Conservative Judaism: A Clash of Sociology and Theology


From 1880 through 1920 there was an influx of almost 2 million Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, into America. These Jews, those willing to leave the religiously intense shtetls to go to the ‘treife medina’ of America, were not the most religious Jews in Eastern Europe, they were, however, deeply Jewish and defined their Judaism by religious observances. The Jews who greeted them in America were predominantly of German extraction and had given up many of the most distinctive Jewish rituals. They defined themselves as ‘Americans of the Hebrew faith’ and assimilated into mainstream America with abandon.
The established German Jewish Community, created Houses of Worship that mimicked churches and included organ music, praying without head coverings and sermons in English. These ‘Temples’ were also grandiose structures often resembling churches and cathedrals with men and women sitting together, a far cry from the small, unadorned shuls/synagogues of the shtetl.

The German Jews realized that these new immigrants would never feel comfortable in the reform temples currently available in America, so radically different from what they were accustomed to. Yet they felt an obligation to help their co-religionists. And they believed that the way to do that was to help them assimilate into American society as quickly as possible.

A form of Judaism that allowed this to occur was being developed by some American Jewish leaders, not to help assimilate the Eastern European Jews, but as a result of a theological shift in understanding Judaism.


In the last half of the nineteenth century, influenced by Protestant biblical scholars, a new way of understanding the Bible was developed. Its premise was that the Bible should be studied as a literary text, not necessarily as the ‘word of God’. This new methodology was embraced by a number of Rabbis both in Europe and especially America. While religiously observant, many of these rabbis felt that Jewish Law was not static and based on literary study, the Bible and the Talmud could yield changes that would modernize Judaism.

This trend was accelerated with the infamous ‘treife Banquet’ in Cincinnati in 1883, where, to celebrate the first graduating class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College, shrimp and other non-Kosher foods were served. Also, in 1885, this same group of rabbis published the Pittsburg Platform, a radical statement that proclaimed Jewish independence from traditional religious practices. Both events alienated the more traditional rabbis of the community and spurred the creation of a new school, the Jewish Theological Seminary (founded in 1886) that combined a positive approach to Jewish law with an openness to changing and developing that law.

This theological approach fit very well with the sociological needs of the new immigrants, who, while they couldn’t care about its theological reasoning, felt much more comfortable in a Jewish community that embraced most traditional religious practices.

Sociology 2

Fast forward to post World War II. Those returning Jewish veterans who had served in the military, shoulder to shoulder with their non-Jewish counterparts, came home emboldened and expecting to be treated as full-fledged Americans. And, to a great extent, the non-Jews, with whom they served and fought, began to see them not as ‘other’ but as Americans. These returning GIs used the GI Bill and Veterans benefits to attend college and move away from the first settlement areas where their parents lived. For example, in New York City, returning GIs married, went to school and moved out of Brooklyn to places like Levittown, Long Island, where small, inexpensive homes could be bought. And, as we saw with the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to America, those Jews who immigrated to the suburbs were by and large less religious than the Jews who stayed behind in Brooklyn and other traditional Jewish communities across America.

These Jews, wanted to remain Jewish and raise their children Jewish, but they also wanted to enjoy the best of what America had to offer. Saturday was Little League or Cub Scouts and their children wanted to be like the other children and play baseball and join Cub Scouts, so Friday evening services replaced Saturday morning as the major service of the week. Sunday was CCD and so Jewish children went to Hebrew School. Their co-workers and neighbors were going to restaurants, non-Kosher ones, and they wanted to be part of it. Conservative Judaism responded to this societal change by finding theological ways to modernize Judaism.

Theology 2

Young Rabbis, schooled at JTS, had learned that the Bible and certainly the Talmud was not Divine. They learned the theology of Mordecai Kaplan, that Judaism is more than a religion. And they learned that change can happen. So, both out of a theological foundation and a sociological demand, they found a way to legitimize the choices their congregants, Jews in the suburbs were making.

They created Synagogue Community Centers. No longer would the synagogue be mainly a place for prayer and study, now it became a place to socialize with other Jews, a place to experience Jewish art and music. And at its most modern, some of these Synagogue Centers became ‘the shul with the pool’.

And while the concept of the Synagogue Center was not a break with Jewish law, other changes were. In 1950, the Conservative Movement permitted Jews to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat. In 1952 the Law Committee of the Conservative Movement issued an ‘unofficial’ position that eating Fish in a non-Kosher restaurant was not prohibited and by 1955, Conservative Jewish leaders were writing essays and responsum that opened the way to allow women full participation in the religious life of the community (Bat Mitzvah, Aliyah, and by 1973, being counted in the minyan).

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Conservative Movement had to feel in a triumphalist mood. The Greatest Generation gave birth to Baby Boomers who were filling synagogue Religious Schools and pews as they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah. It seemed that the theology of ‘tradition and change’ was exactly what was needed to keep Jews both Jewish and American.

It is hard to know whether these changes came out of a deeply held theological understanding of change in Jewish Law or were a response to the sociological ‘facts on the ground’, (although the Driving Responsa does say that it is in response to the reality of Jewish moving to suburbs and not living in walking distance to synagogues). In either case, the theology and the sociology came together to make Conservative Judaism the largest Jewish religious denomination in America.

Sociology 3

This Melting Pot sociology began to break apart in the late 1960s. The black pride movement in America, made being distinctive and different, okay. Okay for Blacks and okay for Jews. And the 1967, Six Day War in Israel had a profound effect on America. And not only for Jews. Israel became a David vs. Goliath story; Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir became heroes. Suddenly being Jewish was not only quietly tolerated but now it was ‘in’. It became okay to wear a yarmulke outside your home and to act Jewishly in public. And as Jews became more financially successful, some of them wanted to be both traditionally Jewish AND part of American society. It was around this time (mid 1970s) that nice Kosher Restaurants (as opposed to Kosher Delis) began to open in New York. Jews could be both distinctively Jewish and enjoy most of what their non-Jewish friends did. In fact, they could even invite their non-Jewish friends and co-workers out to dinner.

Jews began to have a choice; if they wanted to be traditional, they could be distinctively traditional and be accepted within American society, or they could become just like other Americans jettisoning the distinctive rituals that made up Judaism.

While we didn’t know it at the time, this was the apex of Conservative Judaism.

Theology 3

At the same time as it became acceptable to be traditionally Jewish in America, the leadership of Conservative Judaism began to accelerate its use of a literary and historical reading of Jewish texts to liberalize the practice of Judaism even more. In 1972 the Jewish Theological Seminary replaced its traditional Chancellor, Louis Finkelstein with a much more liberal minded Gerson Cohen. In 1973, the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards allowed for women being counted in the minyan and in the early 1980s, with the strong support of the Chancellor, the Seminary accepted women for study into the rabbinate.

But there was pushback. In 1984 a group of Seminary professors, rabbis and laypeople formed the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism to protest, what they perceived as the Seminary and Movement’s move away from traditional ways of interpreting Jewish Law; that is from a judicial process to a legislative one of deciding issues by majority vote. And here is where the nexus of theology and sociology broke down.

The Union exposed the limits and weakness in the Conservative Movement’s theological method, but it was to no avail. After a few years of trying to affect change, the Union dropped the word Conservative from its title, recognizing that the Conservative Movement was no longer a home for Jews who understood Jewish Law as evolving slowly and through a judicial process.

The leadership of Conservative Judaism was split between those who favored the more traditional approach versus those who felt that theology was irrelevant to a large majority of the American Jewish Community. The community demanded a Judaism that would be more and more accepting of the divergent choices that was America in the late 20th century.

While there were good intentions all around, the theological approach had little relevance with the greater Jewish community and had already been co-opted by the more modern Orthodox. And more and more, those Jews who identified as Traditional Conservative no longer felt comfortable as Conservative Jews and became modern Orthodox.

As the traditionalists moved out, there was less and less reason to curtail the changes that sociology seemed to be demanding but there was also a concern that once you start making changes to suit people’s whims, where does it stop and how does Conservative Judaism differ from Reform?

Amazingly, the liberal wing of the Conservative Movement, having won the battle for making religious changes based on sociological needs, tried to justify the differences between Conservative and Reform on theological grounds. The Responsum written and approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, by and large, were reflections of the sociological changes in American society. Yet these Responsum were written using the language of the traditional, positive historical approach of theology.

Sociology 4

The 1990s and 2000s saw the acceleration of this process. Those Conservative Jews who felt comfortable with the tradition found a home in the modern Orthodox world. Those Conservative Jews who felt no pull towards traditional Judaism began to pull away even more. Their children were marrying non-Jews and they were frustrated: why wouldn’t their rabbi, who was so willing to make so many deviations from the tradition, officiate at this marriage. And they answered their question, not with carefully thought out theology, but with answers that led them to Reform Judaism where their personal preferences on how to be Jewish, was validated.

And Reform Judaism surpassed Conservative as the largest Jewish denomination.

Over the last 20 years, it has become clear that sociology has become the driving force of change in the Conservative Movement. And even the Jewish Theological Seminary bowed to this approach, when in 2007, it appointed Arnold Eisen as Chancellor, replacing the rabbi, historian Ismar Schorsch. Eisen is a well-respected Sociologist but is not a Rabbi nor a Theologian.

Conservative Jewish leadership now looked at the Jewish community in America to see what they wanted and found ways to give it to them. Whether it was the complete inclusion of women, the acceptance of homosexual marriages and rabbis, and the serious discussion of removing the prohibition against Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages. The Conservative Movement has endeavored to provide a religious home to those Jews who no longer thought in theological metaphors.

This is the situation we find ourselves today. Jewish millennials are even more committed to picking and choosing what they find meaningful, not caring about the theology, not even caring about how their personal choices affect the sociology of the community-at-large.

Whether Conservative Judaism will survive as a distinct movement, is uncertain, but its impact on Judaism both sociologically and theologically will last. The movement provided the theological basis that allowed Jews from Eastern Europe, at the turn of the 20th century, to assimilate into American life while at the same time continuing to feel comfortable as Jews. And the theology of studying the Bible using literary and historical methods has been accepted by much of the Jewish world as a legitimate way to understand our ancient texts.

For these reasons, all Jews, whatever their sociological or theological beliefs, should honor the Conservative Jewish legacy.

About the Author
Loel Weiss was ordained at JTS, 1975. He is rabbi emeritus of B'nai Tikvah in Canton, MA. A member of the CJLS for 10 years, he wrote Teshuvot on the Burial of non-Jews in Jewish Cemeteries and the Kashering of Dishwashers. He also contributed a chapter on sexual abuse by clergy in "Tempest in the Temple" edited by Amy Neustein and published by Brandeis U. press. Rabbi Weiss is a retired Navy Chaplain.
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