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The Rocky Road to Conservative Judaism

by Rabbi Herbert Rosenblum

It was a hundred years ago, in 1912, that that Solomon Schechter, the architect of Conservative Judaism, announced to his supporters and colleagues that he planned to create a new congregational organization. The group would be distinct from the two reigning – and diametrically opposed – Jewish movements of the time, Reform and Orthodoxy.

Schechter was a renowned scholar who had come to the U.S. from England to head the still-young Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He invited all of his colleagues – rabbis, academics, philanthropists, and synagogue leaders – to join him in planning this major new undertaking. The response to Schechter’s invitation, however, was decidedly mixed.

How this rocky beginning led to the formation of the Conservative movement – including the creation of what we now call the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – is a fascinating story of passionate disagreements and difficult compromises among Jewish leaders early in the last century. These arguments ultimately forced a parting of the ways between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. What’s more, the compromises made in those early days caused tensions within the Conservative world that would recur for decades.

A surprising part of the Conservative story is that Solomon Schechter never really wanted to start a new Jewish denomination. Indeed, it seemed to run against most of his life-long beliefs. Schechter agreed to come to America to lead the seminary mainly because he wanted to avoid the communal problems he had criticized in England, where he felt that a paralyzing bureaucracy stifled the creative possibilities of British Jewry. He hoped to establish a spiritual and intellectual environment that would lead to the flowering of intensive Jewish life in the United States. He believed he could surmount America’s entrenched denominational organizations, which seemed unwilling or unable to advance a higher level of strong Jewish learning and observance.

On arrival in America in 1902, Schechter received a warm welcome from many quarters – scholars, media, cultural leaders, philanthropists, Reform spokesmen, even Orthodox leaders. One could call this the Schechter honeymoon. Everyone seemed to seek his advice and to acknowledge him as the greatest Judaic scholar in the world. The honeymoon lasted for about two years, during which time Schechter fulfilled some of the high hopes that accompanied him. He built the JTS faculty, forged bonds with philanthropists and board members, founded the seminary library, and recruited a strong student population. Schechter believed these successful beginnings were harbingers of continued achievements and support.

Alas, by 1904, flies appeared in the ointment. Reform leaders realized that Schechter would not support the goals of their movement. They criticized his commitment to ancient texts and his unwillingness to depart from the norms of halakhah, Jewish law. The Orthodox, for their part, began to question whether some of his faculty appointees were reliably true to Jewish tradition.

Most importantly, his philanthropic backers began to wonder if Schechter had promised more than he could deliver, certainly vis-a-vis the large immigrant population pouring into the downtown ghettoes. Apparently, Schechter’s hope of intensifying the new immigrants’ Jewish learning and practice did not resonate with them in their struggle to establish themselves in America.

Schechter’s philanthropic supporters began to explore other outlets for their giving, founding groups, for instance, such as the American Jewish Committee, and bequeathing money for Jewish learning at other institutions. In 1905, Schechter announced his personal commitment to the new Zionist movement, alienating still more of his erstwhile backers. Some seminary graduates, meanwhile, had begun to take jobs at Reform or Orthodox congregations.

Within a few short years, Schechter was forced to consider where he would find his future support. He decided the answer was to create a congregational/communal body that would regard his institution – the Jewish Theological Seminary of America – as its primary concern. So, along with his school’s rabbinic alumni and other colleagues, he began to explore the creation of what was to ultimately become the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

There were differences of opinion right from the start.

The first major issue was the projected organization’s name. The JTS alumni assumed that it would be something like the Jewish Conservative Union. But this was opposed by Cyrus Adler, Schechter’s trusted adviser (and successor at the seminary). Adler was determined to maintain the participation of the modern Orthodox, who 15 years earlier had established their own Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. The leaders of this group increasingly had withdrawn their support from Schechter’s institution precisely because it seemed to be heading in non-Orthodox directions.

Another major issue was how inclusive the new organization would be. Schechter and his JTS associates wanted the new group to be as inclusive as possible. Schechter hoped to embrace all elements of the Jewish community, with the exceptions of the old-world Orthodox and the radical Reform leaders.

Then there was the issue of whether the founders wanted to establish a third movement in American Judaism. Schechter’s associates were split, with his younger colleagues supporting a new movement, and the older leadership, including Adler, Schechter and most of the academics, favoring something like an Orthodox-Conservative union.

There were a host of other thorny questions. What kind of liturgy would the new congregational group promote? Would it include both Hebrew and English? How would it deal with halakhah? What would be the approach to Sabbath observance? From 1910 to 1913, the rabbis and leaders debated these issues and more.

Finally, at the founding meeting on February 23, 1913, the group adopted a constitution for the United Synagogue of America. It included a series of compromises. There was a commitment to traditional practice, but not a blanket acceptance of halakhah. It advocated retaining Hebrew in the liturgy and urged the strengthening of Jewish education. But perhaps most surprising from today’s standpoint, the new group opened its membership to “all elements essentially loyal to traditional Judaism,” which meant that those who rejected the idea of a separate movement had won the day, and the Orthodox had won an important point: the United Synagogue would not endorse innovations made by individual congregations, such as mixed seating, liturgical changes, and kashrut and halakhic liberalization.

Both Schechter and Adler were satisfied by these compromises. Schechter was elected the first president of the United Synagogue of America, succeeded a year later by Adler. The stage was set for the organization’s slow but steady growth.

Over the next 99 years, the early divisions of United Synagogue’s founding years would recur over and over. A group of young separatists, including Mordecai Kaplan who ultimately founded the Reconstructionist movement, continued to agitate for ideological and organizational change. The antiseparatists, led by Cyrus Adler and others, continued to seek accommodations with the Orthodox. For instance, efforts to introduce liberal innovations – most notably to resolve the problem of agunot, chained women whose husbands would not grant a divorce – continued to be stymied by a desire not to rupture relations with the Orthodox.

When concrete changes were made, it was only with great hesitancy. In 1927, for example, efforts to revise the prayer book resulted in the publication of two separate versions, with the liberalized version identified on the title page as being “Adapted for the Use of Certain Conservative Congregations by Doctor Jacob Kohn.” In 1927, the Committee on Jewish Law was removed from the United Synagogue and made a committee of the Rabbinical Assembly in the hope that this group would move forward with greater modernization.

When Cyrus Adler died in 1940, Louis Finkelstein was selected to succeed him as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It soon became clear that while Finkelstein was interested in expanding the horizons of the seminary, he would resist most of the modernizing requests of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly.

After World War II, however, a new generation of leaders began to make its presence felt, and many of the issues that had been debated in 1913 caused open friction between the seminary, on one side, and the United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly, on the other. For instance, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards proposed halakhic innovations on issues such as marriage and divorce, Sabbath observance, and kashrut. Finkelstein tried to stem this tide, offering the option of a national bet din, or religious court, for resolving issues involving marriage and divorce. He also encouraged Talmudist Saul Lieberman to formulate a new clause to be inserted into the marriage ketubah to forestall divorce complications.

By 1945, the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue had decided that the socalled Silverman prayer book, pioneered in the 1930s by Rabbi Morris Silverman of Hartford, Connecticut, and already popular in Conservative congregations, should be adopted officially by the movement. The growing split between those in the seminary and those in the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue was summed up by Aaron Blumenthal, the R.A. president, who in 1957 told his colleagues: “The seminary has remained an Orthodox institution while we have become a Conservative movement… Practically every member who has been added to the Talmud faculty in the last 15 to 20 years thinks of himself as an Orthodox Jew, and I am afraid that some of them have little regard for the Conservative movement.”

The changes in halakhic standards approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards during the 1950s and ‘60s only intensified this ideological divide. But beginning in 1974, when Finkelstein retired and Gerson Cohen became seminary chancellor, the relationships between the arms of the movement became more cooperative. Soon, however, the movement would be roiled by another major issue – the ordination of women.

By the 1980s, both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements were ordaining women. In the Conservative movement, meanwhile, the issue was being intensely debated. When the seminary agreed to accept women rabbinical students in 1983, the departure of traditionalists became inevitable. The renowned Talmud scholar David Weiss Halivni resigned and formed a new group, the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, later known as the Union for Traditional Judaism.

The liberalizing trend in Conservative Judaism reached a high water mark and then began to recede in 1983, when the Reform movement adopted its decision on patrilineal descent, which accepted as Jews the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers who had been raised as Jews. When this idea was raised at Rabbinical Assembly conventions in the 1980s, it was rejected decisively. The boundaries of the Conservative movement both on the left – no patrilineal descent – and on the right – egalitarianism – were established for decades to come.

In retrospect, the compromises worked out by Schechter and his associates in 1913 were effective because they allowed the new United Synagogue of America to come into being without serious damage to the relationship among varying factions of Jewish leaders. But these compromises clearly papered over real theological divisions that could not be ignored and that led fairly quickly to something Schechter had originally not intended: the creation of a new Jewish movement.

Recently, some historians have expressed the conviction that the Conservative movement really did not emerge as a movement until 1950. These historians ignore, however, several major realities. Specifically, as early as the 1900s, the Orthodox and Reform each dealt with the Conservatives as a distinct, third movement. Examples of this manifested themselves in differences over mixed seating, which was abhorred by the Orthodox, and over Zionism, kashrut and Shabbat, the laws of which were rejected by the Reform until many years later.

What’s next for Conservative Judaism? Predicting the future, of course, is completely different than analyzing the past. But as Conservative Judaism’s current leadership well knows, the realities of contemporary Jewish life contain both promise and cause for concern. Perhaps a guiding mantra should be the historic words of Solomon Schechter in 1913, who said at the inaugural meeting of the United Synagogue: “It is a real work of heaven for which I invite your attention and participation – a work on which, in my humble opinion, depends the continuance and the survival of traditional Judaism in this country.”

Rabbi Herbert Rosenblum, PhD, served congregations in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and taught at Hebrew College, New York University and Tel Aviv University.

 
 
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