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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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."

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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.