Big Tent or Narrower Tent?

Ever since the founding of United Synagogue, the leaders of Conservative Judaism have been debating its boundaries.

by Michael Cohen

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Solomon Schechter, center with beard, with his wife Mathilde, behind him, sits surrounded by his disciples.

Solomon Schechter, center with beard, with his wife Mathilde, behind him, sits surrounded by his disciples.

When the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded in 1913, it was called the United Synagogue of America. The distinction, though subtle, is not insignificant. Its founders selected their name after intense debates, rejecting the notion that they would constitute themselves “in opposition to other existing parties and their platforms” as “the mouthpiece of a third, or conservative party, independent of [Reform and Orthodoxy].” On the contrary, they wanted a name “that would not expose us to the charge of wishing to create a third or merely a compromise party.” They boldly declared that the United Synagogue of America would seek to unify American Jewry, and would “accept the character of a party only if it will be forced upon us.” In other words, the founders of the United Synagogue adopted a “big tent” approach and rejected the creation of a third movement within Judaism. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, we would be wise to understand the historical origins of this debate between inclusivity and boundaries, which remains so central to the movement’s contemporary discourse.

The United Synagogue of America’s vision for unity was shaped largely by Solomon Schechter, who emphasized creating a broad platform with which the majority of American rabbis could agree. Schechter envisioned a community committed to traditional Judaism, yet one adapted to America through the incorporation of English, decorum within the synagogue, and modern educational methods. His vision was intentionally vague, allowing the United Synagogue to build a broad coalition of constituents. After Schechter’s death in 1915, his rabbinical disciples would adopt his vision as their own, and would serve as the foot soldiers to bring that message to American Jewry.

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One critical factor that allowed Schechter’s vision to transition to his disciples was the embrace and institutionalization of diversity. While the disciples agreed on the broad vision of their teacher, they differed markedly in other areas. Some were American-born; many hailed from Eastern Europe. Some could dazzle audiences with English sermons but felt their Jewish educations to be lacking, while others spoke broken English but were comfortable with their traditional backgrounds. The disciples also differed on how to interpret the implications of Schechter’s vision and how exactly they could be “essentially loyal” to traditional Judaism. Some had no problem eating a dairy meal at a restaurant whereas many others took exception. Mixed seating and organ music during Sabbath worship were appropriate in the eyes of some though others abhorred such innovations.

Just as diverse as their practices was the way in which they self-identified. Some identified as conservative, and some as orthodox, while others preferred the terms progressive, liberal, modern orthodox, traditional, or centrist. Their beliefs and practices spanned much of the spectrum of American Judaism. Each of these terms meant different things to different people at different times. This fluid terminology highlights the diversity and elasticity of the emerging Conservative movement over the first half of the 20th century.

The group’s commitment to diversity was institutionalized in 1913, with the creation of the United Synagogue of America. While the organization today serves as the congregational arm of the Conservative movement, it began as an organization led by Schechter’s rabbinical disciples with the purpose of implementing their teacher’s vision. By transferring his authority to the diverse executive council of the United Synagogue, Schechter effectively institutionalized diversity and ensured that it would be a central tenet of the emerging movement. All could hold a leadership position, irrespective of background or viewpoint, and in the interest of unity, the organization overlooked its members’ differences and instead emphasized their similarities. Member rabbis were free to be guided by their own beliefs and practices on issues such as mixed seating and the organ, but they remained united by Schechter’s vision of a traditional Judaism with English sermons, modern educational methods, and decorum. As a result, the United Synagogue shied away from decisions that might cause discord, initially refusing to create a prayer book, authoritative law committee or even a guide to kosher restaurants for fear of alienating fellow disciples.

While internal diversity characterized the disciples and their United Synagogue, so too did their quest for unity within the broader American Jewish community. This meant reaching out to Reform rabbis and congregations in an attempt to bring them closer to traditional Judaism, and it also meant reaching out to the Orthodox world. Schechter’s disciples felt confident reaching out to these rabbis because many of their own members identified as Orthodox, while others were graduates of Hebrew Union College, which would become the seminary of the Reform movement. They also believed that they could succeed because the United Synagogue’s platform was so broad and avoided divisive issues, making it possible for the vast majority to fit under its “big tent,” to use an anachronistic term. Yet although the boundaries were wide enough to encompass most American rabbis, the only rabbis, generally speaking, who chose to identify with the United Synagogue were Schechter’s disciples. The rest of the American Jewish spectrum resoundingly rejected its offer of membership.

Committed to remaining together as a group and rejected by those whom they hoped to attract, Schechter’s disciples found themselves on the brink of irrelevance, in need of a raison d’être. As lay leaders grew in power on the national stage, the United Synagogue became more of a congregational body, and the disciples brought their debates to the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). There, the self-identified Orthodox and Conservative disciples discovered that their needs and goals conflicted. The Orthodox disciples continued to hope that  they could be accepted by the rest of the Orthodox world, and as a result, continued to oppose any decisions by the United Synagogue that might give fodder to those who labeled the organization as antithetical to orthodoxy. The more liberal disciples had little interest in pleasing the Orthodox and instead hoped to define a platform for the United Synagogue that distinguished it from those associations. But their essential paradox was that they refused to alienate the modern orthodox disciples within their coalition. How could United Synagogue leaders define a platform that distinguished them from Orthodoxy, when many of them identified as Orthodox themselves?

Try as they might to articulate factors that both united and distinguished them from other groups, many came to realize that the only common factor that also distinguished them from the others was their shared commitment to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which had been shaped by Schechter. Schechter’s disciples could never quite transform their group into a third movement in American Judaism that had unique attributes and clear boundaries.

However, for the next generation of rabbis, a movement predicated upon discipleship to Schechter was untenable. This new generation insisted on defining the boundaries of a distinct third movement of American Judaism, and they began this process by producing a prayer book in 1946 that unified the emerging movement as no previous book had. Shortly thereafter, this new generation of JTS rabbis fundamentally redefined the movement by jettisoning the commitment to the big tent. They created the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in 1948, which boldly declared that it would no longer seek the approbation of the Orthodox rabbinical associations. In 1950 that committee declared it acceptable to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath and/or use electricity on the Sabbath – both of which violated traditional Orthodox law. This represented a major shift: the Rabbinical Assembly itself could change Jewish law without the approbation of Orthodox rabbinical authorities. No longer would the emerging Conservative movement be defined by its quest for inclusivity; it would now stand on its own. The Conservative movement increasingly became a third, distinct movement in Judaism.

In the decades since the 1950s the Conservative movement has continued to refine its boundaries, and it has been increasingly comfortable identifying as the third movement, distinct from the others. The postwar growth of Conservative Judaism owed much to its shift to a movement at the religious center, positioned between Orthodoxy and Reform. This was reinforced in 1973, when the CJLS deemed the counting of women in the minyan an acceptable practice, though it did not require its congregations to abide by the ruling. Shortly thereafter, the RA approved a decision to call women up for aliyot to the Torah, and in 1983 allowed the ordination of women. Not surprisingly, traditionalists within the movement were appalled, and as the movement continued to veer away from its founders’ inclusive intentions, modern Orthodox rabbis in the Conservative movement were confronted with the challenge of what to do. As a symbol of their opposition, a group of rabbis formed the Union for Traditional Judaism and eventually left the Conservative orbit.

This march toward self-definition at the expense of inclusivity would continue in 1988, when the Seminary, the RA, the United Synagogue, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs jointly released a Statement of Conservative Principles, Emet Ve-Emunah. For the first time, the movement had a platform, yet, reminiscent of the challenges faced by Schechter’s disciples, the platform ended up being broadly encompassing. It could not be otherwise without alienating broad swaths of the movement.

Today, as the United Synagogue hurtles into its second century, it continues to be characterized by the diversity inspired by Schechter and embraced by his disciples, as well as by the subsequent push to define the movement’s boundaries. This is true for the movement’s three primary institutions – the Seminary, the RA, and the United Synagogue – the latter of which changed its name from the United Synagogue of America to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, reflective of its narrower focus. Yet its congregations still display a diversity of opinion.

Conservative Judaism today stands at a crossroads. Recent decades have seen its numbers decline. Once the largest grouping in American Jewry, only 33 percent of Jewish households belonging to synagogues in 2000 affiliated with it – compared to 39 percent with Reform. The movement still grapples with the question of how to create a distinct platform while embracing its diversity. After a debate that again threatened to tear the movement apart, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, further alienating the traditionalists. However much the movement still embraces diversity, it now largely reaches out to Jews in the broad center of American Jewish religious life. It no longer hopes to win over the Orthodox.

Which way will the movement go? Will it return to Schechter’s big tent, seeking to unite the American Jewish world behind a message of a traditional Judaism that is relevant in the lives of modern Americans? Or will it heed the call of the rabbis of the 1950s who sought to transform the movement into one with clear boundaries that would distinguish it as a separate brand? Struggling between a commitment to tradition and a desire for change, between those who advocate for a broadly encompassing movement and those who seek a more narrowly defined, ideologically coherent one, the Conservative movement faces difficult choices. It will be best prepared to confront them if it understands itself historically and appreciates the way in which Schechter’s disciples created this American religious movement.

This article is adapted from The Birth Of Conservative Judaism by Michael Cohen, ©2012 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All quotations and references in this article are cited in the book.