The Birth of Conservative Judaism

The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter's Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement

Michael R. Cohen
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 232
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    The Birth of Conservative Judaism
    Book Description:

    Solomon Schechter (1847--1915), the charismatic leader of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), came to America in 1902 intent on revitalizing traditional Judaism. While he advocated a return to traditional practices, Schechter articulated no clear position on divisive issues, instead preferring to focus on similarities that could unite American Jewry under a broad message. Michael R. Cohen demonstrates how Schechter, unable to implement his vision on his own, turned to his disciples, rabbinical students and alumni of JTS, to shape his movement. By midcentury, Conservative Judaism had become the largest American Jewish grouping in the United States, guided by Schechter's disciples and their continuing efforts to embrace diversity while eschewing divisive debates.

    Yet Conservative Judaism's fluid boundaries also proved problematic for the movement, frustrating many rabbis who wanted a single platform to define their beliefs. Cohen demonstrates how a legacy of tension between diversity and boundaries now lies at the heart of Conservative Judaism's modern struggle for relevance. His analysis explicates four key claims: that Conservative Judaism's clergy, not its laity or Seminary, created and shaped the movement; that diversity was -- and still is -- a crucial component of the success and failure of new American religions; that the Conservative movement's contemporary struggle for self-definition is tied to its origins; and that the porous boundaries between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism reflect the complexity of the American Jewish landscape -- a fact that Schechter and his disciples keenly understood. Rectifying misconceptions in previous accounts of Conservative Judaism's emergence, Cohen's study enables a fresh encounter with a unique religious phenomenon.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52677-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction (pp. 1-14)

    The american Jewish landscape at the dawn of the twenty-first century features three primary Jewish movements—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—a basic structure so entrenched in the American Jewish consciousness that one observer humorously suggested “most people seem to assume that God spoke to Moses at Sinai and decreed that there would be Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.”¹ While it should come as no surprise that this arrangement was not revealed at Sinai, the way in which it came to be has thus far eluded the grasp of observers and scholars alike.

    Of the three movements, Conservative Judaism is the...

  5. 1 Solomon Schechter and the Charismatic Bond (pp. 15-43)

    There is “a sincere and general desire to have you take the position,” Charles Isaiah Hoffman told Solomon Schechter, the charismatic world-renowned scholar. Schechter had been in prolonged negotiations to leave England for the United States, and leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hoped he would take over their fledgling rabbinical school. “Apart from the wishes of individuals,” Hoffman told him, “there is a great need for you here… . America is Judaism’s center of gravity and you can become the new Ezra.”¹

    Hoffman did not just want Schechter to be the prophet for America, but also for...

  6. 2 The United Synagogue and the Transition to Postcharismatic Authority (pp. 44-68)

    “Our rabbis are mostly in struggling Synagogues” Solomon Schechter bluntly observed in 1912.¹ Schechter was resigned to the reality that his vision for American Judaism was failing, as only a handful of congregations were receptive to his message. Faced with the realization that he could not implement his vision on his own, Schechter turned to his disciples. Initially, they worked closely with congregational lay leaders whom they felt might be receptive to Schechter’s message. But it soon became clear that this unorganized and haphazard approach was bearing little fruit. Hoping to create a more effective system, Schechter’s disciples pressed their...

  7. 3 A “Heretic,” a “Maverick,” and the Challenge to Inclusivity (pp. 69-84)

    In its first five years, from 1913-1918, the United Synagogue remained staunchly committed to diversity. Though its members overlooked their vast differences, choosing instead to work together to implement Schechter’s vision, not everybody believed that this was the best path to strengthening traditional Judaism in America. Two high-profile disciples who challenged Schechter’s inclusivity, Mordecai Kaplan the “heretic” and Herbert S. Goldstein the "maverick,”¹ help us to understand the complexities of the United Synagogue in the early 1920s. First, even though both broke with their colleagues to differing degrees, their cases demonstrate how the vast differences between the Conservative and Orthodox...

  8. 4 On the Brink of Irrelevance (pp. 85-100)

    In the early years of the United Synagogue, Schechter’s disciples operated on their own terms-they were the engine driving the train. They worked closely with Schechter to create the United Synagogue and were successful in maintaining the organization’s emphasis on inclusivity. They also fully expected that the vast majority of American rabbis would eventually fall in line and join them in the United Synagogue. They were wrong. Throughout the 1920s, Schechter’s disciples were increasingly marginalized by their colleagues, particularly by modern Orthodox rabbis in the OU and by fervently Orthodox rabbis in the Agudath ha-Rabbanim. These rabbis refused to join...

  9. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  10. 5 The Platform of Discipleship (pp. 101-122)

    In the United Synagogue’s early years, Schechter’s disciples maintained the principle that they would not take a controversial stand on any issue that threatened to divide their fragile coalition. Be it an authoritative law committee or a single prayer book with a standard liturgy, they consistently avoided any decisions that might alienate their fellow classmates. The United Synagogue was, first and foremost, an organization for all Schechter’s disciples to carry out their teacher’s vision, where they would downplay their differences in order to emphasize their shared goals. It was also an organization through which they hoped to unite American Jewry....

  11. 6 A Task Left Unfinished (pp. 123-137)

    “It is high time for our men to formulate in clear tones the philosophy of our position in Jewish life,”¹ declared Israel Levinthal in 1932. Five years after “The Things That Unite Us,” Schechter’s disciples were still no closer to creating a platform that both unified them and distinguished them from the other movements. The final opportunity for them to do so would be their attempt to solve the problem of the agunah, the “anchored” wife. According to Jewish law, a woman must receive permission from her husband for a divorce, and if the husband is missing or refuses to...


    While schechter’s disciples had created the framework of Conservative Judaism, they were never able to create a program or platform that would distinguish it from the other movements. It would only be with the rise to leadership of a younger cadre of rabbis—who had no personal relationship with Schechter—that the movement would begin to develop a narrower, centrist platform. This new generation held a fundamentally different view of the movement than the disciples, and they redefined it in a way they hoped would distinguish it from Orthodoxy, allowing it to grow into the third movement in American Judaism....

  13. Epilogue (pp. 156-164)

    In the decades after Solomon Schechter’s disciples passed from the scene, the Conservative movement grew to be the largest of American Jewry’s three primary religious movements. Following the broader trend in American life, during the postwar years Jews, in significant numbers, moved to the suburbs where the Conservative movement met with great success. One estimate suggested that, between 1945 and 1965, approximately one-third of American Jewry relocated from city to suburb; another observer maintained that the suburban Jewish population doubled in the 1950s. Before they left for the suburbs, many of these Jews had already lost any attachment to synagogue...

  14. Abbreviations (pp. 165-166)
  15. Notes (pp. 167-200)
  16. Index (pp. 201-210)

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