Conservative Judaism ExplainedIt seems that we’ve been going over and over the same debate about the streams of Judaism. It is not only tiresome, but it is demoralizing to watch the unfortunate but undeniably negative perceptions of other streams that we’ve been reading on Jewlicious. As Rabbi Aviner of Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva has pointed out, we are brothers and one nation, and that should be one of the values that drives our discussions. While debates such as these have a long and prominent history (Saducees and Pharisees, anyone?), I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it might improve matters if people actually had some information at their fingertips.

So I’m going to do some cutting and pasting and borrowing of content from sources that I believe will provide a short overview of Conservative Judaism. This is a long post, but I believe it’s worth the read, and encourage those who are interested to go directly to the sources by clicking on the provided links.

1. I located this easy-to-understand “FAQ” by Rabbi Chaim Weiner about the Masorti (masorti means “traditional” in Hebrew) movement, as the Conservative movement is known outside the U.S.:

The basic beliefs of a Masorti Jew are no different than those of traditional Judaism. We believe in a God who created the world. We believe in a covenant between God and the people of Israel. We believe that we are comrnanded, as a part of that covenant, to live a special lifestyle, spelled out in the Torah and articulated in “halacha – Jewish law”. We accept that this law is defined by the classical books of the rabbis: the Mishnah, the Talmud, and thereafter refined through the codes and responsa.

The main principle that defines conservative Judaism is our relationship to modern science and scholarship.

What role do the results of modern studies, particularly in the fields of history, archaeology, bible scholarship and literature play in the understanding of our tradition?

The Masorti/Conservative approach to this question is unequivocal: The results of these sciences cannot be ignored. They must be used to inform our religious beliefs, to help us understand our tradition better. They cannot be rejected outright, without careful consideration of their claims.

There are many areas where the results of scholarship and tradition seem to contradict. In these instances it is our position that we must interpret the tradition in a way that it doesn’t contradict our knowledge from other sources. This is not a matter of convenience. The only reason to follow a tradition is because it is true. If we accept our tradition as truth, then it must agree with the facts as we know them. This means that, although we believe in the same things as traditional Judaism, how we understand those things is influenced by the findings of modern science and modern thought.

Do Masorti Jews believe that the Torah comes from heaven?

Bible scholarship has shown that the Torah has a history. It is difficult to accept the claim that the Torah was handed down from heaven at a certain point in history in the literal sense. We therefore understand this term as a metaphor to mean that the Torah is divine and that it reflects God’s will. Research can help us understand the process of how the Torah came about, but will probably never give us a full picture. From our point of view, the idea that a concept as complex as “how God communicates to people” could be reduced to a literal description is unacceptable.

How can you consider the findings of scholarship to be true? There are always different schools of thought, and the positions of the scholars constantly change as new information becomes available.

True. Science is not infallible and the more we know, the better we understand things. We do not accept modern notions as “Torah from Sinai” as truths to be defended no matter what. Every finding must be accepted for what it is: a guess, a fact, an interpretation or a most probable explanation. We must always be open to learning more. However, the more information we have, the more that evidence from different fields of study agrees, the closer we get to the truth. The fact that one is not absolutely sure doesn’t mean that we should just deny facts or accept things which are simply impossible. Our beliefs must always be reviewed by our critical understanding. Not because we are perfect, but because our faculty of reason is what God has given us, and we have no better tool to use to search for the truth. Our reason is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

If you do not believe that the Torah was given by God literally, does this not undermine your commitment to observe the tradition?

No. If one believes that the commandments are God’s will, it does not matter how you understand how they were given. You would still feel bound to observe them.

The role that halacha plays: When we looked at ideology, we saw that there were many similarities between the ideology of Masorti and that of traditional Judaism. This similarity cuts through to halacha.

What is halacha? The Torah tells us of a special covenant between the Jewish people and God. As part of this covenant Jews have been given many commandments. The commandments of the Torah are of a general nature. We do not observe the commandments as they are in the Torah. There is a whole literature – the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Midrash, the responsa literature and the codes -which explains and develops the commandments and translates them into rules for everyday living.

These rules, the way of life of the observant Jew, are the halacha. The halacha is far from being a closed book; everything being clear-cut and sealed in stone. There is not a page in the Talmud which is free from debate, not an issue over which there is not some difference of opinion. The halacha is dynamic. It has within it the ability to grow and to respond to changes. However, despite differences of opinion and the freedom that exist within the halacha, there have emerged guidelines which help define the system. Over time the Babylonian Talmud has become the final authority in Jewish law. Precedents have been set and practice has been established. Even when confronting new realities, the precedents of the past and the underlying principles which have been established are to be taken into consideration when deciding how the halacha applies today.

All that has been said so far is true for both Masorti and Orthodox Judaism. Where does Masorti differ?

The differences are not in how halacha is understood, but in how it is applied. Whenever a rabbi is called upon to give a ruling, in addition to determining the halacha, he must also judge the situation he is ruling upon. As Masorti rabbis understand the world differently than Orthodox rabbis, the way they apply the halacha differs.

This difference in the way we look at the world manifests itself in many ways. Masorti Jews respect academic research as a means to understand the world better and therefore the results of this research are brought to bear in our halachic decisions. Masorti Jews accept many of the values of modern society. We are integrated in the modern world and our halachic decisions reflect this integration. Rather than trying to set Jews apart from general society, we seek ways to make it possible to be an observant Jew within it. Our constituency includes many Jews who have not made a full commitment to observance. As a result of this, the importance of enabling “somewhat” observant Jews to play a fuller role in the community is an important consideration in our decisions.

The biggest difference in our approach centres on our attitude to change. Our society is characterized by rapid social change. Is this change good? Should we welcome it? Do you resist it? It is in those areas of our lives where the greatest social changes have occurred where the differences between the movements in Judaism are most apparent.

The most prominent example of the need to take a position regarding change is when we come to define the role of women in the synagogue. In our secular society the role of women has radically been changed. Women today are fully integrated in society, are educated, hold positions of power and share equal rights. The halacha grew in an age where none of this was true. The main challenge facing all traditional groups today is how to respond to this change. It is the Masorti position that it is the ability to address itself to change that has kept the halacha alive through the centuries. We maintain that failure to apply the tools of change that exist within the halacha to the changes in our world today will leave the halacha as irrelevant to most Jews.

Although these attitudes are wide reaching, it should be stressed that in most cases, there is no difference between the interpretations of Masorti and of Orthodox rabbis.

2. Ismar Schorsch, widely considered as one of the leading thinkers of the Conservative movement wrote The Sacred Cluster which defines the seven core beliefs and values that define the movement. Here are some selected (that is, selected by yours truly, so please forgive any hiccups and errors, I am doing my best) excerpts:

The Sacred Cluster

There are seven such core values, to my mind, that imprint Conservative Judaism with a principled receptivity to modernity balanced by a deep reverence for tradition. 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 dual nature of Judaism as polity and piety, a world religion that never transcended its national origins, is unified by God. In sum, a total of seven core values corresponding to the most basic number in Judaism’s construction of reality.

The Centrality of Modern Israel
Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression
Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael
The Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism
The Study of Torah
The Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha
Belief in God

The Centrality of Modern Israel

For Conservative Jews, as for their ancestors, Israel is not only the birthplace of the Jewish people, but also its final destiny. Sacred texts, historical experience and liturgical memory have conspired to make it for them, in the words of Ezekiel, “the most desirable of all lands (20:6).” Its welfare is never out of mind. Conservative Jews are the backbone of Federation leadership in North America and the major source of its annual campaign. They visit Israel, send their children over a summer or for a year and support financially every one of its worthy institutions.(1) Israeli accomplishments on the battlefield and in the laboratory, in literature and politics, fill them with pride. Their life is a dialectic between homeland and exile. No matter how prosperous or assimilated, they betray an existential angst about anti-Semitism that denies them a complete sense of at-homeness anywhere in the diaspora.

Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression

Hebrew as the irreplaceable language of Jewish expression is the second core value of Conservative Judaism. Its existence is coterminous with that of the Jewish people and the many layers of the language mirror the cultures in which Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never merely a vehicle of communication, but part of the fabric and texture of Judaism. Words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values and literary associations. Torah and Hebrew are inseparable and Jewish education was always predicated on mastering Hebrew. Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the unending dialectic between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages, between God and Israel. To know Judaism only in translation is, to quote Bialik, akin to kissing the bride through the veil.

Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael

The third core value is an undiminished devotion to the ideal of klal yisrael, the unfractured totality of Jewish existence and the ultimate significance of every single Jew. In the consciousness of Conservative Jews, there yet resonates the affirmation of haverim kol yisrael (all Israel is still joined in fellowship) – despite all the dispersion, dichotomies and politicization that history has visited upon us, Jews remainunited in a tenacious pilgrimage of universal import.(3) It is that residue of Jewish solidarity that makes Conservative Jews the least sectarian or parochial members of the community, that renders them the ideal donor of Federation campaigns and brings them to support unstintingly every worthy cause in Jewish life. Often communal needs will prompt them to compromise the needs of the movement.

Such admirable commitment to the welfare of the whole does not spring from any special measure of ethnicity, as is so often ascribed to Conservative Jews. Rather, I would argue that it is nurtured by the acute historical sense cultivated by their leadership. In opposition to exclusively rational, moral or halahkic criteria for change, Conservative Judaism embraced a historical romanticism that rooted tradition in the normative power of a heroic past. To be sure, history infused an awareness of the richness and diversity of the Jewish experience. But it also presumed to identify a normative Judaism and invest it with the sanctity of antiquity.

The Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism

The fourth core value is the defining role of Torah in the reshaping of Judaism after the loss of political sovereignty in 63 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. to the Romans. In their stead, the Rabbis fashioned the Torah into a portable homeland, the synagogue into a national theater for religious drama and study into a form of worship. Conservative Judaism never repudiated any of these remarkable transformations. Chanting the Torah each Shabbat is still the centerpiece of the Conservative service…

…For Conservative Jews, the Torah is no less sacred, if less central, than it was for their pre-modern ancestors. I use the word “sacred” advisedly. The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism, the apex of an inverted pyramid of infinite commentary, not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font. The term skirts the divisive and futile question of origins, the fetid swamp of heresy. The sense of individual obligation, of being commanded, does not derive from divine authorship, but communal consent. The Written Torah, no less than the Oral Torah, reverberates with the divine-human encounter, with “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” It is no longer possible to separate the tinder from the spark. What history can attest is that the community of Israel has always huddled in the warmth of the flame.

The Study of Torah

Accordingly, the study of Torah, in both the narrow and extended sense, is the fifth core value of Conservative Judaism. As a canon without closure, the Hebrew Bible became the unfailing stimulus for midrash, the medium of an I-Thou relationship with the text and with God. Each generation and every community appropriated the Torah afresh through their own interpretive activity, creating a vast exegetical dialogue in which differences of opinion were valid and preserved. The undogmatic preeminence of Torah spawned a textually-based culture that prized individual creativity and legitimate conflict.

What Conservative Judaism brings to this ancient and unfinished dialectic are the tools and perspectives of modern scholarship blended with traditional learning and empathy. The full meaningof sacred texts will always elude those who restrict the range of acceptable questions, fear to read contextually and who engage in willful ignorance. It is precisely the sacredness of these texts that requires of serious students to employ every piece of scholarly equipment to unpack their contents. Their power is crippled by inflicting upon them readings that no longer carry any intellectual cogency. Modern Jews deserve the right to study Torah in consonance with their mental world and not solely through the eyes of their ancestors. Judaism does not seek to limit our thinking, only our actions.

This is not to say that earlier generations got it all wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. To witness their deep engagement with Torah and Talmud is to tap into inexhaustible wellsprings of mental acuity and spiritual power. It is to discover the multiple and ingenious ways – critical, midrashic, kabbalistic and philosophical – in which they explicated these texts. Like them, Conservative scholars take their placein an unbroken chain of exegetes, but with their own arsenal of questions, resources, and methodologies. No matter how differently done, the study of Torah remains at the heart of the Conservative spiritual enterprise.

Moreover, it is pursued with the conviction that critical scholarship will yield new religious meaning for the inner life of contemporary Jews…

The Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha

The sixth core value is the governance of Jewish life by halakha, which expresses the fundamental thrust of Judaism to concretize ethics and theology into daily practice. The native language of Judaism has always been the medium of deeds. Conservative Jews are rabbinic and not biblical Jews. They avow the sanctity of the Oral Torah erected by Rabbinic Judaism alongside the Written Torah as complementary and vital to deepen, enrich and transform it. Even if in their individual lives they may often fall short on observance, they generally do not ask of their rabbinic leadership to dismantle wholesale the entire halakhic system in order to translate personal behavior into public policy. Imbued with devotion to klal yisrael and a pervasive respect for tradition, they are more inclined to sacrifice personal autonomy for a reasonable degree of consensus and uniformity in communal life.

Collectively, the injunctions of Jewish law articulate Judaism’s deep-seated sense of covenant, a partnership with the divine to finish the task of creation. Individually, the mitzvot accomplish different ends. Some serve to harness and focus human energy by forging a regimen made up of boundaries, standards and rituals. To indulge in everything we are able to do, does not necessarily enhance human happiness or well-being. Some mitzvot provide the definitions and norms for the formation of community, while others still generate respites of holiness in which the feeling of God’s nearness pervades and overwhelms.

The institution of Shabbat, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jewish religious imagination, realizes all three. The weekly rest it imposes both humbles and elevates. By desisting from all productive work for an entire day, Jews acknowledge God’s sovereignty over the world and the status of human beings as mere tenants and stewards…

…[Does not lead] Conservative Judaism to assert blithely that the halakha is immutable. Its historical sense is simply too keen. The halakhic system, historically considered, evinces a constant pattern of responsiveness, change and variety. Conservative Judaism did not read that record as carte blanche for a radical revision or even rejection of the system, but rather as warrant for valid adjustment where absolutely necessary. The result is a body of Conservative law sensitive to human need, halakhic integrity and the worldwide character of the Jewish community…

Belief in God

I come, at last, to the seventh and most basic core value of Conservative Judaism: its belief in God. It is this value which plants the religious nationalism and national religion that are inseparable from Judaism in the universal soil of monotheism. Remove God, the object of Israel’s millennial quest, and the rest will soon unravel. But this is precisely what Conservative Judaism refused to do, even after the Holocaust. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who came to the United States in March, 1940, to emerge after the war as the most significant Jewish theologian of the modern period, placed God squarely at the center of his rich exposition of the totality of the Jewish religious experience.

To speak of God is akin to speaking about the undetected matter of the universe. Beyond the reach of our instruments, it constitutes at least 90 per cent of the mass in the universe. Its existence is inferred solely from its effects: the gravitational force, otherwise unaccounted for, that it exerts on specific galactic shapes and rotational patterns and that it contributes in general to holding the universe together.

Similarly, Heschel was wont to stress the partial and restricted nature of biblical revelation.

“With amazing consistency the Bible records that the theophanies witnessed by Moses occurred in a cloud. Again and again we hear that the Lord ‘called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud’ (Exodus 24:16)…

We must neither willfully ignore nor abuse by allegorization these important terms. Whatever specific fact it may denote, it unequivocally conveys to the mind the fundamental truth that God was concealed even when He revealed, that even while His voice became manifest, His essence remained hidden.”(6)

For Judaism, then, God is a felt presence rather than a visible form, a voice rather than a vision. Revelation tends to be an auditory and not a visual experience. The grandeur of God is rarely compromised by the hunger to see or by the need to capture God in human language. And yet, God’s nearness and compassion are sensually asserted. The austerity of the one and the intimacy of the other are the difference between what we know and what we feel. God is both remote and nearby, transcendent and immanent. To do justice to our head and heart, that is, to the whole person, Judaism has never vitiated the polarity that lies in the midst of its monotheistic faith…

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  • Are you proseltysing?

    I’ll give you that in these days of short tempers, intolerance, and increasing assimilation, there should definitely be a renewal of Jewish unity. Instead of emphasizing the differences, we should start from what we have in common and go from there.

    Unfortunately, I think that this starts and ends with deciding who has a Jewish mother.

    Sorry, I’m praying that mashiach comes very soon to settle this argument once and for all!

  • On paper it all sounds so good, doesn’t it?

    I grew up bewteen my local Reform and Conservative shuls. I went to Sunday school at the Conservative one. No one in my class returned to that place after our bar or bat mitzvah’s if we were given the choice. They completely failed to instill in us any sense of passion or joy about being Jewish. They failed to instill a sense of community between the members, or relevance to the real world in the stuff we were learning. In fact, I barely remember what they taught us. All I know is that you can ask any secular Israeli kid on the street who Rambam is and they can tell you. After years of conservative hebrew school I don’t remember ever hearing the name.

    If Conservative Judaism “worked” I really might not have much of a problem with it. But I know my experience isn’t unique, and the conservative movement keeps losing numbers for a reason.

  • Thank you so much TM for that lovely and informative essay on Conservative Judaism. I definitely learnt a thing or two. I was particularly interested in your quoting from Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In that respect, just as a minor adendum, I recall reading an article in Forward where the good Rabbi, head of Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution stated, unequivocally, that

    the movement made a “mistake” when it issued a landmark ruling a half-century ago permitting Jews to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath…By sanctioning travel on the Sabbath, he said, the Conservative movement “gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”

    The same article noted that according “to the … National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, Conservative Judaism has lost its primacy as the nation’s largest synagogue movement. The survey found that only 33% of households belonging to a synagogue affiliated with a Conservative temple — a 10-percentage-point drop from the 43% reported in the 1990 survey.”

    You write in your post that:

    The biggest difference in our approach centres on our attitude to change. Our society is characterized by rapid social change. Is this change good? Should we welcome it? Do you resist it? It is in those areas of our lives where the greatest social changes have occurred where the differences between the movements in Judaism are most apparent.

    Stats and personal experience clearly demonstrate that Conservative Judaism has not adapted too well to change. Which is kinda odd. I mean with all the lofty values meant to appeal to the modern thinking Jew, you would think Conservative synagogues would be booming, that kids brought up within the Conservative movement would be leading a veritable rennaissance in Jewish communal life. Instead we are faced with the spectacle of young Jews abandoning Judaism in droves (except within Orthodox circles) we see rampant intermarriage (except within Orthodox circles) we see declining birth rates (except within… you get the point). Its gotten to the point where we now have to look to non-Jews to save Judaism! What’s up with that?

    I dunno. But I do know that Conservative Judaism isn’t for me and that consequently, all of the problems mentioned above will not directly affect me. Of course anything that detrimentally affects klal yisrael affects me, and I am sad for those folks who do not see the same beauty in Judaism that I do. Oh well. Think about it.

  • Speaking as a former conservative Jew, I find this article silly. “The main principle that defines conservative Judaism is our relationship to modern science and scholarship.” No, it isn’t. The main principle that defines conservative Judaism is compromise. They claim to observe halakhah– yet: something like 25% or fewer of self-identified conservative Jews bother to keep kosher; conservative “rabbis” permit driving on Shabbos; the Conservative movement denies the authenticity of Torah (having been persuaded by gentile “Bible scholarship” that the Torah was written by people); and the list goes on. Indeed, one need only look at the intermarriage rate among conservative Jews to see where the movement is headed. Conservative Jews should either return to Torah observance, or start shopping for Christmas presents for their grandchildren. People won’t stay with a religion that is based on evolving scientific notions rather than revealed truth, since it’s always subject to revision.

  • Don’t blame the Conservative movement for these problems. I’m afraid it’s actually the fault of our parents and grandparents who ran away from observant Judaism as soon as they perceived that no one was looking.

    Let’s be honest and recognize that the people who populate many Reform and Conservative congregations started out in families that didn’t strongly emphasize Jewish practice. Speaking from my own experience, my parents weren’t at all interested in whether or not I knew who Rambam was. They were only concerned with making sure I had a Bat Mitzvah, and the fact that I was interested in learning beyond that was chalked up to weirdness on my part.

    Oddly enough, my grandparents were largely non-observant (no one kept Shabbos or kashrut), although both sets were very culturally connected. If there had been no “Conservative Movement”, we’d probably have been non-observant members of an Orthodox congregation. I’m not sure how that alternative would have been better.

  • (You mention the Saducees. But they clearly lost the debate! The Pharisees clearly won! Yet you mention these two groups as if their debate had ended in a tie. People who, today, decide to give the Saducee method another try, to see if it works this time, are not being reasonable. They are betting on something that already has been plainly seen not to work.)

  • ck and Laya, I’m disappointed in both of your posts.

    Laya, I also grew up within the Conservative system and I was offered gemara classes, not to mention discussions about the Rambam. I purposely posted the materials up there to show that Conservative Judaism is inclusive of Jewish thinking, halacha and the ongoing development of Jewish thinking…which would mean the Rambam is right up there.

    As for you ck, why the triumphant tone? In the other discussion I ask where Orthodox Judaism would be without the support of the remainder of the Jewish community.

    Nobody has responded. We all know why.

    If you check out the Schorsch link I provided, you will learn that Conservative Jews contribute the lion’s share of the funds that are contributed to the Jewish community. In other words, they are partially subsidizing this great renaissance of Orthodox Judaism.

    Perhaps what is most disappointing, ck, is that you focus and seem to take some high-minded pleasure in the failures of the Conservative movement. Yes, they are having problems, but not for the reasons you state. Judi is actually very much on target, in my opinion: the problem is faith.

    You either have blind faith or you don’t. If you don’t, then you have to approach things differently. In this case, the Conservatives differentiate, for example, between a literal reading of Torah M’Sinai (Moses coming down with the tablets and the Torah after visiting with God) and reading it as a metaphor while agreeing that the Torah is divinely inspired.

    Schorsch even attempts to avoid this discussion altogether and states:

    For Conservative Jews, the Torah is no less sacred, if less central, than it was for their pre-modern ancestors. I use the word “sacred” advisedly. The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism, the apex of an inverted pyramid of infinite commentary, not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font. The term skirts the divisive and futile question of origins, the fetid swamp of heresy. The sense of individual obligation, of being commanded, does not derive from divine authorship, but communal consent. The Written Torah, no less than the Oral Torah, reverberates with the divine-human encounter, with “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” It is no longer possible to separate the tinder from the spark. What history can attest is that the community of Israel has always huddled in the warmth of the flame.

    What more do you want? I mean, do you expect everybody to believe unequivocally in Torah M’Sinai? Were you satisfied with the answers given in the dinosaur discussion?

    Show some respect, dude, and if you can’t, at least come up with some cogent debating points as opposed to some pie in the sky stories about why the movement is losing people. I wonder how quickly these 10-baby Orthodox families would shrink if resources from the rest of us weren’t forthcoming.

  • David, there are plenty of Jews who also research and publish “bible scholarship.” Quite a few of the leading scholars are in Israeli universities like Hebrew U., by the way. And in the dinosaur debate, nobody gave a satisfactory response as to why the Creation Story and the Garden of Eden stories don’t tell a consistent tale.

    By the way, the Conservatives practice “Torah observance” as I’ve outlined above. That some of their members don’t is true, but then again we have Chief Orthodox Rabbis with families that kidnap and beat young kids who talk on the Internet and want to meet. Should I assume that this is representative of Orthodox Judaism?

  • Come on themiddle! You know I love all my Jews! What difference does it make who funds Orthodox Jewish institutions? They are, regardless of their personal level of observance, people who see value in Orthodox Judaism. Did I say that Conservative Jews are, what? Useless turds? No. I just don’t think Conservative Judaism is, you know, working. In the last 2 years I’ve taken close to 120 young people to Israel – I would say about 40 of them grew up within a Conservative system and their ties to Judaism were, uh, weak. I know that when our self appointed leaders bellyache about the impending decline in Judaism, they are not talking about Orthodox Judaism. So please, with all due respect, I am going to ask a question and I’d like an answer:

    Conservative Judaism, what have you done for me lately?

    And please, try to distinguish between individual Jews who happen to be members of a Conservative congregation, and the Conservative movement itself. Also don’t tell me what I already know, that there are great and wonderful individual Conservative Jews, Rabbis and Congregations. I wanna know what Conservative Judaism has done for its decliuning congregants and the corpus of Jews.

  • So here is the Torah Israel it is the blueprint for how to live your life.

    What does it say?

    God took the Jewish people out of Egypt and gave them the Torah at mount Sinia…. haha just kidding that really didn’t happen… its a great story though… any takers?

    hmm let me think

  • TM said In the other discussion I ask where Orthodox Judaism would be without the support of the remainder of the Jewish community.

    Nobody has responded. We all know why.

    Ummm, what?

    Helluva lot of good funds will do as Conservative numbers continue to diminish, and Jews become less interested in giving to Jewish causes, eh?

    You might also ask, where would any jews be without Orthodoxy? Non-existent.

  • The Orthodox communities take nothing from the prison budget (OK, almost nothing). They take nothing from the public school budget, although they pay taxes for both. I don’t know how the non-orthodox fund the orthodox?? I am not aware of the UJC and those guys etc doing much for them. Maybe I just don’t know?

    Even if they do, do you think they do nothing for you in return?

    If the Torah was “adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font” can’t they just decide to un-adopt it?

    Are you seriously doubting that there is a problem in Conservative continuity? You know the people and their family stories. We always assume problems are just among our unfortunate friends. Right around the corner there are wonderful families who do NOT have these problems. Right.

  • The two stories of creation differ because the first one is general and the second one more in-depth and detailed. What is strange about that? I talk that way, too. The first version prepares you. It might have been too much all at once. As it underlies all other stories we have to be let into it slowly.

    I was never much of a student and I am grateful G-d did NOT give us a factually correct scientific geology / biology lecture on Friday night. That would be so prosaic! I love that science but on Friday night I want something transcendental.

    Don’t tell me the rate of acceleration of a falling body when I want to know what it all means.

    As for the Israeli secular bible scholars, what does that prove? You know there have always been unbelieving Jews.

  • It’s not true that Conservative Judaism has failed!

    Conservative Judaism set out to rationalize Judaism in the light of modern American living. And they’ve succeeded:

    – their children are SO well-adjusted to modern life that they no longer need any Jewish particularity at all…

    – and they’re so well adjusted to American society that they eat, drink, party, rest, and marry just like other Americans…


  • So middeleh: this time you got taken down by not-necessarily-Orthodox people, people with direct personal experience of Conservative Judaism (which is probably why they couldn’t get through the Profound Exposition of Great Ideas without gagging – because they know how unrelated all this gasbagging is to C Judaism as it is lived).

    So now what? Can’t blame this critique on Orthodox intolerance, can we?

  • look, i don’t officially identify as Conservative, but i can tell you that there are many vibrant, powerful, spanktastic Conservative shuls out there that are inspiring kids and adults alike to become more observant Jews. please don’t everyone always insist on basing their comments on their own sorry childhood shul.

    Shuls are started by congregations who share an ideology. At a certain point, many congregations choose to affiliate with a movement, because movements bring nice bennies, like subventions for programming, summer camp funding, a national peer group, lobbying, yadda yadda. Some shuls stay indie. Like mine, for instance. I see this as the wave of the future. My ortho/conservative.conservadox peers in San Francisco don’t seem very compelled by the idea of affiliation at all. We know we want to davven traditionally, we know we are stringently kosher, and we know we want mixed seating. So we’ve made our own little niche. I see more of this on the horizon, not less.

    Some congregations that are amazingly good at being Conservative choose not to affiliate for political reasons. Take NYC’s B’nai Jeshurun which has stayed unaffiliated altogether, for instance, or look at Sha’ar Zahav in SF for an example of a shul that affiliated Reform instead.

  • I’d be willing to bet that more non-Orthodox Jews fund Orthodox causes than vice versa. Here’s a quick list of a few ways that the general Jewish population contributes:

    the purchase of hechshered products
    memberships in multiple shuls in their communities, even ones they don’t regularly attend
    donations to Yeshivas, Federations, etc.

    All parts of the Jewish community are valuable beyond measure. You do serious destruction to Klal Yisroel when you speak of writing off a segment of the diminishing Jewish population just because they don’t think like you do.

    Also, don’t close your eyes to parts of the Orthdox community that are drifting away. Everything’s not hunky-dory everywhere. The ultra-Orthodox have the greatest rates of retention, but “general” Orthodoxy has lost numbers to other movements (and religions!). How do you think all those Conservatives and Reformers got that way?? You know, there are plenty of Conservative and Reform Rabbis that grew up in Orthodox families.

    Incidentally, Jewish Mother writes that Orthodox communities take little financial support from their greater secular communities. However, in places like NYC, the Orthodox population constitutes the most impoverished Jewish segment. Don’t think those communities aren’t subsidized. And the justice system is no stranger to some groups of Orthdox Jews.

  • What do you mean I got “taken down?” You mean there are former Conservatives who are now Orthodox and bad-mouth Conservative Judaism? Big deal, let them deal with their own issues, positive and negative. Don’t you live in Israel? How do you square with taking funds from a secular state?

    Ck, of course there is a problem in the Conservative movement and nobody said otherwise. But take a look at what Schorch has written and you don’t have to tell us, just tell yourself whether you agree with most of the philosphy he puts forward or not. Conservative Judaism is a very thorough and a very enlightened philosophy if you have to find a nexus between faith and science, respect for our traditions and incorporation of our different value systems into those traditions (take a look at what Rabbi Weiner says about the inclusion of women these days).

    The discussions around here have been about exclusion. For some reason, our Orthodox visitors, and some of our “observant” posters and visitors keep dealing with other streams quite negatively. Here you have a thoughtful philosophical approach to Judaism, which incorporates God, torah, halacha, Israel and Hebrew, and yet the same negative attacks continue. Perhaps the self-righteous should look deep in their heart and ask themselves whether extreme views are healthy.

    And yes, JM, there is a practical angle here. It is hypocritical to take funds from a secular state and then complain about the secular Jews. It is hypocritical to take funds from the UJF or other bodies, which gets a majority of its funds from Conservative Jews, and then spew the garbage we have read in our discussions about Conservative Jews.

    In fact, I would add that every time somebody comes to us with the refrain about how Conservative conversions are unkosher, and Conservative rabbis are epikursim etc., we probably drive away a couple of prospective Jews. “I don’t want to be Orthodox, but if I join the Conservatives, I’ll be treated like dogshit, so why bother?”

  • Oh, ps, didn’t ck tell us about yeshiva bochers surfing porn in Internet cafes (a detail the recent article in the Jerusalem Report about this phenomenon forgot to mention)?

    At least they believe in Torah Misinai…

  • But I don’t think much non-Orthodox money flows to the Orthodox.I have never heard of any grants like this.

    The plain fact is that the Orthodox are the ones keeping in-depth Torah scholarship going, by doing it. If other people want to help fund this, that is a mitzvah and very nice of them.

    Israel is not a secular state.

    Conservative Judaism is indeed a very thorough and well reasoned philosophy. But people want religion not philosophy.

    GM is a philosophy scholar. But he doesn’t quote Plato before eating lunch, he just eats lunch.

    He doesn’t “believe in” Plato, he just likes what he had to say. Maybe reading Plate has helped his character. That’s nice, but it is optional. Where are the rules?

    How will we have a good life without rules?

    If you eat a cheeseburger, a puppy will die.
    How? Because dog-fighting to the death is only illegal because of Judeo-Christian values in our legal system. People do it anyway. But at least they can be prosecuted.

    No Oral Law, eventually, no law at all. Just philosophy. PHILOSOPHY HAS NO TEETH>

  • About your discovery that the Orthodox do things they should not: you know very well that the existence of a rule is far more important than whether it is always obeyed. At least they would be ashamed if caught, in that internet cafe. There are others who would say, “what’s your problem….. “

  • TM writes For some reason, our Orthodox visitors, and some of our “observant” posters and visitors keep dealing with other streams quite negatively.

    As opposed to our non-orthodox or non-observant postors and vistors who address traditional Judaism with nothing but constructive criticism and respect, huh?

    There was also something about “triumphant tones” and taking “high-minded pleasure in the failures” of other movements.

    what is it they say about glass houses again?

  • We should not be mean to TM. He is MARRIED and has CHILDREN. Am Yisrael Chai.

  • “The plain fact is that the Orthodox are the ones keeping in-depth Torah scholarship going, by doing it. If other people want to help fund this, that is a mitzvah and very nice of them.”

    If that’s so, why are the classes in the Orthodox dayschools around here hovering at 5 to 12 students per grade while the Shechter school has 30 in next year’s 8th grade class? Why is there only one non-Haredi Jewish high school in all of CT and why does it only have a handful of students?

    Memo to Orthodox: you’re slacking.

  • Maybe they just don’t live in Connecticut in large numbers?

  • Know ye that Rabbi Natan Slifkin will attempt to satisfy you, and anyone else bothered by this poingant question, in a speech on this very topic entitled “Confronting the Challenges of Creation, Dinosaurs and the Age of the Universe”, at a Young Israel in Brooklyn on June 29. Rabbi Slifkin, who has written several books on the confluence of Torah and science, is famous–albeit with such fame limited to the ambit of certain circles deeming such things sufficiently juicy to generate fame–for having several of his works banned by certain leading charedi rabbis. see host of intriguing posts regarding the ban and related controversy at

    Link to a flyer promoting R. Slifkin’s upcoming speech:

  • JM, the reality is that the general funds of the Jewish community subsidize segments of the Orthodox community. There is nothing wrong with that and it’s something I support. It’s when those who receive this largess turn around and attack the benefactors as not being Jewish or good Jews that we encounter a problem.

    And Israel is a secular state.

  • “Maybe they just don’t live in Connecticut in large numbers?”

    That’s not it at all. There are plenty of Orthodox Jews around here. They just can’t justify spending vast sums of money on a school with fewer resources than many public schools. That, and CT has many fine private schools. So it falls into the lap of the greater Jewish community to support the dayschools. (See TM’s post on Jewish education for a great discussion of these issues).

  • I have seen a bit of the grant lists and I have never seen any money flowing from places like UJC or UJA to anything Orthodox, never, ever. Can you be more precise? Is this an urban legend or do you have hard information? Have you looked at annual reports?

    I know TM thinks the greater US Jewish Community SHOULD help out with the high cost of Day Schools but I am not sure this is going on already. And certainly nothing Orthodox.

    Jewishness is so strong people think they can not worry about it too much, that it will take care of itself, it has a life of its own. But a car can only run on momentum and fumes for three, or perhaps four, generations.

    Every Jew is perfect, says Chabad, and I agree.

  • Thanks Equipoise. I can’t make it to that talk, it’s a bit far for me.

    I’m a little disturbed by this ban on his books. Ban? Cherem? That’s insane. Are they afraid of him? If so, why, considering that any library already has a multitude of books about science that any Haredi child could easy borrow and read.

  • JM, look at the UJF. They do not differentiate between day schools and yeshivas.

  • You don’t even get the initials right. It’s UJA-Fed. Do you really know whom they fund and how?

    I think I know who you mean, the guy who attacks the Torah’s “science”. But why should he care if he is banned? He doesn’t believe, so he doesn’t need the love and approval of all those fools who do belive. He will be happy in his new life. Nobody is putting him in jail. What’s it to him if other people are wrong? Where is his TOLERANCE?

  • JM, just for peacemaking sake, I wanted to point out that the federation goes by different initials in different regions. In NYC, it’s UJA-Federation. In Chicago, it’s JUF. And the overarching umbrella organization is UJC (United Jewish Communities). So let’s not quibble over regional semantics, ok? Clearly there’s enough else here to “altercate” about.

  • Not altercating, just wondering what the annual reports say about real money flowing from non-Orthodox to Orthodox, which I have tremendous trouble believing really happens. Assertion is not enough for me. People here seem very sure it flows. The annual reports are public. It has to be on paper to be real. From what I see and hear ….. no way.

  • A serious look at these public reports might help TM in his efforts to address the high cost of Day Schools. All non-profits must publish them.

  • Having worked the phone bank on Super Sunday in support of my kids’ (Orthodox) dayschool, I had a “factsheet” that gave the division of allocations. There certainly was an educational budget that helped to support the schools. In addition, most of the people I called (and all of those who pledged for me) were definitely not Orthodox.

  • *sigh* JM, I don’t have time to do extensive research, so I’ll just provide one of the first links I googled:

    Click Here

    You can see a table that breaks down the community contribution to each school in Denver including the Orthodox schools, as well as the subsidy per child.

    I’m confident that if I did deeper into different communities, I will be able to show you how other funds are allocated. Don’t become so upset, it’s perfectly fine that Orthodox institutions are receiving funding. It’s just that it would be nice if we could stop hearing about how Conservative Jews and other non-Orthodox Jews are somehow lacking in Jewishness.

    Note from ck: long links make baby jesus cry. And Rami Watid.

  • Judi sounds right. I don’t know east coast reality. I know here on the west Coast most “orthodox” heavily rely on “NON-orthodox” sources of money. By heavily, I mean most sources go that way I bet.

  • OK. A Jew is a Jew.

    But philosophy still has no teeth. It can’t prosecute those who fail its ideals.