The time is long overdue for Jews who are Orthodox and Traditional (called Mesorati in Israel) — particularly in Israel where American Conservative and Reform Movement leaders with dying congregations are trying to change the fundamental connection between Judaism and the Jewish state— to grasp two truths:
1. What is called “Conservative Judaism” today is "Reform Judaism". It is not what it once was, and it never will go back. It no longer has any anchor or mooring to the Torah or to Tradition. It also has almost no followers in the USA.
2. Reform "Judaism” today is akin to Unitarian Christianity without a Messiah. Today, in public declarations made by Reform’s own leaders, more than half of membership families at Reform temples are intermarried. (See page 9, “Audacious Hospitality.”) With half or more of their membership non-Jewish, what are they?
The Reform Movement began in 1800’s Germany. It was founded by Jews who understandably could not bear centuries of living persecuted in the ghettoes of Europe and desperately wanted to share in the Enlightenment. They fantasized that, if they “reformed” Judaism to be like the surrounding liberal Protestantism, then the German non-Jews would come to accept Jews in their society.
After centuries of deadly Crusades, the Black Death, blood libels, and so much horror, the Reform Movement’s founders asserted they now were in lockstep with history and that history ultimately would validate that their 1800’s “reforms” brought an end to anti-Semitism, for once and for all, in Germany. The reader is welcome to look at how history unfolded a century later to determine how “progressive” the vision of Reform "Judaism” proved to be in ending anti-Semitism, for once and for all, especially in Germany.
Among the Reform Movement's key “reforms,” its founders:
1. Abandoned Hebrew and reestablished their prayers in German and in other vernaculars.
2. Abandoned all hope or desire for a return to Jerusalem. They declared Berlin their new Jerusalem.
3. Abandoned all hope or desire for a return to Zion-Palestine-Israel. They declared Germany their new Zion.
4. To symbolize that Zion was in Germany, not in Jerusalem, they re-named their houses of worship “Temple” rather than “synagogue.”
5. Abandoned all belief in the coming of Moshiach (Messiah) and in revival of the dead.
6. Abandoned core Jewish practices including the dietary laws of kashrut (kosher) and Sabbath observances.
7. Introduced pipe organs into their temples because that is how Christian churches prayed.
8. Had their rabbis wear long black robes during services because that is how Protestant pastors dressed in church.
9. Prohibited men from wearing head coverings in temple because Christian men did not cover their heads in church.
10. Some moved Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday to be like the churches.
11. Some banned circumcision.
12. They banned kissing Torah scrolls or fallen holy books in Temple because they deemed that behavior unseemly, poor church-like etiquette.
The Reform Movement in America
They brought these German “reforms” with them to America primarily during the great German immigration between 1840-1860, particularly through the efforts of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in the mid-1800s. Because Reform "Judaism" was uniquely and particularly a German invention, they established all their main American institutions in Cincinnati, Ohio — not in New York — because non-Jewish German immigrants to America had made Cincinnati their center. Thus, the Reform Movement was purely a product of mid-19th Century German culture.
Accordingly, Rabbi Wise established himself and his newspaper in Cincinnati. Hebrew Union College was established in Cincinnati to ordain reform clergy. The first reform prayer book drew heavily on German and English as it abandoned Hebrew. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), recently renamed Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), was established in Cincinnati as their temple association. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) was established in Cincinnati as their rabbinic association. At the infamous and notorious first ordination celebration of the HUC first graduating class of Reform Rabbis, the food was so non-kosher that it is remembered to this day in American Jewish history books as “The Treif Banquet.”
The birth of the Conservative Movement
In the face of the outrage, desecration, and abandonment of Judaism, a challenge arose for many of the 3.25 million American Jewish immigrants who later arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe during the next great Jewish immigration wave between 1881-1914. They were traditional and could not believe in what German Reform earlier had imposed as the dominant instituted religion of Judaism in America. Yet, many of them were concerned that the only alternative, which the Reform labeled mockingly as “Orthodox” Judaism (because Orthodox Jews then wore head coverings that sometimes seemed similar to the head gear of Eastern Orthodox Christian prelates), likewise had not adapted sufficiently to new American social and cultural realities.
The early form of such traditional East European practice in America included: (i) a prohibition against rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) speaking English in shuls, even in their sermons; (ii) a requirement, preceding the era of widespread mechitzah partitions, that women pray upstairs in a balcony rather than on the same main floor as men separated by the kinds of mechitzah that would become commonplace in America by the 1950’s; (iii) a restriction on singing during prayers; and (iv) other similar practices that challenged evolving cultural sensibilities by many that, although Reform had abandoned everything, there nevertheless would be value, without compromising Torah observance, in integrating certain more Americanized practices into American Judaism.
Thus arose the Conservative Movement — intended not as a radical departure but as just the opposite, to maintain a more conservative approach to Judaism than the radical reform movement of Germany. It had already begun to emerge as a reaction to the "treifa banquet."
The early Conservative Movement actually was not that different from what we now call “Modern Orthodox” Judaism. Its founders included Orthodox Rabbi Sabato Morais, a primary founder of Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) which ordains Conservative Judaism rabbis. Rabbi Morais of Italy emerged as the predominant Orthodox rabbi in America of his time when he rose to lead Cong. Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia.
He co-founded JTS in 1886 to ordain theologically conservative American rabbis. He was designated first president of the JTS faculty, and JTS named its Chair in Biblical Literature and Exegesis in his honor. The next major Orthodox rabbinic leader in America, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes of Cong. Shearith Israel (the “Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue” in New York City), joined with Rabbi Morais in founding JTS to ordain Orthodox rabbis. Soon they were joined by another leading American Orthodox rabbi of that era, Rabbi Bernard Drachman. In 1898 Rabbis Pereira Mendes and Drachman also co-founded the Orthodox Union, which initially maintained close ties with JTS.
After Rabbi Morais died in 1897, JTS ran into financial difficulties, and it was reorganized. Its lay leadership brought in world-renowned scholar Rabbi Solomon Schechter from Great Britain. His greatest academic fame came from his excavation in 1896 of the papers of the Cairo Geniza, an extraordinary collection of over 100,000 pages (some 300,000 documents) of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and medieval Jewish texts that were preserved at an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionized the study of Medieval Judaism. His religious approach to Judaism seemed compatible with the conservatism of JTS, and he assumed the presidency, as well as serving as Professor of Jewish theology. In his 1902 inaugural address at JTS, he said:
“Judaism is not a religion which does not oppose itself to anything in particular. Judaism is opposed to any number of things and says distinctly ‘thou shalt not.’ It permeates the whole of your life. It demands control over all of your actions, and interferes even with your menu. It sanctifies the seasons, and regulates your history, both in the past and in the future. Above all, it teaches that disobedience is the strength of sin. It insists upon the observance of both the spirit and of the letter; spirit without letter belongs to the species known to the mystics as "nude souls" (nishmatim artilain), wandering about in the universe without balance and without consistency...In a word, Judaism is absolutely incompatible with the abandonment of the Torah.”
Solomon Schechter’s Judaism was very traditional and close to Orthodoxy — at least to “Modern Orthodoxy” — except insofar as he advanced the notion that certain Judaic practices could be modified ever so slightly if universally adopted by all observing Jews (which he termed “Catholic Israel”). Because Schechter seemed to straddle the line of Orthodoxy, sometimes to its left, the Orthodox Union, which initially stood with Schechter and JTS, eventually moved away from him, and a new expression of Torah observant Modern Orthodoxy, National Council of Young Israel, emerged in 1912 among young-adult Orthodox men and women seeking a Torah-true, Zionist expression of Orthodoxy within an American cultural and social climate.
Through the next half century, into the 1950’s, “Conservative Judaism” remained fairly close to American Modern Orthodoxy, with the main difference being that Conservative places had mixed-gender seating during prayers while Orthodox shuls, as they discontinued upstairs women’s balconies, installed mechitzah partitions to separate men from women - and less mitzva observant congregations. Thus, large numbers of rabbis ordained at Yeshiva University continued seeking and accepting pulpit positions at Conservative congregations during that era in an effort to preserve the congregations' connection to Torah, and their laity happily hired such applicants.
The decline and fall of the Conservative Movement
The fateful turning point — the core break that shattered the destiny of the Conservative Movement and that torpedoed it onto a descending cycle of increasingly extreme liberalizations that ultimately have resulted in it becoming the new Reform, while today’s Reform "Judaism" has descended into Unitarianism without a Messiah, came when the Conservative Movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, adopted a ruling in 1950 that permitted driving to congregational prayers on Shabbat, a ruling directly contradicting Jewish law.
Why? When American soldiers returned to the United States from serving abroad during World War II, Congress passed the “G.I. Bill” of 1944. (Soldiers were called “G.I.”s partly because their supplies were “Government Issued” or “General Issue,” although the “G.I.” term alternatively may have stemmed from the “galvanized iron” that the army used.) A central provision of this bill was low-interest, zero-down-payment home loans for servicemen, and the lending terms were even more favorable for people buying newly constructed houses rather than existing homes.
This G.I. Bill encouraged millions of American families to move out of urban apartments and into newly built suburban homes and neighborhoods. In time, “Levittowns” — newly created suburbs, planned for returning G.I.s like the original ones built between 1947-1951 and named for Abraham Levitt & Sons, a company often credited with “creating the suburbs” — were sprouting throughout America. Like their fellow Americans, American Jews began moving from the inner cities to the suburbs, a cultural phenomenon depicted in the movie “Avalon.”
Until the mass 1950’s migration to the suburbs, it was convenient enough for Jews to walk to shul on Shabbat. Jewish communities of American inner cities often had ample shuls nearby, as they do even now. However, the flight to suburbs like Long Island meant that Jews making such moves no longer would live within walking distance of shul because the G.I. Bill had them moving before new congregations were established.
In Orthodoxy, Judaism did not change. Driving on Shabbat is forbidden, no matter how far away shul is, primarily because a vehicle requires ignition, combustion — making a fire. Orthodox rabbonim taught and still teach the Torah law. Individuals make their own decisions. When someone shows up in an Orthodox shul on Shabbat, and everyone knows that person lives five or ten or twenty miles away, no one asks and no one tells. The driver has enough sense of propriety not to walk in describing the three-car accident or the highway bottleneck or the poor visibility on the road. Some even bashfully — or out of basic deference — park a few blocks from the shul. Importantly, knowing that driving on Shabbat is forbidden.
That person who makes his or her own private accounting as he or she chooses to drive to shul on Shabbat rather than to remain home year-round, or move closer to shul, often consciously makes no other Shabbat compromises. At home the TV remains off throughout Shabbat, as does the computer and smart phone. The lights, oven, and stove are not adjusted nor touched. All cooked, baked, or otherwise-heated food has been prepared in advance, and a Shabbat-approved blech (plata) is the only way food is warmed in that Shabbat home. Money is not touched. Shabbat is observed.
While Orthodox Judaism remained true to Torah, even amid the 1950’s American suburban flight to the Levittowns stimulated by the G.I. Bill, the Conservative Movement fatefully made the historic error that destroyed itself. Their rabbis ruled that, in the first instance, it now would be permitted to drive a car on Shabbat to get to a house of worship. Although they tried to distinguish that they were “permitting” only driving to prayer, they broke a taboo that launched a breakdown.
Laity reasoned “If it is allowed to drive on Shabbat to get to prayers, then it is OK to stop off at the convenience store on the way home to pick up an extra bottle of wine and jar of gefilte fish since we ran out of them last night.” And that meant it OK to carry money. And if it was OK to drive the car, how could it be forbidden to make phone calls or to answer the phone? Or to stop off at a friend? And then, how can it be “work” on a “day of rest” if simply driving to a movie? Or to the beach?” And once you lived far from your place of worship, the whole concept of a congregation disintegrated. The entire fabric faded, and the entire foundation of a conservative approach to radical reform toppled on itself. This fateful mistake of historic proportions was famously acknowledged two decades later by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of JTS.
The collapse unfolded gradually. Nevertheless, a new generation of young students at JTS now were succeeding the earlier era of the more traditional sorts like Saul Lieberman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and David Weiss-Halivni.
Once, the Conservative Movement's debates with “the Orthodox” were over whether a mechitzah partition is required at prayer, whether swordfish is allowed in a kosher diet, and whether every single word and letter in the Torah was dictated directly by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu or simply was Moshe’s own intuitive writing that was “divinely inspired.”
Now a new generation of Conservative clergy arose who asserted Jews never had been in Egypt, there never had been ten plagues or a mass national exodus or an assemblage of millions at Mount Sinai or a Divine Revelation. Ironically, the keynote declaration by which the Conservative Movement gave notice that they no longer believed in the fundamental narrative of the Torah was delivered by the congregational spiritual leader of a place called Sinai Temple — and on Passover 2001.
The move towards the Reform Movement
Over time the Conservative Movement continued to drift, pursuing and emulating Reform "Judaism"’s “innovations,” one by one. Thus, in September 1973 they voted to count women in their prayer quora. In 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted, without an accompanying opinion, to ordain women as rabbis and as cantors. The special commission they had named to study the issue consisted of eleven men and three women. The women were an attorney, an Assyriologist, and a writer.
The Conservative Movemenjt ordained its first female rabbi in 1985. In protest, several JTS rabbinic faculty members separated in 1984. In 1987 the first Conservative female cantors were ordained although the Cantors Assembly, the Conservative Movement’s association of cantors, did not allow women to join until 1990.
In December 2006, the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards followed Reform and ruled to allow “commitment ceremonies” for same-sex couples and to permit ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. They admitted their first gay rabbinic students the following year in 2007. In 2012, the Conservative Movement issued formal guidelines for their clergy to perform same-sex weddings.
In 2017 the Conservative Movement announced that non-Jews now could become temple members. In December 2014, the USY teen movement of Conservative Judaism dropped its ban that prohibited USY regional leaders from dating non-Jews.
In May 2021, scores of Conservative Movement rabbinic students joined with Reform rabbinic students to sign an open letter attacking Israel’s defensive war against Hamas.
In November 2021, the Conservative Movement celebrated at Camp Ramah the first same-sex wedding of two Conservative "Judaism" lesbian rabbis.
By now, the Conservative Movement had become indistinguishable from the radical extremes of the Reform Movement that had given rise to its founding. Indeed, when people refer to the Conservative Movement today, they invariably add a descriptor to note that the “Conservative” adjective is the anachronistic name of their movement that now is far to the left: “I am a Conservative Jew in the denominational sense.” The movement now has become so unanchored that, throughout the United States, collapsing Conservative temples regularlymerge with Reform temples.
There was a time when what was called "Conservative Judaism” was in many ways indistinguishable from Modern Orthodoxy. As “Conservative Judaism” began to lose its moorings and float without direction in new locations across America, there remained some traditional outposts that tended to identify themselves as “East Coast Conservative,” to distinguish their more traditional practices that still dated back to the ways of their early founders. But that era now is long gone. Conservative Judaism now is Reform Judaism. As a result, the movement is collapsing before our eyes. In the words of Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis, cited by David Goldman:
“Nowhere is [the] rapid collapse [of non-Orthodox American Judaism] more visible than in the Conservative movement, which is practically imploding before our eyes,” writes Rabbi Daniel Gordis in the current issue of The Jewish Review of Books. “In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement, then the largest of the movements. By the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the number had declined to 38 percent. In 2000, it was 26 percent, and now, according to Pew, Conservative Judaism is today the denominational home of only 18 percent of Jews. And they are graying. Among Jews under the age of 30, only 11 percent of respondents defined themselves as Conservative.”
That was in 2013. In Pew’s latest survey of American Jews, published in May 2021, the respected research center found that only 8 percent of American Jews under 30 still identify with the Conservative Movement and only 11 percent of those 30-49. Perhaps more tellingly, in the quadrennial World Zionist Congress elections of 2020, Mercaz USA, the Conservative Movement slate, proportionately won only 18 seats of the 152 seats at stake.
As the Conservative Movement era fades, unable to reproduce itself, one contemplates the metaphor for that failure epitomized by two Conservative lesbian "rabbis" now marrying each other.
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator, adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, and The Jewish Press. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .