Origins of the Conservative Movement

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Conservative Judaism


     is an American effort to preserve the traditions of the Jewish faith in an American setting. It was founded by Solomon Schechter (1847 - 1915), a Romanian rabbi who had made a great contribution to Jewish archaeology and Talmud. He was professor of Talmud at Cambridge University in England when he was appointed chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1901. There he organized the United Synagogue of America. 

    Conservative Judaism also owes a good deal of its ideology to Heinrich Graetz, a German Jewish historian (1817-1891). Graetz wrote an 11 volume History of the Jews (in German).  Graetz stressed Jewish nationalism but disparaged mysticism and Kabbalah studies. Graetz’s work gave rise to “historical Judaism,” which is the basis of the conservative movement today. That Judaism grants that our religion can absorb influences from other cultures and yet remain true to traditional Jewish teachings. This influence came about because Solomon Schechter and others associated with the origin of the movement had come from the eastern European Jewish culture and its emphasis of what is now called “orthodoxy” (from ortho= straight and doxein = belief).

     Conservative Judaism at first opposed extreme changes in practice but made modest alterations in some of the traditions. Driving to “shul” on the Sabbath is one of these changes, as is the seating of women and men together rather than in segregated areas in the synagogue (experience has shown that it  may well have been better to use the segregated method).

      Conservative Judaism gave women an equal opportunity to participate in the rituals and practices in the synagogue so that women can be called to the Torah and be counted as a minyan (quorum). Today, Conservative congregations are mostly in the hands of women, even as the movement has ordained women as rabbis.

      These changes in Jewish tradition are a product of the American scene and American social life. Recently, the Conservative movement also approved of the marriage of homosexual people to one another.

      Conservative rabbis are members of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, which has nearly 1600 members. The membership consists of graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

      The conservative movement is increasingly interested in adult education, although, so far, not much has been achieved in this area.

      Orthodox critics of the movement claim that traditional observances are lacking among the membership of Conservative congregations. It is one of the features of the Conservative movement that it serves as an alternative status system for many members. Conservative congregations have a president, several vice presidents, treasurers, secretaries, a board of directors, board members, committee chairs, committee members, ordinary members and poor Jews. All these distinctions create a hierarchy which leads “shul” politicians to manipulate themselves into all these offices without any interest in the purpose or history of the Conservative movement.

     Conservative religious services on Saturday morning last three hours, beginning at about 9:00 a.m. and ending at noon or later. The “service” consists of a first part called “songs” or semiroth. It is followed by Shacharit or the morning prayer, then the Torah reading, the reading from the prophets, the sermon of the rabbi, and the Musaf or concluding segment of the service. Like the morning service, the Musaf contains 18 blessings and is therefore called “the shemoney esray,” which means 18 in Hebrew.

     There are those who claim that Conservative Judaism cannot survive because it is losing members to the Orthodox and the Reform movements. Nevertheless, the United Synagogue today has over 1.5 million members in about 700 affiliated congregations. The movement also includes a youth division called United Synagogue Youth with 25,000 members.

     One of the most important committees of the Rabbinical Assembly is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which issues rulings concerning the religious life of the membership. Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory, was the chairman of that committee in the 1970’s, and consequently wrote his great A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, which is used worldwide in a manner at one time reserved for the Shulchan Aruch, written by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16th century.

     There are numerous books available reciting the history or condition of the Conservative movement. Read The Emergence of Conservative Judaism by Moshe Davis.

     Be well and love your fellow Jew. He needs it.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Women & Social Change in America (2009).

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