Conservative Judaism Today

Smaller but more committed, the movement is seeing vibrant, sometimes divisive debate as it navigates between tradition and change.

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One of the Conservative movement's mottos is "Tradition and Change," and the history of the movement might best be understood as a tug of war between these two concepts. The movement professes obedience to halakhah (Jewish law), but at the same time is open to making normative adjustments in response to societal changes. However, while a religious life that balances tradition and change might sound ideal, navigating these two poles is never simple. As the contemporary world drifts further from traditional values, the conflicts and contradictions that arise from this balancing act have increased.

Declining Demographics

If demographics are an indication of a denomination's health, then the prognosis for the Conservative movement may be troubling.

For decades, more American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement than any other denomination. This is no longer the case. The Reform movement is now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, and the number of Conservative Jews dropped from 38 percent in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey to 33 percent 10 years later. Jack Wertheimer, the Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)--the Conservative movement's flagship educational institution--who directed a study of Conservative congregations in the mid-1990s, found that the movement has been in demographic decline for two generations.

A woman studies a text at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Photo credit: the Conservative Yeshiva.

What's caused this demographic shift?

Intermarriage--which has greatly affected Jewish demographics generally--is one answer. According to Steven M. Cohen, three out of four intermarried Jews who grew up in the Conservative movement leave the movement or never join as adults. Many of these people become affiliated with Reform Judaism, which is more welcoming to intermarried couples and accepts patrilineal descent (meaning Reform Judaism recognizes as Jewish the child of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, contrary to traditional Jewish law, which requires the mother to be Jewish). In addition, the Conservative movement has an older constituency, with as many as twice the amount of affiliates over 65 than the Reform movement.

But numbers aren't everything.

Those younger Jews who do affiliate with the Conservative movement may be more ideologically committed than the older generation, who tend to be dropouts from Orthodox Judaism. Formal education for Conservative Jews has also experienced something of a renaissance. Today, there are 50,000 Conservative day school students in the United States studying at community schools and the movement's 75 Solomon Schechter schools. In 1995, the Conservative Yeshiva was founded in Jerusalem and has grown from five to 50 students.

Controversial Issues of Jewish Law

One might argue that contemporary Conservative Judaism was born in 1983, when JTS began ordaining women. This was the final step toward sanctioning complete egalitarianism, and though many Conservative leaders embraced the move with open arms, others saw it as a betrayal of tradition. Some JTS faculty members--including one of its leading Talmudists, David Weiss Halivni--left the school after the ruling.

Nearly twenty-five years later, another divisive issue arose. Because of its commitment to Jewish law, the Conservative movement officially disapproved of homosexuality. While advocating compassion and kindness toward gays and lesbians, the movement barred open homosexuals from studying at its rabbinical schools and holding leadership roles in Conservative institutions.

This position became increasingly unpopular. Elliot Dorff, the rector of the University of Judaism--a Conservative rabbinical school in Los Angeles--and vice-chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was one of the most prominent leaders seeking a policy change. Already in 1992 Dorff had authored a legal responsa (rabbinic decision) that condoned homosexuality by employing a concept called ones--the idea that one is only responsible for things that he or she can control--and relying on evidence that homosexuality is innate and therefore not under a person's control.

The biggest source of ferment on this issue, however, came from future Conservative rabbis. In a survey conducted in 2001 among rabbinical students by Keshet (Rainbow), an advocacy group at JTS, almost 80 percent of 236 respondents averred that gays and lesbians should be admitted to Conservative rabbinical and cantorial schools. Nonetheless, there was still opposition to changing the denomination's official position.

The issue came to a tenuous resolution in March of 2007, when JTS made the decision to begin accepting qualified gay and lesbian students into its rabbinical and cantorial students. This came three months after the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a teshuva permitting the ordination of gays and lesbians, while upholding the prohibition against male intercourse. The law committee also endorsed two teshuvot supporting the traditional position on gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies. Rabbis Joel Roth and Leonard Levy, who authored the more conservative teshuovot, resigned from the law committee in protest, as did Rabbis Mayer Rabinowitz and Joseph Prouser.

Exodus Spat

Jewish legal issues--like homosexuality--invite the most controversy in the Conservative movement, but that's not to say that the movement is theologically homogeneous.

In a sermon during Passover 2001, David Wolpe, rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, opined that the Exodus from Egypt didn't happen in the way it is recorded in the Bible. Wolpe's opinion reflects the position of academic Bible scholars and archeologists, who believe that the Israelite nation was indigenous to Canaan and not--as the Bible suggests--a group of tribes who conquered Canaan after leaving slavery in Egypt.

Wolpe does not believe that the biblical narrative is "false," but rather that the story of the Exodus need not be understood as a historical record.

The Conservative movement has always been closely associated with academic Jewish Studies, but the response to Wolpe's sermon revealed that Conservative Jews have vastly different opinions about what to do when scholarship conflicts with traditional theological narratives.

Dennis Prager, a radio personality who teaches at the University of Judaism, was outraged by Wolpe's remarks, writing in an article that, "If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism." Though few Conservative leaders took this extreme approach, many--including Joel Meyers, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism--professed their belief in the historicity of the Exodus.

While the controversy surrounding Wolpe's sermon demonstrates the conflict between tradition and change, it also demonstrates that conflict does not have to be divisive. The Conservative movement condones both the traditional and scholarly approach to the Exodus, and both positions are taught in its schools and seminaries.

Textual Milestones

The social and theological state of the Conservative movement can also be culled from its holy texts. In 1998, a new edition of the Sim Shalom siddur, the movement's official prayer book, was published. One of the defining characteristics of the new edition is an increased sensitivity toward gender and feminism.

The prayer book's most significant change was the addition of an alternative version of the Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish liturgy. In the traditional text, the first paragraph refers to the God of the patriarchs--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The alternative version in the new Sim Shalom includes the names of the matriarchs--Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Similarly, the matriarchs, as well as the biblical heroines Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth, are included in the ushpizin, a text recited on the holiday of Sukkot.

God language--the way the prayers refer to the divine--was also amended in the new Sim Shalom. Though the pronoun "He" was not excised, divine titles such as "Lord," "Father," and "King" were dropped in favor of neutral terms such as "Sovereign" and "Guardian."

Not surprisingly, these changes were not unanimous. In an essay published in the journal Conservative Judaism, Jules Harlow, the editor of the previous Sim Shalom, expressed concern that, "changes based upon gender language referring to God disrupt the integrity of the classic texts of Jewish prayer, drive a wedge between the language of the Bible and the language of the prayer book, and often misrepresent biblical and rabbinic tradition."

Ambivalence about amending tradition is apparent in the new prayerbook itself. Several texts and prayers that betray a more traditional approach to women--such as the Friday night hymn Eshet Hayil--are still included in the new edition.

In 2001, three years after the publication of the new Sim Shalom, the Conservative, Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Jewish Publication Society jointly published Etz Hayim, a Pentateuch with commentary specifically geared toward a Conservative audience.

The volume reflects the denomination's precarious relationship between traditional commentaries and modern biblical scholarship. In addition to a five levels of interpretation, the Etz Hayim includes essays written by Conservative scholars that tackle a myriad of theological quandaries.

The movement also published in 2003 Or Hadash: A Commentary on the Siddur, which presents the prayer book in a user-friendly format and offers commentary from a Conservative perspective written by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the author of two well-regarded books on prayer.

The balance between tradition and change might be as volatile as ever, and though volatility can sometimes be destructive, it can also be a sign of vitality.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.