Full disclosure: I am a proud Conservative Jew, and very much a product of the Conservative Movement: Solomon Schechter Day School, Conservative synagogue, USY, Camp Ramah. So it should come as no surprise that the periodic jeremiads about the putative decades-long decline and imminent demise of Conservative Judaism impel me to correct a misperception or two. The central criticism of Conservative Judaism goes something like this: the leaders of the movement have done a poor job defining the meaning and essence of Conservative Judaism, to its critics and supporters alike; consequently, Jews who grew up as Conservative Jews, especially young adults, drifted toward the more clearly defined ideas and worldviews of Reform, Orthodoxy, and Hassidism.
The notion that Conservative Judaism lacks definition, however, is less a reflection of the Movement's actual beliefs, aims, and worldview and more the result of the convergence of an erroneous claim of inauthenticity, poor branding, and an incomplete reading of the Movement's origins. Other halachically defined movements in Judaism have claimed a monopoly on authenticity and presented Conservative Judaism's willingness to embrace modernity as a stigma. The leaders of the Conservative Movement — lay leaders and rabbis alike — inadvertently fortified this claim by allowing the movement to be branded a middle-ground (and, at times, a muddled-ground) compromise between Orthodoxy and Reform, easily rejected as somehow “too Jewish” from one direction and a watered-down version of Judaism by the other. And the still-prevalent tendency to see Conservative Judaism as a product of German Jews, ignoring its more eclectic origins, further facilitated the pigeon-holing of Conservative Judaism into the amorphous gap between Reform and Orthodox.
To be sure, Conservative Judaism was, in part, an offspring of the German-Jewish denomination Positive-Historical Judaism, the brainchild of Zacharias Frankel. Frankel's break with Reform Judaism over the question of Hebrew as the language of prayer anticipated Conservative Judaism's break from the Reform Movement in America a few decades later. This latter break took place both locally, as in the decision by seventeen members of Temple Beth El in Detroit in 1861 to form a separate, more traditional congregation that became Shaarey Zedek; and nationally, in the decision by moderate Reform rabbis to walk out of the national meeting of Reform rabbis in Cincinnati because included shellfish (the "Trefa Banquet") and found the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as a rival to the Hebrew Union College. So much was Frankel's break with Reform in Germany seen as the precursor to these later events that the new seminary was named and modeled after Frankel's Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau. Since Frankel understood Positive-Historical Judaism as a middle-ground alternative between Reform and Orthodoxy in Germany, so, too, the newly minted Conservative was seen as a comparable middle-ground between Reform and Orthodoxy in America.
However, Conservative Judaism's European roots were more eclectic and diverse. The Movement's founders wove Conservative Judaism together from a hodgpodge of Jewish outlooks from Hungary, Prague, Italy, Poland, and Romania. The common thread between these roots: these were all parts of Europe where there was neither Reform nor Orthodoxy nor any other denomination, where the boundary between tradition and innovation was fluid, and where Jewish identity was defined as much or more by observance (orthopraxy) than by ideology (orthodoxy with a small o).
On top all that, within a decade after its founding in the 1880s, the Conservative Movement found a massive new pool of potential constituents: Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. These Jews knew little or nothing of German-Jewish movements such as Reform and Orthodoxy, and came to see Conservative Judaism as the most consistent with the outlook and practice that defined Judaism in the Shtetl centuries before the twin birth of Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
This last phrase requires a word of explanation. The notion that Reform Judaism was a modern invention and a response to contemporary events is relatively easy to comprehend. On the other hand, the notion that Orthodox Judaism is a modern invention is far less intuitive and more difficult for most Jews to grasp. After all, one might ask, how can Judaism be more than two thousand years old if Orthodox Judaism — which has branded itself as synonymous with Judaism, past and present — was invented only two centuries ago — in other words: if there was no Orthodox Judaism, what was there?
In a word, there was simply Judaism (yiddishkeit, yahadut, Judenthum).
Until about two centuries ago, there were neither Reform Jews nor Orthodox Jews, but simply Jews. If you stopped a Jew in the street before 1800 and asked if they were Reform or Orthodox, they would likely have answered that they were Jewish not Christian, since Reform and Orthodox were denominations of Christianity but not yet denominations of Judaism. Alexander Kohut, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism(whose great-great grandson is an active member of the Jewish Community of Detroit), put it this way:
Were Moses ben Amram or Moses ben Maimon...to rise from the graves and contemplate our modern Judaism, they would recognize neither the narrowness of Orthodox nor the Mosaism of the Reformers as being of the essence of the religion which they had taught. They would say, ‘You who seek the only the spirit, lose thereby the kernel of religion...while you, who take only the husk, the shell, can for that very reason never penetrate to the kernel.’
Contrary to Kohut, the proponents of Reform and Orthodox Judaism claimed (rather anachronistically) that their version of Judaism was not new but was what Judaism has always been. For Reform Jews, the original reformer of Judaism was Yohanan ben Zakkai, the first century c.e. rabbi who instituted prayer as a substitute for sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple — the original reform of Judaism. Orthodox Jews maintain that Judaism has never changed, that theirs is the same Judaism embraced by the same Yohanan ben Zakkai as well as by Akiva, Maimonides, and every observant Jew before or since.
Both of these claims are problematic, so say the least. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, all Jews — whether more or less observant, pious, indifferent, or heretical — drew from and defined their Jewishness in terms of the contents of the same basket of beliefs, practices, symbols, and institutions. Both Reform and Orthodox Judaism introduced into this "basket" a novel concept of innovation in Judaism. For Reform Judaism, this new concept was the Zeitgeist [the spirit of the age] as the basis for changing Judaism; for Orthodox Judaism, the concept was kol davor hadash asur me-ha-Torah [anything new is forbidden by the Torah]. In this sense, Conservative Judaism might more aptly be called preservative Judaism, since its central aim is to preserve pre-nineteenth century non-denominational Judaism and pare away these novel definitions of Judaism introduced by Reform and Orthodoxy. This Judaism (that for lack of a better term we will call “Traditional Judaism”) has five central components:
First, it is equally rooted in the authority and the dynamic nature of halacha. Simply put, change and continuity have consistently been integral parts of Judaism. Useful in this regard is Rabbi Joel Roth's comparison of Judaism to a chess match, in which the pieces are allowed to change positions, as long as they follow the rules of the game. So, too, with Judaism. As long as interpreters of halacha follow the rules of interpretation defined by Rabbi Ishmael and other rabbis of the Talmud, the particulars of Judaism change. Just as, during the course of a chess match, the arrangement of pieces on the board can look different, so, too, Judaism changes. According to this analogy, Reform Judaism (in its original incarnation — the movement went in a different direction in late 20th Century America) abandoned or, at least ignored, the rules of the game. Allowing rooks to move diagonally was akin to changing a Jewish practice without halachic justification. By the same analogy, Orthodoxy Judaism placed a glass dome over the board, freezing the match, as it were, at a single moment and pretending that Judaism never changes. If Maimonides had been a chess master, he would have recognized neither altered version of the game.
Conservative Judaism, too, has introduced many innovations in Jewish observance, some minor others more drastic, but always within the framework of existing Jewish law and precedent. This has often meant a slower (and, at times, frustratingly slower) pace of change, but changes that were more seamless and lasting. In this sense, the afore-mentioned Rapoport's notion of change is instructive: "
Where there’s some matter, among our customs are laws that stood in need of reform or renewal, it would be reformed or renewed with the passing of time. Should the process of change, proceed gradually, and drag on, we could not accelerate the process by force…
A telling recent example: the decisions to allow women to read from the Torah, lead the service, and be counted in a minyan, and to include the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the recitation of the 'amida, resulted from a halachic argument and justification. This is the crucial distinction between Reform and Conservative Judaism. For Reform Judaism, the egalitarian spirit of the age was the justification to eliminate antiquated restrictions on Jewish women. For Conservative legal scholars, the egalitarian spirit of the age was the impetus to find a halachic justification, but not the justification per se. Orthodox scholars have largely resisted even looking for a halachic justification, since, from their vantage point, these changes are presumed apriori to be unacceptable and, for some, unthinkable.
Second, traditional Judaism has always maintained a healthy balance between uniformity and diversity of practice. One of the great achievements of the rabbis of the Talmud and their successors has been to establish a uniform set of observances shared by Jews everywhere. This includes the Jewish Calendar (all Jews blow the shofar and have a Seder on the same day), the liturgy (a Jew from pretty much anywhere in the world could walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and be able to follow the service and have a sense of fulfilling the obligation of communal prayer, not to mention that all Jews read the same Torah portion on any given Shabbat morning). Alongside this uniformity is a fairly extensive local and regional diversity, the importance of which was acknowledged already in conversation that the Midrash imagines between Moses and God:
... Moses asked the holy blessed one at the time of his death: 'Master of the Universe, the view of each person is known to you, and the views of your children differ one from the other...When I depart from them, I ask that you appoint a leader who will be tolerant of each and every person’s point of view...
Centuries later, Yechiel Michel Epstein articulated a similar notion of diversity in his nineteenth century law code, 'Aruch ha-Shulchan: “The beauty of our sacred and pure Torah is that the entire Torah is like a song, and the beauty of a song stems from distinct voices – this is the essence of its melodies; and whoever wanders on the sea of the Talmud will see different, melodies, all with distinct voices.” Perhaps the most well-known example is the fact that, for the last seven hundred years, some Jews have eaten kitniyot on Pesach while others regard this food as not kosher for Pesach — but neither side has impugned let alone condemned the other. Such a willingness to agree to disagree is difficult to imagine today.
Third, contrary to the widespread Orthodox presumption that stricter is necessarily more authentic (a tendency one scholar called "humra culture") traditional Judaism often recognized stringent and lenient positions as equally valid. Twelve hundred years ago, Rashi expressed this view. Commenting on an (even older) statement in the Mishnah, “The power to permit is preferable"[koach de-hetera 'adif],” Rashi commented: “It is better to teach the words of one who permits, because he relies on his own explanation and he’s not afraid to permit; while the power to prohibit is no proof since anyone can rule stringently, even in the case of something that is permitted…”
Fourth, Traditional Judaism has consistently been more concerned with practice than with belief. Of course, there have always been basic beliefs that Jews were expected to embrace about God, the Torah, chosenness, and the Messiah. Yet the overwhelming majority of rabbinic writing deals with what to do and not what to believe. There is no tractate or even chapter in the Talmud that deals with what to believe or, for example, the nature of God. There is no pre-nineteenth century law code with a section about belief and ideology. The lone exception, the opening section of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, nearly divided the Jewish world and has, ever since, been a cautionary tale about emphasizing ideology over practice. In this sense, the attempt by well-intentioned Conservative rabbis a generation ago to compete with the ideological clarity of Reform and Orthodoxy by publishing Emet ve-Emuna [Truth and Belief] strayed from the Movement's foundational and distinct emphasis on practice over belief.
Finally, Traditional Judaism consistently championed a “big tent” — inclusive unity over sectarianism and secession, captured eloquently by Solomon Schechter:
It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible…as it is interpreted by tradition… It follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible, and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of Judaism.
This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood or rabbi-hood, but by the collective conscience of catholic Israel, (catholic in the universal sense, meaning “universal”) as embodied in the universal synagogue...It is neither Scripture, nor primitive Judaism, but general custom that forms the real rule of practice…Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions....”
A century ago, Conservative Judaism appealed to a long-standing Jewish mentality that, for centuries, has eschewed dividing the Jewish world into denominations. The commitment to a Jewish outlook that thrived for centuries across the Jewish world, while lacking relatively short-term appeal of more ideologically driven denominations, points to the long-term viability of Conservative Judaism. At a time when the need for denominations in Judaism has come under increased scrutiny, Conservative Judaism offers a blueprint for a return to and rediscovery of Traditional Judaism that is, at once, a cacophony and harmony of diverse voices and outlooks.