When the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement within Judaism issued guidelines for homosexual marriage by a vote of thirteen in favor, none opposed, and one abstention earlier this year, a Gentile friend of mine e-mailed me wondering how Conservative Judaism could approve of such a thing. Perhaps one good place to try to understand this is the recently published book, The Birth of Conservative Judaism, by Michael R. Cohen.
In the book, Dr. Cohen traces the origin of the movement to Solomon Schechter, a noted Jewish scholar who came to the United States from England in 1902 to become head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary had been established in 1887 by some who found the Reform Movement and its Hebrew Union College too dismissive of Jewish tradition. Schechter was influenced by Zacharias Frankel, founder of “positive-historical Judaism” in Europe. According to Frankel, Judaism consists of the interplay between divine revelation and the response of Israel to it. Because of this human response, there is an element of Judaism that is changeable and adaptable to circumstances.
Schechter’s program of reform was modest, not involving halacha (Jewish law), but encountered some opposition. He advocated sermons in English, more decorum during services, and using modern pedagogical methods of instruction in schools. While, following Frankel, he thought halacha could adapt and change, he thought this should only be done by what he termed Catholic Israel, i.e. the Jewish People as a whole not by some segment or denomination.
In arguing for Schechter and his students as the originators of Conservative Judaism, Dr. Cohen takes a plausible but controversial position. Others claim more of a role for the pre-Schechter Jewish Theological Seminary and more direct influence by Frankel. In any case, as Cohen documents, Schechter did not seek to found a new denomination though he established a unified set of followers amongst his students and his students largely followed him in this. It was the generation of rabbis that succeeded Schechter’s students that were completely comfortable with founding a new movement, situated between Reform and Orthodox. It was only then that the Conservative Movement took upon itself the authority to make legal rulings on its own.
In 1949, the Rabbinical Assembly rejected the resolution that the newly renamed Committee on Jewish Law and Standards “hold itself bound by the authority of Jewish law and within the frame of Jewish law.” Instead, it adopted a vague resolution that the committee should be involved in “raising of the standards of piety, understanding, and participation in Jewish life.” In 1950 the committee ruled that driving on the Sabbath to synagogue was permissible, as was the use of electricity to enhance Sabbath observance. (Traditionally, making a fire is one of the tasks forbidden on the Sabbath and electricity and automobile ignition both involve this.)
It seems a long way from turning on a light on the Sabbath to homosexual marriage, and indeed it is. But, as Dr. Cohen points out, Schechter developed no clear guidelines or methodology for determining what was changeable in halacha and what was not; nor, so far as I am aware, did Frankel nor has Conservative Judaism. It seems to me that, absent this, any religious movement, regardless of its rhetoric and sentiment, substantively untethers itself from the intellectual discipline of religious tradition and easily becomes prey to whimsy, faddishness, or simply adopting the values of the greater society in which it finds itself. (Conservative Judaism remains a largely diaspora phenomenon.)
I do not argue that it is impossible to come up with such guidelines or methodology. I think, for example, it is arguable that the small Karaite Jewish sect that relies upon the Bible only and rejects the Talmud and the Protestant reformers with their similar reliance upon sola Scriptura came up with standards that can be applied practically and that are rooted in the traditions they seek to reform. I argue, rather, that Conservative Judaism has not done so and finds itself at sea, sometimes, as in the case of homosexual marriage, adopting the worst aspects of its host society. Dr. Cohen’s book, while not taking sides, helps us to see how Conservative Judaism has arrived at such a pass.