A talk by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander (1975)
Periodically the following announcement is heard on radio or T.V.: "The opinions you're about to hear are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the station." If I were to title my talk tonight it would read "Conservative Judaism as I understand it." The movement allows certain latitudes to each of the rabbis and even informed laymen to entertain and project their views. In my judgment those illiterate in the teachings of the ages, should be silenced, for their approach is too often a matter of personal convenience rather than an informed interpretation. This is not the kind of grass roots we would like to encourage.
The "Conservative" adjective describing our movement is unfortunate. Some would use the word to emphasize the need for "conserving the tradition" which basically is correct. "Historic Judaism" or a more recent suggestion, "Mesorati" -- a Hebrew word meaning "true to tradition" would be more descriptive. It is not and was not meant to be a middle of the road or a compromise between Reform and Orthodox, which were at loggerheads in the closing years of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth when the Conservative movement emerged. (The 75th anniversary of the Rabbinical Assembly will be observed in convention assembled during April of this year; the Seminary is a few years older.)
Furthermore, although Zacharia Frankel -- Rabbi in Leipzig, Germany, and director of the rabbinical seminary in Breslau -- is credited as being a source of inspiration, he is not the founder. Conservative Judaism is the only one of the three that is truly American born. Reconstructionism is a splinter group of the Conservative movement. We of the conservative movement are difficult to define because we find unity in diversity: congregations or rabbis differ radically from one another yet are united in a common bond of commitment to basic principles of our tradition. For example, Shabbat, Kashrut, Holidays, Laws of Marriage and Divorce, Conversion, Tefillin, etc., etc.
Our difficulty at present is that we have oversold. The Orthodox though militant and strident are not as different from our point of view as classical Orthodoxy was a half century or more ago. The same is true of the Reform. The lines of demarcation are being rapidly obliterated and therefore confusion reigns supreme in the minds of the laymen. The true difference between Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement is to be found in areas like Borough Park, Williamsburg and New Square, New York or in Israel, Meah Shearim. Use of English is prohibited, dress is decreed, separation of sexes in and out of the synagogue is maintained except under certain circumstances (otherwise there would be no children and there are lots of them, b'li ayin hara).
Dr. Gershon Cohen suggested that "we lost our image and must create a new one." I would agree with his premise -- perhaps not with his conclusion. Our lines are drawn by institutional loyalties rather than deep ideological differences (with certain reservations). Neo-orthodoxy could very well be one for the classical conservative point of view, mainly the need for recognizing changes in the environment and habitat, and the need to translate the traditional idiom into modem terms.
On the other hand, the Reform are calling for the reintroduction of ritual. They have generally accepted the idea of restoration to Zion which was blackballed in the Pittsburgh platform, and that the Jew is not merely an American, a Frenchman, etc. of Mosaic extraction as the early Reform teachers thought. They are re-evaluating the actions of these early Reform teachers, where they threw out the baby with the dirty water.
The Reform are making efforts to bring back the richness and beauty, which had been formerly rejected in an effort to level the differences between the Jew and his non-Jewish neighbors. It was they who borrowed the pulpit gown from the Protestant church as well as the confirmation service. It is they who objected to circumcision, to the Friday night Sabbath ceremonies and even tried to transfer the day of rest from the Seventh day of the week to the first, in order to conform with the general environment. At present they are making every effort to reintroduce the Lighting of the Sabbath Candles at home, the sanctifying of the Sabbath with the Kiddush and the introduction of Hebrew in the service, and their loyalty to Zion is unquestionable.
We must acknowledge the contribution of the Reform movement in shattering the iceberg which had enveloped the Jewish tradition, preventing it from being versatile and accommodating to changing environments. The Orthodox on the other hand must receive credit for the preservation of that which had been held sacred by our Jewish people throughout the ages.
The English-speaking rabbis in the early years of the American Jewish community originally were banded together in one organization and believed that an American form of Judaism could be forged, However, at a convention in Cleveland in the 1890's, a non-kosher banquet was served. Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, Sabato Morais of Philadelphia, Perero Mendes of New York and several others took a walk. They called for the formation of a school to prepare men for the American pulpit who would remain committed to the tradition of our people and be able to transmit their teachings to the growing generation in the vernacular.
The school met under the tutelage of Sabato Morais as President, and Perero Mendes and Rabbi Jacobs were instructors. Its quarters were the basement of one of the synagogues in New York. The first graduate was Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, who served with distinction first as Chief Rabbi of South Africa and then of the British Empire. He was strictly traditional as we can see from his Siddur and the commentary to the Torah, which we use in our Synagogue and which is found in neo-orthodox congregations throughout the country.
Let us state categorically that the Conservative movement is not committed to making changes but, in the words of the late Rabbi Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine after the Mandate, it is our purpose to "Regenerate the old and sanctify the innovations." When Jews first came to these shores, a wide language abyss developed between the older and younger generations. There was a choice of Orthodoxy as it was practiced in the shtetl or Reform.
The younger generation did not understand Yiddish, nor were they groomed for the Hebrew in our liturgy. On the other hand, the immigrant would not permit the introduction of English and certainly there was to be no mixed seating. That they were losing their children to Reform or to secular movements or even to apostasy did not concern them. Survival of the Jewish way of life was impossible in the trefe medina. There were only the staunch few who were convinced that modernity could be welded with tradition. Thus Dr. Mordecai Waxman, President of our Rabbinical Assembly today (incidentally, his father was my teacher and was one of the very early graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary) prepared a book a few years ago which is called "Tradition and Change."
The efforts of the early pioneers were nearly submerged by the tidal wave of economic problems. It was precisely men in the Reform movement who came to the rescue. The Schiffs, Warburgs, and James Marshall. The late Dr. Cyrus Adler was perhaps mostly responsible for their interest.
They prevailed upon the late Dr. Solomon Schechter, who had become famous by his discovery of the Geniza in Cairo, to leave his assignment as reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University and take the presidency of the reorganized Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902. He died in 1915, but in these 13 years the Conservative movement became a powerful force in shaping the future of the American Jewish community. To talk of Solomon Schechter requires a complete lecture but his imprint was so great, that we students at the Seminary to this very day, feel as if he were alive and teaching us.
Solomon Schechter gathered around him the greatest scholars of the age in the Jewish field; Professors Louis Ginsberg, Alexander Marx, Jacob Hoschandar, Israel Davidson, Mordecai Kaplan, and Louis Finkelstein. These were my mentors. They were succeeded by equally great scholars, some emerging from the seminary itself. Solomon Schechter also organized the United Synagogue, hoping to imitate the organization in England, but of course the United States is not England and it took on a different form.
Today the Seminary is a veritable University -- the Teacher's Institute, the Cantor's Institute, etc. The Library established by Professor Marx houses one of the greatest collections of Jewish books in the world. The Jewish Museum is another off-shoot from the Seminary. United Synagogue sprouted its branches. Mathilda Schechter organized the Women's League -- but now there are many other leaves growing on the tree.
It was not the school but the Rabbinical Assembly that gave direction to the movement. It has come a long way from the original classical concept, yet remains true to the ideal. Professor Saul Lieberman, successor to Louis Ginsberg as Dean of the Faculty once put it "The Shulchan Aruch is still our guide." Emphasis on the education of girls as boys and the introduction of Bat Mitzvah led naturally to a change of status in the Synagogue for the woman. The Rabbi became the transformer controlling the voltage of the spiritual electric current to the capacity of the particular congregation he serves, keeping within the limits of the traditional structure. We strive for the maximum and when that is impossible to attain, we compromise for lower accomplishments.
The Conservative Rabbi was always in the forefront of Zionism when both official Orthodoxy and Reform were opposed to it. Hebrew remained our mother tongue for all religious purposes, the Sabbath and holidays were scrupulously observed, marriage and divorce was according to Jewish Law (circumcision was never questioned) and halachic requirements for conversion were never breached, to mention only a few examples.
To best illustrate Conservative Judaism, a senior colleague once said that Judaism is compared to pea soup. The consistency of the Orthodox version is too thick, Reform too watery. Conservative Judaism is just right. Since we consider Judaism a living, vibrant organism, we recognize the need for historic changes to meet those in our social structure. Innovations are not introduced merely for the sake of change. Furthermore, we recognize that there are certain "I-beams" in the structure with which we cannot tamper. However, partitions can be moved to suit our purposes. If the Reform movement pierced the iceberg in which Orthodoxy had been encased since the formulation of the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century, Conservative Judaism gave it warmth and thawed it out so that once more it became viable, it could accommodate itself to environmental and historic changes.
There is a Talmudic parable that tells us "If Judaism was as firm as an oak, the storms would long ago have demolished it. But it is like a reed, it bends with the breeze and then rights itself " In my judgement the trend now in Conservative Judaism is towards intensification of Jewish life style. Those exposed to Ramah, to Israel, to more intensive Jewish education are beginning to demand more rather than less. If others have taken over our image, let us be happy with our success. We need not seek another!