Commentary Magazine

Tradition and Change, edited by Mordecai Waxman

The Thought of Conservative Judaism
Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism.
by Mordecai Waxman.
Burning Bush Press. 477 pp. $4.50.


A certain husband decides the major questions: whether Red China should be admitted to the UN and whether the testing of nuclear weapons should be suspended; his wife decides the minor questions: where they will live and how many children they will have. In Conservative Judaism the rabbinate is like that husband and the laity like that wife.

This book, a selected record of dealings with the major questions, appears at a rather odd time. When the Rabbinical Assembly directed that a volume should be published to illustrate the thinking of the most eminent men associated with the Conservative movement—or tendency, as some preferred to call it until the 1930’s—it was responding to the dissatisfaction of many of its members with the movement’s lack of definition and clear principles. One reason for the dissatisfaction was that Orthodoxy and Reform could denounce Conservatism as vague, inconsistent, and opportunist. Yet by the time the Assembly got around to having Tradition and Change published, both the external pressure and the internal desire had weakened.

Externally, the Conservatives were better able than ever to use the tu quoque argument against their critics, since current Reform practice and doctrine are a mishmash and since in Orthodoxy there are such unorthodox doings as Modern Orthodoxy—similar terms used to be applied to Conservatism—and Traditionalism. Internally, some of the rabbis had lost their old hope that definition and clarification would answer their problems. They had been disillusioned by the failure of some modifications of Jewish law, which they had fought for long and hard, to make any difference in how their people acted or felt. They also were affected by Marshall Sklare’s Conservative Judaism (1955), which showed that what the rabbis think and say does not matter much to their congregations; the rabbis had known this all along, but to see it in print, documented and established, was chilling.

Sklare is an unseen presence in the editor’s introduction and notes: it isn’t true that we are mere role players, Rabbi Waxman finds himself retorting to “those who have analyzed Conservative Judaism from the outside,” and the questions we decide are really major questions. It may be, too, that some of the candor about relations among the rabbinical right, center, and left and among the institutions of the movement is similarly due to Sklare—not that he had anything to teach a working rabbi about those relations, but that after his book an insider need not worry about telling secrets.

Tradition and Change does not—it could not—purport to define and clarify Conservative principles. What it does, and does very well, is to reproduce, introduce, and annotate documents, nearly all interesting and some impressive, by a number of scholars and rabbis (and Henrietta Szold), many of them truly distinguished: notably, among the dead, Zacharias Frankel, Alexander Kohut, Solomon Schechter, Israel Friedlander, and Louis Ginzberg, and among the living, Mordecai Kaplan and Louis Finkelstein. The documents are sermons, speeches, articles, statements, and responsa. They show what the intellectual forerunners of Conservative Judaism were reacting against and working for, and they give a good sample of the range of more contemporary thinking on belief and observance and on the goals and organization of the Conservative movement; on Zionism, Jewish education, and the Jewish community the range is narrower. There is nothing about social action. The Conservative rabbis have a committee and pass resolutions, but usually, like the Orthodox, they agree tacitly that social action is the business of the Reform rabbis, together with nearly everything else that enters into being an ambassador to the Gentiles.



Two recurrent ideas in the literature of the Conservative movement seem to be so compelling for the rabbis that even dissenters are sometimes apt to forget themselves and appeal to their authority. Reduced to slogans, as they often are, those ideas are “life is stronger than logic” and “evolution, not revolution.” Apart from any inherent force they may have, they are what may be expected, as an answer to external criticism and internal uneasiness, of a movement that is centrist, diverse, eclectic, and thriving.

Rabbi Waxman writes: “People who labored on the Sabbath could not bring themselves to discard their hats in the synagogue. Men and women who stayed away from the synagogue throughout the year wanted the shul they stayed away from to be a shul where people davvened”—and so on. Moreover, these things “are as true of members of Conservative congregations in 1958 as they were in 1910. . . . Custom is stronger than law, and life is stronger than logic.” Hence the typical Conservative combination: covered heads and a traditional service, but also the organ and mixed seating. Hence too the synagogue center—the shul with a pool, in the private language of the Conservative rabbinate. All of this has been very successful. But rabbis are intellectuals, or some of them are, and intellectuals are rather less certain than businessmen that you can’t argue with success. And many rabbis must be less sure than Rabbi Waxman that the second-generation nostalgias and dislikes that have long supported Conservatism can still be relied on.

“Evolution, not revolution” was originally used against Reform radicalism. Its weaknesses today are spectacular. It can be made to mean just about anything, which is a virtue only for propagandists, and it is untrue to the life invoked by “life is stronger than logic,” because the revolution has taken place. More than a century ago, in Germany, some Jewish scholars borrowed the doctrine from the arguments of the conservative historians against the French Revolution and its extension. It is a warning against a sharp break with historical tradition—revolution. But the break, the revolution, is now part of our personal and communal history, and therefore of our own tradition. To keep using the slogan is like repeating that Sarajevo must not lead to war. Sarajevo led to war a long time ago.

How are we to explain the Conservative rabbis’ readiness to put up with the inconsistencies, contradictions, and ambiguities they have to live with? Those things hurt. One of the ways in which the rabbis try to soothe the hurt, unavailing but revealing, is to change congregations; the Conservative rabbinate is a restless body of men.

The simplest explanation is careerism, since the pay and perquisites are high and nowhere outside the rabbinate does an early, sound Jewish education have a substantial cash value. No doubt the movement has its careerists, but that alone cannot begin to provide the answer. There have been any number of Conservative rabbis who could do better and have an easier life in business or another profession.

I prefer a more ingenuous explanation. The average Conservative rabbi dislikes his job and dislikes the intellectual muddle, but he wants to do something for the classical triad of God, Torah, and Jewish people. That very ambition leads to some of the muddle. Take the conflict between law, halakhah, and custom or usage, minhag. When a Conservative rabbi uses the life-is-stronger-than-logic argument he may sound happy that Jews who violate the Sabbath venerate a mere custom like covering the head in the synagogue. He is not happy. He was quick to see the point when a Seminary professor, in an address to the Rabbinical Assembly a few years ago, quoted the 18th-century Jacob Emden—if I remember correctly—who said that minhag was only an anagram for ge-Hinnom, Gehenna. In Tradition and Change an imaginary dialogue by Kohut has a Reformer ironically regretting that Moses Isserles, in his notes on the Shulhan Arukh, failed to say that it is the minhag not to steal; as it is, stealing is only prohibited by the Ten Commandments, so people ignore the prohibition.

But the Conservative rabbi also knows that if a transgressor against the halakhah can be kept from being lost to all good (i.e., Conservative rabbinical) influence by his liking for a custom unimportant or even uncouth in itself, that man’s children or grandchildren may be helped to go beyond. Schechter’s plea to his students was to save—conserve—as much of Judaism as they could. They could not save the Sabbath, so they were glad to see the people save the covered head, hoping that that would keep the door open for restoring the Sabbath later. If most no longer expect restoration, they have not despaired of renewal, less complete but more viable.

Of the old Church of England Dean Inge once wrote that whatever else might be said of it, it provided every parish with a gentleman for its incumbent. Whatever else may be said of Conservative Judaism, it has given as rabbis to its congregations men well trained in a Jewish scholarship of traditional content and scientific method. As Inge said of his gentlemen clergy, in the history of religion there have been worse achievements.



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