has lost its previous status as the largest single Jewish denomination in the United States to Reform, and has also lost ground to Orthodoxy. Shapiro argues that Conservatism's problems are partly due to its inability to carve out coherent positions on important religious and moral issues:

[T]he JTS [Conservative rabbinical seminary] never figured out a way to generate the kind of passion that is evident at most Orthodox yeshivas. The logical extension of Conservative Judaism's academic scholarship is that to obey Halakha [Jewish religious law] just because "God says so" is intellectually dishonest. But if that's the case, then why not throw over religious law, like Reform Jews do? The middle-ground movement has come up with no satisfactory answer. It makes do with guilt and a sort of schmaltzy ode to tradition a la Fiddler on the Roof.

Take the issue of the ordination of gay rabbis. It's a no-brainer for Reform Jews, who allow it because they place precedence on personal choice above biblical mandates, and for the Orthodox, who bar it because they believe that the Torah strictly prohibits gay sex. But for Conservatives, it's a crisis, because the movement lacks a clear theology to navigate between the poles of tradition and change, even as the gap between them becomes ever wider....

. . . Conservative Judaism has never adequately explained how its rabbis or congregants should decide which aspects of modern times are worth adjusting the law to, and which aren't. The decision in 1972 to ordain women rabbis at JTS wasn't advocated by the institutions' Talmudic scholars but by a committee of lay people. They made many strong moral and ethical arguments for ordaining women, but they couldn't ground their stance coherently in Jewish law.

The problems of Conservative Judaism are similar to those faced by moderate political movements. Scholars such as political scientist Moe Fiorina have repeatedly demonstrated that most voters hold relatively moderate, nonideological views. But studies have also repeatedly shown that political activists, intellectuals, and of course academics tend to be attracted to more extreme views because they are more coherent and provide a clear worldview. The same seems to be true of the Jewish rabbinical students described by Shapiro - the religious analogues of political activists. Neither political nor religious movements are likely to succeed in the long run without committed activists and intellectuals. But attracting their support will often mean sacrificing moderation for the sake of ideological coherence. For this reason, both the Republican and Democratic parties tend to be significantly more extreme than the median voter in the general population. Successful religious denominations also tend to avoid the theological center.

This need not be a bad thing. As a libertarian and an atheist, I'm by no means convinced that moderation is always the way to go in either politics or religion. But it does promote a higher degree of both political and religious polarization than we might have otherwise.

UPDATE: Commenter Joel B notes: "It sounds as though Conservative Judaism is suffering from much the same problems the mainline Protestant denominations suffer from." Yes, I agree.