Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants
By Elliott N Dorff
Extracts posted with permission of
United Synagogue of America Youth Commission
Home page http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/
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THE BELIEFS OF THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT
You probably have noticed that we began with Conservative Judaism's approach to Jewish law rather than its understanding of Jewish beliefs. That was not by accident. We began that way for two reasons. First, Judaism itself begins that way, as in this famous statement of the Rabbis:
"They have deserted Me and have not kept My Law" (Jeremiah 16: 11). God says, "Would that they had deserted Me and kept My Law, for if they had occupied themselves with the Law, the leaven1 which is in it would have brought them back to me."
(Pesikta d'Rav Kahana, XV)
In other words, Judaism historically has centered on action rather than faith, and Conservative Judaism does so likewise. Secondly, while matters of belief are discussed thoroughly within the classical Jewish sources, and while we could probably even describe a mainstream Jewish position on many issues, Judaism has largely left it to the individual to decide the particular form of belief which he will adopt, as long as he continues to observe the Jewish law. Under pressure from Christians and Moslems, there were some attempts to define a set of Jewish dogmas during the Middle Ages, but no such formulation ever became authoritative - a clear indication of how deeply freedom of thought is engrained in Judaism. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons why Judaism is as vital, stimulating, and realistic as it is: it does not stifle thought, even if it takes positions on issues.
Conservative Judaism follows suit. While Conservative rabbis believe in God, Torah, and Israel, the interpretations vary widely. In fact, people affiliated with the Conservative Movement have been among the most creative Jewish thinkers during the last fifty years. Thus in thought as in law, Conservative Judaism is true to the classical Jewish tradition as it has developed over the centuries: it has a mainstream position, but it also has many variations on that theme, and the variations in issues of thought are more extensive than the differences in practice.
Solomon Schechter enunciated that position long ago. While pointing out that "the historical school has never, to my knowledge, offered to the world a theological programme of its own,"2. He nevertheless wrote an essay entitled "The Dogmas" of Judaism" specifically in an attempt to
contribute something towards destroying the illusion, in which so many theologians indulge, that Judaism is a religion without dogmas. To declare that a religion has no dogmas is tantamount to saying that it was wise enough not to commit itself to any vital principles. But prudence, useful as it may be in worldly affairs, is quite unworthy of a great spiritual power.3."
There are many versions of Jewish belief, but Judaism does stand for a particular orientation to life.
A. The Core of Conservative Beliefs
What affirmations constitute the mainstream position within Conservative Judaism? There has been no official pronouncement of a Conservative creed - again an indication of the ideologicalvitality and freedom within the Movement- but I, personally, would list the following as beliefs that I think that most Conservative rabbis hold in some form:
1) There is a God. Most conceive of God as a personal Being, but some refer to a creative force, a moral urge toward the good, the totality of being, or a personification of the powerful and good qualities that we find in life.
2) God is One. This belief, which you probably learned by rote in early childhood but never thought about, has the following implications:
a) All human beings are important since we all are God's creatures, created in His image.
b) The forces of nature do not operate randomly or haphazardly; on the contrary, they all work according to a fixed, cohesive order created and maintained by God. (All of science is based upon the assumption that such an order exists: otherwise no general rules about the behavior of objects could be formulated. Hence Judaism is in perfect agreement with the "uniformity of nature principle" in science, although it adds the belief that the order is not the product of mere chance but is rather the conscious creation of God.)
c) The world also operates according to a moral order, established and supervised by God. If there were many gods, then no command would be binding since you could always try to play one god off against the other. (Consider Greek mythology, or, closer to home, the way in which children often try to get from one parent what they could not get from the other parent.) The belief in one God, therefore, asserts that there is one moral order to which we all are bound (although individuals and societies may differ on how they interpret those demands).
3) God takes an active role in human affairs, past, present and future. How God does this, and how to identify His activity, are both matters of dispute, but an important part of Jewish belief is that God continues to be relevant to our lives in a direct, active way. Hence Judaism is "theistic" rather than "deistic" - that is, it believes in a personal God that continues to be actively concerned with the world after He creates it (="theism"), not one that is a non-personal force (= "deism").
4) Man is God's partner in creation. Human beings can, and morally must, contribute to the betterment of !he world in whatever way they can. As God is active, so we must be.
5) Man has free will. Man is born morally neutral; with the He is not perfect, but he can make amends for his mistakes, and which he will do, and he bears the responsibility for that choice. He is not perfect, but he can make amends for his mistakes, and he can change for the better through the method of teshuvah ( 'return'') outlined in classical Jewish texts.
6) The People Israel has a special duty to be "a light unto the nations." Jews have moral faults like everyone else, but we have inherited an especially sensitive tradition which it is our duty to practice to the best of our ability and pass on to our children and grandchildren. Since that is the case, the Torah is central to our understanding of ourselves as Jews, and we must study and practice it to the best of our ability so that we can be good models for others and effective teachers of our children.
7) Judaism is an evolving, religious civilization. (This definition was originally developed by Mordecai Kaplan) That may sound like a mouthful, but it simply means this:
a) Evolving. Judaism has never stood still; it has continually changed throughout its history, adding and dropping laws, ideas, associations, and concerns. If it is to continue to be living and vital, it must incorporate the best that the modern world has to offer while maintaining its distinctive character and wisdom. How to do that is a tricky business, and so decisions must be made on a communal basis as much as possible, as we discussed earlier. But we must contribute to the tradition what we can if it is to develop and have the power to interest and involve us.
b) Civilization. Judaism, like other religions, includes beliefs and laws, but it also includes a language, literature, art, music, dance, food, clothing, history, and an attachment to a specific land. Since these elements are an important part of what it means to be Jewish, it is more accurate to describe Judaism as a "civilization" than it is to call it a "religion" because Americans think solely of beliefs and rituals when they think of "religion." Moreover, because Judaism is a civilization, being fully Jewish requires learning about all of these elements and seeking to foster them.
c) Religious. Because Judaism includes all of these things, some Jews forget about the Jewish religion and identify as Jews by adopting one or more of the other elements of the Jewish civilization in their lives. They speak Hebrew, or live in Israel, or dance Israeli dances, or eat bagels and lox. But that is to latch on to the less important aspects of the Jewish civilization and neglect the core. Judaism is primarily a religious civilization in that religion has always served as its defining feature, the element which gives all of the others a distinctively Jewish character. Consequently, you must observe Jewish law and wrestle with Jewish ideas in order to identify authentically as a Jew.
These are the central beliefs of Conservative Judaism. The first six are actually beliefs of Judaism generally, but it is important to realize that Conservative Judaism affirms them as well. It is the seventh belief which is unique to the Conservative Movement and which explains why it exists as a separate movement within Judaism. And it is the evolving character of Judaism, asserted in the seventh belief, which explains the intellectual vigor and openness of the Conservative Movement.
A sourcebook of this type cannot possibly summarize all of the various positions that writers affiliated with the Conservative Movement have taken on matters like God, the problem of evil, redemption, prayer, the People Israel and the land of Israel. The scope of the issues discussed and the variety of positions espoused are simply too great. Instead, we will do two things. We will first note the types of positions advanced by thinkers associated with the Conservative Movement on issues like God, evil, redemption, and prayer. Those interested in one or more of those positions may then consult the books indicated in the footnotes. Second, we will turn our attention to three issues which we have not yet discussed where the Conservative Movement has been more or less unified over the years - i.e. the People Israel, the land of Israel, and the culture of Israel....
B. The Types of Theology Within the Conservative Movement
In the last chapter we discussed four different positions on revelation within the Conservative Movement. Part of the reason why people take different stands on revelation is because of the different conceptions that they have of God in the first place. For example, according to Mordecai Kaplan, God is not personal and does not have a will. As a result, He clearly cannot reveal commandments that would express His will since He does not have one! Similar remarks would apply to many of the others who hold the view of revelation which we dubbed "Conservative IV (Reconstructionist)." On the other hand, most of those who affirm the other three views of revelation described above, in which God does reveal His will in some way, do so both because they want to ascribe divine authority to Jewish law and also because of their conceptions of God. Specifically, if you believe that God takes an active role in nature and history, then you probably also want to claim that His activity includes an ongoing relationship with man in which there is communication between God and man in some way. That is not a necessary corollary of belief in a personal God, but it is a common one. So your conception of God influences your view of revelation, which, in turn, influences your view of the authority and flexibility of Jewish law.
There are many more conceptions of God than there are ideas about revelation, however. That is because thinkers who hold several different views of God may nevertheless have similar ideas about the way in which He communicates to man. Consequently, although we could classify the various Conservative views of revelation in four general categories, there are many more variations in ideas about God.
What are some of the views of God that have been proposed by those associated with the Conservative Movement? To give you an idea of the wide variety of theologies that Conservative thinkers have created, we will list the general schools of thought to which their theologies belong together with some specific examples of the various approaches (in the footnotes) for those interested in following up on any of these. You may well not understand the philosophic terms used in this list, but it is important that you see that the rich abundance of views of which we have spoken does in fact exist in the Conservative Movement.
What, then, are some of the theological approaches that Conservative thinkers have developed? Some have been rather eclectic in their thought, combining elements from a variety of different schools of thought.6. Others have concentrated on one specific approach. These have included various forms of naturalism and humanism,7. panentheism,8. predicate theology,9. rationalism,10. Hegelianism,l1. organic thinking in the style of Alfred North Whitehead12. , atheistic existentialism13., several types of theistic existentialism,14. and phenomenology.15.
What do these views have in common such that they are all views of God? The conceptions listed above are very different, but, generally speaking, when thinkers speak about God, they are referring to the fact that there are many parts of our experience which are beyond our understanding or control. The Hebrew word "el" (translated "god") connotes "power," and the divine aspects of our experience are the overpowering ones. In addition, most Jewish theologies identify God with the manifestations of goodness and justice in our experience. In saying that these elements of power and goodness are divine, a religious person is saying that they are superhuman, beyond human comprehension and control.
That is a very general description of the meaning of the term "God" so that you understand what parts of human experience motivate people to talk about God in the first place. Defining each of the approaches listed above and the specific version of them which each of the above philosophers has taken would turn this sourcebook into a book on Jewish theology rather than a description of the Conservative Movement. Consequently, we will not be able to do that here. The reader is urged, however, to choose at least one or two of the above thinkers and read the books listed in the footnotes. That is important not only to understand some of the views within the Conservative Movement, but also, and more importantly, to help you develop your own ideas in this area. A mature Jew cannot reasonably rely on the picture of God that he had as a child and then accept Judaism or reject it on that basis. Your childhood understanding of mathematics was not sufficient for your adult years, and your childhood understandingof God - or of Judaism in general - is no better. A mature, rational Jew would have to take the time to read at least two or three of these books so that he can make his decisions about God and Judaism out of knowledge and not out of ignorance. If one or two of the above list do not immediately strike your fancy, additional suggestions can be found at the end of this book in the section entitled "For Further Reading."...
C. Beliefs Held in Common Within the Conservative Movement: The People Israel
There is a popular medieval Jewish maxim that "God, Torah, and Israel are one."16. The Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Movements would all agree with that in that each would affirm the importance of all three elements of Judaism, but each of the movements emphasizes one of the three factors over the other two - at least in practice. The Reform began by denying interest in the peoplehood of Israel and the authority of many Jewish laws; for them God is the center of Judaism. The Orthodox might agree that God is the center, but even more important for them is what we are supposed to do in obedience to God; consequently for the Orthodox the Torah (and especially its formulation in the ShulHan Aruch) is the most important element of the three. (They therefore like to call their version of Judaism "Torah-true Judaism.") For the Conservative Movement there is no question that God and Torah are crucial parts of Judaism, but both of those can become realities in life only if the People Israel make them so. The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash said something similar;
"You are My witnesses," declares the Lord, "and I am God" (Isaiah 43:12). That is, when you are My witnesses, I am God, and when you are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God."
(Midrash Psalms on Psalm 123:1; cp. Pesikta d'Rav Kahana, ed. Mandelbaum," p. 208, and Mekilta, Shirata, Beshallal) , ed. Lauterbach, Vol. II, p. 28).
This concern with the People Israel has been part of Conservative ideology from the very beginning. You will recall Solomon Schechter's concept of catholic Israel from Chapter Two. Schechter's idea of catholic Israel was in part a rejection of the Reform position that Jews are only devotees of a religion and not members of a people as well. Schechter claimed that Jews must regard themselves as members of a people which includes not only the Jews of the present, but those of the past and future as well. This should give a Jew pride and a sense of rootedness, and it also has implications for the way in which a Jew identifies as a Jew. To do that authentically, he must see himself as part of the ongoing Jewish people and must express that in action by observing the laws and customs of the Jewish People. Otherwise Jewish identity is only a matter of the mind and emotions and not a way of life, as it always has been.
Similarly, the Jewish community of the present must see itself in the line of Jewish communities of the past and future and must make its decisions with those communities in mind. This idea is often called "vertical democracy." To understand that term, imagine a vertical time-line, extending from the beginnings of the Jewish People at the bottom and extending upward to the future. The concept of "vertical democracy," then, means that Jews are members of a people consisting not only of the Jews living in many places at this time (that is looking at Jewish peoplehood "horizontally" on the time-line), but also of Jews living at many points in the past and future, up and down the time-line. Consequently in making their decisions, Jewish communities must take account of the concerns and attitudes of the present, but they must also consider the standards of the past and the expectations of the future, giving them a vote as well. Thus Schechter's concept of catholic Israel emphasizes the People Israel as a crucial factor in both the identity of the individual Jew and the character of the Jewish community.
The emphasis on Jewish peoplehood has also had other implications for the activity of the Conservative Movement. One has been an abiding concern for Jews of all persuasions and places. The founders of the Conservative Movement did not want to establish a new movement. On the contrary, they wanted to create a seminary and an organization of synagogues which could include Jews of all persuasions. Thus the early leaders of Conservative Judaism participated in the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Hebrew Union College in 1873 and 1875. They broke away from the Reform group and founded the Jewish Theological Seminary only after "the trefah banquet" and the Pittsburgh Platform made it clear that the differences between the two groups were too great to remain as one. Even afterward there was an attempt at union. When Isaac Mayer Wise died in 1900, it was proposed to unite the Historical School and the Reform group on the theory that the radical turn that the Reform group had taken had been solely due to his leadership.17. The objections to Jewish practice among the Reformers turned out to be more widespread and more deeply rooted, however, and so the effort failed. On the other side of the spectrum, Henry Pereira Mendes, who served as Acting President of the Seminary from the death of Sabato Morais in 1897 until the appointment of Solomon Schechter in 1902, was the founder of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in 1898 and continued as its president for several terms of office. The Union gradually shifted away from the synagogues tied to the Historical School, however; Schechter again tried to involve the Orthodox in the Seminary, and for most of his life he saw Conservative Judaism as simply a "tendency" within Judaism and not as a separate movement. But he too failed and formed the United Synagogue of America in 1913 exclusively of synagogues which adopted the approach of the Historical School. Despite these failures the Conservative Movement has consistently sought to enlist the participation of the other two groups wherever that was possible.
There is another interesting way in which the Conservative emphasis on the entire People Israel has manifested itself. Ashkenazic Jews (i.e., Jews whose ancestors lived in Eastern Europe) form the bulk of American Jewry and hence of Conservative Jewry, but from its very beginnings the Conservative Movement has enjoyed the active involvement of many Sephardic Jews (i.e., those descended from residents of the Mediterranean basin, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen). Sabato Morais, the first President of the Seminary, and Henry Pereira Mendes, who served as Acting President of the Seminary from 1897 to 1902, were both of Sephardic origin. In our own day the founder and first secretary of the new Sephardic World Union are Prof. Jose Faur, a Seminary faculty member, and Rabbi David Algaze, a Conservative rabbi, respectively. The tradition of Western scholarship from which the Seminary sprang has created ties of spirit and substance between the Conservative Movement and the Sephardic community.
Yet another manifestation of the Conservative emphasis on the entire People Israel has been the efforts of the Movement to promote the welfare of Jews that are suffering economically and politically in places around the world. So, for example, although the Jewish community at large did not take an interest in the plight of Soviet Jewry until the late 1960's, individuals who identified with the Seminary and with Conservative Judaism expressed a deep concern in the plight of Russian Jews as far back as the 1880's. These included Louis Marshall, a prominent attorney and patron of the early Seminary, whose legal, political and personal efforts led to the termination of American plans for a foreign trade agreement and a treaty with Russia, in response to the Russian refusal to allow Jews to visit Russia. Jacob Schiff, the strongest financial supporter of the Seminary and Conservative Judaism during Schechter's years in America and a powerful financier, prevented Russia from entering many European and American money markets, thus injuring Russian economy. He also arranged for a $200 million loan to Japan which financed Japan's successful war against Russia. In gratitude for his help, Schiff became the first private citizen to dine with the Emperor and to be made an honorary Japanese nobleman, receiving from the Mikado the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure of Japan. Israel Friedlaender, a professor at the Seminary, popular educator, Jewish youth worker, and ardent cultural Zionist, traveled to Russia in 1920 to bring encouragement and goods to Russian Jewry. During his exhausting travels in the Ukraine, he and his companion were attacked and murdered, apparently by bandits, but possibly by government agents who were unsympathetic to his mission. Thus a Seminary professor became the first American martyr in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jewry. And again, some forty years later, when Soviet Jewry had been forgotten by American Jewry, another Seminary professor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, awakened the American community to their plight. He continued to speak up for Soviet Jewry when no one else would, and supported the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and other organizations and programs aimed at helping Russian Jewry. He encouraged Elie Wiesel to visit Russia and write about his experiences. Wiesel did so in The Jews of Silence. The issue of Soviet Jewry had risen to the top of the agenda of American Jewry's concerns in no small measure because of Heschel 's long and hard efforts and because of powerful words like these:
"We plead, we implore the leaders of Russia: Let our people live in dignity or let our people go: Let them live or let them leave!
The Jews of Russia are deprived of the right to express themselves, so we American Jews must utter their cry, must serve as their voice. We shall not be quiet. We shall not keep our peace until we pierce the crust of the world's conscience and the Russian Jews are granted their rights.
The time to act is now. A few years hence and there may be no Jews left in Russia to be saved. We must be prepared for a long and bitter battle that will require all our heart and all our strength. Our spiritual integrity is at stake. To fight for human rights is to save our own souls.
I do not want future generations to spit on our graves, saying: "Here lies a community which living in comfort and prosperity, kept silent while millions of their brothers were exposed to spiritual extermination."18.
In all of these ways, then, the Conservative Movement's commitment to the People Israel has taken concrete form.
D. Beliefs Held in Common Within the Conservative Movement: Zionism
To us it seems obvious that a Jew must be a Zionist. Jews may disagree about how to express their support for Israel, and they may disagree with some of the policies of the State of Israel; but in our day only a small minority of Jews - and many anti-Semites - would claim that Judaism can be separated from Zionism, for support and concern for the State of Israel.
That was not always the case. Until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and even for a number of years thereafter, there were significant groups of Jews who actively opposed the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine. One plank of the Reform Movement's Pittsburgh Platform (1885) specifically stated that "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect (no) . . . return to Palestine... nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.", While there were some strong Zionists in the Reform camp like Stephen S. Wise, there were major elements of the Reform Movement opposed to Jewish nationhood in Palestine or anywhere else. They saw Zionism as a nationalist movement which would impede the progress of universalism. They also thought that it would prevent Jews from being "a light unto the nations" because Jews could not act as a model for others if they were concentrated in only one corner of the world. They must be "in the midst of many peoples as dew from the Lord, as showers upon the grass" (Micah 5: 6) to do that. Thus it was mostly people affiliated with the Reform Movement that belonged to the American Council for Judaism, an organization of rich and powerful Jews who actively worked against Zionism. Similarly, while there were Orthodox supporters of a Jewish state in Palestine, many Orthodox leaders opposed it on the grounds that only the Messiah could legitimately lead the Jews back to Zion. If Jews created the state on their own, they would be forcing God's hand and thus committing a sacrilege.
It is only the Conservative Movement that has never had a strong anti -Zionist wing. On the contrary, Sabato Morais, the first President of the Seminary, was a member of the Hovevei Zion (" Lovers of Zion") organization in Philadelphia, and Solomon Schechter, the second President of the Seminary, wrote a pamphlet in 1906 entitled' 'Zionism: A Statement, " in which he publicly and powerfully explained the reasons for his allegiance to Zionism.19. Later he was to call Zionism "the most cherished dream I was worthy of having."20. There were some, like Cyrus Adler and Jacob Schiff, who were not Zionists as early as that, but they later became supporters of the Zionist Movement. The vast majority of those associated with Conservative Judaism from its very beginnings were active Zionists throughout their lives.21.
Remember that Conservative Judaism emphasizes the People Israel, so this early and constant concern for founding a state for the Jewish People in the Jewish homeland is easy to understand. Also, since Conservative Judaism considers religion to be the core of the Jewish civilization, you can easily understand how the Zionism of Conservative leaders from Schechter on differed from the secular Zionism of people like Herzl and Ben Gurion. For the latter, Zionism was a means of solving the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe. If Jews formed a state like any other state and left the countries of Europe, they thought, anti-Semitism would cease. Consequently their interest in Zion was a political interest, and their hopes for the new state were purely political hopes. On the other hand, for Schechter and later Conservative leaders, both the motivation and hopes for Zionism were different. The motivation stemmed from the longings and literature of Jews throughout the ages to return to Israel. The hopes were for a state which would foster the moral, cultural, and religious growth of the Jews living there and, through them, of Jews throughout the world. If it did not become that, Schechter warned, Zionism could become a danger for Jews and Judaism because it would give Jews the false impression that Judaism amounted to nothing more than living in a secular Jewish state. Such a Judaism, Schechter was convinced, could not long endure.' As Robert Gordis put it, "Zionism without Judaism has no roots; Judaism without Zionism will have no fruit22.
The distinction between secular Zionism and the religious cultural type of Zionism of the Conservative Movement also has important implications in another area, the relationship of Jew to the Diaspora. If your motivation and hopes for Israel are solely political, then the only way to be a true Zionist is to live in Israel, as Ben Gurion publicly declared. On the other hand, if you see Israel as the religious and cultural center of world Jewry, then you are not denying the legitimacy of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. On the contrary, you might even say that the existence of Jewish communities outside of Israel is necessary for the cultural, political, and economic well-being of Israel. That has been the attitude of Conservative Judaism all along: the Jewish communities of both Israel and the Diaspora are legitimate and important for the future of Jews and Judaism.
The Zionism of the Conservative Movement has taken concrete form in a number of ways. As you may know, Conservative rabbis and laymen have been among the chief fundraisers for Israel throughout the years. As early as 1927, Rabbi Israel Goldstein reported that the Zionist Organization of America looked upon the Conservative rabbinate "as the rabbinical bulwark of American Zionism."23. But Conservative support for Israel does not stop there. The Conservative Movement has made a real effort to expose Jews of the Diaspora to the people, culture, and land of Israel through educational trips there and through publication of study materials for the use of teachers and students here. For a number of years Camp Ramah and USY on Wheels have included a select group of Israelis on the educational staff so that campers can come into direct contact with living representatives of Israel. Conversely, the Conservative Movement has also created synagogues, schools, materials, and youth groups in Israel in order to expose Israeli youngsters and adults to Conservative Judaism.
The Conservative Movement has had some problems in Israel, however, and you should be aware of them. When the State of Israel was founded, a compromise was made between the secular and religious people there in order to gain the support of as many inhabitants as possible and in order to give Israel a distinctly Jewish character. According to the terms of the compromise, matters of personal status are handled by the religious authorities of the various religions, and all other matters come under the jurisdiction of the government and the secular courts. "Matters of personal status" include especially marriages, divorces, and conversions, and the rabbinate designated in the compromise is the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. This means that Israeli Jews have no choice in these matters: since there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and since the only religious authorities empowered to perform marriages, divorces, and conversions are the Orthodox rabbis, Israeli Jews must use their services and submit to their interpretation of Jewish practice. This is the case despite the fact that approximately 80% of the Israeli populace do not identify themselves as Orthodox. The compromise also has meant that Conservative rabbis have not been able to perform recognized marriages, divorces, and conversions in Israel and that Jews who have been divorced or converted by Conservative rabbis in the Diaspora often have difficulties if they become citizens of Israel. Moreover, Israeli rabbis, synagogues, and religious education are not financed by local communities, as they are in the United States and Canada: they are funded by the government. Since the Orthodox rabbinate is the only one officially recognized in Israel, Conservative rabbis, synagogues, and educational programs have been deprived of all government funding - despite the fact that much of the money which the government raises comes from taxes on the entire Israeli population (not just the Orthodox element) and from donations of Conservative and Reform Jews living in the Diaspora. This is clearly an intolerable situation, and Conservative leaders in Israel and North America may have to take strong steps to rectify it. Such measures will be important not only for the future of the Conservative Movement in Israel, but also for the future of Judaism among the 80% who are not Orthodox and the future of freedom of religion in Israel.
In the meantime, the Conservative Movement has made major strides in meeting the religious needs of Israel. There are more and more Conservative synagogues and day schools there in addition to institutions like the Center for Conservative Judaism and the Seminary's branch in Jerusalem. Moreover, many Conservative rabbis fill important positions in the universities and teacher-training institutes of the country. And a new, cooperative arrangement between the Seminary, the Departments of Education of the State of Israel and the Hebrew University, and the nonreligious kibbutz movements may yield an important new approach to teaching Judaism in the non-Orthodox schools there as well as strengthening our efforts here. Hopes are high for the success of that project as well as many others that the Conservative Movement is undertaking in Israel....
E. Beliefs Held in Common Within the Conservative Movement: Judaism as a Religious Civilization
Schechter's concept of catholic Israel put emphasis on the People Israel and its role in determining Jewish law and ideology. This paved the way for an insight by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan which has shaped the character of Conservative Judaism in many ways. In his book, Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan declared that Judaism must not be viewed exclusively as a religion. It certainly is a religion with beliefs and ritual practices like other religions, but there also is a distinctly Jewish art, music, dance, literature, menu, land, and language. Consequently, Judaism must be seen as a civilization if it is to be understood adequately.
One practical upshot of that is that Jews must learn and develop their non-religious ties to the Jewish civilization as well as their religious ones. That means that synagogues should become Jewish centers with Jewish cultural and social activities as well as religious ones. Institutions of higher Jewish learning should include courses and performances in Jewish arts, music, drama, and dance as well as work in the texts, practices, and ideas of the Jewish tradition. Thus when Kaplan's idea of founding a University of Judaism was realized, it included among its first schools a School of Fine Arts. Similar considerations led the Seminary to establish the Jewish Museum in New York. All of the civilized aspects of Judaism are important parts of what it means to be a Jew, and hence all must be taught, developed and practiced.
One example of this has been the devotion of the Conservative Movement to Hebrew, both as the language of tradition and also as the mode of expression for modern literature and conversation. Until recently, the Orthodox Movement in the Diaspora largely neglected the study of Hebrew language and literature. Part of the reason for that was the belief that Hebrew is a holy tongue and should not be used for communication that is not religious in nature. Even classes in Judaica were often taught in Yiddish or English. The Reform Movement long ago dispensed with Hebrew even in worship in favor of the vernacular. Both movements have changed in recent years under the impact of the State of Israel, but Hebrew is still not high on the agenda of Orthodox or Reform schools. In contrast, Conservative Judaism, with its emphasis on both preserving continuity with the Jewish historical past and creating a vibrant Jewish present, has concerned itself intensely with both classical and contemporary Hebrew language and literature. This has been true ever since the Second Rabbinical Conference of those who desired change in Judaism took place in Frankfurt in 1845. There Zecharias Frankel, one of the ideological fathers of the Conservative Movement, left the Conference when it adopted the proposals of Abraham Geiger, the Reform leader, to drop Hebrew from the services and curriculum. Frankel then said,
It was in vain to point out that the Hebrew language must be safeguarded like a precious gem, for the sacred documents are written in it, and the understanding of these documents must not be lost as once it was amongst the Hellenistic Jews. In vain it was stressed that, once Hebrew disappears from prayer, it will be lost altogether, for it will then be banished from the schools and thus another religious element will have disappeared from their already sparse curriculum. In vain was religious sentiment appealed to, for this should be significant in prayer, which is heightened by the sacred sound of Hebrew. In vain it was emphasized that Hebrew prayer especially is a characteristic mark of the religious community of the Jew, for through it the Jew, wherever he meets another Jew, would recognize him as his co-religionist, would recognize his temple as his own house of worship, and find his prayer to be his own.24.
Later on Solomon Schechter was to say this in a similar vein: . . . It is not necessary to dwell here at length on the vital importance of Hebrew, the Sacred tongue. It is the great depository of all that is best in the soul-life of the Congregation of Israel. Without it we will become a mere sect, without a past, and without a literature, and without a proper Liturgy, and severed from the great Tree which is life unto those that cling to it. Hellenistic Judaism is the only one known to history which dared to make this experiment of dispensing with the Sacred Language. The result was death. It withered away and terminated in total and wholesale apostasy from Judaism. Let us not deceive ourselves. There is no future in this country for a Judaism that resists either the English or the Hebrew language.25.
Mordecai Kaplan and others also stressed the need for learning Hebrew in order to have a viable Jewish present. As Joseph Hertz said, "A Hebrew-less Judaism has no future because it cannot be justly said to have a present."26.
All of the non-religious aspects of the Jewish civilization are important and have been fostered and practiced within the Conservative Movement. But, as Dr. Kaplan himself stressed, Judaism is a religious civilization in that all of the other elements in the Jewish civilization receive their distinctively Jewish character from the Jewish religion. The definition of what constitutes specifically Jewish art, music, or literature is a matter of dispute. Some claim that anything by a Jew or about a Jew is Jewish art. Others maintain that only art by a Jew on a recognized Jewish theme is Jewish art. But all would agree that artistic, musical, or literary creations by Jews on themes from the Bible, Talmud, or Midrash or other parts of the Jewish religion are unquestionably Jewish. That 'is the case because the Jewish religion is recognized as the core of Jewish identity. Similarly, foods that are popular among Jews and are associated with us vary from community to community, but in all cases the laws of kashrut playa major role in determining what can and cannot be classified as Jewish food. So, for example, a cheeseburger would never be thought of as a Jewish food. Even those foods which are popular among Jews are called "Jewish-style" if they are not prepared and served- in a kosher way: their identity as Jewish foods has been diminished by virtue of the fact that they are not kosher. Hebrew is the Jewish language not because Jews spoke it throughout their history: in most periods Jews spoke the language of the country in which they lived. Hebrew is the Jewish language because it is the language of the Bible, Mishnah and Prayerbook. That is why the founders of the State of Israel spent as much time and effort as they did in learning, teaching, and developing Hebrew as a modern conversational and literary language: it was not the native language of anyone of them. And the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel is also a product of the Jewish religion because it is that land which God promised to our forefathers. It is, of course, also the land in which Jewslived for many years, but the historical connection to the land of Israel began and continued largely because of Jewish religious roots there. The Temple could only be in Jerusalem, and only there could the calendar be set. These are the factors that kept Jews longing for a return to Zion and which prevented the large and advanced Jewish communities of Babylonia and Europe from supplanting the importance of Israel, despite attempts to do so at various times in Jewish history. In sum, then, all of the non-religious aspects of the Jewish civilization are important, but they derive their distinctively Jewish identity from the Jewish religion.
As a result, Jewish individuals, communities, and institutions must integrate Judaism into their activities in order to be distinctively and actively Jewish. Any Jewish person or organization which neglects the Jewish religion becomes significantly less Jewish. That, of course, puts a burden upon us to learn and practice the Jewish religion, but nobody ever said that Judaism is easy. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we recognize that Judaism is the core of Jewish identity, whether we like it or not. Consequently, Conservative Judaism, which tries to be historically authentic, is a religious movement, demanding knowledge and practice of the Jewish religion as well as concern for the other aspects of being Jewish.
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