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Book Review: The Birth of Conservative Judaism

From a review at H-Judaic of Michael Cohen’s The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement.

Cohen’s initial task is to overturn several persistent theories
regarding Conservative Judaism’s origins. Most accounts of the
movement locate its beginnings in the nineteenth century, either with
Zecharias Frankel’s “positive-historical school” in Germany or in the
United States, with the opening of the first Jewish Theological
Seminary in 1886. But evidence for a clearly defined centrist
movement, fully separate from Reform and Orthodox Judaism, is
gossamer-thin prior to the twentieth century. Cohen argues that the
beginnings of Conservative Judaism are found in the first half of the
twentieth century with the students of Solomon Schechter, identifying
roughly a dozen of these students (and later rabbis) as key leaders
in shaping the movement. Cohen also restores Schechter to the center
of the narrative, replacing Frankel, Sabato Morais, and Alexander
Kohut, among others, in the story of the movement’s creation.

Cohen then identifies two distinctive features of Schechter’s
disciples in the making of Conservative Judaism: their dedication to
Jewish diversity and their steadfast personal ties to each other and
Schechter. With few exceptions, Schechter did not envision the
Seminary creating a new denomination, but rather a diverse, “big-tent
Judaism” that would encompass the broad center of religious American
Jews, excluding only radical Reformers–namely, those who adhered to
the Reform principles outlined in its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform–and
what we would today call the Haredi, the isolationist Orthodox. For
example, at a speech at an Indiana synagogue, he declared that
Judaism is “as great as the world, and as wide as the universe, and
you must avoid every action of a sectarian or of a schismatic
nature.”[1] He wanted to attract “the mystic and the rationalist, the
traditional and the critical”[2] to JTS and maintained that the
Seminary “should also prove broad enough to harbor the different
minds of the present century.”[3] He prized unity above all else;
differences could be smoothed over. His students fulfilled his
wishes, and fit the diversity he sought: some were European, others
American; some promoted substantial ritual and liturgical changes,
others hewed more closely to traditionalism. The more liberal among
Schechter’s students called regularly for a more thorough distinction
between themselves and the Orthodox. The traditionalists, on the
other hand, insisted on a vague adherence to Schechter’s “Catholic
Israel,” the trans-geographic and trans-temporal unity of the Jewish
people. Among their points of disagreement, they diverged over family
seating and the use instrumental music on the Sabbath. They also
quarreled among themselves about whether the Conservative movement
should become the third denomination among North American Jews. Along
with an allegiance to pluralism, however, they did agree on three
central ideas: sermons in English, the utilization of modern
educational methods, and an emphasis on synagogue decorum (p. 8).
Their very commitment to diversity mitigated against any deliberate
delineation of what the movement represented. When any movement
decides to formally define itself, diversity necessarily diminishes.
Once you commit to writing “this is what we believe and this is what
we ought to do,” the choices made exclude alternatives. This is the
opportunity cost of denominationalism: coherence at the expense of
pluralism, even if pluralism remains a value.

3 Responses to “Book Review: The Birth of Conservative Judaism”

  1. 1
    Bob Abrams:

    Thanks for including the review from H-Judaic. It is interesting to read about Schechter’s “wide tent” accommodating the broad center, excluding radical reformers and isolationist orthodox. The original article began with the example of a JTS trained rabbi being retained by an Orthodox congregation. I know of cases where Orthodox rabbis were retained by traditional Conservative congregations. That would be absolutely unheard of today.
    There is a seminary in Yonkers that tries to train rabbis and cantors across platform, but I do not think that is working too well.
    Question: Do you think that the fractionalization of the center of Judaism is related to the ideological fractionalization in the country?

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel (Michael P.):

    Bob,

    I actually work at the Academy for Jewish Religion, the pluralistic seminary in Yonkers to which I think you are referring. Things are going quite well with our institution and we currently have close to sixty students. Our students define themselves as Jewish Renewal, Reform, Recon, Conservative, non/trans/post-denominational, you name it. Up until the 1960’s most of JTS rabbinical students were from Orthodox backgrounds, something that is very rare today. I don’t think that there is much of a connection between American politics and the politics of Jewish denominationalism. If anything, it has to do with changes in American religion during the past fifty years, among them the rise of non-establishment and movement religion and the decline of affiliation. In my opinion much of the Conservative movements struggles stem from two things: It never proclaimed, at least not loud enough, to be for something, just not X and not Y; For decades most of its members affiliated because of an strong ethnic attachment to Judaism, something that is getting weaker with each generation.

  3. 3
    Bob Abrams:

    Thanks for your response. Keep up the good work that you do.

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