There is an ideology buried within the extensive writings of the Movement's founders, but it has to be dug out. Here is one attempt to do just that, using primarily the writings of Solomon Schechter, the most articulate, thoughtful, and influential of the founders of Conservative Judaism. It consists of nine building blocks.

1. America is different.

Somewhat surprisingly for a generation of immigrants, in all the writings of the Seminary founders there is not an ounce of nostalgia for their European home. On the contrary, there is an excitement about being in America, a conviction that Judaism will flower in this new land….

2.Judaism can deal with modernity.

There is a hardheaded realism in this belief, but there is also much more: an unshakable confidence that Judaism has the resources to deal with modernity and that it will emerge from that encounter strengthened and enriched….

3.If we are to deal with modernity, we must study Judaism in a modern way.

Doing that meant appropriating the methods of the Enlightenment's scientific temper for the study of Judaism…. The Science of Judaism school … believed that if Jews were to be accepted into European culture, it was essential that Judaism be studied in the same way as any other civilization. The Jewish scholar had to adopt a totally objective stance toward this discipline and use any and every tool in the search for the truth, whatever that truth might be. The success of this enterprise would be marked by the introduction of Judaic studies into the curricula of European universities.

In practical terms, that undertaking meant adapting the methods of modern criticism to the study of the Bible[1] and Talmud, comparing Jewish religious forms with those of other religions and cultures, and accepting the fact that at every stage of its development Judaism was influenced by the sociological, economic, and cultural conditions that existed outside the Jewish world, in the general community at large. Every page of the Bible reveals the influence of Ancient Near Eastern literature; Roman and Hellenistic law helped shape talmudic law; Arabic poetics influenced medieval Hebrew poetry. If these facts were what scholarship disclosed, so be it, whatever the impact on Jewish religion. In effect, these men were saying that for Judaism to be emancipated, Jewish scholarship had to be emancipated as well-emancipated from its ties to a system of beliefs that accorded particular sanctity to the text.

The ultimate implication of this approach, rarely articulated explicitly, was that Torah, in its broadest sense as the entire body of traditional Jewish teaching, lost its distinctive status as sacred literature. This represented a radical break from the traditional methods of studying Torah. To this day in schools run according to Orthodox teachings, Torah is studied as the explicit word of God. It is seen as a unique document, totally consistent and coherent throughout the generations and completely immune from outside influences. The Torah's teachings-primarily Jewish law, or halakhah-are eternally binding. The early emancipators simply dismissed this approach as "artificial ignorance." Schechter wrote, "We must insist that the teaching in the Seminary be conducted along scientific lines. . . . This is the only way to save Judaism in this country and elsewhere. We cannot and will not perpetuate 'Sluzch' or 'Bialistock' here." (Sluzch and Bialistock were two of the foremost bastions of traditional Jewish learning in Eastern Europe.)….

4. Judaism has had a history.

This was the primary discovery of the scientific study of Judaism. The early Science of Judaism scholars were all historians. They delighted in structuring Jewish history in specific periods, showing how each period differed from its predecessor and what factors in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds led to the changes. If Judaism in every generation is influenced by the broader conditions under which Jews lived, and if those conditions changed from generation to generation, then Judaism has changed as well. In short, Judaism as a religion has had a history of its own. In the early nineteenth century this idea constituted a radical break from the traditional understanding of Judaism. For the traditionalists, of course, nothing Jewish ever changed, particularly God's revealed law. How could God's explicit word be affected by changing historical conditions?

The early Reformers used this pattern of ongoing change to justify the changes they introduced into Jewish religious life. If Judaism has always changed, they said, then we today can change it again, consciously and deliberately.

But the Conservative Movement was in a bind. In Darkhei HaMishnah, Frankel argued that Jewish law had always changed, and he and his American successors were perfectly ready to accept some changes under specific conditions…. He argued that history teaches us not only what has constantly changed but also what has remained unchanged. One of the continuities in Jewish life was fidelity to Hebrew.

This appeal to history was the Pandora's box that Frankel opened for Conservative Judaism. It was a double-edged sword. Reform used it to justify abandoning traditional practices; Frankel and his successors used it to justify retaining some forms and dropping others. Once we appeal to history, however, it's not always possible to control how it will be used.

Here we might pause and look at the first four of the nine building blocks. What is immediately striking is that on each of these issues the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism spoke as one. The leaders of Reform also welcomed America and were confident that Judaism could handle modernity. They, too, were committed to the scientific study of Judaism and appealed to history as a source of authority even when breaking with Jewish tradition. In fact, it can be claimed that the Seminary leadership took these four points with them when they broke with Reform. They were part of the pre-Pittsburgh Platform ideology of the Reform coalition, to which the Seminary founders belonged. True, the Reformers understood the last three of these in different ways than did the traditionalists, but these differences were in interpretation, not in policy and certainly not in ideology.

The sharp break with Reform emerges in the next five building blocks.

5. The community becomes the authority.

If in principle every Jewish practice can change, who then decides what is to be preserved and what changed? The answer can be found only through the consensus of caring, committed Jews. It was to this consensus that Frankel appealed in his argument to retain Hebrew….

From the outset, Reform thinkers had affirmed that the ultimate authority in belief and practice was the individual Jew, who was to legislate for him or herself according to the dictates of conscience. To this day, the individual Reform rabbi or lay Jew has the absolute right to determine what to believe and how to practice Judaism. The concept of Catholic Israel breaks with that individualistic impulse. It insists that the community must set broad parameters, particularly in areas of observance, and that these are binding on its members. The insistence on the primacy of community over the individual remains a benchmark between Reform and Conservative Judaism to this day….

6. Hebrew must remain the language of the Jewish people….

7. Zionism is a positive force in Jewish history, and it should be encouraged….

8. Halakhah remains the preeminent form of Jewish religious expression.

On this issue, the break with Reform is complete. But it is also on this issue that the Conservative Movement's founding ideology reveals its deepest internal tensions.

For centuries traditional Judaism was tied to its halakhah, traditional Jewish law…. the traditional way or the path of Jewish living. The authentic Jew was the observant Jew. The ultimate authority for halakhah was God, whose will was revealed to the Jewish people at Sinai; consequently, the entire body of Jewish law is binding on every Jew.

Reform rejected that system of belief, certainly as it applied to the rituals pertaining to diet, marriage, divorce, conversion, the laws of the Sabbath and festivals, and the wearing of tefillin. Reform argued that these observances may have had value in the early stages of Jewish history, but today, in America, they are out-of-date, spiritually meaningless, and a barrier to Jewish emancipation.…

Finkelstein put it this way: "Because on the one hand we regard the laws of the Torah as prophetically inspired, and because on the other, we regard the legalism of the rabbis as the finest and highest expression of human ethics, we accept both the written and oral law as binding and authoritative on ourselves and on our children after us."

In its later development, however, the Conservative Movement did redefine a good deal of traditional Jewish law. Today it permits men and women to sit together in the synagogue and worshipers to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath. More recently, it permitted women to assume a totally equal role in synagogue rituals and to become rabbis and cantors. What would Schechter have made of these developments? Part of the answer lies in the final building block of the founding ideology.

9.Halakhah does change and develop to meet new situations, but this process is gradual, evolutionary, limited to the more superficial areas of Jewish life, and always under the guidance of recognized authorities in Jewish law.

This is an extension of point 4, the appeal to history, and it reflects the same ambivalence.

This ambivalence can be seen in Frankel's article entitled "On Changes in Judaism," …. On one hand, Frankel was convinced that Reform's eagerness to abolish the laws was a tragic mistake. On the other, he was sufficiently grounded in the modern age to realize that the Judaism of antiquity could not be retained untouched. He tries desperately to find some middle ground between these two poles….


Who decides what to change? The community, what Schechter later called "Catholic Israel" "When the people allows certain practices to fall into disuse," wrote Frankel, "then the practices cease to exist. There is in such cases no danger for faith." But what Frankel gave with the right hand, he withdrew with the left. "The whole community is a heavy unharmonious body and its will is difficult to recognize. . . . We must find a way to carry on such changes in the proper manner, and this can be done by the help of the scholars."

The role of the teachers, as he saw it, was to guard the community's "sense of piety" and bring the "truths of faith" nearer to the people. "If the people then cease to practice some unimportant customs and forms of observances it will not be a matter of great concern."…


The statements of both Frankel and Finkelstein are riddled with inner tensions: Torah is the eternally binding word of God, but it is also responsive to changing times; the people decide what to change, but the scholars have to inspire the people so that they may know what to change and what to retain. And if any change can be validated only by its ultimate effects years later, how do we know at the outset what to change and what to preserve?

But as we have already seen, the founding ideology as a whole is studded with tensions and contradictions. We saw that the appeal to history as legitimatizing a contemporary program is a double-edged sword, for history teaches both change and continuity.

Which message do we want to read? The same applies to the appeal to Catholic Israel as the authority for determining what we keep and what we change. Which of the community's many voices do we attend to? The Movement's Zionist impulse, too, is clearly ambivalent.

Even more significant, however, is the tension between the scholarly approach to Judaism and the Movement's commitment to the centrality and binding quality of halakhah. To put it concisely, if Torah can be studied as one more cultural document, then why are its laws binding? But if the law is God's explicit revelation and is eternally binding, then Torah is hardly a cultural document, open to study by scientific methodologies.

In other words, Reform and Orthodoxy are consistent. The first denies the literal revelation of the Torah and encourages modern methods of study. The latter affirms that Torah is God's explicit words and rejects modem scholarship. Conservative Judaism wants to affirm both. This paradox was created when the Conservative Movement applied the methods of Wissenschaft to the study of, a text considered divine in origin.

One can maintain these contradictory positions provided he or she acknowledges that since Torah is viewed as emerging from the community, then the authority for establishing parameters of authentic belief and practice has in fact been vested in that community. Therefore, the community has the right to change those parameters if it wishes to do so, but it does not have to do so if it chooses not to. It can exercise its authority to retain all or much of the tradition as binding simply because doing so places this community where it wants to be. If individual members of the community disagree with those parameters, either they will accept them in order to maintain the community intact, or they will join an alternative community.

A statement of this kind would have resolved the ideological tensions from the outset, but the founders of the Seminary did not take this tack. Instead, they deliberately avoided any explicit statement on the issue of authority or, for that matter, on any ideological issue. Despite much hand wringing about ideological vagueness, and many failed attempts to produce such a statement, Conservative Judaism successfully avoided doing so for the better part of a century. It put a positive face on this avoidance by affirming pluralism as a distinctive characteristic of the Movement. Pluralism became a Conservative code word meaning that this coalition did not demand uniformity of belief and practice from its adherents. It also served, however, to conceal the internal contradictions that pervaded its ideology.

As much as the Seminary founders shunned ideological clarity, they also avoided theology. The absence, in all of the writings of the founders, of any sustained, disciplined inquiry into the central issues of Jewish theology-the nature of God, revelation (What did happen at Sinai?), halakhic authority (Why is Jewish law binding?) theodicy (Why do good people suffer?), and eschatology (What will be at the end of days?)-is striking. In 1909 Schechter wrote what is still one of the best books on the theology of the talmudic rabbis, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, but we know almost nothing at all about what he himself believed on all of these issues. A systematic study of the issue of revelation, for example, would have forced him to confront just what Torah is, how it came to be, and why it retains any authority in our lives. Such a study would have brought many of the ideological tensions to the surface. That may be why he avoided it.…

The Conservative rabbis …. felt deprived … religiously … for the school's commitment to the Science of Judaism approach to Jewish studies had succeeded only too well. Wissenschaft was intrinsically a secularizing impulse. It leveled the sanctity of Torah by insisting that it be studied just like any other great human document. The proponents of this method viewed it as Judaism's ticket of admission to Western modernity, and it undoubtedly served that purpose, but as the dominating impulse in a rabbinical school curriculum, it proved to be totally subversive. Whatever else the rabbis were, they were preeminently religious role models.

But what did it mean to be a religious role model if your training robbed Torah of its religious significance? … But the one question that was of ultimate concern to the congregational rabbis, the question that they had to be prepared to answer each time they stepped onto the pulpit on a Shabbat morning, was rarely addressed: Now that we know so much about how this text came to be, what meaning does it have for us or for our students and congregants today? Why should we read it, study it, attend to it? For that matter, why should we pray? What is supposed to happen to us when we come to the synagogue, when we observe the dietary laws, the Sabbath, or anything else? And if the rabbis couldn't deal with these questions, how could they expect their congregants to do so?


Emet Ve-Emunoh

The Commission's final document is 40 pages in length; a shorter or longer statement was ruled out, the former because it would be excessively vague, the latter because it would be too cumbersome. It is divided into three sections: "God in the World," on theological issues; "The Jewish People," on issues of communal concern; and "Living a Life of Torah," on issues of Jewish religious expression.

God in the World

The most remarkable aspect of this first section is that it is there at all The five short statements on "God," "Revelation," "Halakhah(Jewish Law)," "The Problem of Evil," and "Eschatology: Our Vision of the Future" provide, for the first time in any authoritative Conservative document, a theological underpinning for the Movement's ideology.…

Regarding God, the statement articulates two different positions on God's nature: a traditionalist image of God as "a supreme, supernatural being" who "has the power to command and control the world through His will," and a more Kaplanian image of God as "not a being to whom we can point" but rather "a presence and a power that transcends us," a God who is "present when we look for meaning in the world, when we work for morality, for justice, and for future redemption." (p. 18)

Regarding revelation, the statement concedes that it can be understood either as a personal encounter between God and human beings that has "propositional content" (i.e., that God revealed actual thoughts and/or words to Israel); or as an "ineffable human encounter with God" where the words of the Torah were formulated by human beings, though with divine inspiration; or, again in the Kaplanian tradition, as Israel's "continuing discovery, through nature and history, of truths about God and the world." (p. 20)

Finally, regarding the halakhic process, the statement legitimizes two approaches to dealing with laws that appear to be immoral (such as the issue of the agunah, the woman who cannot get a bill of divorce from her husband) and laws that are not susceptible to the normative processes of legal change (i.e., by writing responsa that try to find a precedent or by finding extralegal factors that would justify modifying the law). "Some within the Conservative community are prepared to amend the existing law by means of a formal procedure of legislation." Others "are willing to make a change only when they find it justified by sources in the halakhic literature." (p. 24)

These divergent opinions in no way cancel out the substantial consensus that was reached on much of the material. The statement affirms "the critical importance of belief in God" and, much more controversially, states that "proponents of both views use metaphors to speak of God"; it insists that revelation is "the uncovering of an external source of truth emanating from God"; it affirms that "Halakhahis indispensable. . . because it is what the Jewish community understands God's will to be." Further, the last two sections of this portion of the document are concise summaries of classical Jewish thinking on the problem of evil and on the end of days.


What is most significant about Emet Ve-Emunah is that it provides the first consistent and coherent theological grounding for much of what the Movement has said and done for generations. We should not forget that although Conservative Judaism has always affirmed the binding nature of Jewish law, it had also just sanctioned a major departure from classical Jewish practice by voting to ordain women, and this decision was but the latest in a series of such departures: mixed seating in the synagogue, driving on the Sabbath, and the marriage of a kohen to a convert or to a divorcee, among others. We also know that the implicit ideology of the Movement viewed Torah, whatever its divine source, as a cultural document that has always responded to changing historical conditions and that can therefore be studied with all of the resources available for the study of any human creation….

The statement that Torah is a cultural document is a complex theological claim. It says something about God, about how God's will was transmitted to a human community, about what happened at Sinai, about the respective roles of God and a human community in formulating the content of revelation, and about what we mean when we say that we are commanded to observe the Sabbath. In order to address all of these issues, the Movement needed to define its theological position. With Emet Ve-Emunah, it finally articulated a theological basis for what it had stood for since its founding.

Consider the following three statements, one from each of the first three sections of Emet Ve-Emunah:

1. "Although proponents of both views [on the nature of God] use metaphors to speak of God. . ." (p. 19)

2. 'We also reject fundamentalism and literalism, which do not admit a human component in revelation, thus excluding an independent role for human experience and reason in the process." (p. 20)

3. "Halakhah is . . . what the Jewish community understands God's will to be." (p. 21)

Taken together, these three statements articulate a theology that reads something like the following: No human being can say precisely and objectively what God is. That's what makes God God (ie., totally other than anything within human experience). All of our characterizations of God, then, are metaphors, human approximations of a reality that remains beyond human understanding. As a result, any statement about God as revealer of Torah is also metaphorical. God could not really "speak" at Sinai because to attribute speech to God is another one of the classic Jewish metaphors. But if God did not speak at Sinai, then the words of Torah are human words-whatever God's role in revelation may be-and Torah as it has come down to us is legitimately a human document. It can be studied as any other human document, and its authority rests in the community, for in the last analysis, it is the human community, not God, that formulated the contents of that document. Halakhah is thus the community's understanding of God's will, not-note well-God's will but, rather, Israel's understanding of that will.

The implication of this position is that a modem community of Jews can introduce changes in halakhah to the extent that it wishes to do so. It does not have to change anything. But it must understand that if it remains bound to traditional practice, it does so because of where it decides to set its parameters, not because of where the parameters are intrinsically set; in addition, it has to acknowledge that other communities within the Jewish people may set their parameters elsewhere. That is also their right.

The above is admittedly a selective reading of Emet Vemunah's theology. It is not the only possible reading, and it is certainly possible to read the text in a more traditionalist mode. This reading is also one attempt at making the implicit theology of Conservative Judaism explicit. It accounts for the way in which halakhah has developed within the Movement; it explains for example, why the movement has accepted feminism but rejected patrilineal descent, why it has maintained a host of Sabbath regulations but permitted driving to the synagogue.


From Conservative Judaism: The New Century by NEIL GILLMAN, Behrman House, Inc., 1993


[1] Schechter and his colleagues had a profound antipathy for modern, critical Bible study, which they identified as a Christian enterprise marked by an implicit prejudice in favor of viewing the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament, as these scholars dubbed this material) as a prelude to the Christian Scriptures (or New Testament). Conservative Judaism: The New Century by NEIL GILLMAN, Behrman House, Inc