What is Conservative Judaism? Part One

Friday, December 28, 2018 / 20 Tevet 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak offers some different takes on what Conservative Judaism is. He connects that with Laura Newman Eckstein’s program this past Wednesday about the Cairo Geniza.

What is Conservative Judaism? Part One

This past Wednesday, Laura Newman Eckstein presented a fascinating talk on her work with the Cairo Geniza. Stampfer Chapel was packed. Some were there to support this talented young woman, who grew up in our community, and her beloved parents, Jerry and Lisa. Others were there out of intellectual curiosity. What became clear from people’s comments and the questions asked is that for many of those who attended, the material Laura spoke about was completely new.

That reminded me that it is worthwhile to deepen our congregational knowledge as to what the Conservative movement is all about. Mel Berwin, of course, regularly offers a course in the fall, “Conservative Judaism Explained” to our adult learners. Additionally, students in our high school take a course in “Comparative Judaism and the Conservative Movement,” which seeks to look at some defining differences between the streams of Judaism. This year that is being taught by Noam Firestone.

There are numerous ways to think about Conservative Judaism. We can look at it sociologically. In its early days, the movement was bankrolled by the American Reform movement, whose culture was deeply informed by German Jewry. As more impoverished and traditional Jews from eastern Europe and Russia emigrated to the States, it was clear that they were not a good fit for either the Orthodoxy of that time, or the Reform institutions. Thus when our early movement was floundering financially, necessary dollars came from the Reform world.

We can also think about Conservative Judaism theologically. Much of 19th and 20th century Orthodoxy viewed the Torah as written by God and set down by Moses (that was not a universal Orthodox view in earlier ages, by the way). The Reformers, meanwhile, came to view the Torah as a human document composed by very wise or perhaps inspired people. The Conservative movement, however, representing “Big Tent” Judaism, had adherents who staked out theological claims along a full continuum, from the Orthodox to the Reform positions, with many variations in between.

Another perspective on differences between the movements is how we each view halakhah, or Jewish law. In the Reform movement, all religious authority resides in the conscience of the individual Jew. And so while there is a body of Reform legal responsa (teshuvot), they don’t have a binding aspect to them. Contemporary Orthodox teshuvot normally hew to a “strict constructivist” or “originalist” legal theory, for those familiar with those terms in American law. This approach often treats Jewish legal perspectives from an operational perspective. While some Conservative movement legal decisors (poskim) are also strict constructionists, just as many are loose constructionists who believe the Torah must be understood and applied to contemporary life through a series of flexible understandings.

Finally, another lens we can use to think about the Conservative movement, and one that I myself am partial to, is through a historical lens. So much of the Conservative approach to Judaism is informed by “the scientific study of Judaism.” (Wissenschaft de Judentums) This approach assumed that you could study the history of Judaism and its central texts just as you would any other culture or text. Central to Conservative Judaism is an awareness of how our practices, customs, laws and even our sociology has repeatedly changed over time.

The Cairo Geniza is a wonderful case study of this. For those unaware, a geniza (also called shemos in parts of the Jewish world), is the holding area for unusable documents that are inscribed with God’s holy name. Old Torah scrolls, prayerbooks, tefillin and mezuzot would all be placed in a geniza until they could be properly and respectfully buried in a Jewish cemetery. These repositories occasionally became important sources of documents for later scholars. Most proved useless for that purpose, however, as the environmental conditions in Europe, for example, would cause these documents to rot away or the items were buried quickly.

In Beit Ezra, the ancient synagogue in Old Cairo, however, two remarkable things happened. (As an aside, when I was nineteen, I had the opportunity to visit the synagogue and it was a memorable experience.) First, the items were stored and kept in the synagogue attic, where dry conditions preserved a trove of documents for a thousand years. Second, in addition to holy documents, items from normal life were also stored there. Laura Newman Eckstein showed us pictures of ancient shopping lists and even a pattern intended for a textile loom.

The first person to understand the significance of this trove, by the way, was the great Conservative scholar, Solomon Schechter. He brought nearly 200,000 fragments back to Cambridge. He uncovered a letter that provides historical background to Yehuda HaLevi’s famous book, “The Kuzari.” Additionally, from the Geniza, we learned that women could teach in a beit midrash, a Jewish study hall normally restricted to males. Such an enlightened practice would disappear for many centuries until we get to the modern period. Similarly, many different forms of ketubbot, or marriage certificates, were found in the Cairo Geniza. They show that in real Jewish communities, there was a huge variety in how people practiced and that women had greater authority and rights, something that would again disappear until the modern period.

What this historical approach to Judaism shows us is a certain boldness that our ancestors had to tailor Jewish practice to their times. This doesn’t imply that anything goes. The Torah is still the Torah. Yet the evidence of such freedom throughout our history to me is proof that taking a “loose constructionist” view to our Judaism is actually the traditional way to practice. What many people have come to view as “authentic Judaism” is just a temporary accident of history. The Geniza reminds us that throughout our long past, holy communities adapted to make the word of God relevant to their own lives. Rather than viewing such adaptations as aberrations, history shows us it was the way our ancestors held tight to our Torah. To me, that’s an essential element of Conservative Judaism.

May we each take that as a challenge to to serve God better.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D




  1. How does history influence your understanding and responsibility to our Jewish community?
  2. What is your favorite way to think about or engage with Judaism? Is it through practice, social activity, or learning?
  3. Of your own family practices, how many were passed down to you, and how many did you introduce after seeing what other Jewish families were doing?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

In Place of Torah Sparks Commentary This Week