The Jewish Theological Seminary of America was founded in New York City in 1886 based upon the philosophy and practices of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Germany. Its proposed mission was to preserve knowledge and practice of historical Judaism.
It sought to break away from Eastern European Orthodoxy and shunned the 1848 birth of German Reform Jewry which had discarded the observance of Shabbat on Saturday, introducing Sunday worship with organ music and Christian choir, no longer requiring men to cover their heads in prayer nor to wear a tallit. In effect, German Reform Judaism was an attempt to assimilate into the German culture and society, calling themselves members of the Mosaic faith. They prayed in German rather than in Hebrew.
In an attempt to disassociate itself from this new and radical trend, liberal German Orthodox Jews sought a new approach in an effort to conserve the traditions of Torah Judaism. This Conservative approach was brought across the seas and took root in New York City.
The founders of the new Jewish Theological Seminary in New York consisted of some of the outstanding Sephardic rabbis, Dr. Sabato Morais and Dr. H. Pereira Mendes, later joined by the British rabbinical scholar and discoverer of the Cairo geniza, Dr. Solomon Schechter. The motto of the new rabbinical seminary was from the Book of Exodus… “v’ ha sneh aina ookal”… and the Bush was not consumed.
Over the years under the guidance of great intellectual rabbis such as Cyrus Adler and Louis Finkelstein, the Conservative seminary attracted some of the world’s finest rabbinical minds and talmudic scholars who passed their intense knowledge and love of Judaism to many thousands of future American rabbis.
The only noticeable differences between Conservative and Orthodox Jewish religious practices in the formative years were allowing men and women to sit together and not considering electricity as fire, and was therefore permitted on the Sabbath. All prayers were in Hebrew and Sabbath and holy days were strictly observed. Dietary laws (kashrut) were followed under rabbinical supervision.
It was a perfect religious venue for American born and educated English-speaking Jews. Eastern European Orthodoxy was considered old-fashioned for the new world and Reform Judaism was alien, many comparing Reform services to Protestant church worship.
Once in 1953 I entered a Reform temple for the very first time in my life. It was on a Friday evening at the great Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I entered the vast temple which could seat thousands, put a kipa on my head and took a seat. The Union Prayer Book was in English. An usher in formal tuxedo approached me and asked me kindly to remove my kipa. He stated that no men in the temple, including the rabbis and cantor, wore head coverings. I felt very uncomfortable but I removed the kipa at his request. Then I stood up and walked out of the temple. For me, it was like praying in a church. I saw almost nothing that I could recognize as Judaism there. The organ music seemed strange to me and most of the members of the mixed choir were non-Jews.
During the years, particularly after World War II, Conservative Judaism grew and rapidly became the major sect of Jewish denominational worship.
Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century Conservative Judaism began to change, at first moderately, later drastically. Women were allowed to become ordained rabbis. Women were permitted to chant the services as cantors. Women were given the rights of aliyot to the Torah. Hebrew was still central in worship, dietary laws were still regarded as Jewish religious practice, men and women continued to sit together.and intermarriage was still prohibited.
Society brings with it many changes. And some, to my way of thinking, are Conservative catastrophes. The Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary has now voted to allow non-Jews to become members of synagogues. A Jewish spouse is encouraged to have the non-Jewish spouse attend all worship services. There are some Conservative rabbis who now officiate at marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew. And the Conservative rabbinical movement has approved same-sex homosexual marriages officiated under a chuppah by a Conservative rabbi. There are printed guidelines for rabbis, one copy which I have, which guides the officiating rabbi in what prayers should be eliminated and what terms used in the ceremony.
I can understand the idea of same-sex marriages but would prefer the ceremony to be a civil one without rabbinical participation. Conservative Judaism has joined the ranks of Reform Judaism. There no longer seems to be distinctions in their codes of ethics or religious practices. So I find spiritual comfort in a modern Orthodox synagogue where men and women sit separately, where the prayers are recited and chanted in Hebrew, and where the Mosaic laws, with interpretations, are strictly observed.
For Israelis, Conservative and Reform Jewish practices are alien. As most secular Israelis will admit, “the synagogue which I don’t go to is Orthodox”.
From Pharisees to Sadducees, from Karaites to Samaritans, from traditional Orthodoxy to Reform and Conservative, Reconstructionist and Humanist Jews, we have been, unhappily, a divided people.
It is only Orthodoxy..traditional, liberal, modern, Chassidic, Sephardic or Ashkenazic, which has preserved us as a people and nation of faith. The Torah which Moses our Teacher received on Sinai, the Ten Words which were carved on stone tablets, are as meaningful today as they were when our fathers heard them and proclaimed “naaseh v’nishma”… we will do and we will obey… perhaps even more meaningful now for our difficult and confused times.