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Conservative Judaism. Presented to REL 306 Dr. Laurence Boxer April, 2004. Prior to 18 th Century (Enlightenment)…. ... Jewish practice was largely what, today, we would call insular and Orthodox.

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conservative judaism

Conservative Judaism

Presented to REL 306

Dr. Laurence Boxer

April, 2004

prior to 18 th century enlightenment
Prior to 18th Century (Enlightenment)…
  • ... Jewish practice was largely what, today, we would call insular and Orthodox.
  • Christianity was (almost) universally hostile, regarding Jews as Christ-killers & scapegoats. Contempt for Jews was practically required for advancement in Catholic Church; Martin Luther was a vicious Jew-hater.
enlightenment changes
Enlightenment changes
  • Opening of America, American & French revolutions brought liberal ideas to Western Europe
  • Opportunity to live among Christian neighbors as 2nd-class citizens (huge improvement) presented challenge of modernity to Jews
  • Rights to secular education, entry into professions, greater commerce with Christians – often required to be “less Jewish” in return
moses mendelsohn 1728 86
Moses Mendelsohn (1728-86)
  • Scholar of Torah, Talmud, secular philosophy; translated Torah into German, with commentary; author, educator, man of letters
  • Attracted attention of Berlin’s Christian intellectuals, particularly playwright Lessing. Promoted breakdown of social, intellectual barriers between Christians and Jews.
  • Promoted freedom of conscience (as opposed to community enforcement of religious law) – a pillar of Reform philosophy.
  • Freedom of conscience led many to freedom from observance & adherence – many, including most of Mendelsohn’s grandchildren (one was composer Felix) converted to Christianity to advance economically and socially.
  • Mendelsohn’s followers pioneered Reform Judaism, which gained greatest popularity in Western Europe and America
german reform in the 1800s
German Reform in the 1800s
  • As the movement grew, tension emerged between its radical, conservative leaders.
  • Degree of usage of Hebrew in prayers was a divisive issue. Radicals called for greater use of vernacular; Frankel led conservatives for Hebrew at 1845 Frankfort conference in appeal to historical continuity, educational motivation, worldwide unifying factor.
  • Whether to observe kashrut (laws of kosher food) was another divisive issue. Proponents feel kashrut is important element of Jewish self-identification; opponents regard as unnecessary barrier to interaction with non-Jews.
  • 1854: Frankel founds Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau

Rabbi Zecharia Frankel, leader of conservative reformers, 1840s

american reform 1800s
American Reform, 1800s
  • Growing American Jewish population had large Reform component; mirrored controversies of Eur. Reform
  • Trefa Banquet – July, 1883 - Celebration of 1st class of graduates of Hebrew Union College – Reform rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati
  • Multiple violations of kashrut accented split between radicals, conservatives

  • 1885 Pittsburgh meeting – radical reformers prevailed with statement of principles, alienating traditionalists
  • 1886 – traditionalists founded Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
leaders of the american seminary
Leaders of the American Seminary

ALEXANDER KOHUT (1842-1894) … ordained at the Breslau Seminary, … came to the United States in 1885 and served in New York both as a congregational rabbi and as a member of the New York Seminary's faculty…. became the ideological champion of the Conservative reaction to American Reform. Almost single-handedly, he was responsible for transmitting the Frankel-Breslau approach to Judaism from Europe to the United States. [Gillman]

SABATO MORAIS (1823-1897), Italian born and trained, came to America in 1851 and served as rabbi of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia until his death…. Morais … championed the Conservative reaction to American Reform.… prior to the Pittsburgh Conference he had been a voice for moderation within the coalition of Reformers.… After the publication of the Pittsburgh Platform, however, Morais … turned his attention to the new Seminary.He served as President of the Seminary until his death …. [Gillman]

changes in american jewish population 1880s
Changes in American Jewish Population, 1880s
  • By 1880s, Jewish immigrants to America were coming mostly from Eastern Europe, escaping antiSemitism of czarist empire.
  • Many were too traditional for Reform, but were open to modern approach of the budding Conservative movement, as opposed to the Orthodoxy they knew in Europe.
solomon schechter 1847 1915
Solomon Schechter (1847-1915)
  • Born in Romania; educated in Vienna; scholar in Cambridge & London; head of Jewish Theological Seminary 1902-1915
  • Sought middle way between Eastern European Orthodoxy, which he felt denied modernity, & American radical Reform, which he felt denied tradition
  • Stressed unity (“Catholic Israel”), tradition with modernity, scholarship
  • Stature & appeals for unity exercised moderating influence on Reform leadership
  • Founded United Synagogue of America (now, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), 1912
simplified spectrum of movements tradition
Simplified spectrum of movements & tradition

Least traditional

Most traditional

  • Reform
  • Reconstructionist
  • Secular/Humanist
  • Unaffiliated


  • Orthodox, including
  • Chassidim
  • Modern Orthodox
  • others

Teaches Halakha is binding, but more willing than Orthodox to modify Halakha for modernity

Teaches Halakha is binding; less organized for & more reluctant to modify Halakha than Conservative; tend not to recognize Conservatism as Halakha-observing

Tend to regard Halakha, traditional Jewish law, non-binding

example what cheese is kosher different halakhic approaches
Example: What Cheese is Kosher? Different halakhic approaches
  • Ex. 23:19: … you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk
  • Num. 32:20-22: If you do this … then you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel – thus, not enough to do right (be clear before the Lord ) – must also appear to do right (be clear before Israel)
  • Avot 1:1: … make a fence around the Torah.
  • Thus, a basic prohibition of kashrut (laws of kosher food): do not mix meat with dairy products.
  • [Klein]: “Cheese is made from curdled milk. … the curdling agent was rennet … extracted from … a calf’s stomach [making] cheese a forbidden mixture of dairy and meat.”

“According to some [ancient] authorities, … rennet does not affect the kashrut of cheese because rennet no longer has the status of food…. [Further, in modern practice] rennet is treated with … chemicals, [making it] a new substance. Thus, all cheeses … subject to the Pure Food and Drug Act should be considered kosher.”

  • Orthodoxy tends not to use the latter rule, preferring a stricter process-by-process supervision of manufacturing for kosher certification
the sacred cluster
“The Sacred Cluster”

[Schorsch] describes the following as the core values of Conservative Judaism:

  • The Centrality of Modern Israel
  • Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression
  • Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael (Community of Israel)
  • The Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism
  • The Study of Torah
  • The Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha (Jewish law)
  • Belief in G-d
committee on jewish law and standards see gillman
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (see [Gillman])
  • Legislature/Supreme Court of Conservative Judaism
  • Currently made up of 25 voting rabbis (distinguished scholars in rabbinic literature) & 5 non-voting laity
  • On a given issue, may publish multiple, possibly conflicting opinions – a minority opinion with sufficient committee support (6 or more votes) is published along with majority/plurality opinion. An opinion with 80% support of the committee, plus majority of plenum of Rabbinical Assembly, is a Standard.
  • Congregational rabbis are expected to adhere to Standards. Where there is no Standard, a congregational rabbi may choose whichever CJLS position he/she finds most appropriate.
committee on jewish law and standards example of proceedings
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – example of proceedings
  • Ex. 35:3 prohibits kindling fire on Sabbath. Does this mean it’s prohibited to turn on an electric switch, or to drive, during Sabbath?
  • When CJLS first studied these questions, position papers on both sides were written.
  • Hence, some regard these as prohibited, some don’t. See [Klein] for discussion.
committee on jewish law and standards contemporary example
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – contemporary example
  • How does/should Jewish law deal with homosexuality? Does modern understanding of biology call for different approach? Should civil unions or gay marriages be allowed? Sanctified?
  • Biblical verses:

Lev. 18:22: Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence תועבה (to-evah).

Lev. 20:13: If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.

Traditional prohibition of lesbianism is not Biblical, but is derived in Biblical commentary as a parallel prohibition.

committee on jewish law and standards homosexuality
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – homosexuality
  • See [Roth & Dorff]

R. Roth: “We Can’t Legitimate Homosexuality Halachically”

R. Dorff: “Medical and Moral Reasons to Change the Law”

  • What’s forbidden is homosexual intercourse – not fantasies or attractions
  • Same word תועבה (to-evah)“abhorrence” or “abomination” in Lev. 18:22 is applied to eating non-kosher meat (Deut. 14:3) or using dishonest weights and measures (Deut. 25:16).
  • Gay conduct is not a worse violation of Halakha than is Sabbath desecration
  • Gay intimacy is not like “vast majority of” heterosexual sex - insertion of male organ into female organ -so it’s not clear what Lev. 18:22 prohibits.
  • US law vs. Halakha: US law is secular & must avoid claim to divine origin; Halakha claims divine origins, hence may regulate private matters

Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – homosexuality 2

R. Roth R. Dorff

  • “A prohibition only makes sense if the person … addressed can do it…. we are finding … choice does not really exist. You can say to gays and lesbians, do not have sex ever…. I think that is both cruel and … un-Jewish, because Jewish tradition did not tell us to completely suppress our sexual urges.”
  • Halakhic ideal for gays: celebacy
  • Realizes that’s unrealistic for many. Next best alternative: monogamous relationship. This is better than promiscuity, but falls short of Halakhic ideal.
  • “I plead … recognize that an inability to legitimate homosexuality makes no negative claim … about the humanity, sanctity, worth, and dignity of homosexuals.”
  • “I would … affirm Leviticus but understand it [from context] to refer to cultic sex … as well as to promiscuous and oppressive sex…. But consensual, monogamous sex by adults I would want to sanctify in some sort of commitment ceremony.”
  • Bentwich, Norman: Solomon Schechter: A Biography, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1938
  • Eban, Abba: My People: The Story of the Jews, Behrman House, NY, 1968
  • Gillman, Neil: Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Behrman House, 1996
  • Grayzel, Solomon: A History of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1947
  • Jewish Theological Seminary of America:
  • Klein, Isaac: A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Ktav Publishing, 1979
  • Roth, Joel; and Dorff, Elliot: “Point-Counterpoint,” United Synagogue Review, Spring 2004
  • Schorsch, Ismar: “The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism,”
  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: