CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM evolved out of the desire of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to find their way in the United States; it was one of a myriad of syntheses of Jewish identity and modernity invented by acculturating Jews. While its intellectual and institutional origins lie in the nineteenth century, the Conservative Jewish denomination rests on the confluence of modernizing rabbis trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, Americanizing Eastern European Jewish immigrant masses, and the national organizational infrastructure that emerged to inculcate Conservative Judaism to Jewish men, women, and children.
Ideological and Institutional Origins
Conservative Judaism considers European rabbi and scholar Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875) to be its ideological founder. In 1845, in Frankfurt am Main, at a conference of rabbis engaged in reforming Judaism, the men agreed to amend the traditional worship service to dispense with the Hebrew language in all but a handful of prayers. Although Frankel was open to adapting Judaism in response to the challenges posed by the encounter of Jews with modernity, such a drastic break with the Jewish past was an anathema. He seceded from the conference, advocating an alternative response to modernity: positive-historical Judaism. The response prioritized reason based on scholarship and a deep appreciation for conserving the traditions of the past, as opposed to the will of the laity, to guide the process of accommodating Judaism to the new realities of the nineteenth century. In 1854 Frankel became the founding president of Breslau's Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar, a new rabbinical school whose graduates espoused positive-historical Judaism. When, in 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America was established in New York City, its founders not only evoked the Breslau school in choosing a name, they also saw it as a model.
At the same time, nineteenth-century American Jews and their rabbis were engaged in reforming Judaism. Responding to their increasing distance from tradition and their desire to transmit Judaism to the next generation, virtually every synagogue by 1870 had adopted some reforms. But twentieth-century labels do not neatly fit nineteenth-century American Jewish realities. In some synagogues, led by immigrant rabbis whom historian Moshe Davis dubbed "men of the Historical School," English-language prayers and sermons, and Sunday schools that educated girls as well as boys, emerged. Other synagogues went further, ending the practice of separating men and women in worship and abolishing the head covering and ritual garb traditionally worn by Jewish men.
Events in the 1880s suggested that those advocating the most extensive reforms would soon triumph. In July 1883, as the first rabbis ever trained on American soil prepared to be ordained, prominent Jews journeyed for the historic occasion to Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. Invited to a celebratory banquet, the traditionalists among them were appalled to find clams, shrimp, and frog's legs, all decidedly unkosher or treyf foods in violation of Jewish law, on the menu. The traditionalists stormed out of the treyfah banquet and were soon calling for a new rabbinical seminary. In January 1886, after Reform rabbis had rejected Jewish law and tradition in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, a coalition of traditionalist leaders and moderate reformers founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for those Jews who would both uphold Mosaic law and adhere to a historical Judaism resting upon the great interpretations of rabbinic literature codified in works like the Talmud.
The Early Seminary
The "early Seminary," as the school in the years between its founding in 1886 and its reorganization in 1902 has since become known, was not intended to be a denominational institution promulgating Conservative Judaism. Although at its opening exercises, Professor Alexander Kohut (1842–1894), a graduate of the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar, spoke of Conservative Judaism, and although its founders pledged their allegiance to historical Judaism, this rhetoric cannot camouflage the fact that Conservative Judaism, as such, did not yet exist. In fact, many of the early Seminary's first leaders, including its president Sabato Morais (1823–1897), would, if labels must be assigned, more properly be termed Orthodox. And well into the 1920s, when a merger of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodoxy's Yeshiva College was contemplated, the boundaries between Conservative Judaism and a modernizing Orthodox Judaism remained poorly defined.
This early Seminary, which distinguished itself by its embrace of the English language and secular education, graduated seventeen rabbis and cantors between 1894 and 1902. Its first graduates included Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983), who became professor of homiletics at the Seminary and who led an influential wing within the Conservative movement that eventually became a separate denomination called Reconstructionist Judaism. In 1901 these Seminary graduates founded an alumni association, which grew into the Rabbinical Assembly, the union of Conservative rabbis. But, even as they did, their alma mater, the early Seminary, which had long suffered a lack of financial support, was on the verge of collapse.
What saved the Jewish Theological Seminary from extinction was its reorganization in 1902. A group of wealthy New York Jews, most of them personally committed to Reform Judaism and all engaged with other institutions advancing the Americanization of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, were persuaded to endow the Seminary and to bring to the United States the renowned Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) as its president.
The Schechter Years
Although Schechter led the Seminary for only thirteen years, until his death in 1915, he left so clear an imprint on the school that it became known, both in his lifetime and afterwards, as Schechter's Seminary. Envisioning the Seminary as a great Jewish academy, Schechter hired a distinguished faculty, including Louis Ginzberg (1873–1953) as professor of Talmud. He also revamped the rabbinical curriculum to make it a postgraduate school; launched a teachers course, which evolved into the Teachers Institute, to train educators to work alongside Seminary rabbis; transformed the library into one of the largest and most valuable collections of Judaica ever owned by Jews, an indispensable resource for advancing Jewish scholarship in America; and moved the Seminary to its new home in Manhattan's Morningside Heights in the heart of the academic setting bounded by Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. Schechter's presidency thus charted the Seminary's future by setting the training of rabbis, teachers, and scholars at the heart of its mission.
Schechter had hoped that the Seminary he revisioned would unify the diverse elements of American Jewry. But as Orthodox rabbis prohibited Orthodox synagogues from hiring Seminary graduates—who, they asserted, were tainted by the critical scholarly methodologies of Ginzberg—and as Reform leaders openly expressed criticism, Schechter realized the impossibility of this dream. Moreover, his espousal of Zionism, which he considered a bulwark against assimilation, had alienated many among his own board of directors, who were either neutral towards Zionism or who even opposed it. Needing to extend his base of support, Schechter ultimately did what he had hoped to avoid. Joined by Seminary rabbis who felt isolated in their pulpits out in the field, he launched a new federation of synagogues—the third in the United States, since both Reform and Orthodoxy already had their own synagogal unions—to support the Seminary and advance its vision of Judaism.
In 1913, twenty-two congregations formed the United Synagogue of America (renamed in 1991 the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), which embraced Schechter's vision and welcomed any congregations that were not avowedly Reform (that is, those using Reform's Union Prayer Book and where men worshiped without covering their heads with skullcaps or hats). The new union would advance Jewish life in the United States, especially the observance of the Sabbath and the dietary laws of kashrut. It would foster Jewish education and promote Jewish religious life in the home as well as in the synagogue. Its members would pray in Hebrew, but their synagogues would maintain decorous behavior in worship (in contrast to an unmodernized, immigrant-style prayer). Their rabbis would preach in English, and they would welcome women to assist in their work.
The Emergence of the Conservative Synagogue
By 1929, less than two decades later, the United Synagogue had expanded to 229 member congregations. It had become the central address for American Jewish men and women who, as they left behind immigrant ghettos for the comfort of middle-class apartments in new urban neighborhoods, sought a new expression of Judaism for themselves and especially for their American-born children. United Synagogue leaders deliberately sought out these upwardly-mobile Jewish men and women who were equally distanced from the Yiddish-speaking Orthodoxy of their youth and the dramatic ritual and ideological transformations of Reform Judaism. Conservative rabbis promised moderate reforms—for example, a late Friday evening service with its greater reliance on English for prayer; Sunday schools, Hebrew schools, and adult education classes; and the seating of men and women side-by-side in prayer in contravention of the customary Jewish practice of separating the sexes in worship. But these reforms were balanced by retaining the traditional Hebrew Saturday morning service, albeit with an English-language sermon; mandating intensive preparation for the ceremony of bar mitzvah; and maintaining allegiance to Jewish law and expecting Conservative Jews to continue to usher in the Sabbath in their homes by lighting candles and blessing wine, to walk to synagogue on Sabbath mornings and on holidays, and to adhere to kashrut.
In general, concedes Jack Wertheimer, Seminary provost and historian of Conservative Judaism, services in these new synagogues were poorly attended since, in the years between World War I and World War II, most men worked on Saturday mornings. That meant that women filled the pews and assumed from the inception of the Conservative synagogue an active role in its congregational life.
Many of these new synagogues were lavish synagogue-centers—"shuls [synagogues] with pools," a unique Jewish-American invention. Synagogue-centers offered sanctuaries and chapels for worship, social halls for fellowship, classrooms for study and meetings, and gymnasiums and swimming pools for recreation. Although the idea of the synagogue-center had its roots in earlier nineteenth-century American Jewish settings, including Reform synagogues and the Young Men's Hebrew Associations (YMHAs), the prototype of the interwar synagogue-center was the Jewish Center, founded in 1917, by Seminary professor Kaplan. As Jewish immigrants and their children flocked to these new institutions, they became ethnic enclaves where American Jews could pray and play together.
Even as the United Synagogue reached out to pioneer new congregations, it simultaneously created the umbrella organizations of Conservatism's various lay groups, essentially developing different structures, often, but not always, modeled on those Reform Judaism's Union of American Hebrew Congregations had already organized, for connecting the various segments of the American Jewish community to the synagogue and Conservative Judaism. In 1918 the National Women's League of the United Synagogue of America (now the Women's League for Conservative Judaism) became the umbrella for the sisterhoods that flourished as gendered spaces in these new synagogues. The organization's founding president and guiding spirit was Solomon Schechter's widow and intellectual companion, Mathilde Schechter (1859–1924). In 1929 another deliberately gendered entity emerged, the National Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs. The first of a variety of Conservative Jewish youth organizations dates to 1921, but this early association was abandoned in favor of new models after World War II when a different kind of teen culture emerged in a rapidly suburbanizing United States.
These different entities offered programs geared to their specific constituencies and presented a path to national leadership for Conservative laity. They sponsored conventions and retreats, developed new educational programs, and published an array of movement literature, including institutional magazines, all meant to foster a greater awareness of how it was indeed possible, even in the midst of secular American culture, to live a full Jewish life at home and in the synagogue. All remained dedicated to Conservative Judaism's principles of upholding historic Jewish observances and advancing knowledge of Hebrew and Torah. In so doing they helped shape a specific Conservative Jewish denominational identity.
The Great Depression and World War II
The promising expansion of Conservative Judaism through the United Synagogue came to a grinding halt with the onset of the Great Depression. The economic crisis affected both Conservative synagogues and the national organizations and institutions. With the world moving towards war, the energies of American Jews focused on an endangered Jewry across the Atlantic and embattled Zionists in British-mandate Palestine. As a result, the era of the depression and the early years of World War II were years of stasis, at best, for much of the Conservative movement.
That began to change, however, with America's entry into the war in December 1941. Helping the war effort occupied Conservative men, women, and youth at home and in their synagogues. But as the war sent tens of thousands of American Jews into the military, many met there, for the first time, Conservative rabbis serving as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. When these soldiers returned home after the war, they formed the nucleus of a new generation of Conservative Jews, paving the way for a second era of remarkable movement growth.
Ideological and Theological Divides
A careful look at those Conservative rabbis—on the eve of World War II they numbered just over three hundred, most, but not all, ordained at the Seminary (by 1944, a third were military chaplains)—would have then revealed significant ideological and theological divisions within the Conservative movement. Conservative rabbis were united by their belief in the historic body of Jewish law which, they asserted, must govern a Jew's life from birth to death. But they knew that modernity, secularization, and Americanization had deeply affected Jews' attachment to halakhah. (Halakhah, literally "the way," refers to the entire corpus of Jewish law and includes laws found in the Bible, the many classics of rabbinic literature, and modern interpretations too.) American Jews, including Conservative Jews, had fashioned their own Jewish tradition, picking and choosing from halakhah, observing certain holidays and forgetting others, upholding certain rites and rituals, even inventing new ones, and ignoring others. This halakhic anarchy undermined the tradition Conservative rabbis upheld. The solution, they believed, was for them to take charge of shaping halakhah. They would be the ones to guide American Jewry to strike the proper balance between the forces of Tradition and Change (the title of a significant collection of movement essays, edited by Mordecai Waxman and published in 1958). If they succeeded, then Conservative Jews could and would volunteer to adhere to Jewish law and praxis.
Conservative rabbis all agreed that halakhah must be adjusted, adapted to meet modern realities and changing circumstances. They also shared an opposition to Reform Judaism's deliberate abrogation of Jewish law, even as they claimed that the Orthodox had erred in maintaining a rigid, unadjusted halakhah. But if these stances united Conservative rabbis they were nevertheless deeply divided over the extent to which Jewish law could and should be properly accommodated to contemporary realities, over the best way to forge a synthesis of modernity with halakhah.
Almost from its inception, Conservative Judaism was wracked by different visions of the acceptable methods of adjusting tradition to the modern world. For many rabbis halakhah could be adapted only through time-honored processes of reinterpretation of classic texts to prove that innovations remained within the basic spirit of Jewish law, and that they would, therefore, be acceptable to all of Jewry, which Schechter had considered the will of "Catholic Israel." But others asserted that Conservative rabbis had the right to enact new legislation and must abrogate old laws that had become irrelevant and were, moreover, ignored by most Conservative Jews.
Behind Conservatism's disputes over interpreting halakhah were diametrically opposed theological understandings of God and revelation. They are perhaps best understood as emanating from the two polestars of the Seminary faculty at midcentury, Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
In his magnum opus Judaism as a Civilization (1934), Kaplan proposed a total revolution in Jewish theology, demanding that it be "reconstructed" to naturalism. He rejected the notion of a supernatural God, redefining God as the Power in the universe that makes for salvation, the sum of the forces that enable men and women to make the most of their lives. For Judaism to survive the challenges of modernity, there could be no miracles, no supernatural revelation. Since no authoritarian God could have revealed the commandments to the nation at Sinai, Kaplan revisioned the commandments as folkways, understanding Judaism's sacred seasons, rites, and rituals as existing to answer human needs. Consequently, they must be adapted to meet the changed circumstances of contemporary life. Concomitantly, he also rejected the historic concept that the Jews were God's chosen people.
To many Conservative leaders, in the decades when those embracing Kaplan's Reconstructionism remained within the movement, this theology was utterly anathema. They understood belief in a supernatural God and his revelation as fundamental theological concepts, though they also understood the difficulties these beliefs posed for moderns. Many of these rabbis were deeply influenced by the spiritual pietism and personal traditionalism of the charismatic Seminary professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism Heschel.
Heschel's philosophical and theological writings related directly to the moral dilemmas of the moment. His Depth Theology went below the surface phenomena of modern doubt and rootlessness to illumine the Living God, not as a philosophical abstraction or psychological projection but as the Most Moved Mover, the God of pathos who stands in a dynamic and reciprocal relationship to creation, who is overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present. Depth Theology explored the ongoing encounter between man and God, showing it to be an arduously difficult dialogue in which God remained a constant partner in man's work in the world.
Adjusting Jewish Law
These differences over theology and ideology were reflected in the three wings of the Conservative movement. By 1927, when the Rabbinical Assembly formed its first Committee on Jewish Law to answer for the movement the myriad of halakhic questions congregants and rabbis raised, the divisions had crystallized among the movement's elites—its rabbis and Seminary professors—into a religious and ideological right, center, and left. Those on the right, which included most of the Seminary faculty, favored the maintenance of tradition over any but the most essential changes. Those on the left, represented by the Reconstructionists who followed Kaplan's philosophy, considered major adaptations essential to meet the radically changed world inhabited by a modernizing Jewry. In the middle stood a large center trying valiantly to balance the sometimes shaky coalition.
As Conservative leaders established a series of committees on Jewish law to answer the enormous number of questions raised—in some years they exceeded 170—the rabbis were careful to balance committee members from among the conservative and liberal wings of the Rabbinical Assembly. The committees answered a host of questions about dietary laws, synagogue customs, architecture, Shabbat and holiday observance, funeral practices, conversion, circumcision, and intermarriage. Could unfermented wine be used for ritual purposes in order to comply with Prohibition? Was it permissible to withhold a get, the Jewish bill of divorcement, until a civil court had dissolved the marriage? Could intermarried Jews join a synagogue? Was eating broiled fish in restaurants and hotels permissible? What could the rabbis do about the plight of a wife chained to a husband who no longer lived with her but who refused or was unable to grant her a divorce, which, under Jewish law, only he could do? Was it permissible to drive to synagogue services on the Sabbath? What could be done, within the confines of Jewish law, to adjust the unequal status of women?
If the committee on Jewish law ruled unanimously on a question, then all Conservative rabbis, and presumably all Conservative Jews, must abide by the ruling (note the rabbis had little coercive power over the laity). But if the law committee published a majority and minority report, then the rabbis were free, according to Jewish custom and tradition, to follow either opinion. Thus all Conservative rabbis were prohibited from officiating at intermarriages. But Conservative synagogues have the option of abrogating the second day of observance of certain holidays and of completing the reading of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses chanted on Sabbath morning, over either one or three years.
As World War II was ending, the Conservative movement's coalition of the right, center, and left continued to hold, and it would hold throughout the first postwar decades when a new era of remarkable expansion required the energies of all in the movement.
By the late 1930s, Seminary leaders, notably Louis Finkelstein (1895–1992), who became its president in 1940 and retired as its chancellor in 1972, recognized that the hegemony of world Jewry was shifting from Europe to the United States. Determined that Conservatism must become a, if not the, leading force guiding American and even world Jewry, Finkelstein set a course to raise funds and develop new initiatives to extend Conservative Judaism's reach.
As the war broke out, the Seminary began admitting larger classes to train the increasing number of rabbis needed to serve at home and at the front. As the war ended, the need for Conservative rabbis became so acute that the Rabbinical Assembly began admitting more and more rabbis trained in Reform and Orthodox settings who preferred to be Conservative rabbis.
As Jewish servicemen returning home joined the urban exodus, they organized new synagogues for their growing families in the burgeoning suburbs. Many decided that middle-of-the-road Conservative Judaism, whose chaplains they had first encountered during the war, would attract the widest swathe of suburbanizing Jews. While the number of Reform synagogues grew in these years, the growth in the Conservative movement was greater. By 1949 the United Synagogue had 365 congregations, nearly a 100 percent increase in just four years. By 1971, with the era of remarkable growth over, the United Synagogue counted 832 congregations, comprising some 350,000 families with an estimated 1.5 million members.
A National Identity
The explosion of synagogues was accompanied by a simultaneous expansion of movement activities and new initiatives designed to solidify Conservatism's presence as a national movement among American Jewry. The United Synagogue advised emerging congregations on synagogue management, budget, personnel, youth work, and successful synagogue programs. By the end of the 1940s, Conservative cantors, synagogue administrators, and Jewish educators had formed new professional associations. In 1947 the Seminary established a West Coast branch, the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles. Moreover, after many years of false starts, a prayer book for the movement, The Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, was at last published in 1946. As it became almost universally accepted in Conservative synagogues, it contributed to a clearer sense of national movement identity among the laity.
Conservative leaders already had ambitions beyond the United States, and in 1957 they established a World Council of Synagogues (now the World Council of Conservative Synagogues) to extend their unique vision of Judaism around the globe. In 1962 they launched a rabbinical seminary in Argentina to train modern Spanish-speaking rabbis. As increasing numbers of Conservative rabbis made their homes in Israel, the movement grew there too. In 2003 the Masorti movement, as Conservative Judaism is known in Israel (masorti means "traditional"), numbered fifty congregations and included a kibbutz and educational institutions. This is a significant achievement, given that early in the history of the new state full jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and burial for all Israeli Jews was handed over to the Orthodox, and its rabbinate has yet to recognize the authority of rabbis ordained outside Orthodox settings.
Education and Conservative Youth
Perhaps the greatest of Conservative Judaism's successes in these first postwar decades lay in the field of Jewish education. Abiding by the dictum, "And you shall teach them diligently unto your children" (Dt. 6:7), the movement invested extraordinary resources in an array of formal and informal programs of Jewish education at a time when American women were giving birth to the demographic bulge known as the baby boom. The Conservative synagogue became a central site for educating young Jews as nursery schools and Sunday schools were held on its premises. At the same time, Conservative leaders and laity created their first Jewish parochial schools, known as day schools; by 1958, there were fourteen Conservative day schools. In these settings children and teens spend approximately 40 percent of every day immersed in Jewish studies, including Hebrew language and classical Jewish texts. In 2003 over seventy schools in twenty states and Canada were affiliated with the movement's Solomon Schechter Day School Association.
New youth programs in these first postwar decades provided informal Jewish education. They included not only United Synagogue Youth, founded in 1951 for high school students, but also programs for teens seeking advanced Jewish education and other programs for the increasing numbers of Jewish youth attending college. The first of what would become a network of movement camps, Camp Ramah, opened in Wisconsin in 1947. Designed as Hebrew-speaking camps where campers would pray daily and live Judaism during the long, hot summers, they were expected to propel the next generation of Conservative Jews to lives filled with Judaism, observance, and study. United Synagogue Youth and especially Camp Ramah (both included Israel travel experiences) became training grounds for those who would go on to become lay leaders and for the next generations of Conservative rabbis.
Yet, in terms of its reach to the greatest number of Conservative youth, surely the pinnacle of Conservatism's educational achievements was the three-day-a-week afternoon congregational school, the Hebrew school. Prior to its emergence, most boys learned what they needed to know for bar mitzvah (the rite of passage to adult status in the synagogue, which occurs at age thirteen) in community Hebrew schools. The shift from the community school to the congregational Hebrew school began in the 1920s during the Conservative synagogue's first period of expansion, but the three-day-a-week congregational Hebrew school, which eventually absorbed the Sunday school for all but the youngest children, became the pillar of the new Conservative suburban synagogue. It became the medium by which Conservative children, and in the educationally egalitarian suburbs they included girls as well as boys, acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to fit into congregational life. Here children learned Hebrew prayers, studied the Bible, and were introduced to Jewish history, literature, and culture. They came to understand the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people and to comprehend Jewish values and ethics. By moving the Hebrew school to the synagogue and requiring attendance three times a week for five years before bar mitzvah, the Hebrew school became the nucleus of the family-centered suburban congregation, drawing parents and children together to the synagogue.
It also had unintended and unanticipated consequences, for not only was Hebrew school the path to bar mitzvah, it also became the path to bat mitzvah. Bat mitzvah was a new Jewish rite marking the transition from childhood to adolescence among American girls. In 1922, Kaplan created the first bat mitzvah in the United States for his daughter Judith. In the decades that followed, bat mitzvah won limited acceptance on an individual basis in Conservative synagogues. Its form—whether it took place at the Friday evening or Saturday morning Sabbath service, and which portions of the service the bat mitzvah girl read—differed from synagogue to synagogue. By 1948 a third of Conservative synagogues had adopted bat mitzvah, and by 1960 almost all celebrated both bar and bat mitzvah, even though it would take another decade or two for bat mitzvah to parallel exactly the bar mitzvah rite in most Conservative congregations.
Yet, even as bat mitzvah was becoming the norm for Conservative synagogues, it nevertheless signaled the end of a girl's public participation and leadership of the service. Boys could continue, if they wished, to use what they had learned in Hebrew school. They could, as teens and adults, bless the Torah scroll and read from it. They could even continue their Jewish learning and become rabbis. In these years no one expected that the bat mitzvah girl would ever again ascend to the pulpit, and surely she would never think of becoming a rabbi. Thus, Conservatism's educational triumphs, the creation of strong institutions for youth education, unwittingly helped set the stage for its most significant public crisis.
Years of Unease
By 1968, with the war in Vietnam raging, the youth rebellion in full swing, and the end of the demographic baby boom that had caused the suburban synagogue explosion, the era of enormous movement growth was at an end. As the 1960s have come to stand for years of turmoil in American society, when Americans launched a war on poverty, struggled to bring civil rights to all, and began a remarkable revisioning of gender roles, the Conservative movement too experienced its own years of unease.
In 1968 the Reconstructionists, long the most ardent champions of Conservatism's liberal wing, defected. As long as Kaplan remained a professor at the Seminary—and he taught rabbinical students there for more than five decades (from 1909 to 1963)—he refrained from creating the structures that would proclaim Reconstructionism's independence. Gradually, over the course of the 1960s, they had emerged. The final step was the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in 1968. Its founding meant that those who would have become the standard bearers of Conservatism's liberal wing in the next generation could now become Reconstructionist, rather than Conservative, rabbis.
At the same time Conservative leaders experienced another defection, that of their best and brightest youth. In 1968 in Boston, Jews in their twenties, mostly graduate students and many, perhaps most, raised in elite Conservative institutions, founded the first havurah (plural, havurot ), a small intimate group for prayer, celebration, and study. Creating a Jewish expression of the wider American counterculture, by the mid-1970s havurot flourished in all major Jewish communities. The young men and women of the havurot, and they included at least one former national president of United Synagogue Youth, rejected the grand suburban synagogues in which they had come of age, depicting them as spiritually arid temples to the hollowness of affluence.
Many Conservative leaders perceived the rebellion of their youth as indicative of the movement's weaknesses. They charged that their congregational schools had, despite their best efforts, failed. With the exception of the climactic experience of bar and bat mitzvah, they had not won over the youth who must become the next generation of Conservative Jews. Yet, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman (1923–1990), known as "the rabbi of the rabbis" for his long tenure as executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, argued that the Conservative youth who were the chief architects of the Jewish counterculture were actually a sign of the movement's success. They had learned enough in Conservative settings to criticize the institutions in which they were raised and were so committed to Judaism that they demanded more from it.
Nevertheless, as the size of the movement stabilized, as the Reconstructionists seceded, and as the youth who should have become the next generation of Conservative synagogue members seemed to defect, the late 1960s and early 1970s became years of unease within Conservatism. This unease was compounded in the 1970s as many of the grand old synagogue-centers built in the 1920s, which had survived the early migrations to the suburbs, declined, and as the first suburban congregations built in the 1950s and early 1960s faced hard choices about refurbishing aging buildings in the hopes of attracting new members. But these concerns would pale before the conflict that was about to emerge—the demand to ordain women as Conservative rabbis.
The Crisis over Women's Ordination
Conservative Judaism had already responded to several questions about the status of women. Mixed seating, the sitting of men and women together in worship, which had become characteristic of the Conservative synagogue as it emerged, also became the denominational boundary distinguishing Conservative from modern Orthodox congregations. Conservative rabbis, long uncomfortable with praying each morning "Blessed be He who did not make me a woman," emended this prayer in the 1946 Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book. Bat mitzvah and a 1955 ruling permitting females to have an aliyah, the honor of blessing the Torah scroll, gave Conservative girls and women new, albeit limited, roles in the synagogue service. Finally, Conservative elites had wrestled for decades over the agunah, which chained the wife to an untenable marriage that only her husband could end. Even when American courts had issued a civil divorce, if a husband refused to grant a Jewish divorce the wife remained unable, as Conservative rabbis understood Jewish law, to remarry. In the late 1960s the Rabbinical Assembly took steps to resolve this halakhic impasse.
Marshall Sklare (1921–1992), who wrote the definitive sociological study of the Conservative movement, understood well that the inferior position of women in Jewish law transgressed Western norms. But, as he wrote at midcentury, he observed that Conservative women were not agitating for full equality. They seemed then, to Sklare, quite satisfied with the changes in women's status already made in Conservative Judaism.
By the early 1970s, however, that was no longer true. In March 1972, three months before the first American woman was ordained by Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College, a group of women in New York, riding the crest of the new wave of American feminism and deeply committed to Conservative Judaism, appeared at the annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly. As girls, they had received the same educations as their brothers in Conservative schools and camps. As women, they were denied the opportunity to use that knowledge. As feminists, they deemed this a gross affront to their intelligence and sensibilities. They called for an end to the second-class status of women in Jewish life, demanded that women be allowed to participate fully in all religious observances, and launched an agonizing public debate over whether or not the Conservative movement would ordain women rabbis.
From 1972 to 1983, Conservative leaders found themselves inextricably engaged in an intricate political dance of shifting alliances, studies undertaken, commissions formed, hearings held, motions tabled, and votes counted. Each twist and turn of the question of women's ordination in these years, as the ball was thrown from one arena of Conservative Judaism to another, reflected just how divisive and painful the prospect of women rabbis was for those enmeshed in the debate.
For example, the movement convened the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis, and it held public hearings in five cities to gather the opinions of Conservative Jews. In December 1978 its members divided. Eleven believed that Jewish law did not prohibit women's ordination, and they recommended their admission to the rabbinical school the following September. Three commission members dissented, arguing ominously that women's ordination would disrupt the unity of the movement. A year later, the Seminary faculty, fearing schism within their ranks, tabled the question of admitting women to the rabbinical school for the foreseeable future.
But by the fall of 1983, when it was evident that the Rabbinical Assembly would soon admit a woman ordained at Hebrew Union College (she would have been a Conservative rabbi if she could have been), the Seminary faculty convened again. This time they voted to admit women to the rabbinical school. The vote propelled some from the right wing of the movement to break off. Decrying Conservatism's selective loyalty to halakhah, they established the Union for Traditional Judaism. In May 1985, Amy Eilberg, who had accumulated advanced standing through prior coursework as she waited patiently for Conservative leaders to allow women's ordination, was ordained a rabbi.
Judaism in the Center
The bitter debate over women's ordination was "a struggle for the soul of the movement" (Wertheimer, 1993, p. 348). Indeed, in the wake of women's ordination, the Conservative movement was transformed. By the 1990s it had at last moved firmly to the center. The secessions, first of the Reconstructionists on the left and then of the opponents of women's ordination on the right, explain the shift, but only partially. The successful suburbanization of Orthodox Judaism, which occurred later than that of Conservative Judaism and which Conservative leaders had not anticipated during the heyday of suburban synagogue expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, also contributed significantly to moving Conservatism to the center. New suburban Orthodox synagogues allowed traditional Jews to create strong Sabbath-observant communities of like-minded families who once would have become the more traditional elements in Conservative congregations. The result was a shift to the center in the movement, which in the past had to balance its coalition so carefully that the presidents of the Rabbinical Assembly rotated among the right, center, and left.
Now egalitarianism won the day in Conservative worship. By 1981, less than a decade after the 1973 decision to count women in the quorum necessary for prayer—an early concession to the demand for women's ritual equality, only 47 percent of Conservative congregations had done so. By 1995 to 1996, 83 percent counted women in the prayer quorum, and in more than three-quarters of congregations women led services and read from the Torah. Rather than egalitarianism muting Conservatism's loyalty to halakhah, it likely increased overall levels of observance and knowledge in every synagogue community.
Even as Conservatism's new commitment to women's full and equal participation paralleled that of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, its adherence to tradition and loyalty to halakhah continued to parallel Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, Conservative Judaism has long been characterized by a striking gap in observance. In public movement settings, in its synagogues, schools, and camps, loyalty to Jewish tradition, to Sabbath observance, and to kashrut was and is the norm. But Conservative Jews, with the exception of the elites (the Seminary professors and rabbis), by and large violate these norms personally and in their homes. For example, of all those who identified as Conservative in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, only 23 percent report lighting Sabbath candles regularly and less than 15 percent keep kosher.
To close the gap in observance, Conservative leaders have repeatedly tried to convey to the laity the movement's position on loyalty to Jewish tradition. In 1979 Isaac Klein (1905–1979), one of Conservatism's most important legal experts and long a leader of its right wing, published A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, a modern code for Jewish living that incorporated many of the movement's decisions on Jewish law. In 1988 the movement published Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. Earlier attempts to reach consensus on such a statement had always failed. This one succeeded largely because Emet ve-Emunah (truth and faith) conveyed its centrist stance by presenting the divergent theological views on God, revelation, Jewish law, and the election of Israel that had evolved among Conservative thinkers. For example, it reported that "Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God, but does not specify all the particulars of that belief" (p. 18).
As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, thorny halakhic issues emerging from the new sociological and behavioral patterns of American Jews continued to challenge Conservative leaders. As the intermarriage rate soared in the late twentieth century, it forced Conservative rabbis to think ever more carefully about the position of the intermarried family in the synagogue. Could the non-Jewish spouse become a member and vote and eventually hold synagogue office? What roles would the non-Jewish parent play in the children's bar mitzvah? in their weddings? Could the non-Jewish spouse be buried in the synagogue cemetery? Even as Conservative leaders grappled with these specific questions, they continued to uphold the historic Jewish principle of matrilineal descent, recognizing any child of a Jewish mother as a Jew, and refusing to embrace patrilineality, according to which the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is recognized as a Jew.
The shift to the center and the stances on intermarriage may help explain changes in the position of Conservatism within the spectrum of American Jewry and the decline in the size of the movement. At one time Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination in American Jewry. In 1971, 42 percent of Jews choosing a denominational label identified themselves as Conservative. By the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 35 percent identified themselves as Conservative, whereas 38 percent described themselves as Reform. Only slightly more than half of Conservative Jews actually belong to a Conservative synagogue. (American Jews affiliate voluntarily with a synagogue and must pay annual dues and synagogue fees, which, in 2003, typically exceeded $2,000 a year for a family with children). In 2003 the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism numbered 760 synagogues, a decline from the nearly 850 congregations at its peak.
These synagogues differed in another significant way from those of the 1950s and 1960s. The Conservative synagogue of the 1990s had come to reflect the Jewish sensibilities of its generation of congregants, many of whom came to their synagogues with more intensive Jewish educations than their parents had. Not only had they studied in Jewish schools as children, celebrated bar and bat mitzvah as teens, and attended Jewish youth groups and summer camps, but many had also taken Jewish studies courses in college and had visited Israel at some point in their lives. This new generation of Conservative synagogue members was the generation of the postwar baby boom, and they had, at last, turned to the synagogue as they became parents and needed its structures and settings for their own children. Yet, like the children of their peers who had founded the Jewish counterculture in their youth, they expected greater spontaneity and informality in the synagogues they would join, as they did elsewhere in their lives.
Consequently, many late-twentieth-century Conservative synagogues tried to respond to their different constituencies and their needs. One answer was to institute a variety of worship services designed to bring greater intimacy to the synagogue. Depending on the congregation, these might include a traditional service for those who remained uncomfortable with egalitarianism, a main egalitarian service where bar and bat mitzvah were celebrated, various havurot meeting within the congregation, different children's services, and a learners' service to give those who wished to do so a chance to discuss the liturgy and weekly biblical readings.
Moreover, the late Friday evening service, which had characterized the Conservative synagogue in its founding era, was starting to fade. By 1995 fewer than two-thirds of Conservative congregations still regularly held this service. The circumstances which had brought about its creation in American Jewish life had changed, and Conservative Judaism was, once again, adapting to new sociological realities, this time that of the two-career family and a desire by many, especially Conservative rabbis, to turn back to the customary early service on the eve of the Sabbath followed by the traditional meal with family at home. This process of adaptation had long been and will likely remain a hallmark of this centrist religious movement of American Judaism.
Among the most important writings on the history of Conservative Judaism are those by Abraham Karp, especially "A Century of Conservative Judaism in the United States" in American Jewish Year Book 86 (Philadelphia, 1986): 3–61, and "The Conservative Rabbi," American Jewish Archives 25 (1983): 188–262. The definitive sociological study of the movement is Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (1955; rev. ed., 1972; reprint, Lanham, Md., 1985). Conservative institutions have a strong sense of historical consciousness and have published their own histories. See, for example, Jack Wertheimer, ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 2 vols. (New York, 1997), and Robert E. Fierstien, ed., A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly (New York, 2000). Since the study of Conservative Judaism belongs to the fields of American religion and American Judaism broadly, it is often presented in larger studies. See especially Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, 2004). See also Nathan Glazer, American Judaism (1957; rev. ed., Chicago, 1972); Jack Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (New York, 1993); and Marc Lee Raphael, Judaism in America (New York, 2003).
Specific aspects of this article are based on the following. The standard work on the nineteenth-century origins of Conservative Judaism is Moshe Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America (New York, 1963). On American synagogues instituting reforms in the nineteenth century, see Leon A. Jick, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820–1870, (1976; reprint, Hanover, N.H., 1992). On the early Seminary, see Robert E. Fierstien, A Different Spirit: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1886–1902 (New York, 1990). On the emergence of the Conservative synagogue, see several of the essays in Jack Wertheimer, ed., The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed (New York and Cambridge, UK, 1987), especially those by Karp and Wertheimer. On the synagogue-centers, see Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (New York, 1981), and David Kaufman, Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History (Hanover, N.H., 1999). On the ideological divisions within the movement, see especially the essays on halakhah and the Rabbinical Assembly in Pamela S. Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (New York, 1988). On the emergence of bat mitzvah, see Paula E. Hyman, "The Introduction of Bat Mitzvah in Conservative Judaism in Postwar America," YIVO Annual 19 (1990): 133–146, and Regina Stein, "The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America" in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, edited by Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (Hanover, N.H., 2001). On the havurot, see Riv-Ellen Prell, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Detroit, 1989). On women's ordination, see Pamela S. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889–1985 (Boston, 1998), and Beth S. Wenger, "The Politics of Women's Ordination: Jewish Law, Institutional Power, and the Debate over Women in the Rabbinate" in Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, edited by Jack Wertheimer (New York, 1997), pp. 485–523. For studies utilizing the data of the North American Study of Conservative Synagogues and their members, 1995–1996, see Jack Wertheimer, ed., Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and Their Members (New Brunswick, N.J., 2000).
The literature produced by the Conservative movement is voluminous. It includes conference proceedings, journals, and magazines published by the various institutions of the movement. Among the most useful of these are the annual Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly and the journal Conservative Judaism. Other movement publications of importance are the essays by the key figures in the movement's first half century collected in Mordecai Waxman, ed., Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism (New York, 1958); Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (New York, 1979); Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of America, Women's League for Conservative Judaism, and Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (New York, 1988); Simon Greenberg, ed., The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa (New York, 1988); and Nina Beth Cardin and David Wolf Silverman, eds., The Seminary at 100: Reflections on the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement (New York, 1987).
Pamela S. Nadell (2005)
"Conservative Judaism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conservative-judaism
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