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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 2.3:
What is Conservative Judaism?

Answer:

Conservative Judaism attempts to combine a positive attitude toward modern culture, acceptance of critical secular scholarship regarding Judaism's sacred texts, and also commitment to Jewish observance. Conservative Judaism believes that scholarly study of Jewish texts indicates that Judaism has constantly been evolving to meet the needs of the Jewish people in varying circumstances, and that a central halachic authority can continue the halachic evolution today.

Attitude Toward Halacha

Conservative Judaism affirms that the halachic process reflects the Divine will. It makes use of Solomon Schechter's concept of "Klal Yisrael" (the whole of the (observant) Jewish community), in that decisions on Jewish Law are largely determined by the practices of Klal Yisrael.

In Conservative Judaism, the central halachic authority of the movement, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), will often set out more than one acceptable position. In such a case, the rabbi of the congregation (mara d'atra) is free to choose from the range of acceptable positions (or none of them), and his congregation is expected to abide by his choice. The CJLS speaks for the Conservative movement and offers parameters to guide local rabbis who turn to it for assistance. Local rabbis will make use of traditional sources and, when available, teshuvot written for the CJLS.

An exception is made in the case of "standards". A "standard" requires an 80% (not unanimous) vote of the membership of the CJLS (not just those in attendance) and a majority vote by the plenum of the Rabbinical Assembly. Willful violations have led to resignations or expulsions from membership of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). At present, there are four standards:

  1. A complete prohibition on rabbis and cantors to officiate in any way at intermarriages.
  2. A complete prohibition against officiating at the remarriage of a Jew whose previous marriage has not been halakhically terminated, whether by a halakhic divorce [get], hafka'at Kiddushin [annulment of the marriage], or death.
  3. A complete prohibition against taking any action that would intimate that native Jewishness can be confirmed in any way but matrilineal descent.
  4. A complete prohibition against supervising a conversion to Judaism that does not include circumcision for males, and immersion in a mikveh for both males and females.

Conservative Theology

Conservative Judaism hold that the laws of the Torah and Talmud are of divine origin, and thus mandates the following of Halakha (Jewish law). At the same time, the Conservative movement recognizes the human element in the Torah and Talmud, and accepts modern scholarship which shows that Jewish writings also show the influence of other cultures, and in general can be treated as historical documents.

The movement believes that G-d is real and that G-d's will is made known to humanity through revelation. The revelation at Sinai was the clearest and most public of such divine revelations, but revelation also took place with other people - called prophets - and in a more subtle form, and can happen even today.

These concepts are very complex, and readers are referred to Emet VeEmunah, published jointly by the Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ.

Many people misinterpret Conservative Judaism as being like Reform Judaism except with more Hebrew in its services; They believe that if one simply goes to a Conservative synagogue, then one is a Conservative Jew. This of course is not true, and the movement's leadership is strongly concerned with whether or not the next generation of Conservative Jews will have the commitment to lead an authentic Jewish lifestyle.

Derivation of the Movement's Name

The name derives from the idea that the movement would be necessary to conserve Jewish traditions in the U.S., a culture in which Reform and Orthodoxy were not believed to be viable.

Conservative Judaism in Israel

Conservative Judaism begun to make its presence known in Israel before the 1960s. Today, there are over 40 congregations with over 12,000 affiliates. In 1962 the Seminary began creating Neve Schechter, the University's Jerusalem campus. This center houses the Schocken Center for Jewish Research, and the Saul Liberman Institute for Talmudic Research. In 1975 a new Rabbinical School curriculum instituted a year of study in Israel as a requirement for every seminary rabbinical student.

In 1979 Chancellor Gerson Cohen announced the creation of the Masorti (Traditional) movement as Israel's own indigenous Conservative movement, with its own executive director, board and executive committee. Today the Masorti movement is an independent Israeli organization, that is parallel to, and not a subset of, the USCJ. There is cooperation on a large number of projects and issues. Many members of the Masorti movement are also members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA).

The Masorti movement created MERCAZ, a party within the structure of the World Zionist Organization. The Conservative movement is thus officially represented in the centers of decision making within the Zionist movement.

The Masorti movement sponsors youth groups, an overnight camp, a system of day camps, Kibbutz Hanaton and its Education Center and Moshav Shorashim, and special programs teaching new Russian and Ethiopian olim (immigrants) basic Judaism. It is involved in many issues promoting the rights of non-orthodox, traditional Jews.

The movement also sponsors "The Center for Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem" 2 Agron Street, P.O. Box 7456, Jerusalem 94265. Phone 02-257-463 FAX 972-02-234127. The Center provides activities and resources such as: daily study Havurot; headquarters for the Israel operations of USY; campus outreach programs at Israeli universities; a resource center for those making Aliyah from our Movement; A youth hostel, the "Neshama" program for Schechter High School Seniors as well a variety of educational programs. Adjacent to the Center is Congregation Moreshet Israel providing daily, Shabbat, and festival services. The Center will provide outreach to movement members of all ages who are in Israel, including home hospitality, and support whenever needed.

Sources of More Information

Additional information may be found in the Conservative Reading List, available at www.scjfaq.org/rl/jcu-index.html or via the SCJFAQ autoretriever. Also worth exploring is the home page for the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (UCSJ) <http://www.uscj.org>. Another source of information is the Conservative and Masorti Judaism FAQs (http://communities.msn.com/JudaismFAQs&naventryid=114).*

[*: This source is controversial on soc.culture.jewish. There do not appear to be major disputes with its representations of Conservative/Masorti positions. However, some on the newsgroup dispute its representation of the positions of other movements.]

For more information on Masorti, see <http://www.masorti.org/>.

Interested readers might also want to look at the following documents available via WWW:


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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