The Past Present and Ideal Future of Conservative Judaism

In the nineteenth century, a newly American Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (zl) envisioned a unified American Judaism balancing tradition and change. Over the next four decades, Wise founded the Hebrew Union College (HUC) to train American rabbis, and established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) as a forum for rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum to discuss and resolve issues facing any and all of American Jewry.By 1883, many traditionalists had begun to incorporate elements of modernization in the form of English sermons and English prayers into their services, while modernists had begun to allow organ music and co-ed choirs into the synagogue. Despite the relatively unified vision and purpose of the majority of American Jewish leaders, some challenged tradition, in favor of an almost entirely modernized version of Judaism.

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These radical reformers, led by Rabbi David Einhorn intended to remove what they viewed as outmoded religious practices such as kashrut and the second day of holiday observances. In 1855, Wise introduced his siddur, titled Minhag America, in a failed attempt to reunite America Jewry. Though moderate in its reforms, Minhag America distressed the traditionalists, and did not go far enough for many modernists.Despite difficulty agreeing in matters of religious practice, Wise managed to bring together the American Jewry through his 1873 founding of the UAHC, and 1875 founding of Hebrew Union College. Wise understood that, while the traditionalists and modernists were rarely like-minded in religious practice, they could be united through participation in projects whose goals would help both parties.In July 1883, over 200 gathered to celebrate a milestone in the growth of American Judaism: the first ordination of rabbis in America. These four rabbis comprised the first graduating class of HUC. Most of those at the gathering had just attended the eighth annual meeting of the UAHC. Those in attendance at the gathering witnessed the beginning of the end of American Jewish unity – they were attending the trefa banquet. The banquet, intended to celebrate the unity and joint success of the traditionalists and reformers, lives in infamy as an event which inspired animosity between the two parties. The banquet featured clams, crab, shrimp, kosher meats, and ice cream. Wise, who kept a Kosher home had ordered only Kosher food be served; however, the caterer had decided to supplement the kosher meat with shellfish and dairy desserts. Despite the accidental nature of the trefa banquet’s menu, it was schismatic to American Jewry. Two years later, in 1885, the radical-dominated UAHC adopted the Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism, renouncing the halakhot (Jewish laws) they deemed outdated. In 1886, a group of change-oriented traditionalists founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, laying the foundation for Conservative Judaism. Finally, in 1888 the Orthodox Jewish community in America recruited an Eastern-European rabbi to serve as the official chief Orthodox rabbi of America.Throughout its existence, Conservative Judaism has been home to many of the most influential Jewish thinkers. These thinkers included (1) Zechariah Frankel (zl), who helped Conservative Judaism gain traction in its early years, (2) Solomon Schechter (zl), who led the Conservative Movement through its most dramatic period of growth in the early twentieth century, (3) Mordecai Kaplan (zl), who eventually founded his own movement: Reconstructionist Judaism, and (4) Abraham Joshua Heschel (zl), who was the embodiment of tikkun olam, working avidly towards social justice. This group perfectly articulates the vision of Conservative Judaism: a home for growth and change, without casting aside traditional Jewish values.

Since its inception, Conservative Judaism has served as the median between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism maintains that halakha is binding, while granting a significant amount of leeway towards reforming halakha – which is done by the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS) – in order to fit the realities of the modern day. As such, Conservative Judaism’s most intense period of growth was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as it allowed the throngs of immigrating Eastern European Jews to maintain their Jewish values, while assimilating into their new home. One major example of modernization in Conservative Judaism is the CJLS’ 1950 ruling that, due to suburbanization’s causing difficulty for many to attend synagogue, one would be permitted to drive to synagogue, should they have no other way of attending. This ruling triggered a slippery slope of gross misunderstanding, with many Conservative Jews driving to synagogue today, regardless of their ability to walk.Other major examples of modernization in the Conservative movement include (1) the ordination of female rabbis, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, (2) the Siddur Sim Shalom’s containing alternative prayers with the matriarchs listed alongside the patriarchs, as well as (3) having gendered language in reference to God altered, so as to seem less gendered, and (4) moving to permit gay marriage and to allow openly gay men and women to serve as rabbis.Conservative Judaism, tolerates halakhic pluralism, as exhibited by the wide range within Conservative Judaism of opinions on the topics of gender issues and same-sex marriage. While such pluralistic tendencies seem great, they have led to an intense decentralization and weakening of the Conservative movement. To the point of Conservative Judaism’s keeping with tradition, Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate at interfaith weddings; however, interfaith families are generally welcomed with open arms into Conservative communities. To many, the future of Conservative Judaism looks bleak. In 1990, forty-three percent of Jewish households identified as Conservative; in 2013, only eighteen percent identified as Jewish – just over half the number who identified as reform. This decline has been attributed to anything from intermarriage, to increased liberalization, to a shift in geographic orientation of Conservative-minded Jews. Regardless of the reason, the movement has been in decline for decades.In order for Conservative Judaism to begin to regain traction, it must decide its values and stick to them. The Conservative Movement’s desire to embrace change is admirable, but has taken over the message of the movement. No longer is Conservative Judaism the home of tradition and change, it is the home of change, with bits of tradition sprinkled in. In fact, with the exception of the matter in which Judaism is practiced in their respective camps and youth groups, little separates today’s Conservative Judaism from Reform Judaism. USY and Ramah have long been lauded as the future of Conservative Judaism, but this belief has not yielded anything substantial. The youth are not at fault for their lack of production. Conservative Judaism, in an effort to embrace the belief that youth are the future, has built a youth empire, but has almost entirely neglected the adults of the movement. This has left Conservative Jews to fend for themselves, once they have aged-out of youth activities. Conservative Jewish young adults, feeling lost and abandoned, have flocked towards Modern Orthodox and Reform Judaism, whose movements have reaped the rewards of the Conservative Jewish youth machine, leaving little to sustain Conservative Judaism. If Conservative Judaism is to escape its impending doom, it must diversify its offerings and solidify its views. Youth empowerment is only effective at sustaining the movement if the movement is concrete enough for the youth to help to sustain it. Recently, the heads of two of the three main organizations within Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), have announced they will be stepping down. This appears to be an invitation for change in the beliefs of the movement, but I’d posit the path to success lies instead in this being used as an opportunity for growth in both the quality and quantity of Conservative Judaism’s offerings. Once, Conservative Judaism has built for itself a platform upon which to stand, its decline will be replaced with an impressive trend of growth, leading to its once again standing as the most welcoming and influential branch of Judaism in America, and in the world.

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