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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