Conservative Judaism

Question:  I am an 8th grade student at a Conservative day school.  I need to do a research paper for Jewish History class on changes in Conservative Judaism in the last 50 years.  I have no clue where or how to begin.  Any suggestions regarding research sources?

Answer:  I would begin with the book Conservative Judaism, by Rabbi Neil Gillman or From our Ancestors to our Decendants, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

Question:  I am a Conservative Jew but I have heard some not so good things about our movement lately and I was curious how you would respond to them:

  1. Reform and Orthodox have set ways, for example women opening the ark is no question for Reform or Orthodox, Reform allows it, Orthodox does not.  But conservative is on the fence.
  2. Reform and Reconstructionists tell people what they are all about, conservative makes them think they are better or more traditional but they are still not “authentic.”
  3. it is the least growing movement.  It is “confused.”

Also, are there specific movement ideas about Mount Sinai and God.  Like, I am interested in going to the Jewish Theological Seminary but I believe that God wrote the Torah word for word to Moses.  Will they let me think that there or at the University of Judaism or will I get bad grades for that?

Answer:  You have raised numerous issues regarding Conservative Judaism, and I will try to address each one of them.

First, the question of whether Conservative Judaism is any less narrowly defined than Reform or Orthodox traditions.  If you closely examined a number of Reform synagogues, you would find that there is a great deal LESS unanimity on many issues that you suspect.  The level of Hebrew and traditional structure within the services, attitudes towards intermarriage and patrilineal descent, the binding nature of mitzvot such as kashrut and Shabbat - all these things are seriously debated from one Reform synagogue to another.

So too, within Orthodoxy you find a broad spectrum of Halakhic approaches to Jewish tradition, from the most lenient modern Orthodoxy, to the most restrictively observant Haridi (ultra-Orthodox), to the Chasidic approach.  To take several examples:  To what extent must married women cover their hair, what kinds of hekhsherim (kosher supervision symbols) are accepted, is one allowed to watch/own a television or read secular newspapers or magazines - all these are issues that differ from one segment of the Orthodox community to another.

The Conservative movement does not have definitive attitudes on every single question.  We recognize that there may be more than one path along halakha that can lead towards God.  There are certainly issues on which the Conservative movement speaks with one voice, such as the divine obligation of mitzvot, and the importance of maintaining the traditional Hebrew structure of prayer.

To your second question, Conservative Judaism IS an authentic approach to halacha.  We believe that halakha has always responded to change, but have tried to balance it with a desire to preserve our traditions.  The earliest document of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah, is a monument to the revolution of changing Judaism from a Temple based, sacrificial system led by a Priestly class, to a home/synagogue based tradition led by a rabbis who attain their position through learning, rather than inheritance.  If you read the book Conservative Judaism by Rabbi Neil Gillman (as well as his books Sacred Fragments and The Death of Death), you will get a very good defense of what Conservative Judaism is all about, and why.

Third, in a recent publication by Dr. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jewish Identity and Religious Commitment, Dr. Wertheimer writes that in the past decade, 48% of conservative synagogues reported growth, 31% reported decline, and 21% reported stable membership.  In case studies of New York and Florida, the largest percentages of affiliated Jews belonged to Conservative Synagogues.  This hardly points to a dying, confused movement.

I highly recommend Rabbi Gillman’s book Sacred Fragments for an overview of the varied approaches to theology found in the Conservative movement.  At no school will they give you bad grades for what you believe.  If you intend on applying to rabbinical schools, you will find that your own personal theology will line up better at one over another, but only you can decided which one.

Question:  What is the Conservative rational for conservative rules especially as it differs from Orthodoxy?

Answer:  The Conservative movement believes in the same system of halakha as the Orthodox.  The differences come up with the flexibility to interpret and change Halacha based on social realities of our time.

The Conservative movement firmly believes that halakha has always changed to adapt to new realities.  The system of Oral Law, or halakha, has a set of rule of interpretation.  Conservative rabbis use those rules.  In general, we are more willing to use those rule to change past precedent or restore an earlier precedent that had been rejected.  We examine the reasoning behind a particular halakhic decision.  If the reasoning seems flawed, and if an alternative position seems more strongly based on Torah and logic, we feel free to choose the alternative position.

You might be interested in the book, The Halachic Process:  A Systemic Analysis, by Rabbi Joel Roth.  Rabbi Roth is one of the premier halachic thinkers of our time.  The book is a careful explanation of the system of halakha and the methods built into that system for change.

Question:  I converted to (Reform) Judaism just over three years ago.  I am very involved in my congregation - attend services regularly, member of weekly Torah and adult Hebrew classes, and teacher in Religious School.  But I’ve been feeling a certain lack of spirituality in my religious practice lately.

A few weeks ago I attended a CLAL program hosted by both my congregation and the conservative congregation across town.  That was my first experience with CLAL and my first, first-hand interaction with the conservative organization.  I was deeply moved by the experience.

Now I feel as if I’m perched on the brink between the reform and conservative movements.  My understanding of the differences in practice between reform and conservative is limited primarily to dietary laws.

I would appreciate responses from both Reform and Conservative rabbis to the following:

  1. What level of spirituality do you currently observe in those in your denomination?
  2. What words of encouragement/discouragement can you offer one in my position - perched between two denominations and searching for a more personal relationship with our Creator?

Answer:  I have been struggling with the best way to answer your question.  It is not easy, primarily because defining “spirituality” in some concrete, objective, quantitative way is impossible.

I think the spirituality of the Conservative movement springs forth out of its commitment to halakha.  We assert that the system of mitzvah/halakha is obligatory, and commanded by God through Torah.  Keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, the regular, traditional forms of prayer, gemilut hasadim, tzedakah, and Talmud Torah are all obligatory mitzvot that deepen our relationship with God.

I do not disparage the Reform movement - many, many people find it’s practices to be rich and fulfilling.  But if you are finding that it is not touching your spirit, give your local Conservative synagogue a try for a period of time.  The level of Hebrew in the services will be greater - you may need to do some extra study to get comfortable.  But give it a change, get involved as much as you can, and see if it meets your spiritual needs.

Aside from this, I would encourage you to meet personally with your Reform rabbi and the local Conservative Rabbi, and share your concerns with them.  Spiritual counseling, which is what you are asking for, is best done in person, rather than over the Internet!

Question:  Thank you for your time and your response to my question.  When I addressed my question to the aol ‘ask a rabbi,’ I had already relayed my situation to both of the rabbis here.  I sought additional input from the aol group as (more or less) a sanity check.  I find it interesting that I asked for responsa from both conservative and reform, but heard only from you.  I also find it interesting that we are approximately the same age - which means that maybe you can relate to me as a member of your faith AND your generation.

Of all the aspects of Jewish spirituality you mention, keeping kosher is the only one I do not currently practice, even though I have considered it for some time.  Perhaps because of my consideration, or maybe this week’s parshe, or the combination of the two, I called my (Reform) rabbi to discuss my inclination to try keeping kosher.  As a man who was raised in a conservative home, under the laws of kashrut, and converted to Reform, my rabbi was (or seemed) really perplexed that I would consider such a course.  I tried calling the other rabbi.  He was out for the day, but I expect his return call tomorrow.

The following is what I plan to tell the conservative rabbi when he calls tomorrow.  Please tell me what you think:

I want to try to adhere to the laws of kashrut.  This is a major step for me - recall that as a convert and Reform Jewess for the past four years I have no background in this except what I know of Torah.  My goal is to maintain kashrut from Pesah to Shavuot.  At Shavuot I plan to evaluate my ability to follow the laws and make a permanent decision for the future.  Right now I believe I can make this a permanent part of my life, but I feel a need to give myself this test before making such a tremendous commitment.

I’m very interested in what he has to say - but I’m also very interested in what you have to say.  If you have any great words of wisdom or spiritual encouragement, I would really appreciate hearing (reading) them before Pesah!

Answer:  Regarding beginning to keep kosher, I would like to recommend a book, written by a Conservative Rabbi named Bradley Shavit Artson (he is also on the AskaRabbi forum), called It’s a Mitzvah.  It is a step by step guide towards beginning to observe a wide variety of mitzvot, including kashrut.

Your trial period is a good idea - but I would suggest using some of Rabbi Artson’s ideas to refine it.  You need not try to take on the mitzvot of kashrut all at once - think of it like climbing a ladder of observance, which you may climb one rung at a time.

I am disappointed by the response you got from your Reform rabbi.  I have always understood that in Reform Judaism, if observing a particular mitzvah is a valuable spiritual path for an individual, then that individual should observe that mitzvah.  Shabbat, kashrut, wearing a tallit, etc.  In other words, that even though the movement as a whole does not believe that observing mitzvot is obligatory, an individual may choose those mitzvot which are meaningful to him or her.  To hear that a Reform rabbi made light of a Jew’s sincere desire to explore a mitzvah is disturbing.

I hope you get a better reception from the Conservative rabbi.  One word of caution, based on what little you have told me about the Reform rabbi:  The Conservative movement, as a movement based on halakha, accepts ANY conversion that is done according to halakha.  For a woman, that means that you must have gone to the mikvah.  If you have not gone to the mikvah, then in order to join a Conservative synagogue it is likely that your conversion must be completed by going to the mikvah.  If you have not gone to the mikvah, then be aware that this issue may come up down the road.  If you have gone to the mikvah, then there should be no problem.  Let me stress, though, that this is something that you should talk through with your local rabbi.  I only mention it here because I don’t want you to be surprised IF questions are raised about your conversion.  If you have gone to the mikvah, then in all likelihood, you can ignore this entire paragraph!

Question:  As I expected the Conservative rabbi returned my call first thing this morning.  When I explained the reason for my call, his response was:  “Oh!  How exciting!”  Now, I have to tell you that response made quite an impression.  Contrast this to my rabbi, whom I love and respect.  His first response was “Why would you want to do that?”  In his defense, that was a good question to ask - it just hit me badly.

I have made plans to meet with the Conservative rabbi early next week to talk at length about my desire to adhere to the law.  In our very brief conversation today, he vocalized the same concept you wrote about - doing this in gradual steps.

If you had stopped there - this note would end here.  Instead you have thought one step ahead of me.  Clearly I am beginning to lean toward Conservative.  As I look to the future I can visualize seeking membership at the shul - in addition to my membership at my temple.  Mikvah was never discussed during my conversion studies.  Are you telling me that I won’t be accepted as a Jewess at the shul if I haven’t performed this ceremony?  I have thought of myself as a Jewess for four years now - ever since the day I made the commitment to convert (the actual ceremony was several months later).  I know, as most converts do, that there will always be many Jews by birth who consider us non-Jews - no matter what.  Still - I think I need to know more about the Mikvah.  I’d be glad for any additional information you could provide.  Or maybe it’s in the book too?

Answer:  I am pleased that the Conservative rabbi responded so warmly.

The reason I mentioned mikvah is that I suspected that it would be an issue down the road (you confirmed my suspicion) and I didn’t want you to be surprised later on when it came up.  Yes, I unfortunately am telling you that you would not be considered Jewish (by the Conservative movement) until you complete the halachic process of conversion, which concludes with mikvah.  In my opinion, it is a tragedy that the Reform movement in this country does not require mikvah - it is a major break with the halachic movements.  Mikvah is actually a very simple matter.  It is not discussed in the book by Rabbi Artson - the best thing to do would be to discuss it with the Conservative rabbi in your community.  But basically, the procedure for immersion in a Mikvah is as follows:

  1. You will enter the mikvah naked.  You should be completely clean before immersing.  Shower and remove all makeup, nail polish, etc.
  2. Immerse completely in the water, making sure that the water touches every part of your body.  Your feet should be above the bottom, and your entire head should be under the water.  Relax your fingers and toes, so water gets in between them.
  3. Say the beracha:

    Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’tevilah.

    “Source of Blessing are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the world, who makes us holy with God’s commandments, and commanded us regarding immersion.”
  4.  Immerse again, as before.
  5. Say the berakha:

    Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, she’hehiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higi’anu lah’zman hazeh.

    “Source of Blessing are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the world, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this day.”
  6. Immerse one more time, as before.

There will be a mikvah attendant to make sure you are completely immersed in the water, though depending on the mikvah, you may be able to bring in your own attendant or attendants.  The beit din (rabbinical court) of three rabbis will be just outside the door, listening to the attendent indicate that the immersion was “kosher,” and listening to you say the berakhot.

Question:  I told you I would let you know about the outcome of my meeting with the Conservative Rabbi here on the subject of keeping kosher.  I’m writing to do that - and to impose on you for more of your valued insight.

My meeting of a week ago went wonderfully well.  We spoke for over an hour, and I left our meeting with the sense that we achieved both an excellent raport and clear understanding of what’s required of me to fulfill this Mitzvah.  I felt excited and energized about my new undertaking - and set out that very evening to begin cleaning my home.  I have bags of cookware, utensils, dishes and food (mostly Hametz) sitting in my dining room awaiting delivery to the needy.  I’ve replaced the critical stuff with new - and will continue to add to my collection as funds permit.  Dishes are expensive!

So, what’s wrong?  During my meeting last week with this wonderful, bright, sensitive rabbi, he planted a seed in my head which has resulted in enormous distress.  I telephoned and spoke with him yesterday about the distress I feel, but he gave NO answers.

What was the seed?  On one hand, he told me it was NOT his job to convert people to Conservative Judaism.  At first I was pleased at this - no pressure.  We talked about my timing, and he indicated that Pesach was an excellent time to ‘go kosher.’  We then talked about Seder - and the fact that my Temple kitchen - the one from which I will partake of the first Seder - is not kosher.  (I’m participating in the second Seder with his congregation.)  Here’s the kicker: rather than discourage me from participation in the Reform Seder - or other meals at the Temple - he cautions me not to turn my back on my community.

So now my brain is screaming.   I really feel I must approach keeping kosher as strictly as I’m able.  In my mind the first Seder has taken on the aura of a last supper - I can’t eat from that kitchen after Monday night.  But, Judaism and food are so intertwined, that my decision will clearly eliminate many of the opportunities to connect with ‘my community.’   The Rabbi seems to be telling me that, in the interest of my connection with a building and a group of people who do not share all my beliefs, that I SHOULDN’T keep strictly kosher.  So what do I feel?  I feel more than subtle pressure on one side - and as if I’m being pushed away from that which makes sense on the other.

And what do I want from you?  Your opinion, please.  Do you think he:

a.  has issued a test of my intent and resolve - by giving me an excuse for NOT keeping kosher even in my house of worship?

b.  thinks there really is some benefit for me to maintain my current interaction (including the consumption of non-kosher foods) at the Temple?, or

c.  neither (please explain).

I know that I must ultimately work through this issue with him.  I think of keeping kosher is an all or nothing proposition - I wouldn’t feel right about partial application of the laws - or application in only some circumstances.  But, this Rabbi is very bright. I don’t want to discard his thinking without careful consideration.  Please tell me what you think?

:  You are correct in your statement that you need to work through the issue with him.  I can only guess at his thinking, based on what I might tell someone in your position.  I don’t think he is testing you, nor do I think that he is asserting that there is a benefit for you to keep eating non-kosher food at the Temple.  Perhaps he was trying to caution you to move slowly, and not to turn you back overnight on the community that has nurtured you thus far.  This does not necessarily mean that you should not ultimately join the Conservative community; but a step like this should not be taken lightly.  It is also possible that he does not want to be perceived as “stealing” a member of another synagogue.  He wants you to make the decision yourself, and know that if you ultimately decide to remain in the Reform community, you will still have his support to pursue you spirituality there.

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