Esor Ben-Sorek

A Conservative Fiasco

My nephew recently e-mailed me an article from the American press which highlighted the Conservative Rabbinical movement in America whose Committee on Law has declared that kitniyot are kosher for all Jewish homes during Pesach.

It was a shocking article which only further added to my belief in the death of Conservative Judaism in America. The movement has shifted to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish it from the Reform movement.

The alleged basis for the acceptance of kitniyot purports to be for the unity of all Jews, particularly for Ashkenazi Jews who are married to Sephardic Jews for whom kitniyot on Pesach is permitted.

Well….at least for some Sephardim. My Ashkenazi son is married to a Sephardic woman born, raised and educated in Casablanca, Morocco. She tells me that while they never ate rice or grain on Pesach, beans were a part of the Pesach menu. In their home, she now follows the Ashkenazi tradition which forbids kitniyot on Pesach.

That ruling began in the 13th century and is binding upon all Ashkenazi Jews.

But now, lightning has struck and the Conservative rabbis, at least many of them, have announced to their congregants that rice and beans are acceptable for Pesach meals.

Conservative rabbis are ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, located in New York.

It was founded in 1886 by two leading Sephardic rabbis, Dr. Sabato Morais of New York and Dr. H. Pereira Mendes of Philadelphia in order to preserve the knowledge and practice of historical Judaism.

It was created as an American Orthodox seminary to combat the growing influence of the Reform movement in America. It broke away from European Orthodoxy as a middle road for American-born English-speaking Jews who were uncomfortable in European Orthodoxy and in the rising Reform movement.

It’s motto is “v’ha sneh ainenu ookal”… and the bush was not consumed, related to the epiphany of Moses on Mt. Sinai. Its mantra is “tradition and change”.

The New York seminary was modeled after the renowned Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany and inspired by the rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875) as a strong reaction and revolt against the growing Reform movement which began in Germany in 1848.

Over the many years, the New York seminary was led by luminaries of the Conservative movement.

While attempting to preserve tradition it was necessary for them to make several changes. The Committee on Jewish Law ruled that electricity could not be considered fire which was forbidden to be kindled on the Sabbath. So Conservative Jews were permitted to turn on lights, radios, televisions and all electrical devices on Shabbat in order to make their lives more comfortable.

For Jews who lived too far from a Conservative synagogue (called a Temple) and for whom walking was difficult, Conservative Jews were permitted to drive or ride to the Temple on Shabbat and yomtovim.

Prayers were mainly conducted in Hebrew with some congregational responsive readings in English. The mechitza was abolished and men and women were permitted to sit together.

One early Conservative rabbi was alleged to have remarked “I don’t mind men and women sitting together as long as they don’t sleep together during my sermons”.

Traditions were respected but change was permitted.

And now, the introduction of kitniyot into Jewish homes on Pesach belies belief and tradition. What now separates Conservative and Reform Jews in the practice of a watered-down Judaism?

This latest Conservative fiasco only fuels the fire of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel in their defamation of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. The Conservative rabbis in America have not done us a favor.

If anything, this fiasco is a disservice to all Jews who value our centuries-old Jewish tradition.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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