Conservative Judaism: How the Middle Became a Movement

The First Hundred Years of Conservative Judaism.

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In the USA, a number of prominent rabbis and laymen became increasingly disturbed by the excesses of American Reform. When, in 1883, non-kosher food was served at the banquet in honor of the first graduates of Hebrew Union College, the Reform institution for the training of rabbis, these more "conservative" leaders founded the Jewish Theological Seminary [in New York] for the training of a modern but strictly traditionalist rabbinate. At a later date, the United Synagogue of America [today known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism] was founded, embracing synagogues of this traditional cast. A third movement was thus established and since its chief motivation [was] in reaction to Reform's untraditionalism, it gave itself the name "Conservative Judaism," namely a movement adopting a more conservative and more traditional approach than Reform.

Not everyone who joined the new movement was attracted by its ideology. Many Jews, sentimentally attached to the traditions of their forbears, most of whom came from Eastern Europe where Reform hardly existed as a movement, felt comfortable in a movement which preserved traditional norms without rejecting modernism and the American way of life. For all that, a gallery of outstanding Jewish scholars, members of the faculty at the JTS, demonstrated, on the intellectual level, that it was possible to wed critical scholarship to full observance of the Torah laws.

Twentieth-Century Developments

Schechter's "Catholic Israel" means, as has been frequently noted, that historically considered, God' does not so much reveal His will to the Jewish people as through them. The Jews are not simply passive recipients of the Torah. In a sense they are the creators and authors of the Torah under divine guidance, the latter being the operative phrase. But the emphasis on the concept "Catholic Israel" can result in an interpretation of Judaism in naturalistic terms, as in Reconstructionism, an offshoot of Conservative Judaism in which the precepts of the Torah are seen not as revealed will of a personal God, but as folk-ways and pleasant ceremonies, created entirely by the Jewish people, which are still capable of enriching the Jewish spirit. This was certainly not the view of Schechter, although in his admiration for Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, Schechter appointed him to a Professorship at the Jewish Theological Seminary where Kaplan influenced generations of rabbinic students.

It can perhaps be said that the thinker who more than any other restored the traditional thrust of Conservative Judaism was Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose thought, influenced by his Hasidic background, gave Conservative Judaism a more traditional but also a powerful mystical direction. Heschel also taught at the Seminary, where he influenced especially the younger generation of students.

Conservative Judaism, originally an American phenomenon, now has adherents in the State of Israel, where the movement in called the Masorti movement. Masorti means traditional and has the same connotation as "Conservative" in the USA, but with an Israeli slant. In order to avoid too close an association with the specific needs and approaches of American Jews, a few Anglo-Jewish congregations, sympathetic to the philosophy of Conservative Judaism, have adopted the Israeli term Masorti.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.