“The term “Conservative” had been attached to the moderates by the Reformers because the moderates had branded them as radicals. This name hardly describes the movement aptly. Conservative Judaism is the American version of the principles of positive historical Judaism. The conservatives accept the findings of modern scholarship that Judaism is the product of a long period of growth and evolution. However, this process did not result in broken or inconsistent lines of development; quite the contrary, the major currents of Judaism run consistently through the extensive literature of the Jewish people, created in successive ages.” (Rudavsky 338)
Conservative Judaism is one of the largest of the various sects of Judaism. Conservative Jews make up about 40-45% of those Jews who affiliate. Conservative Judaism accepts the idea that Jewish law is binding upon Jews. Conservative Jews have an obligation to obey all the teachings and commandments of Judaism., For example, Conservative Jews emphasize the laws of keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Conservative Jews believe that Jewish law is capable of evolution as humans learn more about interpreting the Torah. Therefore, Conservative Jews have changed some of the earlier interpretations. Men and women worship together in Conservative synagogues, people may ride in a car on the Sabbath to attend services, and women can be ordained as rabbis.
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“Issac Leeser is generally regarded as the principal forerunner of Conservative Judaism in the United States. A native of Westphalia, Lesser acquired his religious and secular education before coming to American in 1824. He settled in Richmond, Virginia, where he was employed for several years in his uncle’s business. At the same time, he assisted the hazzan in the religious school of the local Sephardic congregation. During this period, he gained prominence by publishing numerous articles in defence of Jews and Judaism in American and foreign journals.”(Dimont 231)
Some Jews who affiliate with the Conservative sect claim that their main reason for belonging is the fact that they don’t want to be Orthodox nor Reformed. “While some individuals describe themselves as Conservative because of their alienation from Orthodox practices, others define themselves from the opposite direction – they point out that they are not reform.” (Sklare 206) For the most part, Conservative Jews feel that if one were to be reformed they would not really be Jewish. The Reformed sect, unlike the conservative, does not obey most of the Jewish laws and traditions. Conservative Jew describes Reform as “cold,” “churchlike,” or “going too far,” rather than as being subversive or heretical.” (Sklare 206)
Although Conservative Jews do not associate themselves with the Reform movement, they are still influenced by some of their ideas. “Conservatism has borrowed a number of the innovations instituted by the Reform wing. Orthodoxy, particularly in America has done likewise, though to a lesser degree. Among these changes are the improved decorum, the use of the vernacular and the regular sermon at services, as well as confirmation exercises in various forms. Mixed pews, the organ, and the elimination of the benediction by the priestly caste are among the modifications adopted by the Conservative congregations.”(Gordis 122)
Conservative Judaism says that the laws of the Torah and Talmud are of divine origin, and mandates the following of Jewish Law. At the same time, the Conservative movement recognizes the human element in the Torah and Talmud and accepts modern scholarship that shows that Jewish writings also show the influence of other cultures, and in general can be treated as historical documents. “The founders of the Conservative movement, the youngest group in modern Judaism, had no wish to create a new alignment in Judaism. They sought, rather, to unite all Jews who had a positive attitude toward Jewish tradition, in spite of variations in detail. Nonetheless, life itself led to the crystallization of Conservative Judaism, which is dedicated to the conservatism and development of traditional Judaism in the modern spirit.”(Gordis 216)
Since the inception of Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century, it is committed to Judaism not only as a faith but also as a system of law, and to the norms of ritual behaviour. Conservative Judaism formally involves strict Jewish religious practice of the laws of diet and Sabbath-observance. ” For many Jews in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, Reform was travelling too fast and too far to the left. The Conservative movement long ago ruled that mixed seating was permitted in religious services and so was driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Unlike Orthodox, the Conservative allows women rabbis instead of the traditional service lead by men.
“Of the three main Jewish sects in America, Reform Judaism has thus far been the prime force in getting things done, supplying thus far been the prime force in getting things done, supplying most of the ideas, money and leadership. Reform has remained in the vanguard of everything new in secular American Judaism. But it is no longer the foremost Jewish religious sect. Nor is it any longer foremost in Jewish scholarship. Here the unaffiliated and Conservative have overtaken it.”(Rudavsky 338)
In order to get a better understanding of how Conservative Jews felt about the sect that they identify themselves with, I asked them the question: “What do you mean when you say that you are Conservative”
My friend Josh Schwartz from Brooklyn said “Well, I obey some laws and I’m not Orthodox, so I guess I’m somewhere in between the two My parents brought me up believing in the Conservative way of life. I go to a Conservative Temple, so I’m Conservative. When I asked the same question to my Jewish friend from Long Island he responded with: “My parents buy kosher meat and we eat kosher in the house but I often eat non-kosher when I’m out with friends. I think I’m conserving time when I go to a Conservative temple instead of those drawn-out services that are conducted in Orthodox temples.” Both of the responses I received revolved around their parents. I think, for the most part, Conservative Judaism is placed upon the person instead of deciding which sect you want to belong to on your own.
Growing up in Brooklyn I attended an Orthodox Hebrew school, a Conservative Jewish day camp and belonged to numerous Jewish youth groups. Most of my friends when I was growing up were Jewish. We belonged to the same temple and participated in the same traditions. Brooklyn is made up of a wide range of Jewish sects and groups. In my neighbourhood, the most common of all are the conservative Jews.
My grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe after the end of World War II. They escaped only with their lives and their belief in the Jewish
Faith. They came to this country to escape the persecution of Nazi Germany. What they found were people who were just like them seeking the teachings of the Conservative sect. Growing up in a conservative Jewish household has had a great impact on my life.
I was Bar-Mitzvahed in a conservative temple in Brooklyn, which is also the same temple that my parents got married. I attend religious services for the high holidays and obey the laws of Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukah. I do not keep the Sabbath and I do not adhere to the kashert laws. Most people that I know who are of the conservative sect obey and disobey the same laws as I.
Youth groups like United Synagogue Youth and the Binai Brith Association are major contributors in keeping the conservative sect alive. USY is a youth group established by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in the hopes but with the intent to foster further continuation in the conservative community. Binai Brith is non-denominational and is constantly shifting between reformed and conservative depending on the community in which that chapter is located. Jewish Youth groups throughout the country have had a great impact on the young Jews of America by teaching the religion and providing an entertaining atmosphere at the same time.
In my opinion, Orthodox means obeying every Jewish law to the fullest effect. Some of my friends who are Orthodox are curious about what it’s like to go out on Friday nights? Or, What does “real” pizza taste like? But when it comes down to it, they have devoted their lives to G-d and religion and would never disobey the laws. Sometimes when I’m driving around the area on a Saturday morning, I see Orthodox Jews walking to their temple which is sometimes miles away from their house.
The reformed on the other hand is the complete opposite of the Orthodox. I’ve been to Jewish Reformed services at my friend’s temple where I would see a woman rabbi playing guitar and singing along at the same time. Sometimes the congregation members aren’t even wearing yamaurlkahs.
Conservative Judaism to me for most Jews in this country is the American way of life. We believe in G-d, belong to temples, engage in religious events and take part in the traditions. We do not dedicate our lives to religion nor do we say that we are perfect Jews. What we do say is that we are Jewish and affiliate ourselves with other Jews of various sects. Unlike the Hassidim who constantly fight within their own community, Conservative Jews have a common understanding for the religion and one another. Conservatism continues to be the most popular sect of Judaism and continues to be a driving force in America.
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