Jewish Denominations: Conservative Judaism

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Women wearing prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall, Nov. 4, 2013. Credit: AP

If the development of Reform Judaism was a reaction to the rigidity of traditional, halakhic (“halakha” is Hebrew for “Jewish law”) Judaism, in light of the changes that European society was undergoing, Conservative Judaism was a reaction to Reform, which was seen by some critics as having thrown away the baby with the bathwater.

The major issue that all the Jewish denominations must contend with is that of authority: What is the source of Jewish law, and to what extent can it be interpreted and even modified? In an even larger sense, they are asking what purpose humans serve, and how we can best fulfill that purpose.

If Reform stressed the ethical teachings of Judaism, and was ready to dispense with laws and traditions that seemed to have lost their meaning and relevance, Conservatism deliberately toed a middle path, accepting that Torah – meaning Jewish law in general, and not just the Five Books of Moses – was compiled by men, but divinely inspired by God, with its principles and laws coming from God.

Consequently, it also saw Jews as being bound by religious law, even as it suggested that the law had always been subject to – and should continue as such into the present – human interpretation and adaptation to cultural circumstances.

Hence, being a Conservative Jew – and certainly being a Conservative rabbi – is a difficult endeavor. If Orthodox Jews have more rules and obligations to follow, at least they are delineated by a well-demarcated road map to follow.

Generally, Conservative Judaism is egalitarian in its approach to both rights and religious obligations, is opposed to intermarriage, and believes in traditional Sabbath observance.

Among Conservative Jews, however, one finds a wide spectrum of observance and belief, and also of Jewish education. Individual Jews within the movement are always faced with decisions, and if they want to be serious in the way they go about making those decisions, they need to be well-versed in Jewish learning.

Similarly, Conservative rabbis, who find themselves confronting the need to interpret the law regularly, must have a firm basis in that law and its precedents.

Perhaps it is for this last reason that, on the practical level, there is often a gap between the observance level of Conservative rank-and-file and their rabbinical leaders – and their religious rulings.

In the United States, about one-quarter of all Jews define themselves as Conservative Jews, and internationally, Masorti Judaism (as it usually referred to outside the U.S.) has some 900 synagogues affiliated with it.

Conservative Judaism in the U.S. began ordaining women in 1983, and after long deliberations, in 2006, decided to ordain gay, lesbian and bisexual rabbis. In 2012, the movement decided to approve of same-sex marriages.