Conservative Judaism: What Jewish traditions to keep and what to change

Source: “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants” by Elliott N. Dorff

Philosophically, Conservative Jews study Judaism historically. This means that Judaism is understood to be “influenced and changed by the various people and ideas with which Jews came into contact and the political, social, and economic conditions under which Jews lived.”

At the same time, “we still call our patterns of behavior and thought ‘Judaism’ because our form of Judaism has much in common with the various types of Judaism that existed before and that exist elsewhere and because we can trace the gradual process by which Judaism changed in form and even sometimes in content from Moses to our own day."

Conservative Jews believe that “Judaism should change from one time and place to another. The simple fact is that the world does not stand still, and consequently all living organisms must learn to live under new circumstances if they are going to survive.”

So how does Conservative Judaism decide what to keep and what to change?

In short, Conservative Jews turn to the community. “There is no guarantee that the community or its representatives will be any wiser than an individual, but at least then we will be drawing upon the collective wisdom of the people involved. Moreover, that method has preserved Judaism until now.”

Who constitutes the community? In short, the community equals an interaction between the rabbis, who are knowledgeable about the legal tradition, and the community of “Jews who try to observe Jewish law.” For “Those who are not observant may still be Jews, but their own choice to neglect the laws of Judaism excludes them from consideration when we want to know the minhag” (custom).

Modern Conservative Judaism is sensitive to the fact that there may not be one Judaism for the entire community – but that “there may well be several separate understandings of proper Jewish observance among the various communities of observant Jews.”

Dorff adds: "Deciding when such additions or modifications are necessary, and how they should be made, requires considerable judgment and risk, and consequently the Conservative Movement has made the decision a communal matter for both rabbis and laymen. Rabbis may refer questions to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. If that Committee rules unanimously on a given issue, the decision becomes a binding practice for the Conservative Movement....If the Committee splits in its vote, then a Conservative rabbi may follow either the majority or the minority opinion, depending upon which best fits the needs and circumstances of his own congregation and which coincides with his own understanding of Jewish law.

"This structure is a combination of the two traditional ways in which Jewish legal decisions were made - namely, by majority vote of a central body, when a given Jewish community was sufficiently organized to have a body, and/or by the decision of the local rabbi (the' 'mara d 'atra," or "teacher of the community"). This structure also explains why you probably have observed considerable differences in the practices of Conservative synagogues and rabbis. It is important to realize that these differences do not represent a lack of decisiveness or commitment on the part of the Movement; they rather reflect the fact that the Conservative Movement wants to deal with life as it actually is, and that requires that it be open to differences among people and communities. This plurality may make some of us uncomfortable at times, but life does not lend itself to a neat, unchanging structure, and so people must learn to accept changes in law without at the same time discarding it completely. This is the approach of Jewish law historically, and it is the approach of the Conservative Movement."