What is Conservative Judaism?

The Middle Ground Among Jewish Branches

Conservative Bat Mitzvah in Israel
געוואלד/WikiCommons

The roots for Conservative Judaism were laid in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America stretching back into the 1880s, but the movement was formally organized by Dr. Solomon Schechter in 1913. 

Solomon Schechter was born in Moldavia (now Romania) to Romanian parents of the Chabad Hasidic sect of Judaism. Solomon was even named after the founder of the Hasidic group as Shneur Zalman Schechter. 

In the early 20th century, Jews in the U.S. who were concerned about the growing influence of the American Reform Judaism movement recruited Schechter to lead the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA).

He served in the position of president from 1902-1915, during which he also founded the United Synagogue of America, now known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Schechter wanted the movement to implement certain key ideas:

  • K'all Yisrael, or the whole of the Jewish community
  • a Jewry based on the North American experience
  • a Jewry related to modern living
  • a Jewry devoted to Torah, with education a major priority
  • a Jewry with normative halacha (Jewish law)

Conservative Judaism maintains that the truths found in Jewish scriptures and other Jewish writings come from God, but were transmitted by humans and contain a human compontent. Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of halacha, but believes that the law should change and adapt, absorbing aspects of the predominant culture while remaining true to Judaism's values. In his inaugural address in 1902, Schechter said,

"Judaism is not a religion which does not oppose itself to anything in particular. Judaism is opposed to any number of things and says distinctly 'thou shalt not.' It permeates the whole of your life. It demands control over all of your actions, and interferes even with your menu. It sanctifies the seasons, and regulates your history, both in the past and in the future. Above all, it teaches that disobedience is the strength of sin. It insists upon the observance of both the spirit and of the letter; spirit without letter belongs to the species known to the mystics as 'nude souls' (nishmatim artisan), wandering about in the universe without balance and without consistency ... In a word, Judaism is absolutely incompatible with the abandonment of the Torah."

The idea of flexibility is deeply rooted in Conservative Judaism and can be found in Emet ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (1988).

Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, identifies and explores seven core values of Conservative Judaism in his monograph, "The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism":

  1. The Centrality of Modern Israel
  2. Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression
  3. Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael
  4. The Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism
  5. The Study of Torah
  6. The Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha
  7. Belief in God

Schorsch explains,

"Whereas other movements in modern Judaism rest on a single tenet, such as the autonomy of the individual or the inclusiveness of God's revelation at Sinai (Torah mi-Sinai), Conservative Judaism manifests a kaleidoscopic cluster of discrete and unprioritized core values. Conceptually they fall into two sets — three national and three religious — which are grounded and joined to each other by the overarching presence of God, who represents the seventh and ultimate core value."

The Conservative Movement in Israel is called the Masorti (Masorti is the Hebrew word for "traditional") Movement.

The ideology of the Masorti Movement is based on three primary principles:

  1. Torah and Mitzvot
  2. Tolerance and Pluralism
  3. Zionism

Just a few of the ways that that modern Conservative Judaism varies from its roots and from Orthodox Judaism include:

  • The movement has welcomed women cantors and rabbis since 1985.
  • Women and girls are called up to the Torah.
  • The kosher laws are not strictly and widely observed. 
  • Driving on Shabbat is not prohibited. 
  • Women often wear a kippah or prayer shawl and don tefillin

Today there are about 800 congregations worldwide, representing some 1.5 million members, affiliated with the Conservative Movement. The movement is perhaps most well known for its Solomon Schechter Day School system and summer camp program, Camp Ramah.