Conservative Judaism

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Conservative Judaism, (also known as Masorti Judaism in Israel), is a modern stream that arose out of intellectual currents in Germany in the mid-19th century and took institutional form in the United States in the early 1900s.

The principles of Conservative Judaism include:[1]

  • A "dedication to Halakha... [as a] guide for our lives";[2]
  • A deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith;
  • A positive attitude toward modern culture; and,
  • An acceptance of both traditional rabbinic modes of study as well as modern critical scholarship when considering Jewish religious texts.


Conservative Judaism has its roots in Positive-Historical Judaism, a school of thought in 1850s Germany. The Positive-Historical school reacted against the more liberal changes in practice and theology taken by Reform Judaism. The term conservative signified that Jews should conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. The term 'conservative' is somewhat confusing and anachronistic; it does not imply that the movement's adherents are politically conservative. Accordingly, some Conservative Jews seek to rename the movement[3], and outside of the United States and Canada, such as Israel[4] and England[5], it is today known as Masorti Judaism (Hebrew for "Traditional").


Like Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement developed in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, 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

Positive-Historical Judaism, the intellectual forerunner to Conservative 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. At the seminary, Frankel taught that Jewish law was not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions. He called his approach towards Judaism "Positive-Historical," which meant that one should have a positive attitude towards accepting Jewish law and tradition as normative, yet one should be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it has always historically developed. Frankel rejected the innovations of Reform Judaism as insufficiently based in Jewish history and communal practice. However, Frankel's use of modern methods of historical scholarship in analyzing Jewish texts and 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 19th century, the debates occurring in German Judaism were replicated in America. Conservative Judaism in America similarly began as a reaction to Reform Judaism's rejection of traditional Jewish law and practice. The differences between the more modern and traditional branches of American Judaism came to a head in 1883, at the "Trefa Banquet" - where shellfish and other non-kosher dishes were served at the celebration of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. The adoption of the radical Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which dismissed observance of the ritual commandments and Jewish peoplehood as "anachronistic" created a permanent wedge 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's brief affiliation with the traditional congregations that established the Orthodox Congregation Union of America in 1898 was severed due to the Orthodox rejection of the Seminary's academic approach to Jewish learning. At the turn of the century, the Seminary lacked a source of permanent funding and was ordaining on average no more than one rabbi per year.

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 20th Century, becoming the largest American Jewish denomination. By combining modern innovations (such as mixed gender seating) with traditional practice, Conservative Judaism appealed to first- and second-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who found Orthodoxy too restrictive, but Reform Judaism too foreign. After World War II, Conservative Judaism continued to thrive. The 1950s and early 1960s featured a boom in synagogue construction as upwardly-mobile American Jews moved to the suburbs. Conservative Judaism occupied an enviable middle position during a period where American society prized consensus.

Rise of Reconstructionism

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.

Recent trends

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Conservative Judaism was divided over issues of gender equality. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted, without adopting an explanatory responsum, to permit women to count in a minyan, but left the decision on whether to be egalitarian to individual congregations. After a further decade of debate, in 1983, JTS voted to admit women for ordination as Conservative rabbis, also without adopting an explanatory responsum. Certain opponents of this decision left the Conservative movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism. In December 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved responsa that shifted to greater halakhic support for gays and lesbians.

Ziegler School

In the 1990s, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles established the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies as an independent rabbinical school.

Concern About Movement Direction

At the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, Conservative Judaism remained the largest 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). Ten years later, the NJPS showed that the Conservative movement had suffered serious attrition, with only 33 percent of synagogue-affiliated American Jews belonging to Conservative synagogue. For the first time in nearly a century, Conservative Judaism is no longer the largest denomination in America. At the same time, however, certain Conservative institutions, particular day schools, have shown significant growth. Conservative leaders agree that these contrasting trends indicate that the movement has reached a crossroads as it heads into the 21st century.

Beliefs and Practices

See Jewish beliefs (Conservative Judaism), Jewish law (Conservative Judaism).

Movement organization

Conservative Judaism is a unified movement with a number of interlocking organizations. The major organizations include: the international body of Conservative rabbis is the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), 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 University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Conservative Judaism outside the USA is often called Masorti Judaism. Masorti rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Assembly. Other affliated seminaries outside the USA include the Marshall Meyer Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Argentina, and Machon Schechter (in Jerusalem.)

Many Jews both inside and outside of this formal Conservative movement identify Conservative Judaism as a worldview which is significantly larger than the USCJ and RA. Sociologically and religiously, there is social and religious overlap between the USCJ, the Union for Traditional Judaism, and much of the Chavurah movement. A growing number of congregations which are not affiliated, but which identify themselves as "post-denominational," practice traditional Judaism while emphasizing equal roles for women, for example as prayer leaders.[6] Rabbis trained at JTS and the Ziegler School often serve these synagogues and chavurot, and members of these synagogues and chavurot often pray at, or are members of, USCJ synagogues.

Important figures

Jewish identity

Conservative Judaism maintains the 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. Conservative Rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages (marriages between Jews and non-Jews). However, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism has a different sociological approach to this issue than does Orthodoxy, although agreeing religiously. In a press release it has stated:

"In the past, intermarriage...was viewed as an act of rebellion, a rejection of Judaism. Jews who intermarried were essentially excommunicated. But now, intermarriage is often the result of living in an open society....If our children end up marrying non-Jews, we should not reject them. We should continue to give our love and by that retain a measure of influence in their lives, Jewishly and otherwise. Life consists of constant growth and our adult children may yet reach a stage when Judaism has new meaning for them. However, the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. Since we know that over 70 percent of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews...we want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews."


Conservative Judaism has come under criticism from several directions in the Jewish world, including:

  • Orthodox Jews who question the commitment of the movement to Halakha.
  • Conservative Traditionalists who criticize the integrity of the Halakhic process when dealing with issues such as women in Judaism as well as Homosexuality.
  • Feminists who assert that the changes within the movement to promote full egalitarianism among men and women do not go far enough. In a similar vein, Conservative Judaism has been faulted for its policies towards gays and lesbians. In December 2006, though, the movement's Committee on Law and Standards approved several responsa that provide more lenient policies toward gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies.

See also

External links


  • Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement. Marshall Sklare. University Press of America (Reprint edition), 1985.
  • Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors To Our Descendants (Revised Edition), Elliot N. Dorff, United Synagogue New York, 1996
  • The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities, Daniel J. Elazar, Rela Mintz Geffen, SUNY Press, 2000
  • Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Neil Gillman, Behrman House 1993
  • Halakha For Our Time: A Conservative Approach To Jewish Law, David Golinkin, United Synagogue, 1991
  • A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Isaac Klein, JTS Press, New York, 1992
  • Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, Pamela S. Nadell, Greenwood Press, NY 1988
  • Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, Ed. Robert Gordis, JTS, New York, 1988
  • Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary, Ed. David Lieber, Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner, The Jewish Publication Society, NY, 2001
  • Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and Their Members. Jack Wertheimer (Editor). Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • "The Conservative Lie", Avi Shafran, Moment, February 2001

Traditional-Egalitarian Judaism

Observance of Conservative Jews


  • Davis, Moshe. The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America (1963) online edition
  • Gordis, Robert, and Max Gelb. Understanding Conservative Judaism (1979)
  • Gillman, Neil. Conservative Judaism: The New Century, (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Gellman, Yehudah. "Conservative Judaism and Biblical Criticism." Conservative Judaism (2007) v59 #2
  • Jick, Leon A. The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870 (1976; reprint 1992).
  • Nadell, Pamela S., and Marc Lee Raphael. Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, (1988)
  • Nadell, Pamela S. "The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870: An Historiographical Appreciation," American Jewish History, (2002) Vol. 90#1 pp 51+ online edition
  • Sklare, Marshall. Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement. (1955)
    • "A Reexamination of a Classic Work in American Jewish History: Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism, Thirty Years Later," American Jewish History, 74 (1984): 100-68


  1. Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 2nd Printing, 1990
  2. Emet Ve-Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 2nd Printing, 1990
  3. "In what Direction is the Conservative Movement Headed", Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, January 20, 2006
  4. Masorti Movement in Israel
  5. Assembly of Masorti Synagogues
  6. Rosenthal, Rachel (2006). "What's in a name?". Kedma (Winter 2006).