Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants

By Elliott N Dorff

Extracts posted with permission of

United Synagogue of America Youth Commission

Posted by

David Steinberg

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4. The Ideological Stance of Early Conservative Judaism:

Positive-Historical Judaism and Catholic Israel

Some of the rabbinic leaders of the early Seminary (e.g., Henry Pereira Mendes, Bernard Drachman) simply wanted to teach Orthodox Judaism more effectively to American Jews. Others of the founding rabbis (e.g., Marcus Jastrow, Frederick de Sola Mendes) were considerably more liberal but were bothered by the excesses of the Pittsburgh Platform; they wanted to teach a more moderate version of Reform Judaism, one which retained the main elements of Jewish law. Since there were few Jews who were not Reform in America in the 1880's, these two groups united in founding the Seminary.

These two groups clearly needed an ideology (that is, an explanation and justification of their position) which could at once unite them and also show how there could be several different approaches to Judaism which could all be legitimate. They found it in the work of Zacharias Frankel, head of The Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany, who, together with a number of other European scholars, had developed the "positive-historical" approach to Judaism. That approach is "historical" in several senses:

a) Method: The fundamental doctrine of the historical approach is the claim that if we want to understand Judaism correctly, "We must study it historically. That is, when we examine Jewish texts, we must use the same intellectual techniques that we would use if we were analyzing the documents of any other group of people. So, for example, in any Jewish writing we must distinguish between the meaning that the author intended (the "peshat") and the meaning(s) given the text by the later tradition (the "derash ").

Orthodox schools recognize that distinction, but they claim that if you want to know the correct meaning of the biblical text, the divinely intended meaning, you should consult the classical Jewish commentators (e.g., Rashi). The Orthodox would use that method because they believe that God revealed both the written text of the Torah and the interpretations He intended at Sinai and that those interpretations were passed down from generation to generation until they were ultimately written down in the Midrash and medieval Jewish commentaries. Consequently, while the words of the text may sometimes seem to mean something different from the traditional interpretation of them, that is of no consequence: the peshat is to be seen through the derash exclusively, because God's intent was to say what is in the derash. In contrast, the Conservative Movement and others who use the generally accepted methods of literary analysis would claim that we must understand the text as is. The derash may alert us to unusual features of the text which must be investigated, but it is a later, and therefore quite possibly different, meaning from that contained in the original text. In fact, an important way of learning about Jewish, history is to distinguish the laws and ideas that appear in the Bible from those that were developed later - even if the later authorities justified their philosophies and legal decisions by reinterpreting earlier sources in the Bible and Talmud. To discover the original meaning of a selection from the Bible or Talmud, we must learn the languages, ideas, and practices of the surrounding nations, because we must assume that our ancestors, like all other people, were influenced in how they thought and spoke by the people living around them. And we must use the most thorough literary and historical methods that we can in determining the date of a text and the events and ideas in it. That does not mean that the later interpretations are wrong and the original meaning is right: on the contrary, sometimes interpretations of a text are much more interesting or instructive than the text itself! But it does mean that you have to distinguish the levels of meaning of a text by separating its original meaning from the various ways it was interpreted later.

.b) Intellectual result: When you study Judaism in that way, you discover that Judaism has been a phenomenon in history, influenced and changed by the various people and ideas with which Jews came into contact and the political, social, and economic conditions under which Jews lived. In other words, Judaism has not been the same during all of the years of its existence; on the contrary, its ideas, values, and practices have changed in response to the changing conditions in which Jews found themselves - just like the religion and culture of every other human group. Putting the same point negatively, Judaism is not ahistorical; that is, it is not something which has existed outside of the normal pressures and influences of history. It has changed, and you will read about some concrete examples of such changes later on in this sourcebook. Sometimes the changes that it has experienced took place deliberately and quickly, and sometimes they developed almost unconsciously and slowly. Sometimes Jews changed Judaism by adding to Jewish thought or practices, and sometimes they changed it by modifying or dropping something. One thing is certain, though: Judaism of today is not the same as the Judaism of a century ago in either America or Europe, and Judaism of a century ago was not the same as that of Maimonides, Rabbi Akiba, or Moses. All of those forms of Judaism differed from each other in significant ways.

That does not mean, however, that Judaism has changed so much from one period to another that there are no connections between our Judaism and that of Moses. The point is, rather, that Judaism has changed organically throughout the ages. An "organism" is a living thing. All living things undergo major and continual changes during their lifetimes. Think about yourself: with the exception of your brain cells, not a single cell in your body now was there seven years ago or will be part of you seven years from now. Yet nobody would have difficulty recognizing you as you because the changes occur slowly (from one moment to the next, 99% of you remains the same) and they all fit the general pattern of how you looked before. If you were a dark, brown-eyed male a year ago, you did not become a light, blue-eyed female a year later. That kind of radical change does not occur often in nature, and when it does - as, for example, when the caterpillar becomes a butterfly - we say that there has been a "metamorphosis" (a total change), and we generally even call the two forms of the living thing by different names. Most changes in nature, however, occur gradually and follow general patterns that we have seen before, and that is why we can say that you will be the same person ten years from now even if your body, ideas, desires, interests, and friendships will all be quite different then.

The same is true of Judaism and all other living cultures. There may be some significant distinctions between the ways in which Jews think about Judaism and practice it here and now from the ways in which Jews do so elsewhere or did so at various times in the past. However, we still call our patterns of behavior and thought" Judaism" because our form of Judaism has much in common with the various types of Judaism that existed before and that exist elsewhere and because we can trace the gradual process by which Judaism changed in form and even sometimes in content from Moses to our own day.

Alexander Kohut, who in many ways was the clearest spokesman for the new movement on ideological matters, stated this intellectual result of the historical method this way in 1886:

Judaism is a consistent whole. The Mosaic, prophetic, talmudic-rabbinic, Judaism is an organic totality.... The Judaism of history is a unity, an organic development. May Moses be its head, the prophets its heart, the Rabbis its links; one without the other is a halfness, a wanton mutilation....10.

In this he was responding to the way in which the Orthodox over-emphasized the place of the ShulHan Aruch, a sixteenth century code of Jewish law, and was also reacting to the way in which the Reformers stressed the importance of the Prophets to the exclusion of all other times in Jewish history until modernity: for the Conservative, historical approach, each period in Jewish history contributed its part to the ongoing tradition that we know as Judaism. Some periods may have been more productive than others, and we may like some developments more than others, but an objective study of our tradition must consider them all.

c) Practical result: Moreover, Judaism should change from one time and place to another. The simple fact is that the world does not stand still, and consequently all living organisms must learn to live under new circumstances if they are going to survive. Judaism is no exception. It not only is "historical" in that it has been influenced and changed in the past by new ideas and practices that Jews developed themselves or learned from others; it must also change in the present and future if it is going to continue to be a part of history, an ongoing concern of a living people.

Once again Kohut expressed the point clearly and strongly:

The chain of tradition continued unbroken from Moses through Joshua, the Elders, the Prophets and the Men of the Great Synagogue, down to the latest times. On this tradition rests our faith, which Moses first received from God on Sinai. On this foundation rests Mosaic-rabbinical Judaism to-day; and on this foundation we take our stand....

But you may ask: Shall the fence around the garden, shall reverence be extended around everything that the past hedged in...? "Remember the days of old," said Moses, and have regard to the changes of each generation (Deut. 32.7). The teaching of the ancients we must make our starting-point, but we must not lose sight of what is needed in every generation....

And as these elders did, so can - yes, so must we, the later Epigoni [successors] - do in the exigencies of our own day. If the power to make changes was granted to the Elders, is not the power given equally to us? "But they were giants," we are told, ., and we, compared with them, are mere pygmies." Perhaps so; let us not forget, however, that a pygmy on a giant's shoulder can see further than the giant himself.

Let us now revert to the question raised at the outset: Is Judaism definitely closed for all time, or is it capable of and in need of continuous development? I answer both Yes and No. I answer Yes, because Religion has been given to man; and as it is the duty of man to grow in perfection as long as he lives, he must modify the forms which yield him religious satisfaction, in accordance with the spirit of the times. I answer No, insofar as it concerns the word of God, which cannot be imperfect.... You Israelite, imperfect as you are, strive to perfect yourself in the image of your perfect God. Hold in honor His unchangeable Law and let it be your earnest task to put new life into the outward form of our religion....11.

Similarly, he left no doubts that in matters of belief too we might well differ from our ancestors:

Ought we to maintain two kinds of logic, one for theology and the other for science? I believe decidedly, no! The indubitable results of science can and must agree with the truths of religion, for a religion which cannot bear the light of science or must first soften it through all kinds of lenses is to be classed with the dead. Such a religion could vegetate among the lower classes, lead a sad existence, become sometimes dangerous by fanaticism, but could not exercise a decisive influence upon the development of mankind.

Fortunately the Mosaic religion does not belong to religion that fear the light.... There never existed a time or party or sect which required, recommended, or even asserted as admissible, to neglect the use of reasoning....12.

d) This brings us to the other part of the title of the approach which Conservative Judaism adopted. The full name of that approach is "positive-historical Judaism. " The "positive" part of that name can have one or two meanings. "Positive" can mean "concerned only with observable, empirical data." In that sense, "positive-historical Judaism" would describe a method of study which analyzes the history, ideas, and practices of Judaism as objectively and dispassionately as possible. That is certainly what is intended by the method of study described above in (a).

But "positive" can also denote enthusiasm, agreement, and concern, as when we say that a person has" a positive attitude" toward something. That sense is almost exactly the opposite of the one above: the former denotes dispassionate objectivity; the latter refers to passionate involvement. Whether the original members of the "Positive-Historical School" intended the latter meaning as well is questionable, but it certainly does describe another important element of the way in which the founders of the Conservative Movement planned to use the methods and results of that approach. Specifically, they were deeply interested in taking and promoting a positive attitude toward Judaism, that Jews honor it, hold it dear, and seek to preserve it. We should try to be as dispassionate and objective as possible when we study Judaism, but that should not prevent us from being very passionate and actively concerned about its present and future. In fact, the movement is called "The Conservative Movement" because its members seek to conserve as much of the Jewish tradition as possible through its '" work in Jewish law, thought, publications, community matters, and, especially, Jewish education.

But if the Conservative Movement recognizes changes in Jewish law, how can it at the same time conserve it? The answer lies in making the decision of when, what, and how to change a law a matter for communal decision. There is no guarantee that the community or its representatives will be any wiser than an individual, but at least then we will be drawing upon the collective wisdom of the people involved. Moreover, that method has preserved Judaism until now, and, in any case, we really cannot do more than try to make intelligent and necessary changes at the appropriate time: life does not come with guarantees, especially in important decisions.

Among the early leaders of the Movement, there were two different programs for gaining communal involvement. Alexander Kohut claimed that legal decisions should be made by the rabbis in each generation. In this he was simply restating the way that most decisions had been made in Jewish law from the time of the Bible on, for Judaism always had entrusted the law to those who knew most about it, the rabbis of each generation. The Jewish community never chose its interpreters of the law by a vote of the people or by a calculation of how much land or money a person had, and heredity ceased to be a relevant factor in the appointment of judges shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. From Ezra's time on, a person who wanted to gain authority in Jewish law first had to learn enough to earn the authorization to act as a teacher or judge. Those who gained that authorization were called "rabbis," or "teachers," as a sign of their education, and they were the ones who made decisions in Jewish law throughout the ages. Kohut would continue that practice:

Our religious guide is the Torah, the Law of Moses, interpreted and applied in the light of tradition. But inasmuch as individual opinion cannot be valid for the whole community, it behooves individuals and communities to appoint only recognized authorities as teachers; such men, that is to say, as acknowledge belief in authority, and who, at the same time, with comprehension and tact, are willing to consider what may be permitted in view of the exigencies of the times, and what may be discarded, without changing the nature and character of the foundations of the faith.13.

There was always another factor that influenced Jewish law, however, and that was the customs of the people. The decisions of the rabbis and the practices of the people often coincided, but sometimes they did not. When that happened the rabbis sometimes attempted to change the practices of the people to fit the law, but sometimes they adjusted the law to fit the customs of the people. In fact, in some cases the customs became so strong that the rabbis claimed that "custom uproots a legal decision."14. In any case, Jewish law was always a product of an interaction between the rabbis and the rest of the Jewish people. In recognition of that, Solomon Schechter, President of the reorganized Seminary from 1902 to his death in 1915, claimed that Jewish law should be determined by "catholic Israel." We are used to using the term "catholic" as a proper name referring to the Catholic Church and not as a common adjective describing other things, and so we have to be careful here to avoid misunderstanding. "Catholic" means "the whole of," and thus "catholic Israel" means "the whole of Israel," or "the whole of the Jewish community." That was Schechter's translation of the Hebrew term "Klal Yisrael, " and he used it to indicate that decisions in Jewish law should be determined by the practices of the whole community of Israel:

Another consequence of this conception of Tradition is that it is neither Scripture nor primitive Judaism, but general custom which forms the real rule of practice. Holy Writ as well as history... teaches that the law of Moses was never fully and absolutely put in practice. liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions. Hence a return to Mosaism would be illegal, pernicious, [destructive], and indeed impossible. The norm [laws] as well as the sanction [authority] of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use -- or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.

Since ... the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning [in addition to what it meant originally] is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning. This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood, or Rabbihood, but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue.15.

In Schechter's time, most Jews were observant, and therefore he could confidently base decisions in Jewish law on the practices of the Jewish community. In our own time, most Jews do not observe Jewish law, and therefore we cannot look to the practices of the whole Jewish community to decide issues in Jewish law. If we were to do that, then almost all of the major practices of Judaism would fall by the wayside! Still, the concept of "catholic Israel" makes sense and remains an important part of the process of making decisions in Jewish law if we follow the reinterpretation suggested by Robert Gordis and consider only the practices of Jews who try to observe Jewish law in making our decisions.16. That is certainly the group to which we refer when we talk about the custom of Jewish communities in the past, and it is that group to which we must refer today too if we are to understand the interaction between the rabbis and the community, between din (law) and minhag (custom). Those who are not observant may still be Jews, but their own choice to neglect the laws of Judaism excludes them from consideration when we want to know the minhag. It is, of course, regrettable that so many Jews are not observant - and Conservative Judaism has been increasingly trying to correct that situation - but Schechter's concept is still crucial for an adequate understanding of Jewish law. In every age it is the decisions of the rabbis and the practices of the observant Jewish community which together determine the nature of Jewish law and which together make the decisions communal decisions. And just as observant communities have had differing interpretations of Jewish thought and practice in times past, so too in the present there may well be several separate understandings of proper Jewish observance among the various communities of observant Jews - Conservative, American Orthodox, Israeli Orthodox, Sephardic, etc. The original founders of Conservative Judaism hoped to formulate an interpretation of Judaism for the entire American Jewish community, but the historical model of several different communities won out - and perhaps it is better that way.

The Conservative Movement, then, was new in the historical method that it applied to Judaism and its history, but was traditional in both its maintaining much of the tradition from generation to generation and being willing to make changes. There were other beliefs that the early leaders of Conservative Judaism had, and we shall discuss them in detail in Chapter IV. The notions of positive-historical Judaism and catholic Israel were the major ideas that brought them together to found a Seminary and ultimately a Movement; on other issues they exercised considerable freedom of opinion.

As Schechter said,

The historical school has never, to my knowledge, offered to the world a theological program of its own. By the nature of its task. it pays but little attention to purely dogmatic questions. . . . As far as we may gather from vague remarks and hints thrown out now and then, its theological position may perhaps be thus defined: - It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition.l7.

The method and program contained in the notions of positive-historical Judaism and catholic Israel were more than enough, however, to launch the new Movement and give it a distinctive character....

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