Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism (also known as Masorti Judaism in Israel and Europe) is a modern stream of Judaism that arose out of intellectual currents in Germany in the mid-19th century and took institutional form in the United States in the early 1900s.

The principles of Conservative Judaism include:

  • A dedication to Halakha... [as a] guide for one's life;
  • A deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith;
  • A positive attitude toward modern culture; and
  • An acceptance of both traditional rabbinic modes of study and modern scholarship and critical text study when considering Jewish religious texts.

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 Reform Judaism. The term conservative was meant to signify that Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it, and does not imply the movement's adherents are politically conservative. Because of this potential for confusion, a number of Conservative rabbis have proposed renaming the movement, and outside of the United States and Canada, in many countries including Israel and the UK, it is today known as Masorti Judaism (Hebrew for "Traditional").


Like Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. In Europe the movement was known as Positive-Historical Judaism, and it is still known as "the historical school."

Positive-historical Judaism

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. In 1854, Frankel became the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany. 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.

Conservative Judaism in America

In the latter half of the 19th century, the debates occurring in German Judaism were replicated in America. Conservative Judaism in America similarly began as a reaction to Reform Judaism's rejection of traditional Jewish law and practice. 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.

Jewish Theological Seminary

In 1886, Rabbis Sabato Morais and H. Pereira Mendes founded the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City as a more traditional alternative to HUC. 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 century, the Seminary lacked a source of permanent funding and was ordaining on average no more than one rabbi per year.

The fortunes of Conservative Judaism underwent a dramatic turnaround when in 1902, the famed scholar Solomon Schechter accepted the invitation to become president of JTS. Under Schechter's leadership, JTS attracted a distinguished faculty and became a highly regarded center of Jewish learning. In 1913, the Conservative Movement founded its congregational arm, the United Synagogue of America.

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.

Rise of Reconstructionism

The Conservative coalition splintered in 1963, when advocates of the Reconstructionist philosophy 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 separate denomination. In 1968, the split became formalized with the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Modern practices of Conservative 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 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 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.

Ziegler School

In the 1990s, the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles established the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies as an independent rabbinical school.

Concern about movement's direction

At the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 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, particular day schools, have shown significant growth. Conservative leaders agree that these contrasting trends indicate that the movement has reached a crossroads as it heads into the 21st century.


For much of the large movement's history, Conservative Judaism avoided publishing systematic explications of the Jewish principles of faith. This was a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition.

In 1988, the leadership council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. In accord with classical rabbinic Judaism, it agrees that Jews must hold certain beliefs. However, it holds that the Jewish community never developed any one binding catechism. Thus, it is difficult if not impossible to pick out only one person's formal creed and hold it as binding. Instead, Emet Ve-Emunah allows for a range of Jewish beliefs that Conservative rabbis believe are authentically Jewish and justifiable.

Thus, 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 all ruled out. Conservative Judaism explicitly rejects relativism, yet also rejects fundamentalism.


Conservative Judaism affirms monotheism. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of God is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism (neo-Hasidism, Jewish Renewal); limited theism (as in Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People); and organic thinking in the fashion of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, also known as process theology (such as Rabbis Max Kaddushin and William E. Kaufman).

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.


Conservative Judaism allows its adherents to hold to 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.

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 Judaism is comfortable with the 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: A Torah Commentary) affirm that Jews should make use of modern critical literary and historical analysis to understand how the Bible developed.

Jewish law

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.

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".

Views of other Jewish denominations

Conservative Judaism contrasts itself with other denominations through two major areas of distinction:

Revelation of Torah

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. 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.

Interpretation of Halakha

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 can better understand the proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today. See also under Modern Orthodox Judaism.

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)

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.

Conservative Judaism accepts that the Orthodox approach to halakhah is generally valid. Accordingly, a Conservative Jew could satisfy their halakhic obligations by participation in Orthodox rituals.

Movement organization

In the more limited sense of the term, Conservative Judaism is a unified movement; the international body of Conservative rabbis is the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the organization of synagogues is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and the primary seminaries are the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles. Conservative Judaism outside the USA is often called Masorti Judaism; Masorti rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Assembly.

Affiliated seminaries outside the USA include the Marshall Meyer Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Argentina, and Machon Schechter (in Jerusalem.)

Many Jews both inside and outside of this formal Conservative movement identify Conservative Judaism as a worldview which is significantly larger than the USCJ and RA. Sociologically and religiously, there is social and religious overlap between the USCJ, the Union for Traditional Judaism, and much of the Chavurah movement. A growing number of congregations which are not affiliated, but which identify themselves as "post-denominational," practice traditional Judaism while emphasizing equal roles for women, for example as prayer leaders. Rabbis trained at JTS and the Ziegler School often serve these synagogues and chavurot, and members of these synagogues and chavurot often pray at, or are members of, USCJ synagogues .

Conservative Jewish Day Schools

Conservative Judaism has had a large impact on education in America. Many conservative schools dot the United States. The Solomon Schecter day schools, including The Epstein School in Atlanta, Georgia, are an example.

Important figures

Jewish identity

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:

"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 has come under criticism from a variety of sources such as:

  • 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.

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.

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."

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.

See also

External links



  • 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, Rela 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, 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.

Traditional-Egalitarian Judaism

Observance of Conservative Jews

  • Conservative Leader Takes Heat for Standards Stance, Forward, March 2002
  • Eight Up: The College Years, Survey of Conservative Jewish youth from middle school to college. Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin

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