Conservative or Orthodox?

Does the Jewish world know the difference? Do we?

by Rabbi Adam Frank

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Adam Frank

When an Israeli learns that I am a Masorti/Conservative rabbi the inevitable query soon follows: “What is the difference between Reform and Conservative?” The very question conveys a glaring lack of knowledge about the philosophical underpinnings of those two streams of Judaism; it also speaks to the failure of the Conservative movement to communicate clearly the principles of its ideology. The more accurate question is “What is the difference between Conservative and Orthodox?”

Except for my preference for egalitarian tefillah, were someone to observe my daily life, hear my belief about God’s active presence in the world, and even my belief in the origin of the Written Torah, that person would think that I am an Orthodox Jew.

It is a critical commentary on the state of Conservative Judaism and its movement that an observant Jew is assumed to be Orthodox. Conservative ideology mandates halakhic observance no less than Orthodoxy. Despite legal decisions of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that reflect more aggressive reconciliations of our tradition with contemporary times, the overwhelming percentage of non-observant Jews labeled Conservative has given an inaccurate face to the ideological definition of Conservative.

A modified version of Conservative ideology best reflects Judaism’s historical tradition – that is, the way that Judaism developed and varied for nearly 3,000 years until the codification (sadly, read “ossification”) of the legal compendium known as the Shulchan Arukh (17th century). It offers the best model for helping Judaism to follow that 3,000-year path of being organic in order to help Jews and the world reach our potentials.

Conservative ideology differs from current Orthodox Judaism as follows:

Emphasizes Actions Over a Belief System

Conservative Judaism does not require that its adherents espouse one common, singular belief in the origin of Torah. Whether it was given to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai by God’s hand, or written by Moses, or authored by various prophets, or Divinely inspired by founding elders, or serves as the historical record of the early Israelites, or is the literary chronicle of how a small band of people attempted to be in relationship with an ineffable God…it does not matter how one finds meaning in the Torah but that one finds the Torah meaningful.

In other words, it matters most that a person is engaged and observant of Jewish practice regardless of the motivation to do so, whether it be by reason of any of the following: being commanded by God; being commanded by Jewish peoplehood; wanting to feel part of a community; believing that it helps to refine character; desiring to be part of the chain that links past to future generations; because it stimulates intellectual passions; because one finds it psychologically, emotionally and physically sensible and worthy; because it provides a vehicle for societal improvement; because one’s grandparents were observant; and so on.

Accordingly, it does not matter why one is observant but that one is observant.

Embraces the Human Desire to Question

It is not taboo to question traditional assumptions, theological claims, halakhic positions. Inquisitiveness is desired and welcomed, and challenges of assumptions and to the status quo are neither punished nor impugned nor ostracized. Halakhic decisions are decided by scholars, but the right, and even the responsibility, to raise questions belongs to the community of practitioners.

Promotes Social Responsibility Without Borders

Traditional communities are wonderful about caring for their members’ needs, whether for food/material goods, health, education, comfort, solace, or celebration. As the western world has changed in a way that allows a greater platform for Jews, Conservative ideology advocates channeling some of our focus in leading humanity in the pursuit of justice and a sense of responsibility toward different populations.

Endorses the Halakhic Nexus Between Tradition and Modernity

Conservative Judaism allows for a robust interface of Jewish tradition with modernity to utilize the elasticity of halakhah and ensure its evolving appropriateness – a flexibility that was the hallmark of Judaism until the 17th century and has nearly disappeared in the mainstream Orthodox world. This interface finds forms in areas as relevant as kashrut, the role of women, health, the environment, modern technologies, engagement with all the world’s populations, and political and social policies.

This element of Conservative ideology is grounded in the understanding that the Oral Law involves the wisdom of the sages, who employ the tools given to humans by God – intellect, emotion, psychology, wisdom, understanding, experience, precedence, skills of argumentation and of observation, the powers of analysis and of empirical evidence – and apply them to the Torah, in order to decipher what God is telling us about how to be a Jew in the world. For this reason, unlike mainstream Orthodox colleagues, I will stand in public and proclaim that the Written Law was given by God at Mt. Sinai with the instruction that there be an accompanying Oral Law whose ongoing process remains intact for every generation (precisely in keeping with Rashi’s elucidation of Deuteronomy 17:9-11; in keeping with the Oven of Akhnai, B.Metziva 59b; in keeping with the visit of Moses to Rabbi Akiva’s class in Menachot 29b, and volumes more).

It is my belief that the most effective transformational power of Judaism on the self, family, congregation, and global community contains the synthesis of unwavering fidelity to halakhic observance and the courage to incorporate the four elements delineated above.

Curiously, neither the majority of Conservative nor modern Orthodox Jews claims this position as theirs. Perhaps the truly most appropriate question is: why not?

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

Adam Frank is rabbi at Congregation Moreshet Yisrael, the Masorti/Conservative Beit Knesset in downtown Jerusalem.