Conservative Judaism

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Conservative Judaism (also known as Masorti Judaism in Israel and Europe) is a modern stream of Judaism that arose out of intellectual currents in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and took institutional form in the United States in the early 1900s. It represents a middle ground between Othodox and Reform Judaism. Through much of the twentieth century, Conservative Judaism was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, but has lost this standing recently.

The principles of Conservative Judaism include a dedication to Halakha (Jewish law) as a guide for Jewish life, a deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith, a positive attitude toward modern culture, an acceptance of both traditional rabbinic modes of scholarship and modern critical study of Jewish religious texts.[1]

Conservative Judaism has its roots in the school of thought known as Positive-Historical Judaism, developed in 1850s Germany as a reaction to the more liberal religious positions taken by Reform Judaism. The term conservative was meant to signify that modern Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than radically reform or abandon it. It does not imply the movement's adherents are politically conservative. A number of Conservative rabbis have proposed renaming the movement,[2] and outside of the United States and Canada, it is today known as Masorti (Hebrew for "Traditional") Judaism.

Beth Shalom Synagogue in Seattle, Washington


Like Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. In Europe the movement was known as Positive-Historical Judaism, and it is still known as "the historical school."

Positive-Historical Judaism was developed as a school of thought in the 1840s and 1850s in Germany. Its principal founder was Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, who had broken with the German Reform Judaism in 1845 over its rejection of the primacy of the Hebrew language in Jewish prayer. In 1854, Frankel became the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany.

Frankel emphasized that Jewish law is not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions. In calling his approach towards Judaism "Positive-Historical," he meant that one should have a positive attitude toward Jewish law and tradition, accepting them as normative, yet being open to developing the law in the same fashion that it has always developed historically. Frankel rejected some of the innovations of Reform Judaism as insufficiently based in Jewish history and communal practice. However, his use of modern methods of historical scholarship to analyze Jewish texts and his progressive attitude toward developing Jewish law set him apart from neo-Orthodox Judaism, which was concurrently developing under the leadership of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Conservative Judaism in America

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the debates occurring in German Judaism were replicated in America. Thus, Conservative Judaism in America similarly began as a reaction to Reform Judaism's rejection of traditional Jewish law and practice. The differences between the modern and traditional branches of American Judaism came to a head in 1883, when shellfish and other non-kosher dishes were served at the celebration of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. The adoption of the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which dismissed observance of the ritual commandments and characterized the concept of contemporary Jews as God's chosen people as "anachronistic," resulted in a split between the Reform movement and more traditional American Jews.

Jewish Theological Seminary

In 1886, rabbis Sabato Morais and H. Pereira Mendes founded the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City as a more traditional alternative to HUC. The seminary brief affiliated with the traditional congregations established the Union of Orthodox Congregations in 1898, but this connection was later severed due to the Orthodox rejection of the JTS' modernistic academic approach to Jewish learning. At the turn of the century, JTS lacked a source of permanent funding and was ordaining on average no more than one rabbi per year.

Solomon Schechter

The fortunes of Conservative Judaism underwent a dramatic turnaround when in 1902, the famed scholar Solomon Schechter accepted the invitation to become president of JTS. Under Schechter's leadership, JTS attracted a distinguished faculty and became a highly regarded center of Jewish learning. In 1913, the Conservative Movement founded its congregational arm, the United Synagogue of America.

Conservative Judaism enjoyed rapid growth in the first half of the twentieth century, becoming the largest American Jewish denomination. Its combination of traditional practice and limited modern innovation (such as mixed gender seating) particularly appealed to first- and second-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who found Orthodoxy too restrictive, but Reform Judaism too liberal. After World War II, Conservative Judaism continued to thrive. During the 1950s and early 60s, as upwardly-mobile American Jews moved to the suburbs, Conservative Judaism still occupied this enviable middle position and experienced a boom in synagogue construction.

Reconstructionist split

However, the Conservative coalition splintered in 1963, when advocates of the Reconstructionist philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan seceded from the movement to form a distinct Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan had been a leading figure at JTS for 54 years, and had pressed for liturgical reform and innovations in ritual practice from inside of the framework of Conservative Judaism. Frustrated by the perceived dominance of the more traditionalist voices at JTS, Kaplan's followers decided that the ideas of Reconstructionism would be better served through the creation of separate denomination. In 1968, the split became formalized with the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Gender and homosexual issues

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Conservative Judaism was divided over issues of gender equality. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) voted to permit synagogues to count women toward a minyan (quorum for formal community religious duties), but left the choice to individual congregations. After a further decade of debate, in 1983, JTS voted to admit women for ordination as Conservative rabbis. Some opponents of these decisions left the Conservative movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism.

In December 2006, a resolution was adopted by the CJLS that approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and permitted commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay Jews (but not same-sex marriage). Nevertheless, it maintained the traditional prohibition against anal sex between men.[3] However, an opposing resolution, which maintained the traditional prohibitions against gay ordinations and commitment ceremonies, was also approved. Both responsa were enacted as majority opinions, with some members of the committee voting for both. This result gives individual synagogues, rabbis, and rabbinical schools discretion to adopt either approach.[4]

Current direction

At the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), Conservative Judaism remained the largest Jewish denomination in America, with 43 percent of Jewish households affiliated with a synagogue belonging to Conservative synagogues (compared to 35 percent for Reform and 16 percent for Orthodox). However, in 2000, the NJPS indicated that only 33 percent of synagogue-affiliated American Jews belonging to Conservative synagogue. For the first time in nearly a century, Conservative Judaism was no longer the largest denomination in America, with the Reform tradition drawing mixed-faith couples and Orthodox groups attracting formerly secularized Jews of the Baby Boomer generation seeking to return to the Jewish roots. At the same time, certain Conservative institutions, particularly day schools, have shown significant growth.

Jewish identity

Conservative Judaism maintains the traditional rabbinic understanding of Jewish identity: A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Conservatism thus rejects patrilineal descent, which is accepted by the Reform movement. More importantly, Conservative rabbis are not allowed to perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews. However, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism has adopted a less condemnatory attitude toward intermarriage than Orthodoxy does. It condemns the idea that intermarriage constitutes a renunciation of Judaism or that those who marry non-Jews should be excommunicated. It calls on Jewish parents not to reject their children who intermarry but to reach out to the couple in love, encouraging them to raise their children as Jews and hoping that the non-Jewish partner will ultimately choose to convert.


For much of the its history, Conservative Judaism avoided publishing systematic explications of its understanding of the Jewish principles of faith. This was a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition based on the vision of Conservative Judaism as a middle ground between Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy.

In 1988, the leadership council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. In accord with classical rabbinic Judaism, it states that Jews generally hold certain beliefs. However, it insists that the Jewish community never developed any one binding catechism. Thus, no formal creed can be binding on all Jews. Instead, Emet Ve-Emunah allows for a range of Jewish beliefs that Conservative rabbis believe are authentically Jewish and justifiable.

Thus, Emet Ve-Emunah affirms belief in One God and in the divine inspiration of the Torah. However it also affirms the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. Atheism, Trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are all ruled out. It also explicitly rejects both relativism and fundamentalism.


Conservative Judaism affirms monotheism. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of God is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed as authentically Jewish are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism; and other theistic traditions.


Conservative Judaism allows its adherents to hold to a wide array of views on the subject of revelation. Many Conservative Jews reject the traditional Jewish idea that God literally dictated the words of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal revelation, but they hold the traditional Jewish belief that God inspired the later prophets.

Conservative Judaism is comfortable with biblical criticism, including the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Torah was redacted from several earlier sources. Indeed, the movement's rabbinic authorities and its official Torah commentary (Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary) affirm that Jews should make use of modern critical literary and historical analysis to understand how the Bible developed.

Jewish law

Conservative Judaism views halakha (Jewish religious law) as normative and binding. However, it also affirms that halakha has always evolved to meet the changing realities of Jewish life, and that it must continue to do so in the modern age.

This view, together with Conservative Judaism's diversity of opinion concerning divine revelation, results in considerable diversity in the Conservative movement's tradition of halakha.

The movement is committed to Jewish pluralism and respects the religious practices of Othodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, while disagreeing with some of their positions. It accepts the clergy of these movements as legitimate rabbis capable of ministering authentically to their congregations.

Conservative Judaism also accepts that the Orthodox approach to halakhah is generally valid, even though it opposes Orthodoxy's alleged fundamentalism toward the Torah, Talmud, and halakha. Accordingly, a Conservative Jew may satisfy his or her own halakhic obligations by participation in Orthodox synagogues. This becomes important to Conservative Jews traveling or living in Israel, where Conservative rabbis are not officially recognized.


Institutionally, Conservative Judaism is a unified movement. The international body of Conservative rabbis is the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), while the organization of synagogues is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and the primary seminaries are the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles. Conservative Judaism outside the USA is often called Masorti Judaism; Masorti rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Assembly.[5]

Conservative Judaism worldwide

The Masorti movement is the name given to Conservative Judaism in the State of Israel. It is also the name used by many Conservative Jews for their movement outside of the U.S. Masorti means "traditional" in Hebrew.

Conservative Judaism began to make its presence known in Israel before the 1960s. However, it is hampered by the fact that Israel officially recognizes only Orthodox rabbis. Today, there are reportedly 40 Masorti congregations with over 12,000 affiliated members.

The Masorti movement in Israel adopts policies on subjects of Jewish Law independent from the Conservative movement in the United States, and the two movements sometimes take different positions. For example, the Masorti movement in Israel rejected a decision by the Conservative movement in the United States permitting Jews living far from synagogues to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath.

In 1962 The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) began creating the Neve Schechter, the university's Jerusalem campus. This center houses the Schocken Center for Jewish Research, and the Saul Lieberman Institute for Talmudic Research. In 1975 the JTS instituted a curriculum requiring a year of study in Israel for every JTS rabbinical student.

In Britain today, the Masorti movement has 12 congregations, all of which are affiliated to the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. The first congregation, the New London Synagogue was established on August 28, 1964.

The World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, better known as Masorti Olami, provides services to affiliated communities on five continents. Services include sending visiting rabbis to communities and providing programming support. In many of these communities there are chapters of youth groups and groups for young adults. Masorti Judaism is known to have communities in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. Headquarters are based in Jerusalem and New York City.

See also


  1. Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 2nd Printing (1990).
  2. "In what Direction is the Conservative Movement Headed," Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, January 20, 2006 Retrieved June 4, 2008.
  3. Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins, and Avram I. Reisner, Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbinical Assembly, December 6, 2006. Retrieved June 30, 2008.
  4. "Conservative Jews Allow Gay Rabbis and Unions," The New York Times, December 7, 2006. Retrieved June 8, 2008.
  5. Masorti - About the Movement Retrieved June 23, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Elazar, Daniel Judah, and Rela M. Geffen. The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities. SUNY series in American Jewish society in the 1990s. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. ISBN 9780791446898
  • Fierstien, Robert E. A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly. New York: The Assembly, 2000. ISBN 9780916219178
  • Gillman, Neil. Conservative Judaism: The New Century. West Orange, N.J.: Behrman House, 1993. ISBN 9780874415476
  • Gurock, Jeffrey S. From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious Worlds of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth Century America. David W. Belin lecture in American Jewish affairs, 7. Ann Arbor: Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the University of Michigan, 1998. ISBN 9781881759065

External links

All links retrieved March 20, 2017.


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