VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads?

A review essay by Steven Windmueller

The Birth of Conservative Judaism by Michael R. Cohen
New York: Columbia University Press

At a point in time when there has been a considerable degree of discussion over the future of the Conservative Judaism, we are introduced to this excellent reflection focusing on the founding of this American religious enterprise. Michael Cohen has done a masterful job in unpacking the elements that define the origins and controversies surrounding this religious movement.

If the Reform Judaism is understood to be a movement centered on its congregations and its umbrella organizing structure, the Union for Reform Judaism, then Conservative Judaism’s centerpiece must be seen as the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Established in 1886, in response to the earlier creation of the Hebrew Union College in 1875, JTS would be understood by its creators to be an alternative expression of American Judaism. At the outset, JTS would symbolize “traditional” Jewish thought and practice in contrast to the progressive notions being introduced by Isaac Mayer Wise.

Established in 1886, in response to the earlier creation of the Hebrew Union College in 1875, JTS would be understood by its creators to be an alternative expression of American Judaism. At the outset, JTS would symbolize “traditional” Jewish thought and practice in contrast to the progressive notions being introduced by Isaac Mayer Wise.

In the early decades of the 20th century, it would be important to understand that Schechter’s graduates continued to seek affirmation within the world of American Orthodoxy. This attempt to maintain authenticity and adherence to Jewish law and practice would meet with criticism from within the yeshiva world on the one hand and would be challenged by more liberal elements within the Seminary orbit as not truly defining the special place of Conservative Jewish thought and practice on the other.

This small volume has a bit of mystery appeal as the level of infighting and institutional tension featuring JTS faculty and alumni, Orthodox critics, and congregational laity seem to leave the reader with a degree of uncertainty as to whether the lead character, namely “Conservative Judaism,” can withstand the intrigue and drama surrounding its early history.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, would play a central, yet divisive, role in this story, breaking with Schechter and his JTS colleagues around a host of theological and structural questions. Cohen does a masterful job in capturing the political landscape both inside the Seminary and beyond involving Kaplan and an array of other Conservative leaders from the period of the mid-Twentieth Century.

A whole array of issues would serve as a litmus test of whether the graduates of the Seminary would see themselves as a distinctive voice within American Judaism or an appendage within the complex world of Orthodoxy. The challenges between “traditionalist” and liberal rabbis would center around the decisions of the RA (Rabbinic Assembly) to create various prayer books for the movement during the period covering 1927 through 1945; the divisive responses in trying to resolve the issue of the Agunah (granting a religious divorce in the case of an absentee husband); and the fallout from “The Things That Unite Us,” a 1927 paper produced by Louis Finkelstein designed to identify shared principles of religious practice and faith that represented an effort to bind the world of the Seminary with traditional Jewish life.

In his concluding comments Cohen seeks to grasp the impact not only of Schechter but of his disciples in ultimately building a movement. The success of Conservative Judaism represents a post-Second World War story. Cohen offers a number of reasons for the movement’s emergence during this period. As Americans “moved to the center”, Cohen noted that Conservative Judaism “rejected what its representatives claimed where the extremes of both Orthodoxy and Reform.” The movement’s appeal to suburban Jewry and its legal decisions in the 1950’s permitting members to drive to synagogue and to use electricity on the Sabbath provided additional incentives to attract other constituencies.

In writing this story, Cohen provides a context to the developments surrounding the creation of this movement by employing an array of theoretical principles extracted from the disciplines of sociology and leadership theory. Further, Cohen introduces historical data, permitting the reader to compare the specific developments that he is examining with other religious experiences.

While certainly unable to predict the future of this movement, Cohen candidly notes that “Conservative Judaism today stands at a crossroads. Recent decades have seen its numbers sharply decline.” Referencing the controversial decision by the Seminary to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, he concludes “The movement still grapples with the question of how to create a distinct platform while embracing its diversity.”

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email: jdspiro@vcu.edu

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations