In attempting to define the ethos of today's Conservative Movement, its spokesmen typically start off describing what it is not - that it is neither Orthodox nor Reform - but they have a difficult time positively articulating its core philosophy or guiding beliefs. This failure of clarity is not surprising given the peculiar evolution of the movement, from its historical origins in the school of Positive Historical Judaism advocated by Rabbi Zechariah Frankel in 19th Century Europe, and continuing with its growth and permutation on American soil.
Early rabbis of the Positive Historical School were more or less orthodox in their personal practice.
The Positive Historical approach grew out of a counter-rebellion of rabbis who were interested in moderate ritual reform, but who were repulsed by the second reformed rabbinical conference convened by Abraham Geiger in 1846 at Frankfort-on-Main. The early reformers under Geiger's tutelage formally rejected, among other things, the belief in messiah and corporeal resurrection, the centrality and necessity of the Hebrew language for public worship, and the concept of Jewish peoplehood. Rabbi Frankel and his colleagues repudiated Geiger's extremist positions and attempted instead to forge a religious philosophy that would remain traditional in practice but accommodate modernity.
(Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch accomplished the same rapprochement within the strictures of Orthodoxy, thus giving rise to "neo-Orthodoxy" and by extension Modern Orthodoxy and the Jewish day school movement in the United States.)
These early rabbis of the Positive Historical School were more or less orthodox in their personal practice, but were reluctant to affirm publicly the immutability of the halachic process, ascribing only some parts to revelation and other parts to rabbinic tradition. However, they never really articulated with any precision what the term "rabbinic tradition" meant to them, what parts of the law they considered sacrosanct, and what elements they believed could be changed.
Upon being named head of the newly organized Breslau Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Frankel was challenged by Rabbi S. R. Hirsch to issue a public statement of the religious principles guiding the new institution. Rabbi Frankel instead chose not to respond, thereby causing Rabbi Hirsch and other contemporaries to challenge the orthodoxy of the institution and condemn what they believed to be the theological incongruity of a doctrinally unfocused approach to the continuity of traditional Jewish practice.
Whatever the reason for Rabbi Frankel's silence, his decision not to articulate any guiding principles has ironically become a de facto principle of today's Conservative Movement, giving license over the years to the amelioration of traditional observance in the putative name of modernity. As the lay people became less observant within a few short generations, they began to dictate religious practice and demanded change based on secular considerations and sensibilities rather than theological imperative or legal scholarship. Consequently, the rabbi-congregant dynamic changed dramatically. No longer was the rabbi expected, as the religious professional, to exhort or guide his congregants to greater observance, but rather to take direction from them.
As a consequence, and in response to the demands of an increasingly uneducated and acculturated constituency, the movement's Committee on Law and Standards over the years has sanctioned many sweeping departures from normative halacha, issuing responsa that have strained the parameters of the law, all the while claiming to be guided by it. The conceit of this process is that it purports to be guided by halacha while clearly ignoring the law when deemed politically expedient, socially desirable or simply convenient.
Although the Conservative Movement still claims to be guided by halacha, it is difficult to see how its myriad of
Many of these changes fall so far outside the boundaries of the law that they are clearly motivated by external concerns.
changes - starting with the official endorsement of driving on Shabbat to its recent conflicting responsa on homosexuality and the ordination of gay rabbis - can be justified or even rationalized on halachic grounds. Indeed, many of these changes fall so far outside the boundaries of the law that they are clearly motivated by external concerns and values, not halachic logic or precedent.
Alarmingly, when attempting to justify changes in practice and observance that clearly contravene halacha, today's Conservative rabbis often seem unfamiliar with the traditional rabbinic sources; and when discussing their movement's evolving positions they are informed more by inter-movement politics than substantive halacha. Thus, in response to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's continuing claims to be a halachic movement, many of its critics now refer to it as "halachic style." That is, just as "kosher style" restaurants are not truly kosher, neither is a "halachic-style movement" truly guided or constrained by Jewish law.
So, what are the practical consequences of this evolution? Perhaps most significant is the sense of alienation felt by people who grew up in "traditional" Conservative synagogues. Because of their observant orientation, they could not reconcile themselves with the relaxation of standards that came with the liberalization of ritual and practice - from the wholesale disregard of family purity laws to the relaxation of standards of kashrut, conversion, divorce and education. Indeed, one need only look to the small and shrinking percentage of Conservative congregants who actually keep kosher, attend services regularly or observe Shabbat to see that even the most minimal tokens of observance are no longer a priority for the vast majority of the movement's constituents.
Paradoxically, for many people born in the 1960s and later who are not personally observant, but who received more traditional education (i.e., those who came of age during the most extreme period of liberalization from the 1970s to 1990s), the intellectual disconnect between the halachic process and the movement's evolution is difficult to reconcile; and the nagging inconsistency between many of the movement's changes and the halacha by which it claims still to be guided is viewed even by many non-observant people as intellectually dishonest. Moreover, the concomitant rise in intermarriage amongst people reared within the Conservative fold has provided a stark realization of where less observance and education ultimately leads. And this realization has stimulated a return to observance by many, albeit in varying forms and degrees.
In an increasingly common pattern, those who aspire to greater observance often find that they cannot live more committed lifestyles within the culture of today's Conservative Movement. Although the movement's hierarchy
Many emigres from the movement still believe that level of observance is a personal matter.
routinely trumpets the beauty of diversity in belief and practice, and claims that there is room in the tent for all levels of observance, those who hold more traditional beliefs and values are generally marginalized, made to feel unwelcome and ultimately excluded. The usual litmus test for whether one's ritual orientation is outside of the movement's mainstream is the acceptance or rejection of "egalitarian minyanim", with those who do not accept the practice usually being branded as misogynists, reactionaries or extremists.
As a consequence, many congregants have left their Conservative synagogues to search for spiritual meaning within a more traditional institutional framework. Interestingly, while many emigres from the movement still believe that level of observance is a personal matter between them and the Almighty, they are also increasingly guided by a sense of the vitality of halacha and a belief in revelation, both of which set goals to which they can aspire and by which they can measure their achievement and growth as Jews. It is difficult, if not impossible, to do that when the law is treated merely as tradition or simply as a sociological construct. It is then subject to drastic change even outside the logical boundary of its own structure, particularly when the engine for change is fueled by external considerations rather than internal process and consistency.