Conservative Judaism (or Masorti Judaism) is a denomination of Judaism characterized by:
"Conservative Judaism believes that scholarly study of Jewish texts indicates that Judaism has constantly been evolving to meet the needs of the Jewish people in varying circumstances, and that a central halakhic authority can continue the halakhic evolution today." (Soc.Culture.Jewish Usenet Newsgroup FAQ)
The term conservative does not imply that the movement's adherents are politically conservative; rather, the term was meant to signify that Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. However, many political parties follow conservative political agendas, or even have the word as part of their name. Due to this, a number of Conservative rabbis have proposed renaming the movement. Outside the USA it is now known as Masorti Judaism. Adherents of Conservative Judaism may be on the political left, center or right.
Conservative Judaism is a unified movement; the international body of Conservative rabbis is the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the organization of synagogues is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and the primary seminary and cantorial school is the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City.
Conservative Judaism outside the USA is often called Masorti Judaism; Masorti rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Assembly.
Other seminaries include the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, California; the Marshall Meyer Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano in Argentina; and Machon Schechter (in Jerusalem.)
Like Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment and emancipation. In Europe the movement was known as Positive-Historical Judaism, and it is still known as "the historical school" today. In the USA it became known as Conservative Judaism; later it became known as Masorti (traditional) Judaism outside of the USA.
Positive-Historical Judaism, the intellectual forerunner to Conservative Judaism, was developed as a school of thought in 1850s Germany by a number of thinkers, including Rabbi Zecharias Frankel. Frankel rejected the positions taken by both those in Orthodox Judaism and in Reform Judaism as deviations from traditional Judaism. Frankel became the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany. The seminary taught that Jewish law was not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions. He called his approach towards Judaism "Positive-Historical," which meant that one should have a positive attitude towards accepting Jewish law and tradition as normative, yet one should be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it has always historically developed.
Frankel did not attempt to establish a separate movement; he was interested in promoting a school of thought. To those to his left, he was perceived as not very different from the neo-Orthodox (later: Modern Orthodox) Jews at the time. However to many in Orthodoxy, Frankel's openness to modern methods of historical scholarship put him beyond the pale of Orthodoxy, and he was thus associated with the more radical Reform movement.
In 1902, Solomon Schechter reorganized the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and made it into the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.
A number of studies have shown that there is a large gap between what the Conservative movement teaches and what most of its laypeople have incorporated into their daily lives. Conservative Judaism holds that halakha (Jewish law) is normative, i.e. that it is something that Jewish people must strive to actually live by in their daily lives. This would include the laws of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath); the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher); the practice of thrice daily prayer; observance of the Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. In practice, the majority of people who have come to join Conservative synagogues only follow all these laws rarely. Most do follow most of the laws some of the time, but only a minority follow most or all of the laws all of time. There is a substantial committed core, consisting of the lay leadership, rabbis, cantors, educators, and those who have graduated from the movement's religious day schools and summer camps, that do take Jewish law very seriously. Recent studies have shown an increase in the observance of members of the movement.
Conservative Jews believe that movements to its left, such as Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, have erred by rejecting the traditional authority of Jewish law and tradition. They believe that the Orthodox Jewish movements, on the theological right, have erred by slowing down, or stopping, the historical development of Jewish law.
However, Conservative Judaism holds that Orthodox Judaism is a valid and legitimate form of rabbinic Judaism; its respects the validity of its rabbis. Conservative Judaism holds that both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have made major breaks with the historic definition of Judaism, both by their rejection of Jewish law as normative, and by their unilateral acts in creating a separate definition of Jewishness (i.e. the latter movement's acceptance of patrilineal descent as an additional way of defining Jewishness). Depite the Conservative movement's disagreement with the more liberal movements, it does respect the right of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews to interpret Judaism in their own way. Thus the Conservative movement recognizes the right of Jews to form such denominations, and recognizes their clergy as rabbis, but often does not accept their specific decisions as valid.
Mordecai Waxman, a leading figure in the Rabbinical Assembly, writes that "Reform has asserted the right of interpretation but it rejected the authority of legal tradition. Orthodoxy has clung fast to the principle of authority, but has in our own and recent generations rejected the right to any but minor interpretations. The Conservative view is that both are necessary for a living Judaism. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds itself bound by the Jewish legal tradition, but asserts the right of its rabbinical body, acting as a whole, to interpret and to apply Jewish law." (Mordecai Waxman Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism)
The Conservative position is that Orthodoxy had deviated from historical Judaism through an excessive concern with recent codifications of Jewish law. The Conservative movement consciously rejects the Orthodox understanding of Jewish history, which entails near-total deference to seemingly infallible rabbis, and instead holds that a more fluid model is both necessary, and theologically and historically justifiable. The Conservative movement makes a conscious effort to use historical sources to determine what kind of changes to Jewish tradition have occurred, how and why they occurred, and in what historical context. With this information they believe that can better understand the proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today.
Conservative Judaism affirms theism. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of God is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism (neo-Hasidism, Jewish Renewal); limited theism (as in Harold Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"); organic thinking in the fashion of Whitehead and Hartshorne, a.k.a. process theology (such as Rabbis Max Kaddushin and William E. Kaufman).
Mordecai Kaplan's religious naturalism (Reconstructionist Judaism) used to have an influential place in the movement, but since Reconstructionism developed as an independent movement, this influence has waned. Papers from a recent Rabbinical Assembly conference on theology were recently printed in a special issue of the journal Conservative Judaism (Winter 1999); the editors note that Kaplan's naturalism seems to have dropped from the movement's radar screen.
In agreement with traditional Judaism, Conservative Judaism holds that God inspired prophets to write the Torah (five books of Moses) and the Hebrew Bible. However, for theological reasons most Conservative Jews reject the traditional Jewish idea that God dictated the words of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal revelation. Divine revelation, however, while held to be real, is generally believed to be non-verbal -- that is, the revelation did not include the particular words of the divine texts. Conservative Judaism allows its adherents to hold to a wide array of views on the subject of revelation.
Conservative Jews are comfortable with the findings of higher criticism, including the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the current text of the Torah was redacted together from several earlier sources. They go further, and the movement's rabbinic authorities and official Torah commentary (Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary) affirm that Jews should make use of modern critical literary and historical analysis to understand how the Bible developed. These views are rejected as heretical by most of Orthodox Judaism, but is accepted as valid by all non-Orthodox Jewish movements.
Conservative Jews reconcile these beliefs by holding that God, in some way, did reveal his will to Moses and later prophets. However, records of revelation may have been passed down through the centuries in many ways, including written documents, folklores, epic poems, etc. These records were eventually redacted together to form the Torah, and later on, the other books of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible].
In the charter of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1902) and in the preamble to the Constitution of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (1913), Conservative Jews briefly outlined their beliefs, which included the call "to assert and establish loyalty to the Torah and its historical exposition". However, the movement deliberately avoided publishing systematic explications of theology and belief, as part of a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition. This concern became a non-issue after the left wing of the movement seceded in 1968 to form the Reconstructionist movement and the right wing seceded in 1985 to form the Union for Traditional Judaism. In 1988, the leadership council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, "Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism."
An accessible work on the practices and ideology of the movement is "Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors To Our Descendants", by Elliot N. Dorff. Other explications of Conservative Jewish beliefs are online:
Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law codes as the basis for Jewish law. However it holds that "however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition". (Solomon Schechter.)
Conservative Judaism affirms that halakha (Jewish law and tradition) is not just a good idea, it is the law. At the same time, Conservative Jews find it repugnant to suggest that anyone should be coerced into following religious practices. Thus, like Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism holds that Jewish law is normative, but not enforced. That is, Jewish law encompasses actions that Jews actually ought to be following in their daily lives, even though there is no enforcement of these rules. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards Halakha and the Talmud.)
There is a separate article which has details on Conservative responsa, the legal opinions and rulings of Conservative and Masorti Judaism. Conservative responsa are written by the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Elliot N. Dorff Professor of philosophy at the Univ. of Judaism professor, theologian, member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
Louis Finkelstein Talmud scholar
Zecharias Frankel - founder of positive-historical Judaism.
Neil Gillman Theologian, JTS Philosophy Professor
Louis Ginzberg Talmud scholar and halakhic expert, early member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
Robert Gordis Rabbi, Theologian, Educator
Judith Hauptman JTS Talmud scholar
Jules Harlow - Primary liturgist of the Conservative movement
Abraham Joshua Heschel Theologian and social activist
Louis Jacobs - Founder of Masorti Judaism in the United Kingdom
Isaac Klein Rabbi, expert in Jewish law, early member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
Saul Lieberman Talmud scholar at JTS
Joel Roth JTS Talmud scholar, member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
Solomon Schechter - Researcher, early leader of JTS, creator of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Mathilde Roth Schechter - Founder of the Women's League of Conservative Judaism and of Hadassah
Ismar Schorsch - Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
Conservative Judaism maintains the Rabbinic understanding of Jewish identity: A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Conservatism thus rejects patrilineal descent, which is accepted by the Reform movement. Conservative Rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages (marriages between Jews and non-Jews). However, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism has a more nuanced understanding of this issue than does Orthodoxy. In a press release it has stated:
- "In the past, intermarriage...was viewed as an act of rebellion, a rejection of Judaism. Jews who intermarried were essentially excommunicated. But now, intermarriage is often the result of living in an open society....If our children end up marrying non-Jews, we should not reject them. We should continue to give our love and by that retain a measure of influence in their lives, Jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism has new meaning for them. However, the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. Since we know that over 70 percent of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews...we want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews."
Elliot N. Dorff Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors To Our Descendants (Revised Edition) United Synagogue New York, 1996
Neil Gillman Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Behrman House 1993
David Golinkin Halakha For Our Time: A Conservative Approach To Jewish Law, United Synagogue, 1991
Isaac Klein A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice JTS, New York, 1992
Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook Pamela S. Nadell, Greenwood Press, NY 1988
Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, Ed. Robert Gordis, JTS, New York, 1988
Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary, Ed. David Lieber, Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner, The Jewish Publication Society, NY, 2001
Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:40:27