What is Conservative Judaism?
Question: "What is Conservative Judaism?"
Answer: The traditional religion of the Jews is Judaism. Modern Judaism is a religion that emphasizes lifestyle and values more than beliefs, so doctrine is not emphasized nearly as much as behavior. Many Jews maintain their connection to a synagogue and continue to observe certain Jewish practices and traditions while rejecting many of the doctrines that may be taught in their particular branch of Judaism.
There was a time when Orthodox Judaism was the only form of Judaism. Today, Judaism has three main “branches”: Orthodox (very traditional), Reform (also known as Liberal or Progressive), and Conservative, which takes a middle path between the other two. Of course, there are offshoots, variations, and even hybrids among the three main branches. Most synagogues designate themselves as one of the three branches, similar to how a church will designate itself using a denominational name.
Conservative Judaism is also known as Masorti (“Traditional”) Judaism outside of North America. Conservative Judaism developed in Germany, but most of its adherents today are American. Conservative Judaism takes a middle-of-the-road position between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. “Conservative” does not indicate a political mindset; rather, it emphasizes the desire to conserve Jewish traditions and values instead of reforming them. (In fact, Conservative Judaism has socio-political conservatives and liberals and has been marked by internal divisions over how to handle issues such as LGBT acceptance.) In theory, Conservative Jews would find it important to maintain kosher dietary guidelines as well as religious festivals and traditional religious practices, but these observances have been on the decline among Conservative Jews in the United States.
For Orthodox Jews, the authority of the halakha is paramount. For Reform Jews, the authority of the autonomous individual is paramount. For Conservative Jews, it is the experience, values, and “collective will” of the Jewish people that are most binding. For example, observance of the Sabbath is important in Conservative Judaism, not because it was commanded by God but because it has been an expression of Jewish identity for thousands of years. For Conservative Jews, the halakha, while binding, is subject to development over time. It can be changed, but only with great caution. Much of this change and development comes from the experience and changing needs of the Jewish people. Ethical considerations are important but are defined by modern sensibilities. Rabbis consider the desires of their congregations when making decisions, rather than strictly “going by the book.” The Conservative branch has issued official rulings allowing innovations (such as driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath) that the Orthodox do not allow and the Reform would need no official ruling on. “Core values” of the Jewish people are more important than theological doctrines in Conservative Judaism. Support for the nation of Israel is one of these core values.
Conservatives try to balance tradition on one hand with change and innovation on the other. This is a somewhat ambiguous standard, so theological beliefs and practices will vary widely among Conservatives. In fact, theological agreement is not required, as pluralism is highly valued and dogmatism is avoided. Conservatives generally hold to a rather generic doctrine of God as the Creator and Guide to the world, but not much beyond that.
Conservative Judaism, which was once the largest branch of Judaism in the United States, is on the decline in the U.S. but on the rise in Europe. Some critics claim that it is rapidly becoming obsolete. Although it pays lip service to authority, it accommodates the changing winds of culture.
Recommended Resource: What Do Jews Believe?: The Spiritual Foundations of Judaism by David Ariel
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