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Does Conservative Judaism Have a Future?

In any religion, the middle position is the hardest to define and the toughest to defend. For American Jews, this position has been occupied for close to a century by Conservative Judaism. Until very recently, indeed, most American Jews affiliated with synagogues have, in the tripartite division of modern Judaism, found their home in this movement, a uniquely American phenomenon that locates itself between the “extremes” of Reform to its Left and Orthodoxy to its Right.

Since its inception in the late 19th century, Conservative Judaism has insisted that, unlike Reform, it is committed to Judaism not only as a faith but as a system of law, and to the norms of ritual behavior embodied in the rabbinic legal tradition known as balakbab. At the same time, and in contrast to Orthodoxy on its Right, Conservatism has also prided itself on its flexibility, its willingness to adapt to modern ideas. Examples of how this balancing act has worked itself out historically include these: while adhering formally to such staples of strict Jewish religious practice as the laws of diet (kasbrut) and Sabbath-observance, the Conservative movement long ago ruled that mixed seating was permitted in religious services, as was driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath. More recently it has continued to mark its deviation from Orthodox norms by instituting complete egalitarianism between the sexes when it comes to leading public prayers and by ordaining women as rabbis.

But now the movement is in trouble. Just as American cultural life in general has become marked by the breakdown of consensus and the rise of polarization, so in Jewish religious life Conservatism has been finding the middle a lonely place. To the Left, Reform Judaism, demanding less and less of its adherents, offers an attractive and demographically bulging way-station for Conservative Jews on the road to religious oblivion. In the meantime, the still relatively small Orthodox movement, once perceived as hopelessly rigid and even bizarre in its unyielding attachment to the punctilious observance of religious law, is enjoying a surge of dynamism as a countercultural stay against the moral and spiritual anomie of postmodern America and non-Orthodox Judaism alike.

A good place to observe the tensions within today’s Conservatism is the institution where, over the last century, the doctrinal arguments between tradition and the new have been conducted, where the resultant middle ground has been codified and promulgated, and where the movement’s rabbis and cantors—its intermediaries with Conservative Jews “out there”—are trained. This is the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Conservatism’s rabbinical academy, located near Columbia University in New York City.

We are fortunate in having before us a new, two-volume history and self-analysis of the Seminary edited by Jack Wertheimer, a member of the JTS faculty and one of contemporary Judaism’s premier sociologists and critics.1 To his great credit, Wertheimer has not attempted to offer in these two volumes a simple, linear account of the Seminary’s history. Rather, he has invited a variety of perspectives from within and without the institution. The 36 separate essays in Tradition Renewed vary in style and quality, and there is more overlapping among them than one would like. But together they form a structure that amounts to more than its individual parts.

For the patient reader, there are many nuggets to be mined from these glimpses into a history rich in nuance, irony, high seriousness, and colorful personality. Coming as it does at a moment of ferment and crisis, Tradition Renewed offers a good occasion to reflect on the movement’s past, present, and future.

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Just as Conservative Judaism emerged on the American scene as a corrective to radical Reform, so JTS emerged as a corrective to Hebrew Union College (HUC), the training school in Cincinnati of Reform rabbis. The precipitating event can even be specified with precision. In 1883, at a celebration banquet for the first graduates of HUC, the Reform movement publicly proclaimed its liberation from traditional Judaism—“kitchen Judaism,” in the derisive phrase of Isaac Mayer Wise, Reform’s founding father—by ostentatiously serving non-kosher delicacies to the assembled guests. The “treifa banquet,” as it quickly became known, raised a storm of protest—several rabbis among the invited guests reportedly walked out—and sparked a search for another seminary to check HUC’s then-monopoly in the field of non-Orthodox rabbinical education in America.

To be sure, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1886, had its forerunners; Maimonides College, established in 1867 in Philadelphia and associated with the University of Pennsylvania, was an earlier, failed expression of the desire to marry a commitment to traditional Jewish religious norms with modern culture and free intellectual inquiry. Nor were the motives of JTS’s founders altogether unmixed. Much has been made, for example, of the fact that the school was established by wealthy Reform Jews of German origin, some of whom may have been prompted by a desire to keep their embarrassingly unacculturated and Yiddish-speaking Eastern European coreligionists, then arriving on these shores in great numbers, as far away as possible from their own posh venues.

Although the evidence for this particular charge is scanty, JTS did in fact go through a lifesaving reorganization in 1902 when three prominent Reform Jews, Daniel Guggenheim, Jacob Schiff, and Leonard Lewison, gave the struggling trustees an opportunity to establish a “new” institution. The explicit mandate of this school was to offer regular rabbinic training in the English language, and to implement the methods and ideals of Wissenschaft des Judentums—literally, the scientific study of Judaism, an approach to the Jewish past pioneered in Germany by the 19th-century scholar Leopold Zunz. Religiously, this meant charting a course, to use the somewhat crude language of one of JTS’s early supporters, “between stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform.”

To head the newly reorganized seminary and center of academic learning its benefactors recruited Solomon Schechter, the preeminent Jewish scholar in the English-speaking world. Born in Romania and possessed of a dramatic swagger and a no less dramatic countenance, Schechter was brought to New York from Cambridge, England, where he had established his credentials by rediscovering a cache of invaluable literary fragments that had lain for centuries in a Cairo genizah, or storage closet; publication of this treasure trove opened a window on some 500 years of Jewish history and experience. As president, Schechter was to put the Seminary on the academic map. Over the course of his tenure he hired some of its greatest faculty members—including Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, and Mordechai M. Kaplan—moved the school from a crowded downtown brownstone to more spacious quarters in Morningside Heights, and solidified JTS’s long-term reputation for serious scholarship and rabbinic skill.

Indeed, the inescapable fact is that the existence of an independent Conservative movement in Judaism can be attributed more to Schechter than to any other individual. Though highly traditionalist in his own religious practice, he was distrusted by the Orthodox community because of his commitment to Wissenschaft des Judentums, and he returned the distrust with interest. But he was no less quick to distinguish himself and his Seminary from Hebrew Union College and Reform: “at the bottom of all the universalism and the prophetic Judaism,” he once said, Reform was “nothing else but ham and a craving for assimilation.” Schechter’s chief obsession was “catholic Israel”—the eternal and universal community of the Jews. Planting himself firmly in the middle, he sought to raise up a corps of rabbis who would in turn offer the swelling ranks of American Jewry a way to hold on to their familiar religious traditions without cutting themselves off from secular modernity.

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Although he was the first and the most formative, Schechter was hardly the last in a gallery of brilliant figures who peopled JTS over the ensuing decades and turned it, faults and limitations notwithstanding, into a world center of Jewish learning. Pride of place on a long list should perhaps be given to two men: Saul Lieberman, an incomparable professor of Talmud who put his personal imprimatur on rabbinic studies at JTS from 1940 until his death in 1983, and Louis D. Finkelstein, who became JTS president (later chancellor) in 1938 and served with distinction until his retirement in 1972.

Scholarship about Judaism—sometimes dismissed as “popular scholarship”—is essential to the world’s understanding of the Jews as well as to Jewish self-knowledge. But (in a distinction developed by Jonathan D. Sarna in his contribution to Tradition Renewed) there is another kind of scholarship that attempts to explain Judaism from within its basic textual corpus. Saul Lieberman’s signal achievement lay in this latter area, and specifically in a stratum of rabbinic literature known as the Tosefta.

Briefly, the central text of rabbinic Judaism is the Mishnah, a code of law redacted in the early 3rd century of the Common Era; the Mishnah together with its running commentary, the Gemara, constitutes the Talmud. But there exists a parallel text to the Mishnah, composed more or less contemporaneously; in it are many similar or parallel passages, others that reflect fascinating differences, and still others that are without parallel at all. This is the Tosefta, and until Lieberman, it had not been presented to the world in any comprehensive fashion since the 16th century. Lieberman’s critical, annotated edition of the Tosefta, published in the 1960′s and 70′s, was a titanic scholarly accomplishment that serves today as the basis of all modern analysis of the Mishnah and its universe.

That Lieberman was a peerless scholar was a fact universally acknowledged at the Seminary, and the honor of studying with him was duly prized. But he was something less than a beloved figure. As generations of students and colleagues have testified, Lieberman was notoriously impatient when it came to almost any matter not directly involved with rabbinic scholarship, and he was also openly disdainful of congregational rabbis who were not themselves productive scholars (his term for them was “nursemaids”). As the dominant faculty presence at JTS for 50 years, Lieberman was thus responsible for producing scores of Conservative rabbis who were intellectually overqualified and psychologically demoralized, hardly a net boon either to scholarship or to their congregants.

Lieberman’s privileged position at JTS was made possible politically by Louis Finkelstein, who protected him from many routine faculty responsibilities and nurtured both his scholarship and his ego. A solid scholar in his own right, Finkelstein was an especially gifted administrator—in the words of an essay by Michael B. Greenbaum in Tradition Renewed, “a shrewd and skilled politician who achieved much of what he set out to accomplish.”

By the time of Finkelstein’s retirement in 1972, his best years were long behind him and the Seminary had unfortunately fallen into sad shape. But during the decades when he was functioning at his peak, Finkelstein fostered an intellectual atmosphere that could permit the simultaneous presence at JTS of such disparate spirits as the ultra-rationalist Lieberman and the mystical-leaning Abraham Joshua Heschel. Finkelstein also had a passion for transmitting Jewish scholarship to the uneducated, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and in his pursuit of that passion, through books and the various arts of public relations, he succeeded in making JTS and Conservative Judaism a real cultural presence in mid-century American religious life.

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Academically, the years after Lieberman and Finkelstein—the 70′s and 80′s—were fallow, though the long-term effects of initiatives put into place by Finkelstein’s successor, Gerson D. Cohen, have lately begun to pay off in improved standards and a lively and serious Ph.D. program. But the vicissitudes of the academic program are only part of the story told in Tradition Renewed. Another large part has to do with the relation of JTS to the Conservative movement at large, to its congregations and its rabbis.

That relation has not always been close or even especially cordial. Indeed, the role of the Seminary vis-à-vis the movement and its desires lay at the heart of the debate over the ordination of women in the late 1970′s and early 80′s, a subject treated by Beth S. Wenger in what is perhaps the finest single chapter in Tradition Renewed.

The then-chancellor, Gerson Cohen, saw JTS as inevitably dependent upon the movement, and therefore bound to be sensitive to the drift of opinion and attitudes within the Conservative laity—a laity just then being roiled, along with the rest of America, by the demands of feminism. As against this, the Seminary’s lay chairman, Alan M. Strook, a prominent New York lawyer, ironically enough took the more “conservative” position, arguing that “the [Conservative] movement is an arm of the Seminary” and that in its decision-making procedures JTS should stand apart from whatever issues happened to be agitating the laity at any moment.

Cohen, himself a brilliant historian and a genuine intellectual, prevailed in the argument, and in 1983 the Seminary faculty voted to ordain women—a historic decision with substantial consequences for the future direction of the movement. Indeed, if Reform’s treifa banquet could be seen as the event that gave birth a century earlier to Conservatism’s much more normative and traditionalist response to the challenge of modernity, the 1983 decision to ordain women, though hardly regarded that way at the time, may come to be perceived as marking a no less fateful reversal of course.

One immediate price paid for the decision was the disaffection of a number of key Seminary leaders and scholars, the most distinguished of whom was the talmudist David Weiss-Halivni. Another faculty member opposed to the decision, David Novak, became active in an effort to establish a right-wing breakaway from Conservatism, complete with its own seminary and rabbinical association. Though this new movement, called the Union for Traditional Judaism, has never really taken off, the loss of these figures and others robbed JTS of the substantial weight of its own internal conservative ballast, causing what can only be described as a continuous tilt and drift to the Left over the last fifteen years.

Today, the most obvious symptom of this drift is the alliance that has been forged between the Conservative and Reform movements in this country to oppose state-sponsored Orthodoxy in Israel. This alliance obscures the very real doctrinal differences that still separate the two non-Orthodox movements, and to some concerned observers it has tainted the integrity of Conservatism by implicitly associating it with the more antinomian tendencies of Reform. They point in particular to Reform’s unilateral decision to overthrow matrilineal descent as the sole determinant of an individual’s Jewish identity; its apparent tolerance of intermarriage; its official embrace of homosexuality through the ordination of avowed gays and lesbians as rabbis; and its now widely anticipated designation of homosexual “marriages” as sanctified unions.

Despite these concerns, however, the bond between the two movements remains secure, and may actually be symptomatic of things to come. Many people now reasonably expect that, as was already the case with the ordination of women rabbis, JTS and the Conservative movement will eventually follow the path currently being blazed by Reform in a whole host of areas; all that will be required is the lag of a few years for decency’s sake. The ground, at any rate, is being prepared: one important Conservative spokesman, Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (the Seminary’s West Coast school) and vice chairman of the Seminary’s committee on Jewish law and standards, has already called upon his movement to recognize homosexual marriage and, on all issues involving women, to adapt Jewish law to reigning cultural custom.

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On social and cultural issues, then, the tilt of Conservatism’s slope is away from the norms of law and tradition and toward the permissive; and the slope is a slippery one. To complicate matters still further, another and in some ways more surprising trend is occurring within Reform—this time, however, not on the social or cultural front, where Reform largely remains a card-carrying devotee of “progressive” American practice, but on the front of ritual observance. Together, the two trends may push the movements into even closer conjunction.

A new platform to be considered by Reform rabbis in 1999, of which a draft is now in circulation, embraces traditional Jewish observance in language that would be all but unrecognizable to the movement’s leading figures a generation ago, let alone a century ago. Calling for a “balance” between “our individual authority” and “our membership in the community of the Jewish people,” the draft Reform platform proclaims “Torah” as “our center” and Judaism as “the scale by which we shall judge the modern world.” Long-neglected or rejected obligations such as Sabbath-observance, kashrut, the wearing of tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) in prayer, even immersion in a ritual bath (“for periodic experiences of purification”) are heralded as appropriate manifestations of Reform religiosity, along with day-school education, Hebrew (a “Holy Tongue”), and immigration to Israel.

What this document suggests is that even as Conservatism is moving Left to meet the Reform position on matters like gay rights, Reform may be moving Right to meet Conservatism on ritual matters like Sabbath and prayer (while embellishing these practices with New Age accretions like aura-gazing). Other signs of such convergence include not only the Reform-Conservative alliance opposing Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic monopoly but also a new “track” at the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism that combines a left-wing, California-oriented social perspective with a proclaimed commitment to authenticity in religious praxis.

Assuming things continue along this trajectory, what will become of JTS? Although the future is difficult to foresee, once again the past may hold some instructive wisdom.

When Solomon Schechter arrived in America in 1902, Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College was emerging from an interim period following the death two years earlier of Isaac Mayer Wise. Interestingly enough, at the time Wise first established HUC in 1875, he intended it to be a center without (theoretically) a denominational focus. Indeed, this had been his original dream for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, both established by Wise as umbrella organizations for a nascent non-Orthodox American Jewish community and only later to become the main arms of Reform Judaism. Given this history, it was not altogether anomalous for the American Hebrew, the leading New York Jewish newspaper of its day, to sponsor a symposium in 1900 on the proposition that HUC and JTS merge into a single, unitary institution.

In this, the earliest phase of their existence, HUC and JTS were in fact often linked in their approach. Their rabbinic curricula were remarkably similar, and several faculty members were “shared” between them without apparent doctrinal conflict. In its own early literature, JTS referred to itself as the “Eastern Seminary,” the clear implication being that geography separated the two campuses more than ideology.

The thinking of the men who brought Schechter to America was not altogether dissimilar. As Mel Scult observes in his essay in Tradition Renewed, both Jacob Schiff, a prominent member of Temple Emanu-El of New York (Reform), and his fellow philanthropist Louis Marshall rejected “denominationalism and . . . put their faith in one comprehensive Jewish community”:

Marshall’s sense that there should be “one Judaism” in the United States and Schiff’s belief that the Seminary was to produce devout rabbis “irrespective of the tendencies toward which they might be leaning” makes it clear that the donors intended the Seminary to be nondenominational and the sole producer of English-speaking rabbis for the American Jewish community.

Even at a much later point in the Seminary’s history, when the lines had hardened, Louis Finkelstein spoke of the virtues of a nondenominational rabbinical school, one that “might reach out to all Jews” and “be a force for reconciliation and unity.” And so in his time did Gerson Cohen. “No Jewish community in all of history since the destruction of the Temple,” Cohen wrote, “has been creative and vigorous without an academy that functioned as the integrative symbol of Jewish community life.”

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May the time then come to think what is presently unthinkable? JTS is an institution in search of an ideology, and the Conservative movement atop which it sits has reached a demographic plateau. Its population pool is spilling away, first into Reform, and from there into the moral vacuum of secular America. As for Reform, it has institutional problems of its own. HUC is now in the early phase of a reorganization. Financially the college is dependent upon a guaranteed percentage of congregational dues, but many congregations have begun to complain loudly about the burden, and the continued viability of HUC’s four-campus structure (Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem) may soon be in serious jeopardy.

Moreover, the landscape is now dotted with other institutions producing non-Orthodox rabbis for a Jewish public moving into a post-denominational phase. These include the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia (the equivalent in rabbinic education of a school of osteopathic medicine) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York (the equivalent of an offshore medical school), both unable so far to achieve a status equal to that of JTS or HUC but each more than a blip on the screen. To these must also be added the phenomenon known as “private ordination,” a practice taken from older models but long since abandoned for more highly structured forms of accreditation.

Today there are rabbis across the country who have been ordained by three other cooperating rabbis working with standards established by and for themselves. The usual justification for this procedure, as well as for the proliferation of non-“mainstream” seminaries, is that the mainstream schools are too narrow and authoritarian, and that their singular power needs to be checked by more “democratic” mechanisms. The anti-establishment mood is not a passing one, and may become more significant as increasing numbers of congregations, puzzled by what many already regard as mere peculiarities of outmoded doctrinal divisions, begin asking why institutional and “movement” affiliation should matter.

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Reorganization and consolidation are facts of life in the corporate world. Such actions are either carefully planned or taken in the midst of panic and compulsion. As far as non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders are concerned, the challenge of the next century will be to arrest the course of atrophy and fragmentation that threatens to leave the center unguarded and ultimately empty. In the face of such drift, JTS and HUC may increasingly come to take on the aspect of dinosaurs, unable to adapt and hence slated for extinction. Might Gerson Cohen’s observation—that every significant Jewish community has been marked by a single institutional fount of intellectual creativity and rabbinic training—prompt a new look at an old idea?

If so, that would still leave open the question of whether even the creation of one large tent can restore any true sense of normativeness to what will remain of religiously-affiliated, non-Orthodox American Jewry. Here, as we have seen, the prospect is quite gray. To judge by present and evolving models, the thoroughly eclectic, not to say syncretistic, nature of the Judaism likely to be practiced under such a tent is hardly calculated to bring comfort to the hearts of traditionalists, Conservative or any other kind. Picture, for example, a religious ceremony sanctifying the union of two homosexual men, one of them non-Jewish, conducted in Hebrew and presided over by a lesbian rabbi who earlier in the day has donned prayer shawl and phylacteries to perform devotions that include meditating to the rhythm of a dumbek as well as reciting each of the prescribed ancient benedictions addressed to the God of Israel.

Of course, the future could surprise us all and produce a wholly different set of permutations—through the interaction, say, of a growing modern Orthodoxy, a truly conservatizing trend within Conservatism, and the reorganization of the traditionalist elements within Reform. Of this, however, neither the history contained in Tradition Renewed nor any large current trend gives much hope.

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Footnotes

1 Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Vol. 1: The Making of an Institution of Jewish Higher Learning, 854 pp.; Vol. 2: Beyond the Academy, 872 pp. Jewish Theological Seminary, $100.00 for the set.

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