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Conservative Judaism is a modern stream of Ashkenazi Judaism that arose out of intellectual currents of the Reform Jewish movement in Germany in the mid-19th century and took institutional form in the United States in the early 1900s.
Conservative Judaism has its roots in the school of thought known as Positive-Historical Judaism, developed in 1850s Germany as a reaction to the more liberal religious positions taken by German Reform and put into practice from the 1840s in the Frankfurt and Berlin reform congregations. While what came to be known as Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Sephardic Judaism was left as the guardian of all of Jewish traditions, the term conservative was meant to signify that Reform-Jews should attempt to conserve some or most of the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, rather than reform or abandon all of it. And the term conservative does not imply the movement's adherents are politically conservative, rather it resembles the conservative branch of the Reform movement in Judaism.
In many countries outside the United States and Canada, including Israel, Germany and the UK, it is today known as Masorti Judaism (Hebrew for "Traditional"). Representing about 0.25% of the Jewish population in Israel, it should not be confused with the large part of Israeli Jews (25% to 50% depending on definitions) who define themselves as "masorati" (or Shomer Masoret)—meaning religiously "traditional"—and support Orthodoxy as the mainstream Judaism, which occasionally is known as Masorti Judaism, also.
In the United States and Canada, the term Conservative, as applied, does not always indicate that a congregation is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement's central institution and the one to which the term, without qualifier, usually refers. Rather, it is sometimes employed by unaffiliated Ashkenazi groups to indicate a range of beliefs and practices more liberal than is affirmed by the Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, and more traditional than the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. In Canada, several congregations belong to the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues instead of the United Synagogue. The moniker Conservadox is sometimes employed to refer to the right wing of the Conservative spectrum, although "Traditional" is used as well (as in the Union for Traditional Judaism). Both Conservative/Masorti and Reform/Liberal rabbinical assemblies are installing women in highest leadership assignments and ordinate female reform-rabbis.
- Organizational structure 1
- Historical antecedents 2.1
United States 2.2
- Schisms 2.2.1
- United Kingdom 2.3
- Israel 2.4
- Revelation 3.1.1
- Jewish law 3.1.2
- Jewish identity 3.1.3
- Gender equality 3.2
- God 3.1
Educational institutions 4
- Advanced Jewish Learning 4.1
- Day schools 4.2
- Camp Ramah 4.3
- Criticism 5
- Notable figures 6
- See also 7
- References 8
- Further reading 9
External links 10
- Official statements 10.1
- Other resources 10.2
The Conservative-Masorti movement is unified on a global level by Masorti Olami, representing affiliated congregations in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Masorti Olami unites a number of smaller national and regional organizations, including:
- The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) in the United States and Canada,
- The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues in the United Kingdom,
- Masorti Europe in Europe,
- Masorti AmLat in Latin America,
The international association of Conservative/Masorti Rabbis is known as the chazanim. The global youth movement is known as NOAM (an acronym for No'ar Masorti); its North American chapter is called the United Synagogue Youth. The movement maintains numerous Rabbinical seminaries and other educational institutions.
Like Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation, a confluence of events that lead to Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment. In Europe the movement was known as Positive-Historical Judaism, and it is still known as "the historical school."
Positive-Historical Judaism, the intellectual forerunner to Conservative Judaism, was developed as a school of thought in the 1840s and 1850s in Germany. Its principal founder was Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, who had broken with the German Reform Judaism in 1845 over its rejection of the primacy of the Hebrew language in Jewish prayer and the rejection of the laws of kashrut. In 1854, Frankel became the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau then in Kingdom of Prussia (now in Poland as Wrocław). At the seminary, Frankel taught that Jewish law was not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions. He called his approach towards Judaism "Positive-Historical," which meant that one should have a positive attitude towards accepting Jewish law and tradition as normative, yet one should be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it has always historically developed. Frankel rejected the innovations of Reform Judaism as insufficiently based in Jewish history and communal practice. However, Frankel's use of modern methods of historical scholarship in analyzing Jewish texts and developing Jewish law set him apart from neo-Orthodox Judaism, which was concurrently developing under the leadership of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
The differences between the more modern and traditional branches of American Judaism came to a head in 1883, at the "Trefa Banquet" at the Highland House entertainment pavilion, which was at the top of the Mount Adams Incline – where shellfish and other non-kosher dishes were served at the celebration of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. The adoption of the radical Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which dismissed observance of the ritual commandments and Jewish peoplehood as "anachronistic", created a permanent wedge between the Reform movement and more traditional American Jews.
In 1886, prominent Sephardic Rabbis Sabato Morais and H. Pereira Mendes founded the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City as a more traditional alternative to Hebrew Union College. The Seminary's brief affiliation with the traditional congregations that established the Union of Orthodox Congregations in 1898 was severed due to the Orthodox rejection of the Seminary's academic approach to Jewish learning. At the turn of the 20th century, the Seminary lacked a source of permanent funding and was ordaining on average no more than one Rabbi per year.
This situation was resolved due to the efforts of Cyrus Adler, professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University and founder of the Jewish Publication Society, who convinced a number of wealthy German Reform Jews including Jacob Schiff, David and Simon Guggenheim, Mayer Sulzberger, and Louis Marshall, to contribute $500,000 to the faltering JTS.
The fortunes of Conservative Judaism underwent a dramatic turnaround when in 1902, the famed scholar Solomon Schechter, lecturer in Talmud at the University of Cambridge, accepted the invitation to become president of JTS. Under Schechter's leadership, JTS attracted a distinguished faculty, including Louis Ginzberg (author of Legends of the Jews), historian Alexander Marx, Arabist Israel Friedlander, and future founder of Reconstructionism Mordecai Kaplan, and became a highly regarded center of Jewish learning. In 1913, the Conservative Movement founded its congregational arm, the United Synagogue of America, which would later become the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Conservative Judaism enjoyed rapid growth in the first half of the 20th century, becoming the largest American Jewish denomination. Its combination of modern innovation (such as mixed gender seating) and traditional practice particularly appealed to first and second-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who found Orthodoxy too restrictive, but Reform Judaism foreign. After World War II, Conservative Judaism continued to thrive. The 1950s and early 1960s featured a boom in synagogue construction as upwardly mobile American Jews moved to the suburbs. Conservative Judaism occupied an enviable middle position during a period where American society prized consensus.
By the 1990s Conservative Judaism continued to flourish, yet dichotomies of practice and belief, which had been present for years, began to formulate. After a substantial gift from Los Angeles philanthropist Ruth Ziegler, a new rabbinical school was formed at the American Jewish University (then University of Judaism) in Bel Air, California. Established in 1996, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies became the first independent Jewish seminary to be established on the west coast. In 2001, all graduates of the Ziegler School were formally admitted as members of the Rabbinical Assembly.
Working with this 1990s trend of diversity and institutional growth, Conservative Judaism remained the largest denomination in America, with 43 percent of Jewish households affiliated with a synagogue belonging to Conservative synagogues (compared to 35 percent for Reform and 16 percent for Orthodox). In 2000, the NJPS showed that only 33 percent of synagogue-affiliated American Jews belonged to a Conservative synagogue. For the first time in nearly a century, Conservative Judaism is no longer the largest denomination in America. At the same time, however, certain Conservative institutions, particularly day schools, have shown significant growth. Conservative leaders agreed that these contrasting trends indicated that the movement has reached a crossroads as it headed into the 21st century.
The first split in the Conservative coalition occurred in 1963, when followers of Mordecai Kaplan seceded from the movement to form a distinct Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan had been a leading figure at JTS for 54 years, and had pressed for liturgical reform and innovations in ritual practice from inside of the framework of Conservative Judaism. Frustrated by the perceived dominance of the more traditionalist voices at JTS, Kaplan's followers decided that the ideas of Reconstructionism would be better served through the creation of a separate denomination. In 1968, the split became formalized with the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Another schism in the Conservative ranks, this time from the movement's right wing, would come when a number of the traditionalist Rabbis led by JTS Talmudics professor  The Union today describes itself as "trans-denominational" and maintains a Rabbinical seminary, the Institute of Traditional Judaism.
The Masorti movement did not establish a presence in the United Kingdom until much later and came about largely because of a series of incidents known collectively as the "Jacobs affair": Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a leading scholar of Anglo Jewry, joined the faculty of the Jews College, leaving his post as Rabbi of the New West End Synagogue, under the impression that he would eventually be made principal. However, in 1962 the London Beth Din and the Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, who formed the leadership of the United Synagogue, the UK's Orthodox establishment, refused to allow his appointment on grounds of heresy because in his 1957 book We Have Reason to Believe, Jacobs had rejected the conception of a literal, verbal revelation of the Torah. In 1964, when the committee of the New West End Synagogue wanted to reappoint Jacobs as their rabbi, Brodie again vetoed his appointment on the same grounds. In response, Jacobs and many of the New West End congregants established the New London Synagogue, which became the center of Masorti Judaism in the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom, congregational observance is somewhat more traditional than in the United States. There are no female Rabbis among the British Masorti, for example, and some Masorti congregations maintain non-egalitarian practices with regard to gender, such as the mechitza and the prohibition of women reading from the Torah, while nearly all American congregations are fully egalitarian and the American Rabbinical schools ordain women as Rabbis.
There are now 13 Masorti congregations in the United Kingdom. British Masorti rabbis have trained at a number of rabbinical schools, including: the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Schechter Institute and the Shalom Hartman Institute both of Jerusalem and Leo Baeck College in London.
The first Masorti communities in the
- Research and articles on Conservative Judaism on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
- Conservative Judaism on My Jewish Learning
- An intro to Conservative Judaism on Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups
- The Core Principles of Conservative Judaism, by Ismar Schorsch on behalf of the Jewish Theological Seminary
- Conservative Jews in Israel: Official Masorti Movement website
- Standards for Congregational Practice by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
- Formulating Jewish Law For Our Time, by Dr. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
- A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice:Official work on Jewish law, by Isaac Klein, 1992
- Emet Ve'emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism
- Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement. Marshall Sklare. University Press of America (Reprint edition), 1985.
- Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors To Our Descendants (Revised Edition), Elliot N. Dorff, United Synagogue New York, 1996
- The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities, Daniel J. Elazar, Real Mintz Geffen, SUNY Press, 2000
- Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Neil Gillman, Behrman House 1993
- Halakha For Our Time: A Conservative Approach To Jewish Law, David Golinkin, United Synagogue, 1991
- A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Isaac Klein, JTS Press, New York, 1992
- Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, Pamela S. Nadell, Greenwood Press, NY 1988
- Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, Ed. Robert Gordis, JTS, New York, 1988
- Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary, Ed. David Lieber, Jules Harlow, Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner, The Jewish Publication Society, NY, 2001
- Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and Their Members. Jack Wertheimer (Editor). Rutgers University Press, 2000.
- Eight Up: The College Years, Survey of Conservative Jewish youth from middle school to college. Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin
- Masorti Movement in Israel
- Assembly of Masorti Synagogues
- Harris, Ben (March 3, 2009). "Orthodox female rabbi? False alarm". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 1 December 2014.
- "The Trefa Banquet". Commentary Magazine. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
- The Jews in America. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1978
- Jewish Daily Forward: Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads
- Union for Traditional Judaism FAQ, What Distinguishes the UTJ from the Conservative movement?
- Union for Traditional Judaism FAQ, What is the Union for Traditional Judaism
- History of the Masorti Movement
- Women in the Synagogue
- The Masorti Movement in Israel, About at the Wayback Machine (archived May 22, 2007)
- Masorti Judaism in Israel, FAQ at the Wayback Machine (archived May 19, 2007)
- The Masorti Movement in Israel, FAQ at the Wayback Machine (archived May 19, 2007)
- Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, second Printing, 1990
- Robert Gordis, "Introduction" to Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, second Printing (1990) pp. 14–15
- "Jewish Rationalism Reemergent," Conservative Judaism, Volume 36, Issue 4, Page 81
- torah-misinai at the Wayback Machine (archived May 14, 2008)
- Conservative Judaism
- Conservative Judaism
- Azous, Paul (June 25, 2007). In the Plains of the Wilderness. Mazo Publishers. p. 203. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
- Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism, First Series, 1896, Jewish Publication Society of America.
- LEADERSHIP COUNCIL OF CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, Statement on Intermarriage, Adopted March 7, 1995
- Rabbi David J. Fine, Women and the Minyan, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, June 12, 2002.
- Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins, and Avram I. Reisner, Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, December 6, 2006.
- "Conservative Jews Allow Gay Rabbis and Unions", The New York Times, December 7, 2006
- "Conservative Movement Votes on Same Sex Unions", Tablet Magazine, May 31, 2012
- Jennifer Siegel, Will Conservative Day Schools Survive?, June 5, 2008
- Michael Greenbaum, "Ramah: Paradigm for Conservative Jews", Ramah at 60, National Ramah Commission, pp. 53–55.
- Nancy Scheff, "Romance at Ramah", Ramah at 60, National Ramah Commission, p. 174.
- Cf. Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
- Avi Shafran, "The Conservative Lie", Moment, February 2001. Reprinted here.
- Avraham Weiss, PDF (766 KB), Judaism, Fall 1997.
- Conservative Jews Allow Gay Rabbis and Unions – New York Times
- Jennifer Siegel, "Conservative Rabbi, in Swan Song, Warns Against Liberal Shift", The Jewish Daily Forward, March 24, 2006. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
- American Jewish University
- Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
- Keshet Rabbis
- Rabbinical Assembly
- United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
- United Synagogue Youth
- Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
- Jacob B. Agus
- Philip R. Alstat
- Bradley Shavit Artson
- Frank Birnbaum
- Ben Zion Bokser
- Elliot N. Dorff
- Arnold Eisen
- Louis Finkelstein
- Zecharias Frankel
- Neil Gillman
- Louis Ginzberg
- Robert Gordis
- Simon Greenberg
- Harry Halpern
- Jules Harlow
- Judith Hauptman
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
- Louis Jacobs
- Isaac Klein
- Albert L. Lewis
- David Lieber
- Saul Lieberman
- Aaron L. Mackler
- Marshall Meyer
- Yochanan Muffs
- Daniel S. Nevins
- Arnold E. Resnicoff
- Joel Roth
- Samuel Schafler
- Mathilde Roth Schechter
- Solomon Schechter
- Ismar Schorsch
- Harold Schulweis
- Seymour Siegel
- Gordon Tucker
- Mordecai Waxman
- David Wolpe
In matters of marriage and divorce, the State of Israel relies on its Chief Rabbinate to determine who is Jewish; the Chief Rabbinate, following Orthodox practice, does not recognize the validity of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis and will require a Jew who was converted by a Conservative rabbi to undergo a second, Orthodox conversion to be regarded as a Jew for marriage and other purposes.
Over the years, Conservative Judaism has experienced internal criticism. Due to halakhic disputes, such as the controversies over the role of women and homosexuality, some Conservative Talmudic scholars and experts in halakha have left the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. and the seminary's former Chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, complained of the movement's "erosion of [its] fidelity to Halacha ... [which] brings [it] close to Reform Judaism."
Orthodox Jewish leaders vary considerably in their dealings with the Conservative movement and with individual Conservative Jews. Some Modern Orthodox leaders cooperate and work with the Conservative movement, while haredi ("Ultra-Orthodox") Jews often eschew formal contact with Conservative Judaism, or at least its rabbinate. From the Orthodox perspective, Conservative Jews are considered just as Jewish as Orthodox Jews, but they are viewed as misguided, consistent violators of halakha.
- Orthodox Jews who question the movement's commitment to Halakha.
- Conservative Traditionalists who criticize the Halakhic process when dealing with issues such as women in Judaism as well as homosexuality.
Conservative Judaism has come under criticism from a variety of sources such as:
Perhaps the greatest educational contribution made under the aegis of Conservative Judaism has been through the Jewish camping movement, the Camp Ramah system. Living Jewishly in a camp setting has raised several generations of committed Jews who are more comfortable with their Jewishness, more knowledgeable, and more aware of Judaism as a lifestyle that can be maintained even as we intersect with the larger, secular world. For a movement that has as its motto, Tradition and Change, Ramah has created a tradition of its own loyal to traditional Jewish expression and creative by virtue of its informal setting. Generations of families have attended Ramah; so many couples have met during a Camp Ramah summer and married that Ramah in the Poconos dedicated a Pagoda to Ramah marriages, with names of the couples inscribed in the structure.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism maintains the Solomon Schechter Day Schools, comprising 76 day schools in 17 American states and 2 Canadian provinces serving Jewish children. Many other "community day schools" that are not affiliated with the Solomon Schechter network take a generally Conservative approach, but unlike the Schechter schools, these schools generally have "no barriers to enrollment based on the faith of the parents or on religious practices in the home." During the first decade of the 21st century, a number of schools that were part of the Schechter network transformed themselves into non-affiliated community day schools.
Conservative rabbis also play a leading role at a number of non-denominational institutions of advanced Jewish learning. The rosh yeshivas at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City include rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held who were ordained by the Conservative movement (at Jewish Theological Seminary). The Rosh Yeshiva at the Canadian Yeshiva & Rabbinical School in Toronto is a Conservative rabbi, Roy Tanenbaum. The rabbinical school of the Academy for Jewish Religion in California is led by Conservative rabbi Mel Gottlieb. The faculties of the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts also includes a large number of Conservative rabbis. Many smaller programs, such as Rabbi Benay Lappe's SVARA yeshiva, are also led by Conservative rabbis.
- The Jewish Theological Seminary, located in New York City;
- The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, at the non-denominational American Jewish University in Los Angeles;
- The Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary (Spanish: Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer), in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and
- The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (Hebrew: מכון שכטר) in Jerusalem.
The Conservative movement maintains a number of Rabbinical seminaries:
Advanced Jewish Learning
On May 31, 2012, a responsum was passed permitting same-sex marriage.
Individual rabbis continue to be free to avail themselves of more traditionalist minority rulings, and some congregations, particularly in Canada, accordingly still retain a more limited ritual role for women.
In December 2006, a responsum was adopted by the Committee that approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and permitted commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay Jews (but not same-sex marriage), while maintaining the traditional prohibition against anal sex between men. An opposing responsum, that maintained the traditional prohibitions against ordinations and commitment ceremonies, was also approved. Both responsa were enacted as majority opinions, with some members of the Committee voting for both. This result gives individual synagogues, rabbis, and rabbinical schools discretion to adopt either approach.
In 2002, the Committee adopted a responsum that provides an official religious-law foundation for its past actions and articulates the current Conservative approach to the role of women in Judaism.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Conservative Judaism was divided over issues of gender equality. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted, without adopting an explanatory responsum, to permit synagogues to count women toward a minyan, but left the choice to individual congregations. After a further decade of debate, in 1983, JTS voted to admit women for ordination as Conservative rabbis, also without adopting an explanatory responsum. Some opponents of these decisions left the Conservative movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism.
- "In the past, intermarriage...was viewed as an act of rebellion, a rejection of Judaism. Jews who intermarried were essentially excommunicated. But now, intermarriage is often the result of living in an open society....If our children end up marrying non-Jews, we should not reject them. We should continue to give our love and by that retain a measure of influence in their lives, Jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism has new meaning for them. However, the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. Since we know that over 70 percent of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews...we want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews."
Conservative Judaism maintains the Rabbinic understanding of Jewish identity: A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Conservatism thus rejects patrilineal descent, which is accepted by the Reform movement. Conservative Rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages (marriages between Jews and non-Jews). However, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism has a different sociological approach to this issue than does Orthodoxy, although agreeing religiously. In a press release it has stated:
Conservative Judaism accepts that the Orthodox approach to halakhah is generally valid. Accordingly, a Conservative Jew could usually satisfy their halakhic obligations by participation in Orthodox rituals. Occasionally, however, they may come into conflict. For instance, if two men and a woman were to eat a meal together, a Conservative Jew would believe that the presence of three adult Jews would obligate the group to say a communal form of the Grace After Meals, while an Orthodox Jew would believe that, lacking three adult Jewish males, the group would not be able to do such. Thus, though often de facto the case, Conservative Judaism's halakhic system does not inherently see Orthodox halakhic practice as acceptable and legitimate halakhic practice for a Conservative Jew.
Conservative Judaism views the process by which Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism make changes to Jewish tradition as potentially invalid . Thus, Conservative Judaism rejects patrilineal descent and would hold that a child of a non-Jewish mother who was raised as a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew is not legally Jewish and would have to undergo conversion to become a Jew. The Conservative movement is committed to Jewish pluralism and respects the religious practices of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. For example, the Conservative movement recognizes their clergy as rabbis, even if it does not necessarily accept their specific decisions.
Mordecai Waxman, a leading figure in the Rabbinical Assembly, writes that "Reform has asserted the right of interpretation but it rejected the authority of legal tradition. Orthodoxy has clung fast to the principle of authority, but has in our own and recent generations rejected the right to any but minor interpretations. The Conservative view is that both are necessary for a living Judaism. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds itself bound by the Jewish legal tradition, but asserts the right of its rabbinical body, acting as a whole, to interpret and to apply Jewish law." (Mordecai Waxman Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism)
Concerning interpretation of Halakha (or Jewish law): because of Judaism's legal tradition, the fundamental differences between modern Jewish denominations also involve the relevance, interpretation, and application of Jewish law and tradition. Conservative Judaism believes that its approach is the most authentic expression of Judaism as it was traditionally practiced. Conservative Jews believe that movements to its left, such as Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, have erred by rejecting the traditional authority of Jewish law and tradition. They believe that the Orthodox Jewish movements, on the theological right, have erred by slowing down, or stopping, the historical development of Jewish law: "Conservative Judaism believes that scholarly study of Jewish texts indicates that Judaism has constantly been evolving to meet the needs of the Jewish people in varying circumstances, and that a central halakhic authority can continue the halakhic evolution today." (Soc. Culture. Jewish Usenet Newsgroup FAQ) The Conservative movement makes a conscious effort to use historical sources to determine what kind of changes to Jewish tradition have occurred, how and why they occurred, and in what historical context. With this information they believe that they can better understand the proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today. See also under Modern Orthodox Judaism.
This view, together with Conservative Judaism's diversity of opinion concerning divine revelation, accounts for some of the diversity and disagreement in the Conservative movement's halakha. When considering changes to halakha, Conservative Judaism's rabbinical authorities may rely on historical analysis as well as religious considerations. As Solomon Schechter noted, "however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition".
Conservative Judaism views halakha (Jewish religious law) as normative and binding. Examining Jewish history and rabbinic literature through the lens of academic criticism, Conservative Judaism believes that halakha has always evolved to meet the changing realities of Jewish life, and that it must continue to do so in the modern age. Some Conservative theologians, like Seymour Siegel have stressed that the word, "Conservative," must be understood in the way it is used in the British political system: that the laws and traditions have to be conserved or preserved, with changes allowed only when there is an overriding reason—almost always, an overriding ethical reason—to do so. Siegel believed such change could occur when halakhah and aggadah, the wealth of non-legalistic rabbinic literature that included lessons on Jewish morals, values, and ethics, came into conflict. When they did, he believed that ethics and aggadah should prevail.
In contrast to both, most Conservative positions affirm the divine but nonverbal revelation of written Torah as the authentic, historically correct Jewish view. In this view, Oral Torah is considered inspired by Torah, but not necessarily of a straightforward divine origin.
Concerning the degree of revelation of Torah, Conservative Judaism rejects the Orthodox position of a direct verbal revelation of the Torah. However, Conservative Judaism also rejects the Reform view, that the Torah was not revealed but divinely inspired.
Conservative Judaism is comfortable with higher criticism, including the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Torah was redacted from several earlier sources. The movement's rabbinic authorities and its official Torah commentary (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary) affirm that Jews should make use of modern critical literary and historical analysis to understand how the Bible developed.
Conservative Jews who reject the concept of verbal revelation believe that God revealed his will to Moses and other prophets in a non-verbal form—that is, God's revelation did not include the particular words of the divine texts.
Conservative Jews hold a wide array of views on the subject of revelation. Many Conservative Jews reject the traditional Jewish idea that God literally dictated the words of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal revelation, but they hold the traditional Jewish belief that God inspired the later prophets to write the rest of the Tanakh. Many Conservative Jews believe that Moses was inspired by God in the same manner as the later prophets.
Mordecai Kaplan's religious naturalism (Reconstructionist Judaism) used to have an influential place in the movement, but since Reconstructionism developed as an independent movement, this influence has waned. Papers from a recent Rabbinical Assembly conference on theology were printed in a special issue of the journal Conservative Judaism (Winter 1999); the editors note that Kaplan's naturalism seems to have dropped from the movement's radar screen.
- Seventh, Jewish law and tradition, properly understood and interpreted, will enrich Jewish life and help mold the world closer to the prophetic vision of the Kingdom of God.
- Sixth, Israel is not only the Holy Land where our faith was born and developed, but it plays an essential role in our present and future. Israel is a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people the world over, the homeland for millions of Jews and a unique arena for Jewish creativity. Together with our responsibility to Israel is our obligation to strengthen and enrich the life of Jewish communities throughout the world — including, it need hardly be said, our own.
- Fifth, all the aspects of Jewish law and practice are designed to underscore the centrality of ethics in the life of the Jews.
- Fourth, the rich body of Halakhah and Aggadah and the later philosophic and mystical literature, all seeking to come closer to God's presence, are a precious resource for deepening the spiritual life of Israel and humankind.
- Third, though the term was unknown, pluralism has characterized Jewish life and thought through the ages. This is reflected in the variety of views and attitudes of the biblical legislators, priests, prophets, historians, psalmists and Wisdom teachers, the hundreds of controversies among the rabbis of the Talmud and in the codes and responsa of their successors. The latter-day attempt to suppress freedom of inquiry and the right to dissent is basically a foreign importation into Jewish life.
- Second, we recognize the authority of the Halakhah which has never been monolithic or immovable. On the contrary, as modern scholarship has abundantly demonstrated, the Halakhah has grown and developed through changing times and diverse circumstances. This life-giving attribute is doubly needed today in a world of dizzying change.
- "In the beginning God …" Though we differ in our perceptions and experiences of reality, we affirm our faith in God as the Creator and Governor of the universe. His power called the world into being; His wisdom and goodness guide its destiny. Of all the living creatures we know, humanity alone, created in His image and endowed with free will, has been singled out to be the recipient and bearer of Revelation. The product of this human-divine encounter is the Torah, the embodiment of God's will revealed preeminently to the Jewish people through Moses, the Prophets and the Sages, as well as to the righteous and wise of all nations. Hence, by descent and destiny, each Jew stands under the divine command to obey God's will.
In 1988, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism issued an official statement of belief, Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. Emet Ve-Emunah affirms belief in God and in the divine inspiration of the Torah; however, it also affirms the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. Atheism, Trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are ruled out. Conservative Judaism rejects both relativism and fundamentalism. The commission found that there were seven main beliefs shared by representatives from different part of the movement:
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