Origins of Conservative Judaism

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Zacharias Frankel (1801 - 1875) and Historical Judaism

     Although  Conservative Judaism did not formally exist in the 19th century, its intellectual origin in Germany began in the first part of the 1800’s because of the influence of Rabbi Zacharias Frankel.

     Conservative Judaism is also called “historical” Judaism or Masorti or traditional Judaism.  It began when Zacharias Frankel became the chief rabbi of Dresden in 1836. He was the first German rabbi with a secular education, in that he had graduated from the University of Buda-Pest. He first practiced in his native Bohemia and then went to Germany.

     Frankel was willing that Judaism be reformed. Nevertheless, he disputed the Reform movement, which sought to abolish Hebrew prayer, but he was also opposed by the Orthodox, who viewed his writings as abusive. Frankel had advocated the abolition of some hymns and the introduction of choirboys. His principle argument was that Judaism should be based on scholarship, a positive attitude towards modern culture, acceptance of Jewish tradition, and the practice of Jewish law.

     Frankel displeased both the Orthodox and the Reform rabbis of his day and thereby became the forerunner of what became Conservative Judaism in the United States at the end of the 19th century. He founded a magazine called “Zeitschrift für die Religiösen Interessen des Judentums” or “Journal for the Religious Interests of Judaism.”

     In 1854, Frankel was chosen president of the new rabbinical seminary in Breslau (now Wroclaw). He then wrote numerous books and journal articles with a view of systematizing rabbinic literature. He also published works on the Jerusalem Talmud, which has been largely neglected by Jewish scholars in favor of the Babylonian Talmud.

     Frankel also founded “Die Wissenschaft des Judentums” or “The Science of Judaism”. In a magazine called “Monatsschrift” or “Monthly Journal,” he expounded his views. That magazine was continued by Heinrich Graetz, the most prolific historian of the Jews, after Frankel died in 1875.

     Today, Conservative Judaism is located mainly in those synagogues which have banded together under the aegis of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In Europe, Israel and Latin America it is known as Masorti Judaism. The movement was mainly influenced by the “enlightenment” and is also known as “the historical school.”

     Unlike the Reform movement, Conservatives continue to observe the Jewish food laws. In the United States, the Conservative movement today has about one million members. Its rabbis are trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The Seminary was founded in 1886. Its first president was Solomon Schechter, a British scholar. The seminary continued to attract such luminaries as Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, and Isaac Klein, the author of A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.

     When the followers of Mordecai Kaplan founded Reconstructionism in 1963, they split the Conservative movement. That led to the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1968. In addition, “The Union for Traditional Judaism” also “split” from the Conservative movement. 

     There are those who claim that all these “splits” weakens us. The fact is the opposite. Because Judaism is so diverse, everyone is welcome in one or the other branch of our ancient faith. The “split” is not within the religious community. It is located between the so called “secular” Jews, of whom 52% call themselves atheists, and those who try to keep the faith. Those are the few who guarantee with their presence the eternity of our people despite all obstacles and all threats. We will never be defeated. Not by our enemies nor by our so called “friends” who want to undermine Israel and hand it to the Muslim terrorists.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

Home ] Up ]