Conservative Judaism: A Humanistic Perspective

HJ’s and Other Jews – Winter 1988

I grew up as a Conservative Jew in the 1930s. My father, like many Conservative Jews, had joined a big old established Ortho­dox synagogue in Detroit, which gradually drifted into the Conservative fold. The change began with the arrival of a “modern” rabbi from the Jewish Theologi­cal Seminary and his two-decade campaign for mixed seating. By the time I appeared, the sanctuary had two options: men and women alone on the left and the right, and the “mixers” in the middle.

My father was observant but reasonable. My rabbi was intellectual and articulate. Often he waxed eloquent in a way that was incomprehensible to many of his congre­gants. But they did not seem to mind. In those social climbing days, they were proud to identify with a rabbi who was so edu­cated and so American.

There were, of course, arguments between the old-timers and the progres­sives. Should the interminable services be shortened? Should English explanations be intruded? Should the parking lot be open on Yom Kippur? Should an organ be purchased for the choir loft? But discussions rarely led to change. The mood was a cautious conser­vatism. Why offend anybody if you really didn’t have to?

My education in the synagogue School combined traditional answers with modern teaching techniques. We studied Hebrew for davening and history for a sense of Jewish suffering and achievement. We even devoted much time to loving Palestine and Zionism. But we never talked about ideo­logy. We certainly never talked about Con­servative ideology. It seemed to be enough to say that we believed in both tradition and the modern world.

My experience reveals why the Con­servative movement was so successful. It never repudiated Orthodoxy. It never em­braced Reform. It gave you enough tradition to feel traditional but not so much that you felt oppressed. It gave you enough assimila­tion to feel successful but not so much that you felt treyf. Since ideology was carefully avoided, embarrassing questions about per­sonal beliefs and integrity were never raised. You could be comfortably Jewish without having to be consistent.

The Conservative movement is now one hundred years old. It was established, for all practical purposes, in 1887, with the crea­tion of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the time, the overwhelming majority of United States Jewry belonged to Reform temples. A few Sephardim, rene­gade Germans, and Russian immigrants were searching for a more “conservative” solution to the problem of Jewish identity.

The roots of the Conservative movement were fourfold. The first root was the decor­ous, easy-going orthodoxy of Western Europe and North America, which evolved in response to the political emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution. The “orthodoxy” of assimilated Jews stood in sharp contrast to the more segregated, all- encompassing orthodoxy of Eastern Europe.

The second root was the troubled and di­vided Reform movement, which had begun in Germany but found its home in the free environment of America. In 1885, the radical reformers endorsed the famous Pittsburgh Platform, which repudiated traditional observance and the ethnic character of Jewish identity. This proclama­tion drove the conservative reformers out of the Reform movement and into a less-than- compatible alliance with the “liberal” Orthodox.

The third root was the Historical School of Zacharias Frankel. This approach to Judaism, which, like Reform, had its origins in Germany, never turned into an organized movement in Europe. But it found a home base in a rabbinical college, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau. The graduates of this seminary functioned as community rabbis in Central Europe and usually designated themselves as Liberal if they were compelled to identify themselves. (In the United States, this tendency was conservative with regard to Reform; in Ger­many, it was liberal with regard to Orthodoxy. The Historical Judaism of Frankel dissented from Reform by opposing radical change. It acknowledged the necessity for some change in Jewish life. But it pleaded for the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people, which, of course, meant unity of ritual practice. If there was to be change, it ought to be reluctant change. Only when the overwhelming majority of Jews had discarded a tradition should the discard be sanctioned. Caution and histori­cal continuity were indispensable to appro­priate reform.

The fourth root was the United States it­self. Jews had never experienced a land with so many options and with so much personal freedom. In a place where religion and government were separate and where the state refused to discipline religious behavior, it was tempting to organize ex­periments that would have been resisted in Europe. What would have appeared to be big changes in the old country were little changes in America. American traditions looked traditional only in America.

In time, a Conservative format emerged. The mikveh, segregation by sex, and distinc­tive costumes were out. Hebrew, traditional davening, kashrut, and Shabbat were in. Organ music and driving on holy days were maybes. Secular education and the secular world were accepted and cultivated. Con­gregations came together in the United Syn­agogue (1913). Rabbis came together in the Rabbinical Assembly (1928). Future leaders graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.

The Conservative movement grew very fast. By the end of the Second World War, it was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, encompassing almost a mil­lion and a half Jews. Its phenomenal growth was due to many factors. The Reform move­ment was controlled by religious radicals and the snobbishness of German Jews. Orthodoxy was disorganized, defensive, and lacking in credible leadership. Thou­sands of Russian Jews, who had arrived on American shores, were torn between loyalty to tradition and the attractiveness of Ameri­can culture. The Conservative movement made no ideological demands, allowing prospective adherents to believe whatever they wanted so long as they evinced tradi­tional behavior. In the Conservative rabbi­nate, the devotees of John Dewey stood side by side with the lovers of Maimonides.

It was in this expanding movement that I grew up. By the end of the Second World War, the “machers” of the Conservative synagogues were sharing community lead­ership with the old “aristocracy” of the Reform temples.

Within a decade of this triumphant growth, the Conservative movement began to experience serious problems. By the 1970s, the growth pattern had stopped and intimations of decline were everywhere. Even the expansion of Conservatism to Israel and Latin America could not hide the mood of unease in the North American motherland. This mood arose from certain uncomfortable realities.

Conservative ritual observance con­tinued to decline. As the affluence and pro­fessional success of the Conservative com­munity began to equal the achievements of the old Reform aristocracy, Conservative Jews’ ritual behavior outside the synagogue often became indistinguishable from the be­havior of their Reform compatriots. With some notable exceptions, Conservative Jews “loved” tradition and then proceeded to do very little of it. The pillars of kashrut, Shabbat, and davening were being under­mined by the very people who paid to build them. The propaganda of Conservatism be­gan to sound pretentious and unreal.

The original marriage of liberal Orthodox and conservative Reform, which gave birth to the Conservative movement, was not a happy one. The price of the marriage was that no consistent ideology could be formu­lated to inspire young people who no longer suffered the guilt and anxieties of the immi­grant generation. Any attempt to deal with beliefs and motivation was bound to offend somebody. The safest tactic was to utter cliches about the unity of the Jewish people and “catholic” Israel. And, in the end, that tactic was very boring and very unfulfilling.

The Reconstructionist wing of Conserva­tism ultimately withdrew to organize its own movement. The disciples of Mordecai Kaplan had chosen to remain within the Conservative fold because of their strong connections to the Jewish Theological Semi­nary and because the ideological looseness of the Conservative milieu allowed them to talk humanism and to do traditional behav­ior simultaneously. But the departure of Kaplan from the Seminary and the hostile orthodoxy of so many of the Seminary faculty made a continuing association im­possible. The Reconstructionists, in a burst of organizational fervor, established their own seminary in Philadelphia and their own congregational fraternity. An impor­tant liberal voice and creative force in the Conservative movement had departed.

Very damaging to the Conservative future was the about-face of the Reform move­ment. One of the greatest supports of Con­servative growth was the radical format of classical Reform and its German Jewish devotees. This “Protestant” Judaism was so “way out” that even Russian Jews who were not very traditional found it offensive and joined the Conservatives. But the “Russianization” of the Reform movement after the Second World War (due to the sheer survival necessity of going beyond the declining numbers of German Jews) reversed the pos­ture of Reform with respect to tradition. For the past thirty years, Reform temples have moved consistently to the right, embracing rituals and ceremonies that would have ap­palled the authors of the Pittsburgh Plat­form. The result is that thousands of Jews who would have chosen a Conservative affiliation in the previous generation are now quite satisfied with the traditional fare of the Reform menu. In fact, they prefer it because there are fewer demands for ritual conformity outside the temple.

On the ethnic level, Reform has scored an­other victory. The early fierce anti-Zionism of Reform drove many Jews who wanted a cul­tural Judaism with a religious flavor into the arms of Conservatism, especially since the Conservatives were among the first to em­brace the agenda of the Zionist movement. But between Hitler, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel, Reform has repudiated its old hostility and now enthusiastically promotes the aims of Zion­ism. One now can love Israel as passionately in a Reform temple as in a Conservative syn­agogue. In fact, Reform has been more suc­cessful than the Conservative movement in establishing its institutional presence in Israel and finding publicity for it.

Orthodoxy has also done Conservatism a “dirty” turn. It has re-energized itself, trained an articulate credible leadership, and established powerful new institutions that serve as the foundation of an aggressive missionary posture. The days when the Orthodox cowered in the background obse­quiously, when the Conservatives could imagine that they were the grand wave of the traditional future are over. The Lubavitchers are selling their ideological and ritual wares all over America — and raising millions of dollars at the same time. Young Jews who, as third generation Americans, no longer need to have their Judaism Ameri­canized want the feel of the “authentic” tradition, not an ambivalent, watered-down version of it. To the new, vigorous ultra- Orthodox leadership and its disciples, Con­servatism is no more than Reform in dis­guise — and worse than Reform because it pretends to be traditional.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school and intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, turned out to be far more orthodox than its founders intended it to be. Outside of Mordecai Kaplan, the fac­ulty was dominated by ideologues like Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginzberg, and Saul Lieberman, who were reluctant to deviate from orthodox norms, and who were reluctant to offer any real assistance or guidance to conservative reformers. The school was more traditional than the community it served. When the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly sought petty permis­sions for Shabbat driving and Shabbat elec­trical use (such trivial issues!), the faculty was resistant. The overwhelming need of the faculty — as of many of the rabbinic graduates — was to receive the approval of Orthodox authority. Meanwhile, the needs of the movement were neglected while the intellectual leadership engaged in this self-hating game of futility.

The final event that tested the survival value of Conservatism was the arrival of the feminist movement and the demand for female rabbis. Reform had led the way with its ordination of women. The Conservatives could hardly refuse to follow; the liberated social milieu of most Conservative Jews was the same as that of most Reform Jews. But the issue was no ordinary issue. It struck at the heart of the Conservative self-image. If the Conservative movement consented to ordain women, the break with orthodoxy would be complete. The Orthodox rabbinate was unalterably opposed to the idea of female rabbis. The movement split on the issue. Even many Conservatives who could tolerate female authority were reluctant to abandon the orthodox self-image.

To end up being conservative reformers — and nothing more — was almost intoler­able. So, when the Seminary finally yielded to the enormous public pressure and con­sented to ordain women, a dissenting group of “Traditional Conservatives” was organ­ized to resist the change and threatened that further radical reform would split the move­ment. Two opposing factions, with incom­patible agendas, are now precariously tied together by institutional inertia. What enables both sides to stay “united” in a single movement is the convenient absence of any meaningful ideology.

To say the least, the Conservative move­ment is not in a healthy condition. The denomination is split. The Reconsructionists have left. The Reformers have cornered the pseudo traditional market. And the Orthodox have won the hearts of the true Torah lovers.

Built into the Conservative condition is the problem of all ambivalent Jews who want to have their cake and eat it, who want to be totally traditional and totally part of the modern secular world, who desire des­perately to be accepted by the Orthodox even though they are not orthodox. Self-hat­ing reformers cannot do effective reform and cannot do justice to the needs of secu­larized Jews in a secular age.

The future will bring no dramatic changes. The dissenters will not secede. The liberals will not join the Reform move­ment. The vested interest of an established denomination will keep them bound to­gether in an unhappy marriage. Their energy will not be freed for creative work. It will be used up in the struggle between the two factions. Timidity, thy name is Con­servative Judaism.