The Conservative Movement
Conservative Judaism is essentially an American movement, created in the wake of what became known as the Treifah Banquet—the Hebrew Union College 1883 graduation, as recounted above. This, however, was not the first time that individuals enamored with the concept of Reform were, at the same time, unwilling to endorse what they perceived as the excesses of the Reformers.
Zecharias Frankel, descended from august Rabbinical families on both his father's and mother's sides, was born in Prague in September of 1801, trained in the yeshiva of Bezalel Ronsperg, and appointed the district Rabbi of Leitmeritz at the age of thirty. Five years later he was invited to become chief Rabbi of Dresden, where he served for eighteen years, developing and promoting a new philosophy that he called Positive-Historical Judaism.
Frankel's stated goal was to uphold the authority of traditional Jewish belief and practice, while still allowing for freedom in both thought and practice after careful research. His vision allowed for reforms instituted by Rabbinic scholars, but not at the direction of the laity.
While Frankel never intended to start a new movement, he attracted the ire of Reformers and traditionalists alike. His reaction to the new Reform prayer book published in Hamburg in 1842 satisfied no one. The liberals were upset because he pointed out historical and theological inconsistencies, while the Orthodox could not accept his assertion that other deviations from the tradition were permitted.
When Frankel was nominated president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau in 1854, Abraham Geiger—who had encouraged the founding of this institution—strongly opposed Frankel's selection. Geiger later reprinted the final examination given to the first graduating class in German translation, in order to ridicule Frankel's style of Talmudic analysis.
At the same time, the traditionalist Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch demanded of Frankel a statement of the religious principles upon which the Breslau seminary would stand: “What will revelation mean in the forthcoming Seminary? What will the Bible mean? What will tradition mean?” Frankel did not reply, for he knew that Hirsch and the traditional community would not agree to his belief that Rabbis could change and develop the Jewish religion.
Rejection of Reform—and Orthodox
In 1886, Rabbis Sabato Morais and Marcus Jastrow of Philadelphia, and Henry Pereira Mendes of New York, led a group that formed the Jewish Theological Seminary (the JTS) of New York. They were responding to what they considered the rationalist, anti-Halachic (Jewish legal) excesses of the Reformers in general, and of the Treifah Banquet in particular, which had caused several of the Rabbis present to contemplate formation of an alternative group.
Initially, they did not see themselves as a new movement at all, but merely as representing a more liberal Orthodox group—as did Zecharias Frankel himself. JTS was instrumental in the creation, in 1898, of the Orthodox Jewish Congregational Union of America in New York. It was Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of HUC, who decried JTS an “orthodox Rabbinical School” created by men “who are themselves poshim [sinners] in the eyes not only of the genuines of Poland and Hungary, but also of the leaders of that class in Germany and Italy.” Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein, an Orthodox scholar, agreed: “In my opinion, the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals lead to the same path, the only difference between them is time”—referring to how long it would take them to adopt the same changes as the Reformers. By 1902, the traditionalists took firm control of the Orthodox Union, and JTS pulled out.
In 1902, Prof. Solomon Schechter assumed the presidency of the seminary; he would greatly strengthen the institution. In 1913 he took a leading role in the formation of the United Synagogue of America (which changed its name to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1991), the Conservative movement's answer to the Orthodox Union.
In theory, the Conservative movement, unlike the Reform, maintains an allegiance to Halachah. In practice, however, the movement's own scholars agree that the movement has moved away. JTS Professor Rabbi Neil Gillman writes that “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” (Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Neil Gillman, Behrman House, 1993, Chapter 4).
To a great extent, Rabbi Eisenstein's prediction that Conservative would follow Reform is born out by history. Each of the changes documented by Professor Gillman was preceded by a similar move by Reform. As early as the 1980s, only half of Conservative Rabbinical students said that “living as a Halachic Jew” was “extremely important” to them. Today, only 29 percent of Conservative congregants keep strictly Kosher, while just 15 percent consider themselves Sabbath observant.
The move to ordain women as Rabbis was opposed by the JTS Talmud faculty and leading Conservative Halachists. Approval of the change resulted in the formation of a splinter group, the Union for Traditional Judaism, which claims that “today's Conservative Movement is, at best, selectively loyal to Halakhah.”