A Middle Way
Conservative Judaism: an American Religious Movement.
by Marshall Sklare.
The Free Press. 298 pp. $4.50.
Conservative Judaism is a work of the highest distinction, both as a study of American Jewish life and as a contribution to contemporary American sociology. In both these fields, ignorance, pretension, and bad writing have been so much in evidence that I feel it my first duty as a reviewer simply to say how good Marshall Sklare’s book is.
The author’s subject is that middle group of the three large denominations into which American Judaism is divided. In the public mind, Conservative Judaism is associated primarily with the Jewish Theological Seminary and the United Synagogue of America. Both these organizations, however, play a very small role in Mr. Sklare’s account. He begins with the story of the founding of the individual congregations: the local groups of Jews of East European origin, under no authority (except that of the traditional Jewish religion), who after twenty or thirty years of settlement in this country, and after reaching a moderate degree of prosperity, found the services of the Orthodox synagogue and the demands of the Orthodox rabbis too rigorous. While they were attracted by the prestige of the Reform temple, they were either not quite comfortable in it socially, or felt that the service was too foreign. Starting for the most part in the years after the First World War, they created a modified Orthodoxy that eventually became Conservative Judaism, today perhaps the most vigorous and thriving of the three Jewish denominations.
Mr. Sklare’s approach to Conservative Judaism is quite different from that of its “official” historians, who generally trace its origins back to the “historical school” of Zechariah Frankel in Germany in the middle of the 19th century, finding the roots of Conservatism not within that part of American Jewry stemming from East Europe, but in the conservative opposition to radical Reform in Germany and America in the 19th century. This opposition—led by men like Zechariah Frankel, Alexander Kohut, and Solomon Schechter—differed from traditional Orthodoxy in accepting modern scholarship and, at least in principle, the possibility of changing and adapting Judaism to modern circumstances. It was out of this orientation that the Jewish Theological Seminary was established in New York in the 1880’s, to oppose Cincinnati’s flourishing Hebrew Union College, the citadel of Reform. None too strong at first, the Jewish Theological Seminary was on the verge of expiring when a great “middleman” in American Jewish life, Cyrus Adler, convinced a number of Jewish philanthropists of German origin that just such a seminary, of a more traditional cast, could educate “modern” rabbis for the East European Jewish immigrants in America and so promote their speedy acculturation.
The seminary was therefore “re-organized” in 1901 under Solomon Schechter, with the financial aid of Jacob Schiff, Louis Marshall, and their friends. During the first fifteen to twenty years of this century, Mr. Sklare asserts, it was an institution without a public to serve. Aspiring young Jews from the East European immigrant milieu came there to get a “Western” finishing—and then could find no congregations that wanted a more or less traditional English-speaking rabbi. Only in the early 20’s did social developments among American Jews of East European origin create the kind of synagogue that wanted the kind of rabbis being turned out by the Seminary. Then the two originally quite separate tendencies represented by the “East European” synagogues, on the one hand, and by the “German” Seminary, on the other, came together, and the Conservative movement was born.
Such is Mr. Sklare’s account of the origins of Conservative Judaism, and I think it a correct one; However, the scope of his discussion embraces much more than Conservative Judaism. The whole problem of the “ethnic church,” and of Judaism in America in general, is illuminated by his discussion. He points out that religion is a vehicle of survival for ethnic groups. The pastor, or rabbi, may really be more interested in maintaining the old language and customs than the specific tenets of the faith. This point has been made before as regards American Judaism, though not, as far as I know, as well.
Another point made by Mr. Sklare is that the institutions created by an ethnic group survive, among other reasons, because they help combat the anomie—that is, the loneliness and loss of a sense of community—of modern life. The fact that the institution is religious in character is incidental. If American society granted as much status to non-religious ethnic organizations (Landsmannschaften and the like), these too would gain considerable strength because of their role in combating anomie. As it is, however, there is no question but that religious organizations in America have considerably more status and acceptance than organizations with only an ethnic identification. This, of course, is but one of many reasons why the religious institutions of ethnic groups are generally more flourishing than the non-religious.
Mr. Sklare’s analysis of the relation between the congregations and the Seminary is particularly perceptive. Here the crucial link is, of course, the rabbi. Now there is something very special about the Conservative rabbi, vis-à-vis his Orthodox and Reform colleagues, that cannot but make him feel inferior. The Orthodox rabbi is ordained in traditional style; he is given a traditional degree, the Semichah, that theoretically places him on the level of his teachers and makes it possible for him to rule on matters of religious law. The Reform rabbi does not have Semichah, but since Reform has abandoned the Halachic basis of Judaism, this is of no consequence. The Reform rabbi, too, can consider himself the equal of his teachers, a full member of his calling. The Conservative rabbi, however, is in an anomalous position. He is not given Semichah; and he is regarded as being formally inferior to his teachers, who are, for the most part, rabbis with the traditional ordainment. And so, even though the problem of Jewish law is considered a serious one, since it is still authoritative in the Conservative movement, he is helpless to participate in the making of it. At the same time this dilemma remains meaningless to most of his congregants, who are as little concerned with Jewish law, generally, as Reform Jews are, and only want their rabbi to do a good job in conducting services, running the school, and managing the center.
It is, however, just in this perceptive and ingenious analysis of the position of the Conservative rabbi that one weakness in Mr. Sklare’s approach seems to come to light. He narrows his canvas too much, I think, limiting it to the American situation and the American Jew. Never in his book does one find a hint that Jewish tradition also plays a role in the matter, and that this tradition leads an existence quite independent of surrounding social forms—if only an ideal existence, and if only of some consequence for a diminishing number of people. We always see Judaism, in this book, adapting itself to the social situation. Resistance—that is, the resistance of those who hold to the tradition in fuller form—is, in Mr. Sklare’s presentation, a kind of pointless effort to stem and reverse an inevitable tide. The position of the Conservative rabbi, as presented in this volume, seems ludicrously unreal: he is full of a desire to keep the Halachah alive—in some way—in face of the profound and unshakable indifference of his congregants.
I am not taxing Mr. Sklare, priggishly, with failing to take “spiritual forces” into account. My point is that sociological analysis must take all forces into account, and the existence of a religious tradition that makes strong demands, and is still accepted by many thousands of people, is one such force.
Mr. Sklare’s bias in favor of a type of analysis that sees a tradition “adapted” to a situation rather than possibly molding it, emerges at many points. It is a little surprising, for example, to read: “East European Orthodoxy . . . grew out of the peculiar conditions of East European life”—with no more qualification than that. After all, the Shulchan Aruch—which played no small role in East European Orthodoxy—was written by a Spanish rabbi who never set foot in East Europe. I feel Mr. Sklare is making a similar—though lesser—mistake when he writes of the Conservative rabbis and their problems with the Halachah: “The pondering of ritual problems, the consultations through the literature with the great rabbinical minds of the past, and the writing of scholarly opinions based on precedent, must be viewed essentially as adjustive techniques helping to mediate the crisis produced by clashes in role-playing.” In part, they are “adjustive techniques” (that is, of purely psychological significance to the rabbis, and of no significance to others); but “essentially,” I am convinced, they are the necessary effort to come to grips with a great tradition. As long as it exists and is studied, and as long as Jews accept the idea that it has claims on them, developments are possible—perhaps we should say only barely possible—that Mr. Sklare’s approach and analysis imply are utterly impossible.
This is, of course, the most difficult problem of any sociological approach—how, in its explanations, to incorporate formal systems of ideas like the great religions and give any weight to the explicit and ostensible content of phenomena it is inclined to reduce to social forms alone. The unique strength of the discipline of sociology lies in its going beneath formal ideologies to social movements, and explaining the actions of groups and individuals “better than they can explain it themselves”—at least better from the point of view of the uninvolved observer. And this gives rise to sociology’s special weakness—what to do about ideas, what to do about what people think they believe? It tends too exclusively to see religions and ideologies as passive elements given by history and molded by social forces and individual needs.
I think this is Mr. Sklare’s tendency, too. My own feeling is that in the relation between the Jewish tradition and the people who call themselves Jews, the tradition also plays an active role, or at least is capable of playing one. But this is, of course, a difference with the author’s point of view that goes’ far beyond the limits of a review.