Conservative Judaism

Rela Mintz Geffen. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Conservative Judaism, developed in the United States, was a reaction to Reform Judaism’s rejection of Jewish law and practice. In 1883 a group of traditional rabbis, vowing to “conserve” Judaism, came up with a moderate platform for a new movement under the motto “Tradition and Change,” requiring fidelity to Jewish law and practice while acknowledging that Judaism had always been influenced by the societies in which Jews lived. The Conservative movement was officially launched in 1886 with the opening of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City. By 1975 more American Jews were affiliated with Conservative synagogues than with those of any other Jewish movement. With the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, the number of Conservative adherents had declined, and the population in Conservative synagogues had begun to age.

Branches of the Conservative movement exist in Canada, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, and western and eastern Europe under the name Masorti, the Hebrew word for “traditional.” Israel has a Conservative Zionist movement called Mercaz; a growing number of Masorti synagogues; Masorti youth groups, summer camps, and elementary and high schools; and a branch of the JTS.

History

Although begun in the United States, the Conservative movement was influenced by developments in Europe, especially the teachings of Zecharias Frankel (1801-75), a German rabbi. Frankel, who promoted historical scholarship of Judaism, viewed Jewish law and custom not as static elements but as evolving from historical circumstances.

Until 1880 there was little traditional Judaism in the United States; of the 200 synagogues, 188 were Reform. In 1883 a group of traditional rabbis walked out of their graduation banquet at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati because the menu was not kosher. Two years later, in 1885, the Reform movement published its radical Pittsburgh Platform, which further encouraged traditional rabbis to start a new movement in American Judaism. The coalition that launched the Conservative movement included German Reform and Sephardic Jews, as well as some of the first of several million Jews who emigrated from eastern Europe to the United States between 1880 and 1920. In 1886 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) was established to train English-speaking, Americanized, but traditional rabbis to serve the new immigrants. The school combined the scientific study of Jewish texts with traditional practice. Graduates founded congregations where the language of prayer was Hebrew and the liturgy was traditional, but the sermon was delivered in English and often included events of the day alongside traditional explications of the text. The tenets of the movement were complex, and for decades most Conservative Jews saw themselves simply as Jews in the middle between Reform and Orthodox adherents.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Conservative Judaism had taken hold in the United States among the second and third generations of eastern European Jewish immigrants, especially in suburbs of big cities. Today the movement has a worldwide membership but is still overwhelmingly American in numbers and character.

Central Doctrines

Fundamental to Conservative Judaism is a fidelity to the rabbinic interpretation of halacha (Jewish law and practice), which is assumed to have developed over time. Because halacha has always been influenced by the cultures in which Jews lived, Conservative Jews believe that Jewish law and practice continue to develop but that they can be interpreted only by those who believe in the sanctity of tradition, adhere to its precepts, and are learned in Jewish law.

Conservative Jews accept the notion of revelation (without outlining a specific version that must be accepted) and acknowledge the existence of a covenant between God and the Jewish people that binds them to the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments, listed in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Along with ethical precepts, the mitzvoth include such ritual practices as kashruth (dietary laws). Conservative Judaism has also emphasized the unity of the Jewish people and a commitment to rebuilding a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Practice-which includes faculty members from the JTS, members of the Rabbinical Assembly (the organization of Conservative rabbis), and some lay observers-rules on new questions of Jewish law. Only rabbis may submit these questions. If the law committee has permitted a range of practices in a given area, the rabbi of the individual congregation may choose any of the approved practices for his synagogue. The only recourse of a dissatisfied congregation is not to renew the rabbi’s contract. If the law committee has unanimously ruled on a matter (such as the prohibition against officiating at an interfaith marriage), a Conservative rabbi who deviates from this practice may be asked to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Moral Code of Conduct

Conservative Judaism’s moral code of conduct is based on Jewish law and practice and is identical to that of traditional Judaism. In Judaism, monotheism requires brotherhood; the fact that everyone has descended from one person who was created by one God means that people must behave toward others with fairness. The role of human beings is to help create a good society on earth.

Sacred Books

Conservative Jews have the same sacred books as all other Jews: the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), which includes the Torah (the five books of Moses), and the Talmud (the body of Jewish law and lore).

Sacred Symbols

Like all traditional Jews, Conservative Jews revere as sacred symbols the Torah scrolls and other holy books, such as prayer books and the Talmud. Other symbols include the menorah (a candelabra with nine lights used in Jewish worship), the mezuzah (a parchment scroll containing sections from the Torah that is affixed to the doorpost of one’s home as a sign of faith), and tefillin (phylacteries, or leather boxes containing scriptural passages that are worn on the head and left arm).

Early and Modern Leaders

Two distinguished rabbis, Sabato Morais and H. Pereira Mendes, along with a group of prominent lay leaders from Sephardic congregations in Philadelphia and New York, founded the JTS in 1886. Its mission was to preserve the knowledge and practice of historical Judaism. In 1887 the JTS held its first class of 10 students in the vestry of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, New York City’s oldest congregation.

The men considered the founders of the Conservative movement were Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, Cyrus Adler, and Mordecai Kaplan. Schechter (1847-1915) came from a teaching post at Cambridge University in 1902 to serve as the first president of the JTS. In 1913 he founded the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing Conservative synagogues in North America. Ginzberg (1873-1953) was the leading scholar of rabbinical literature at JTS from 1903 until his death. Adler (1863-1940) was president of the JTS from 1915 until 1940. Kaplan (1881-1983) founded the Teachers Institute at JTS in 1910 and taught there for more than fifty years, influencing generations of students. He also founded the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, which seceded from the Conservative movement after his retirement from the JTS. Kaplan was a strong supporter of the “synagogue center,” an institutional trend encouraging the use of synagogues for community events, study, and social activities in addition to prayer. In 1924 he created the bat mitzvah-with synagogue rituals similar to those of the bar mitzvah, the traditional boy’s coming-of-age ceremony-for his eldest daughter.

Major Theologians and Authors

Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72) wrote important works on the relationship of human beings to God, the significance of the Sabbath, and the meaning of revelation. He served as a living model of ethical behavior for his students at the JTS during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and during the anti-Vietnam War protests.

Isaac Klein (1905-79) chaired the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards at JTS and authored A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, the legal handbook of the Conservative movement.

Organizational Structure

The Conservative movement has three formal organizational structures in North America: the JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). The RA, the organization of Conservative rabbis, began as an alumni association of JTS but currently has many members who were trained elsewhere. The USCJ, which represents 760 North American synagogues, is a layperson’s organization, though its executive director has always been a rabbi. The umbrella organization for Conservative groups in other parts of the world is the World Council of Conservative Synagogues.

The individual synagogues form the grassroots core of the Conservative movement and contribute members to the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, the International Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and the United Synagogue Youth, which has 25,000 members.

Houses of Worship

In Judaism, as in all biblical religions, the notion of specific holy places is ambiguous. If God is the universal God of creation, it is not clear how his glory or presence can be manifest in any one place rather than another. Some rabbis regard certain places as intrinsically holy because the divine presence objectively dwells in those spaces, namely, the Land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. Others view holy places as sanctified by historical association, as sites evoking certain religious memories and, therefore, emotions. Among such holy places in Judaism are Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac (Gen. 22:14) and upon which, according to Jewish tradition, the Temple was built. The holiness of Mount Sinai, where God gave the Children of Israel the Torah, was limited to the time of divine revelation and subsequently has had no special status. Although the Land of Israel is regarded as the Holy Land and the Temple Mount as the most holy part of this land, some rabbis have debated what constitutes the holiness of this land and of the Temple Mount. It is significant that King Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, raised this very question: “For will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of the heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). As the twentieth-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, “God has no geographical address nor a permanent residence.” Nonetheless, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the remaining parts of its Western Wall, popularly known as the Wailing Wall, became a site of collective mourning and of the expression of messianic longing for its restoration.

Judaism also regards as holy the site in the city of Hebron where the patriarchs are said to be buried. Similarly, the tomb of Rachel, near Bethlehem, is revered as holy. Some Jewish communities regard as holy the grave sites of famed rabbis-for example, the grave at Meron in Galilee of Simeon ben Yohai, the second-century sage who figures prominently in the Mishnah and in the Zohar. Members of the Hasidic community following the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav make annual pilgrimages to his grave in the Ukrainian village of Uman.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue, from the Greek meaning “assembly,” has served as the site of Jewish worship. (The Hebrew equivalent is bet ha-keneset, or “house of assembly.”) In the Talmudic period there arose a parallel institution called bet ha-Midrash, or “house of study,” designating a place where Jews went to study the Torah. The two institutions eventually were joined, and in Yiddish, the vernacular of eastern European Jewry, the synagogue is simply called a Schul, or “school.” In order to signal that they no longer pray for the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, Reform congregations often call their house of worship a temple.

What is Sacred?

The Hebrew term for “holiness” is kedushah, meaning the act of “setting apart,” or dedication to God, who as the holy one and the creator of the universe is the source of all holiness. The act of dedicating oneself and one’s actions to God constitutes the sacred in Judaism. Hence, it is said that Jews’ relationship to God is preeminently through time and not space. It may, therefore, seem to be a paradox that one of the most frequent names for God in the Talmud is Makom, Hebrew for “space.” The paradox is explained by a midrash ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (first-second centuries C.E.) on Psalm 90:1-“… Lord, Thou has been our dwelling place in all generations”-pointing to the fact that wherever there are righteous and pious people “God is with them.”

Through pious deeds Jews sanctify the objects (food, drink, a residence, an object of beauty) and natural activities (sex, work, beholding beauty as well as tragedy) of the created order and thereby render them receptive to God’s holy presence. These deeds include those specified by the Torah, as elaborated by the Halakhah, and those acts of reverence and morality that one must legislate to oneself. The rabbis, however, have held that it is life itself that is most sacred, and in order to preserve a life the precepts of the Torah may be suspended. Accordingly, they interpreted Leviticus 19:16 to mean “… neither shalt thou stand aside when mischief befalls thy neighbor,” and hence if someone is, say, assaulted, it is incumbent upon all who are in a position to help to do so, even if this entails abrogating the ritual commandments of the Torah.

In Judaism reverence is accorded to ritual objects, and in this sense they are regarded as sacred. Religious books written in Hebrew, “the sacred tongue,” starting with the Bible, are regarded as sacred. Hence, when these books become worn and no longer fit for use, they are not simply discarded but rather are reverentially buried in a cemetery, often in the grave of a great scholar or particularly pious person. In some communities it is the custom to store Hebrew texts, including correspondence dealing with religious matters, that are no longer in use in a special vault, or genizah (hiding place), usually in the synagogue.

Holidays and Festivals

For Conservative Jews the 25-hour Shabbat (Sabbath), from sundown each Friday until an hour after sunset on Saturday, is the most sacred day besides Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). The Conservative movement follows the traditional Jewish calendar in celebrating the biblical high holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur; the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkoth (Tabernacles); and the minor festivals of Hanukkah and Purim. Contemporary innovations in the Jewish calendar include the celebration of Israeli Independence Day and the commemoration of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day).

Mode of Dress

Conservative Jews do not have a distinctive dress. For daily prayer men, boys over the age of 13, and some women wear tefillin; for daily, Shabbat, and festival prayer men and some women wear talitot (prayer shawls). Men and many women cover their heads for prayer, and some Conservative Jews wear head coverings at all times. In the vast majority of Conservative synagogues, the rabbis and cantors wear the same ritual garb as the congregants, except on the high holidays, when the clergy wear white robes.

Dietary Practices

Ideally Conservative Jews adhere to the laws of kashruth, which require that only biblically acceptable meats and fish be eaten, that meat be slaughtered according to rabbinic law, and that meat and dairy foods not be eaten together at the same meal. On the festival of Passover, stricter rules apply. Many Conservative Jews do not follow kashruth stringently.

Rituals

Conservative synagogues hold prayer services three times a day, with a fourth prayer service added on Shabbat and festival days. While decorum was important in early congregations, contemporary services emphasize informality, lay participation, and singing, and on Shabbat and festival days the rabbi often conducts a study session rather than a formal sermon. The basic liturgy, spoken in Hebrew, is the same in all congregations, but some large synagogues run “parallel services” with different styles of worship that may include study, music, or increased family participation.

Rites of Passage

Conservative Jewish rites of passage include brit milah (circumcision) for boys and a special baby-naming ceremony, often called simhat bat (the joy of a daughter), for girls. Simhat bat, an outgrowth of the Jewish feminist movement, was created in the early 1970s and became widely observed in the late 1980s. When boys and girls turn 13, they celebrate their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, respectively, officially assuming religious duty and responsibility.

Traditional but personalized wedding ceremonies include a chuppah (canopy), a ketubah (the Aramaic wedding document), and the traditional seven benedictions. After the death of a close relative (a parent, spouse, child, or sibling), Conservative Jews “sit shiva,” or stay home, for seven days, which is followed by 30 days of intense mourning, or a year of mourning when each parent dies. As part of the mourning process, the kaddish prayer is recited in the synagogue three times a day.

Membership

Any Jew can join and pay dues to a Conservative synagogue, but non-Jews and non-Jewish spouses of Jews may not be members or participate in traditional rituals. Children must have Jewish mothers or be converted to be accepted as Jews. After the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accepted patrilineal descent as a marker of Jewish identity in the 1980s, the Conservative movement’s law committee unanimously reaffirmed the necessity of matrilineal descent.

The Conservative movement does not evangelize. It does, however, sponsor conversion classes for those interested in studying Judaism and encourages non-Jewish fiancés and spouses to take these classes along with their Jewish partners.

Religious Tolerance

One of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism is its open-mindedness. Adherents are tolerant of Jews who differ in their interpretation of Judaism, of members of other religious groups, and of secular humanists.

Social Justice

Conservative Judaism highlights prophetic and rabbinic writings that urge adherents to create the “good commonwealth on earth,” where social justice will prevail. Most congregations have social action programs and encourage members to give money to charity, to participate actively in making the world a better place, and to lobby state and federal governments to achieve social goals.

Social Aspects

The central institutions of Conservative Judaism are the synagogue and the family. The movement is egalitarian and stresses the importance of parenting by both men and women. Divorce is permitted, but a Conservative rabbi will officiate at a second marriage only if the divorced person has obtained a Jewish divorce document in addition to a civil divorce.

Controversial Issues

The most controversial issues in the last half century have related to Jewish law. In the middle of the twentieth century, controversy erupted over permission to ride in a car to the synagogue on the Sabbath and over the use of an organ or other live music in the synagogue. Today the vast majority of Conservative synagogues do not have organs, but they all have parking lots, and most Conservative Jews drive to services.

In the 1980s the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Practice approved a woman’s right to count in a minyan (the quorum of 10 people required for communal prayer), to read publicly from the sacred scrolls, and to enter rabbinical and cantorial schools. As a result, a small group called the Union for Traditional Judaism seceded, starting its own seminary, law committee, and synagogue organization.

As the incidence of marriage between Jews and non-Jews rose in the United States (the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey put the figure at 47 percent of all new marriages that included Jews), Conservative synagogue members put great pressure on the law committee to allow patrilineal (not just matrilineal) Jewish descent as the basis of Jewish identity. The law committee resisted this change.

By the 1990s Conservative Judaism was clearly differentiated from Orthodox Judaism (which opposed both the ordination of women and counting them in the quorum for prayer) and from Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism (which accepted rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages, patrilineal descent as a basis for Jewish identity and the ordination of gay men and women).

Another controversy has been the status of openly practicing gay and lesbian Jews, who currently may not enter rabbinical or cantorial schools of the JTS and may not be placed as rabbis in Conservative congregations. Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Cultural Impact

The Jewish Museum in New York City, which operates under the auspices of the JTS, contains a magnificent collection of traditional Jewish art and sponsors exhibits that have received national acclaim. The JTS cantorial school promotes Jewish music, and its professors have composed many melodies that have entered the liturgy. The Eternal Light, a pioneering Conservative Jewish radio program, was started in the 1950s by JTS, which now has a media department producing videos, television shows, and web-based programs.