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The Birth of Conservative Judaism

My little corner of Queens, New York, where the six Conservative synagogues that existed two decades ago have dwindled to two, epitomizes the national movement. In 1990, 43 percent of synagogue-affiliated households in the United States identified themselves as Conservative, making it the largest branch of American Judaism. By 2000 the figure was 33 percent, dropping the movement into second place behind Reform.

Relevant Links
Driving on Shabbat  elf’s DH, Apikorsus Companion v2.0. Since the landmark Conservative responsum permitting motorized travel on Shabbat in specific circumstances, it appears the movement has slipped down the slope that the drafters so wished to avoid.
Tradition!   Jewish Ideas Daily. The Conservative movement’s devotion to Jewish peoplehood makes its failure to make inroads in Israel that much more vexing.
The Reluctant Renegade  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. Was Louis Jacobs, the unwitting founder of the Masorti movement, the greatest chief rabbi that British Jewry never had?
What is Conservative Halakhah?  Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Here, a clearinghouse of Conservative responsa, on issues ranging from commemorating the Shoah to breastfeeding in public.
The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism  Jack Wertheimer, Commentary. The movement can rejuvenate itself only by retrieving the basics of education and commitment.
Schechter Strains   Naomi Zeveloff, Forward. With the Conservative movement struggling and Jewish day schools ailing, Conservative Jewish schools are in double trouble. One of the movement’s school networks may have had enough.

While no national survey has been conducted since, the latest New York City data offer more evidence of erosion: 34 percent of affiliated households were Conservative in 1991, 26 percent in 2002, and just 19 percent in 2011—less than either the Orthodox or Reform. No wonder that both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, have discussed the need to “rebrand” the movement. “We are in deep trouble,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of the flagship Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino, CA.  “There isn’t a single demographic that is encouraging for the future of Conservative Judaism. None.”

Conservative rabbis, leaders, and the rank-and-file would be well advised to take a time out from hand-wringing and rebranding to read The Birth of Conservative Judaism, a fascinating new history by Michael R. Cohen. Although Cohen does not directly address the current Conservative malaise, his account suggests that the movement’s problems may be exacerbated by confusion about its origins.

Cohen shows that the prevalent view that has Conservative Judaism emerging out of a “Historical School” associated with Zacharias Frankel and his rabbinical academy in mid-nineteenth-century Breslau, Germany, is simple fantasy. He calls it a “deceptive retrospect,” a kind of wishful thinking concocted by Conservative leaders—Mordecai Waxman, Moshe Davis, and Abraham Karp, to be specific—in the 1950s and 1960s to provide a distinguished historical pedigree to a movement that came into existence no earlier than the 1940s.

Granted, there was a Historical School that understood Judaism in terms of development over time and used the tools of historical analysis to uncover its truths, but it had both Reform and Orthodox sympathizers and did not constitute a religious movement. Solomon Schechter, the great Romanian-born British scholar responsible for bringing the vast Cairo Genizah to the attention of the world, was certainly one of its practitioners, and after crossing the Atlantic and assuming the presidency of the almost-moribund Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York in 1902, Schechter built a world-class faculty of distinguished academics.

But he did not intend to pioneer a movement. Rather, using the model of the United Synagogue in Great Britain, Schechter sought to create what Cohen calls “Americanized traditional Judaism” by training English-speaking, secularly educated rabbis who would preside over synagogues that would pray in Hebrew in decorous fashion and teach children using modern pedagogical methods. Beyond these few guidelines—which would presumably exclude only radical Reform and un-Americanized Orthodoxy—Schechter was open to virtually anything: separating the sexes in prayer or mixing them, having or not having organ music, and on and on. He used the term “Catholic Israel” to denote this big-tent Judaism.

Cohen is especially resourceful in tracking the careers of Schechter’s students, who revered their mentor and maintained his commitment to pluralistic traditionalism in the United Synagogue of America, the congregational organization that they created and named after its British counterpart in 1913. Some considered themselves Orthodox rabbis in the full sense of the term, while others knowingly rejected elements of the tradition. But even the latter were not “Conservative” in any denominational sense, since that term had no precise meaning that distinguished it from Orthodoxy at the time. After all, men and women sat together at many of the synagogues that belonged to the Orthodox Union, founded in 1898, and whether a congregation affiliated with one or the other group seems to have often been a matter of whim or personalities.

By the 1930s strains were developing over how to keep proponents of fundamental religious change, such as Mordecai Kaplan, under the same big tent as traditionalists. Louis Ginzberg, the eminent professor of Talmud at JTS who served as an authority on Jewish law for the United Synagogue, consistently opposed any unilateral steps to reinterpret the halakhah, arguing that only a consensus of Orthodox rabbinic authority could do so—a lesson that Rabbi Louis Epstein, who identified as Orthodox, learned the hard way when he proposed a legal mechanism to end the problem of agunot: his colleagues in the United Synagogue declined to back him against the united opposition of organized Orthodoxy.

As Cohen notes, only after the deaths of Schechter’s disciples did Conservatism take on the trappings of a movement separate and apart from Orthodoxy. He points to the publication of the first widely-accepted Conservative prayer book in 1946, which, among other “modernizing” changes, shifted the tense of references to the sacrifices so that they recalled the past rather than expressed aspirations for the future. Four years later came the decision to allow driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath, the first official break with Orthodox halakhah. From then on, what had been the “Orthodox” wing of the United Synagogue declined markedly as the institution of egalitarianism for women and homosexuals (including their acceptance as rabbis, and, as of this spring, same-sex marriage) left them denominationally homeless. 

So what would happen if all Conservative Jews read The Birth of Conservative Judaism? Even if they were convinced by Cohen’s argument that their Judaism is of recent vintage and did not emerge out of hoary nineteenth-century German mists, could they rejuvenate the movement with a heavy dose of Schechter’s Catholic Israel? That is very unlikely today, since the moderate Orthodox who might have followed Schechter a century ago have their own vibrant institutions, and the kind of moderate reformers who made up the other wing of Schechter’s coalition can attend Reform synagogues where Hebrew is the language of prayer and attention is paid to the kosher laws.

Still, an awareness of how recently Conservative Judaism took on its current character may encourage more imaginative attempts to access its former vigor—a vigor that existed, after all, within living memory.  But for better or worse, Conservative Judaism cannot go home again.  

Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, edited the American Jewish Year Book from 2000 to 2008.

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YM on July 10, 2012 at 9:57 am (Reply)
It sure sounds like a historical evolution to me. When you create something unmoored, it eventually floats away.
Jacob Silver on July 10, 2012 at 10:56 am (Reply)
The informal and varied origins of Conservatism is also demonstrated by my childhood experience. In the late 1940s, I attended, with my uncles, a synagogue in New Jersey which used the Silverman siddur, and which conducted all of its readings and prayers in Hebrew. On Shabbat it read the entire parashah and the haftorah. For my bar mitzvah, that is what I had to read. If you asked the rabbi what type of service was conducted, he would answer that it was a Jewish service. The older members all came from eastern Europe. No one came from Germany. If you asked my uncles what type of service was being conducted, they would answer a Conservative Service. I suspect that many Conservative shuls originally served Eastern European traditional Jews, many of whom have now passed on.
barry levine on July 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm (Reply)
More relevant to Conservative Judaism's future is rabbi Gillman's "Doing Jewish Theology"
Mark on July 10, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Reply)
One of the real problems with conservative synagogues is that the Rabbis have become de facto CEO's rather than scholars and teachers. As CEO's, they demand high salaries, try (and frequently do) manage all synagogue activities, and frequently act like priests or ministers. Many young people want no part of this kind of synagogue.
Michael Citron on July 10, 2012 at 11:39 pm (Reply)
Yes, my family is one of the "homeless" rather-traditional Jews who has left the Conservative movement. It is a problem. Ultimately the movement just lost its soul and its significance as it sought to be political correct and famously liberal. We are not really orthodox, but we keep kosher and a semblance of Shabbat and our kids all went to day school and Camp Ramah. So we have no real place to go. Now we spend the holidays at Chabad, which it a great improvement, but where we live there is no community around it. Like I said, it is a problem.
Alan on July 11, 2012 at 10:49 am (Reply)
This review seems to ignore other forces that need to be understood to really follow the development of Judaism in American in the early and mid-20th century (like the changing immigration demographics that was impacting orthodoxy as well as liberal populations). It also doesn't offer an alternative definition of a movement - if United Synagogue wasn't a movement than what was it?

Finally, it seems to completely miss the growing population of young (20's and 30's) Jews from both the traditional side of Conservative and the moderate side of Orthodoxy who are coming together and creating new independent minyanim (like Hadar or DC Minyan) that sit outside of both Conservative and Orthodox institutions in any formal sense. While driving on sabbath may be of less concern egalitarianism is certainly an issue for the Orthodox and is driving towards a compromise that could be accommodated by a Schecter-like leader in the conservative movment.
Jerry Blaz on July 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm (Reply)
There is a story about the Cincinnatti dinner in 1885 has famously separated the Reform and Conservative movements, but to draw a line directly between the Wissenschaft des Judentums and the current trends in American religious Judaism is simply an oversimplification of this area of history. The loss of a group of congregations which became the Traditional Judaism movement on "the right" and the breakaway of the Reconstructionists on "the left" affected few Conservative congregations and the movement as a whole. Historically, though, the Conservative congregations on the east coast were more religiously conservative and as the movement moved West, the congregations appeared to become more ritually liberal.

Anshe Emet synagogue, one of the few and one of the most important Conservative congregations in Chicago was led by Solomon Goldman as its mara d'atra, and his writings are full of the concept of "catholic Israel," and "catholic" was always lower-case, because of its universal reference to the Jewish community. Ira Eisenstein, a decidedly Reconstructionist rabbi took over the pulpit with Goldman's death, but he was there only a comparatively short time when a more typically Conservative rabbi succeeded him. Rabbi Eisenstein went on to be a driving force in the development of the Reconstructionist movement and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

However, today, "West Coast Conservative" is a term used to denote a much more liberal version of Conservative Judaism.

The problem is with the Conservative movement is not its ideological content so much as a dissonance between the formality of the organizational structure of the Conservative movement and the informality of American Jewish approaches to their faith in the beginning of the 21st century. It is a problem affecting all Jewish trends that have organized in organizational formats similar to the Conservative movement.
Y. Ben-David on July 12, 2012 at 5:55 am (Reply)
Having grown been educated in a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and having adopted Orthodox/religious practice, I have very mixed feelings about the movement. On the one hand, some of the kids who went to Hebrew School with me in the 1960's got turned on to Judaism and have also adopted Orthodox/relgious practive. The Conervative movement had rabbis and cantors who were able to instill Jewish conciousness in their students in an environment in Southern California that made assimilation very attractive. On the other hand, the majority of students simply drifted off.
Also, the Conservative movement must be praised for having a very solid program of support for Zionism and Israel, which was unlike the Reform and Orthodox, both of which had wings that were not at all supportive of Zionism. Many of the kids I went to Hebrew school have made aliyah to Israel, as did I.
However, in the end, I ended up being alienated from the movement, largely due to the low level of committment to observance by the other member families I encountered, the increasing replacement of traditional Jewish values with political correctness and with a Judaism being little more than a committment to vote Dmeocratic and to support "Progressive" ideas, and finally, an intellectual shallowness and searching for the lowest common denominator in Jewish thinking and observance. Whereas once the Conservative movement prided itself as being in the intellectual forefront of Jewish thinking, backed by their then impressive staff at the Jewish Theological Seminary, today, everything is based more or less on what the liberal media is pushing at the moment, such as homosexual "marriage" and then twisting the traditional Jewish sources in an intellectually dishonest way to somehow justify it.
The Conservative movement once had an important historical role, but that time has passed and it is time to consign it the dusty shelves of historical interest only.
Tom Solomon on July 17, 2012 at 10:13 am (Reply)
As a former Conservative Jew, I am disheartened by the leftward trend, and saddened to read that it's earlier days of "catholic" orientation, which by my inclination, sounds appealing.
In my former congregation, the D'vrei Torah were seemingly taken from the NY Times editorials. While gay rights were often, if not always cited, the promotion, or even mention, of Israel was absent. So I've decided to stay away. Political Orthodoxy was in full force. Halacha was irrelevent to the spiritual discussion.
Jacob Silver on July 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm (Reply)
Jews in the United States, who have been a minority, who have admired the civil liberty expressions of the United States Constitution, who are generally learned, and who identify prejudicial attacks on other minorities as a threat also to themselves, are naturally disposed to be left of center politically. One would find it very difficult to find an observing Jew who is a Libertarian. So it is not very useful to observe that some congregations are Democrats, or liberals. The relevant question is whether politics interferes with ritual. And the extra-shul political inclinations of certain congregations is not very relevant to change. The engine of change is demographics. And demographics is linked to inexorable movement of time. Not easy to change.
Raymond in DC on July 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm (Reply)
Jacob Silver is right to note that "The engine of change is demographics", and demographics haven't been kind to the Conservative movement. Looking along the non-observant/secular to observant/religious spectrum, three truisms seem to be: 1) the more secular, the more politically liberal; and 2) the more religious, the lower the rates of intermarriage and assimilation; and 3) the less religious, the fewer children. Conservatives simply aren't replacing their numbers and Reform numbers are even worse.

As both Mark Steyn and David Goldman (not Jewish and Jewish respectively) have noted, people have children when they believe life is both worth living and maintains values worth passing on. A few years ago United Synagogue put out a pamphlet called "The Ideal Conservative Jew: Eight Behavioral Expectations". I suspect few members of Conservative congregations have seen this pamphlet, fewer have read it, and even fewer subscribe to its principles. A movement with few guiding principles and minimal expectations of its members lives a fragile existence.
    Tom Solomon on July 20, 2012 at 10:19 am (Reply)
    Regarding your first paragraph, the eye opening, recently published study of the Jewish population in NY confirms your 3 points. Secular and liberal Jews are having fewer children, and have less inhibitions about intermarryng. The religious/Orthodox have the exact opposite traits.
    On your second point, I haven't read the pamphlet, but will comment that there are no behaviorial expectations in the Conservative movement. The only evident guiding principal is to be "progressive" and not be exclusionary.
Alan on July 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm (Reply)
That doesn't seem right Raymond. Since birth rates decline both within and across populations as they become wealthier are you suggesting that the poor are more likely to believe life is both worth living and more likely to maintain values worth passing on?
Abbushuki on August 9, 2012 at 10:58 pm (Reply)
In the 50's all Conservative Jews came from Orthodoxy and knew the rituals and Hebrew. After WWII, men returned from war and forgot how to use the small all Hebrew and complex Ortho sidurim and preferred the modernity of the Silverman and the English.

Almost all forced their kids to attend Hebrew/Sunday School. That inoculated most of the children against Judaism. Assimilationist families no longer practiced what the kids were taught in school. Naturally kids found their Jewish educations irrelevant and robbing them of play time.

Today, with the majority of Conservative seminarians being women, there will be ever fewer male rabbinic role models for the boys. That too will lead to further distancing as Judaism to them is a 'women's' thing.

But Ray is right on: the U.S. Jewish fertility rate today is 9 children for 10 Jewish mothers. With a 50% intermarriage and divorce rate, very low rate of Jewish education beyond Bar Mitzvah prep and voila: a slippery slope to extinction.

What's more, intermarriage seekers go next door to the Reform, with their families to get hitched with an easy 'quickie' conversion, if desired for the spouse. Conservatives can't compete with that either.

One error in the calculations: The largest group today is not Reform. It's the unaffiliated 'ethnic' Jews (which includes converts to Christianity). They are in religious hospice as Jews leaving behind almost no Jewish progeny.

Of course, the Orthos will ultimately (2 generations) inherit everything as they grow and flourish in their faith and rapidly growing numbers.
barry levine on August 10, 2012 at 10:30 am (Reply)
What is missing in this discussion is that there has always been Reform (at least since Yochanan ben Zakkai). All Reform Jews and all Conservative Jews came from Orthodox households at some point. There can be no "winning" by the Orthodox now matter how fast they breed. As long as Jews study and ask questions and engage in an ever-changing world, there will be reformers and Reform.
Abbushuki on August 10, 2012 at 3:52 pm (Reply)
What a false comparison: Reb ben Zakkai with non-Halachic or Halachic-light Judaism! What hubris. This is a deep grope for legitimacy that fails reality.

The Orthos of the 40's and 50's are not the Ortho youth of today: The American Yeshiva movement grew exponentially since then. Today, almost all Ortho youth are Yeshiva educated, unlike the immigrant families of their grandparents.

I've even seen some chutzpadic demographers project that the major future source of liberal Jews will be from the Orthodox. That's insane by any survey of Orthos. Yes, there will always be a trickle, but not the experience of a couple generations earlier. That trickle will never compensate for the liberal distaste for 'breeding' Jews and the rapid demise of the long-time financially supporting 'great' generation. Without the grey-heads, the Temples have little future.

It is insufficient knowledge of text to answer basic questions that leads to the assumption that Reform is needed.

The Orthos do not 'win' here. With the loss in Jewish population will come a loss of American political influence and prestige, more boldness and assertiveness by a growing Islamic American population, leaching of more anti-Semites into the public sphere and reduced defenses due to underfunded secular Jewish defense organizations. Witness Europe.

This catastrophe is totally the result of Leo Baeck's not including 'breeding' as a part of the 'Essence of Judaism'. Yes, the numbers held for a while, as there were Russian, Persian and Israeli immigrant waves. But no longer.

Their only salvation is to exceed zero population growth. But, with the counterbalancing assimilation values included in normal natural growth numbers, that would require Reform families to average 5 children per mother.

Well, that ain't gonna happen. So, accept it. Then either try to get Reform/Conservative families to have more babies and sacrifice to send them to Jewish High Schools or start now trying to figure out how to merge your temple with others to stay afloat. But please, don't stay in denial. Like it or not, Reform/Conservative are like cut flowers: pretty today, but just wait a week.

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