Conservative Judaism: History, Beliefs, Practices

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Jewish person with kosher food

Conservative Judaism is a movement in modern Judaism that tries to strike a balance between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It is the largest denomination of American Judaism, and advocates moderate modifications of Halakhah (Jewish law). Its U.S. teaching center is the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It has been said that, while contemporary Reform stresses the God idea and contemporary Orthodoxy the idea of Torah, Conservative Judaism stresses that of Israel (i.e., Jewish peoplehood). This off course is a generalization, but Conservatives do emphasize the unity of the Jewish people amid its diversity. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s,]

The conservative movement has been an attempt to deal with change based on Jewish precedent. Theologians address problems and disputes by looking for legal and historical justification and rabbis act as a collective. The Conservative movement was founded in Eastern Europe in the 1860s. It is a less strict version of Judaism than Orthodoxy.

Conservative Judaism is sometimes described as traditional Judaism without fundamentalism. Despite its middle-of-the-road position, Conservative Judaism is independent of both Orthodoxy and Reform. Conservative Judaism is also known (particularly in Israel and the UK) by the Hebrew word 'Masorti', which means 'traditional'. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Rabbi Elliot N Dorf wrote in the United Synagogue Review (2006): “The point of this form of Judaism is to make Judaism live in our own lives and in those of our descendants by balancing and mixing the traditional with the modern.” Louis Jacobs, the author of “The Jewish Religion; A Companion” (1995) said: “Conservative Judaism, while rejecting both what it sees as the fundamentalism of Orthodoxy and the untraditionalism of Reform, adopts a positive religious position of its own in which Jewish piety can be fully at home in minds open to the best of modern thought.|::|

“Conservative Judaism in the USA is organized by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The movement grew strongly in the 1950s and 1960s to become the most popular form of American Judaism, but more recently affiliations have fallen, and it now comes second to Reform Judaism. The international organization is Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues.|::|

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism

Development of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Competing Jewish denominations emerged, each one attempting to negotiate the relationship between Jewishness and modernity in its own way. Each group claimed that they followed the best or most authentic traditions of Judaism. The first modern denomination to organize was Reform — first in Germany in the early 19th century, but soon in America as well. Reform Judaism is based on the idea that both the Bible and the laws of the oral Torah are divinely inspired, but humanly constructed, meaning they should be adapted based on contemporary moral ideals. Reform congregations tend to emphasize prophetic themes such as social justice more than Talmudic law, though in recent years many have reclaimed some rituals, such as Hebrew liturgy and stricter observance of Shabbat. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Orthodox Judaism soon organized in reaction to Reform, rallying to defend the strict observance of Jewish customs and law. Orthodox leaders often blurred the distinction between these categories and put particular emphasis on the 16th-century legal code called the Shulchan Aruch. Orthodoxy insists that both the written and oral Torah have divine origins. Contrary views in pre-modern sources are often censored.

Conservative Judaism, which did not arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1900s, shares many of Reform Judaism’s views, such as equal religious roles for men and women. However, Conservative Jews argue that the Reform movement pulled too far away from Jewish tradition. They insist that Jewish law remains obligatory, but that the Orthodox interpretation is too rigid. In practice, most Conservative Jews tend not to be strict about even major rituals, like observing Sabbath restrictions or kosher food practices.

History of Conservative Judaism

According to Conservative Judaism was an attempt to heal the rift between Orthodox and Reform Judaism by striking a middle ground. Conservative Jews believe, for example, that God did reveal the Torah to Moses but that it was recorded and transmitted by human authors, so it contains human elements. Conservative Jews also believe that Jewish law should change and adapt to the culture that surrounds it. Some observers find great variation in the practices of Conservative Jews. Some practices are barely distinguishable from Orthodox Jews; others, from Reform Jews. In the United States about 38 percent of Jews identify themselves as Conservative. [Source:]

After Reform Judaism took root in early 19th century as an effort to bring Judaism into the modern world, Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, a centrist position between Reform and Orthodoxy — as traditional Judaism has often been called since the early nineteenth century — was forged by Zacharias Frankel (1801–75). His blend of intellectual modernism and modified traditional practice sowed the seeds of what in twentieth-century North America came to be known as Conservative Judaism.

Mordecai Waxman, author of :The Ideology of the Conservative Movement,” said: “The founders of Conservative Judaism had no intention of starting a new wing or denomination or party in Judaism. They did not even pretend to be modern Judaism. Their purpose and their philosophy were clearly expressed in the name they applied to themselves. They were conservative and their object was to conserve the Jewish traditions. [Source: quoted in Neusner, “Sectors of American Judaism” (1975) BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

Growth of Conservative Judaism

According to the BBC: “The principle founders of Conservative Judaism were Zecharia Frankel (1801-75) who founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau in 1854 and Solomon Schechter (1849 -1915) in the USA. The movement grew out of disputes in the early German Reform movement. The main issues were over whether to use Hebrew or local language in services, and keeping Jewish food laws. |::|

“The more traditional reformers felt that Hebrew should be retained for continuity with the past, because it was part of Jewish identity, and because it provided a unifying element for all Jews, wherever they lived. Similar arguments were put forward for keeping kosher. The wish of these reformers to 'conserve' key elements of the tradition explains why Conservative Judaism came to be so called. Similar arguments led conservative thinkers to found the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1886 in New York City. It held its first class in 1887. |::|

“The ideas of the conservative movement were often supported by the many Jewish migrants who came to America in the last decades of the 19th century. Many of them were willing to accept some reduction in orthodoxy, but found that the Reform movement was just too modern for them. Conservative Judaism became a real force in the USA when Solomon Schechter, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, founded the United Synagogue of America in 1912 by bringing together 22 like-minded synagogues. The organisation became the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1992 and now has about 760 affiliated congregations. |::|

“The Jewish Population Survey of 2000 found that 33 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews in the USA were followers of Conservative Judaism, making it the second largest Jewish grouping. This was a fall from 43 percent and top position 10 years earlier. In recent times the movement has been rethinking its place in American Judaism and asking what it needs to do or be. Some fascinating contributions to the debate can be read in a 2007 article in Forward magazine; Conservative Judaism at the Crossroads. |::|

“The Masorti Movement in the UK was established by Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) in the 1980s. Rabbi Jacobs came top of the Jewish Chronicle's poll to find the greatest British Jew of all time. The Masorti Movement in Israel was founded in 1979 and now involves around 50,000 individuals. |::|

Conservative Judaism Principles and Values

conservative synagogue in Galveston, Texas

According to the BBC: “The Conservative/Masorti movement practices traditional Judaism, but interprets Jewish teaching in the light of contemporary knowledge and scholarship. Conservative Judaism allows gradual change in law and practice, but only if the change is in harmony with Jewish tradition. The wish to embrace both tradition and change may seem admirable, but it is a very difficult one to live out since it's hard to develop a clear theology that can provide a consistent path between the two standpoints. The tendency has been to tackle each issue individually, rather than to embark on a global rethink. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Ismar Schorsch has set down a Sacred Cluster of core values of Conservative Judaism (the commentary is editorial, not part of the original): 1) Centrality of Modern Israel: Conservative Jews regard Israel as not only the birthplace of the Jewish people, but also its final destiny. Their behaviour reflects the wish of Conservative Judaism not to denationalise Judaism. 2) Hebrew - the irreplaceable language of Jewish expression: Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the conversation between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages, between God and Israel. 3) Devotion to the ideal of Klal Yisrael (the entire worldwide Jewish Community): This is the idea that the Jewish community is united worldwide and that every single Jew has ultimate significance. 6) The defining role of Torah in the reshaping of Judaism: For Conservative Jews, the Torah is no less sacred, if less central, than it was for their pre-modern ancestors. |::|

Conservatives believe The Torah is Judaism's most sacred text and that it is the record of God's revelation to the Jewish people and the root and base of their understanding of how God wants them to live as Jews.They also believeL: 1) Modern Jews should study Torah in harmony with their mental world and not solely through the eyes of their ancestors. 2) Governance of Jewish Life by Halakhah (Jewish law): Halakhah is central and authoritative in determining the way of life and conduct of the Jewish people. 3) This authority is rooted in the fact that Jewish law and teaching express what Jews understand to be the will of God. Jewish law and teaching are the product of the best human understanding of what that will is. |::|

“The Masorti Vision is to be: 1) a movement of traditional Jewish faith and practice led by the dynamic understanding of Torah and Halakhah; 2) a movement of traditional Judaism receptive to truth from every quarter, responsive to the dilemmas of the modern world; 3) a movement that, without prejudging, seeks the participation of every Jew on the journey to greater knowledge, observance, ethical sensitivity and spiritual depth; 4) a movement that includes all men and women in every sphere of Jewish life; 5) a movement that says 'You can!' to every aspiration to learn and practise; 6) a movement with facilities to meet all the needs of Jewish life; 7) a movement that plays its full part in creating a thriving Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora and good relationships with other faiths. |::|

Conservative Judaism Worship

conservative synagogue in Southfield, Michigan

According to the BBC: “Conservative Jews regard the Torah as both divine and human, but having divine authority. They believe the Torah was revealed by God but is a human record of the encounter between humanity and God, and the Jewish people's interpretation of God's will. They accept that the commandments in the Torah record the covenant between God and the Jewish people. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Local communities and rabbis work together to decide on the practice to be followed in particular synagogues. Conservative services are quite traditional, and mostly in Hebrew. Women and men can play an equal part in Conservative worship. Some Conservative synagogues let men and women sit together, others segregate the genders. However, women count as part of the minyan and can say the Mourner's Kaddish in their own right. |::|

“One UK synagogue describes its services like this: “Our services are davened in the traditional way, using the Singer’s Prayer Book and members are encouraged to lead services, leyn from the Torah and participate. We have mixed seating and both men and women are counted in the minyan, called to the Torah, leyn and read Haftarah. Women do not lead services or wear kippot or tallitot.” The movement accepts women rabbis, although this change caused some American rabbis to break away to found the Union for Traditional Judaism. |::|

Different Practices in Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia The traditional service is, except for a few Aramaic interludes, in Hebrew. However, in the typical Reform Temple (the term temple was originally chosen as a substitute for synagogue to disavow hope for the rebuilding of the shrine that was once the pride of Jews) most of the prayers are in the vernacular. Since every congregation is independent, the proportional use of Hebrew and English in Reform and Conservative congregations varies. Traditional Jews will not pray, study Torah, or perform any act of worship unless their heads are covered. If they did otherwise, they would consider it irreverent, to stand slipshod in the presence of the Lord. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

The Orthodox Jews who follow custom rigidly have their heads constantly covered; at services they like to wear hats, whereas Conservatives use "yarmulkes" (Yiddish word for skullcaps), at times of varied colors and beautifully embroidered. Reform Jews wear no head covering, following in this the conventions of Western civilization, where the bared head is a sign of respect.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated. In most Conservative synagogues and all Reform temples they are seated together. In a traditional service Scripture readings and prayers are chanted; in a modernized one, they are recited in a formal manner. In all Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, priestly descendants (their shoes removed, as was done in the Temple of Jerusalem) chant the Aaronic blessing (Nm6.22–27) over the people. The cantillation, at times amateurish, may jar a modern musically trained ear. In a reformed service, therefore, the rabbi imparts that blessing. There, as elsewhere, a prevailing criterion is decorum.

Conservative Judaism Law (Halakhah)

“Conservative Jews regard Jewish law as binding, but are willing to modify it when circumstances require. Jacob Neusner, Sectors of American Judaism, 1975 said: “We [Conservative Jews] affirm the need, indeed the desirability, of transcending the limits of the Halakhah when absolutely necessary in one matter in order to foster observance in other, more central, ones.” [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

Torah dedication ceremony

According to the BBC: “Change is only accepted after very careful consideration, and in response to fundamental changes in society and knowledge.” Changes are always based on the precedents, principles and teachings of Jewish law, however where research shows there is a choice of either strict or lenient precedents that can be applied to a particular situation, the lenient ruling is usually preferred. |::|

“Rabbi Louis Jacobs, author of “Belief in a Personal God: The Position of Liberal Supernaturalism, in God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism” (1990) said: “The Jewish rituals are still mitzvot and serve the same purpose as prayer. They link our individual strivings to the strivings of the Jewish people towards the fullest realization of the Jewish spirit. Even for the naturalist, then, the mitzvot are divine commands, but these commands arise from the experiences of the Jewish people in its long collective trek through history rather than as the dictates of a divine lawgiver.” |::|

“In Europe halakhic rulings are made by the European Masorti Bet Din, which also oversees conversions and divorce procedures, and supervises kosher catering.In the USA decisions on Jewish law are taken by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). While these decisions are not binding as Conservative rabbis are deemed the ultimate authorities on Jewish law within their own congregations, rabbis are likely to follow the rulings. |::|

“One area of Jewish law that the Conservative movement has reassessed concerns the Sabbath. There is general agreement that driving is not permitted on the Sabbath. But at various times the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has concluded that: “the positive value involved in the participation in public worship on the Sabbath outweighs the .. value of refraining from riding in an automobile” and “Given a choice between travel on the Sabbath or the total denial of opportunities of worship on the Sabbath and festivals, we would regard travelling as the less objectionable alternative.' This exception only applies to driving in order to attend a service. However the equivalent Masorti institution in Israel has ruled that it is forbidden to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. |::|

Flexibility of Conservative Judaism Law

“The flexibility of Conservative halakhic thinking was demonstrated at the end of 2006, when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled on Jewish law and homosexuality. The panel approved three contradictory rulings: one of which approved gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies (although it found physical sex between men was not in line with Jewish law), and two of which did not. This left individual congregations and institutions free to choose which ruling to follow. |::|

“The strength of this position, confusing to outsiders, was summed up by Rabbi Jerome Epstein: “We do not believe in pluralism because it is easy - we know that it is not easy at all. We believe in pluralism because we affirm that each of us, guided by the knowledge of our rabbis, theologians and philosophers and by the understanding of life that we gain by living it, must figure out what God's will is as we see it and then try to live that will. We believe in pluralism because it mirrors our understanding of God's world. [Source: Rabbi Jerome Epstein, “Let Each Congregation Choose for Itself, Forward,” Dec 2006 |::|]

“Our challenge is to respond to God’s call for change, and at the same time to help both the congregations that choose to make the change and those that perceive the mandate to maintain tradition. As a movement, we cannot be intolerant of those who are unhappy with the decision to allow change, even though they are holding on to a position that in some circles is unpopular and seen as old-fashioned, stodgy, inflexible and insensitive. |::|

“We will not countenance incivility, but we understand that we cannot legislate how a person feels or what that person believes. We cannot tolerate homophobia, but we must understand that to be against this change is not necessarily to be prejudiced - it may only reflect a different understanding of God's will. It is wrong to condemn those who hear God calling for change in our long-held views of religious attitudes toward gay men and lesbians as desecrating Jewish tradition. It is equally egregious, however, to condemn those who hear God's message to preserve the traditional understanding. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Pew Research Center except Judaism diagram,

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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