The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, The Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of America, Women's League for Conservative Judaism, Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs
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THE COMMISSION, THE STATEMENT, THE MOVEMENT
The centennial of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America celebrated in 1986-87 has focused attention on the first hundred years of the history of Conservative Judaism on this continent. Actually the movement had its inception in Germany a half century earlier. In 1845 a meeting of modern rabbis convened in Frankfurt. On the third day Rabbi Zechariah Frankel left the meeting in protest against a proposed resolution that declared that the Hebrew language was not "objectively necessary" for Jewish worship, but should be retained "in deference to the older generation". When in 1857 the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first modern institution for the training of rabbis, was founded in Breslau, Frankel was appointed its Rector. Within a few years the institution became the dominant intellectual force in the religious life of central and western European Jewry and beyond. Basically, the movement which Frankel founded was a reaction against Reform on the one hand, and Orthodoxy on the other. The Breslau Seminary was the inspiration and model for similar institutions founded in Vienna, Budapest, London and Berlin, as well as overseas on the American continent.
The Breslau Seminary became the center of the most distinguished modern research scholarship in the fields of Jewish literature, history and institutions, in a word, the meticulous study of the past. But there was little concern for Jewish theology, law and the philosophy of Judaism in the present.
Frankel himself called his outlook "positive-historical Judaism". By this term he meant that Judaism is the result of a historical process and that its adherents are called upon to take a positive attitude toward the product of this development as we encounter it today. While his opponents, both to the left and the right, challenged him to explicate his philosophy of Judaism more concretely, Frankel was rarely drawn into polemics. Having evidently little taste for theology, he concentrated upon building up Jewish learning through the medium of his own research and that of his colleagues on the Breslau faculty and by training rabbis to serve Jewish communities in central Europe and beyond.
In the congregations served by these rabbis, minor innovations were introduced in the ritual. They were designed to accommodate Jewish tradition to the new conditions and insights of the modern age, while preserving intact the structure and content of traditional Jewish observance.
This pattern was largely repeated on American soil. The Jewish Theological Seminary, founded in 1886, had a difficult existence for a decade and a half. In 1902, Solomon Schechter was invited to these shores to serve as its president. lie assembled a constellation of scholars of the greatest eminence. In addition to himself, it included Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, Israel Friedlander, Israel Davidson and Mordecai Kaplan, as well as a galaxy of other scholars, perhaps less well known, but highly gifted and creative. The Seminary faculty and many of its early alumni produced valuable works in the field of historical and literary scholarship.
A growing number of American Jews joined the ranks of Conservative Judaism, demonstrating that the movement met a felt need in the burgeoning American Jewish community. This numerical success strengthened the conviction among many leaders of the movement that there was little need for spelling out in detail the guiding principles and subtler nuances of the movement on such fundamentals as God and man, Israel and the world, ethics and ritual.
The practical considerations that seemed to support the wisdom of avoiding, or at least minimizing, the discussion of theological, philosophical and legal issues were reinforced by significant inner factors. The first lay in the character of Conservative Judaism. It had emerged as a reactive movement called into being to stem the tide of Reform, a task in which it has proved highly successful by demonstrating that the Jewish tradition was eminently compatible with loyalty to American life. The thousands of men and women who joined its ranks were generally emphatic in declaring what they were not. They were far less concerned with exploring the implications of what they were for.
The second motive was the desire to preserve, and if possible, enhance Jewish unity, and certainly not to increase division in Israel. In founding the United Synagogue, Schechter had hoped to unite all congregations respectful of tradition in any degree, right, left and center, under one banner, as the name of the organization indicates. To be sure most Orthodox con- gregations soon began to look elsewhere for leadership, but the hope lingered among many leaders of Conservative Judaism that by avoiding clear-cut delineation of the principles of the movement divisions could be avoided at least within the ranks of Conservative Judaism.
Moreover Judaism had rarely sought to formulate a system of beliefs; even Maimonides had not succeeded in winning universal acceptance for his Thirteen Principles, the Ani Ma'amin. Judaism, perhaps unconsciously, had long acted on the principle: far better the blurring of differences than the burning of dissidents.
Finally, a third factor entered into the picture — the sheer intellectual and spiritual difficulty involved in articulating a religious outlook for Conservative Judaism as a whole. Individual Jewish scholars and thinkers, both in the academic world and in the congregational rabbinate, had written works which contained valuable insights for such a project, but they were views of individuals, often influential, but not normative for the movement as a whole.
One can understand and appreciate these factors which militated against formulating statements of ideology until now. In our own time, however, the growing self-awareness of each school of thought in Judaism and latterly, the deeper concern with religious issues among the most genuinely dedicated members of the community, demand answers to questions it earlier seemed easier to avoid.
The formulation of basic doctrine is a particularly difficult task for Conservative Judaism, far more than for its sister movements. Reform Judaism has denied the authority of Jewish law, so that each rabbi and each congregant is free to choose whatever elements of the tradition seem appealing in the name of "individual autonomy'.
American Orthodoxy, divided into a dozen groups and factions, is theoretically united under the dogma that both the Written and the Oral Law were given by God to Moses on Sinai, and have remained unchanged and unchangeable through the ages. In fact, this promise of a safe harbor of absolute certainty in a world where everything may be questioned has been the source of the attraction that Orthodoxy has possessed for many of our contemporaries. This comes at a high price, however. The results of modern scholarship that reveal a long history of development in Judaism are ignored, and the challenges presented by modern life are disregarded when possible or minimized when it is not.
It is Conservative Judaism that most directly confronts the challenge to integrate tradition with modernity. By retaining most of the tradition while yet being hospitable to the valuable aspects of modernity, it articulates a vital, meaningful vision of Judaism for our day. Difficult as this task is, there is comfort in the observation of our Sages that lefum tzaara agra, according to the pain involved is the reward (Avot 5:24).
The twentieth century, the most eventful in Jewish history, had made this task especially important The establishment of the State of Israel, the horror of the Holocaust, and the extraordinary growth and creativity of the North American Jewish community all demand new synthesis and applications of the new and the old in both thought and action. Jews must also respond to several major developments affecting the human species as a whole, including especially the feminist movement, the staggering advances in technology and biomedical research, and the awesome threat of nuclear annihilation. As these pages will make clear, the Conservative community has its own distinctive view of many of these issues, one which is coherent and yet pluralistic, thoughtful and yet oriented to action, traditional and yet responsive to the present.
The Conservative philosophy has been expressed in the lives of Conservative Jews for decades. A number of Conservative rabbis and lay leaders have also articulated it, in whole or in part, in written or oral form. As the Conservative community matured, however, it increasingly felt the need to have an official statement of its principles. A decisive step was taken in 1985. The official heads of two arms of the movement, Doctor Gerson D. Cohen, then Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Alexander Shapiro, then President of the Rabbinical Assembly, agreed to set up a Commission on the Ideology (now the Philosophy) of Conservative Judaism,
consisting of seven members appointed from the faculty of the Seminary and seven members from the Rabbinical Assembly. The writer, who had been a member of the Seminary faculty for thirty-seven years and also President of the Rabbinical Assembly, was invited to become Chairman of the Commission since he represented both agencies of the movement. Its membership was subsequently enlarged to include representatives of the United Synagogue of America, the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, the Cantors' Assembly and the Jewish Educators' Assembly, and a rabbinic colleague from Israel so that the Commission could speak for all segments of the Conservative community.
The following rabbis and laypersons were members of the Commission:
Robert Gordis, Chairman
Rabbi Kassel Abelson Rabbi Howard Addison ז"ל Rabbi Jacob Agus Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff Rabbi Neil Gillman
Mr. Max Goldberg Rabbi Simon Greenberg Ms. Evelyn Henkind Judge Norman Krivosha Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner Rabbi David Lieber
Mr. Francis Mintz
ז"ל Rabbi Ludwig Nadelmann Rabbi David Novak
Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal Rabbi Benjamin Segal
Rabbi Alexander Shapiro
Dr. Miriam Klein Shapiro Rabbi Seymour Siegel
Mr. Jacob Stein
Rabbi Gordon Tucker
The following were ex-officio members of the Commission:
Dr. Gerson D. Cohen
Dr. Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Alexander Shapiro Rabbi Kassel Abelson Mr. Marshall Wolke
Mr. Franklin Kreutzer
Ms. Selma Weintraub
Ms. Evelyn Auerbach
Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman Cantor Solomon Mendelson Dr. Michael Korman
Rabbi Marim Charry
Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary (1972-86)
Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary (1986-2007 ) President, Rabbinical Assembly (1984-86)
President, Rabbinical Assembly (1986-1988)
President, United Synagogue of America (1981-85)
President, United Synagogue of America (1985-1989) President, Women's League for Conservative Judaism (1982-6) President, Women's League for Conservative Judaism (1986- ) President, Cantors' Assembly (1985-87)
President, Cantors' Assembly (1987-1989) President, Jewish Educators' Assembly (1985-87) President, Jewish Educators' Assembly (1987-1989)
During the period from 1985-86 Rabbi Akiba Lubow was Secretary of the Commission. In 1987 Ms. Rebecca Jacobs served in the same capacity.
The Editorial Committee consisted of Elliot Dorff, Robert Gordis, Rebecca Jacobs, David Lieber and Gilbert S. Rosenthal.
During the course of its history the Commission sustained grievous losses in the passing of two of its most dedicated members, Rabbi Jacob B. Agus and Rabbi Ludwig Nadelmann, who were called to the Academy on High. Their presence was sorely missed, yehi zikhram barukh.
There were ten meetings of the full Commission, each lasting two days, from May 25-26, 1985 to November 9-10, 1987.
It is safe to say that as the Commission began its work there was considerable doubt as to the possibility of its success. First and foremost, there was the inherent difficulty of formulating in words the outlook of a movement numbering some two million men and women with hundreds of leaders. Second, there was the omnipresent danger of its producing a document that would exacerbate differences within the movement by seeking to define its position on controversial questions. On the other hand, the attempt to avoid this result might produce a bland statement that would paper over the differences by issuing an anthology of platitudes. In otherwords, Conservative Judaism would stand revealed as a coalition rather than a movement, the fate that seems to pervade so many areas of contemporary society.
Whatever judgment will ultimately be passed upon the results of our labors, the members of the Commission were later profoundly gratified to find that they were achieving a far greater consensus than they had dared hope.
Our method of procedure was as follows: In order to orient the members of the Commission to the issues before them and lay the basis for a free yet friendly discussion of the points at issue, the Chairman at the opening meeting proposed that each member be invited to prepare a personal Ani Ma'amin, a credo of his or her fundamental beliefs and approaches to the major problems of life as a Jew and as a human being. Each paper was the subject of a detailed analysis and critique at the early meetings of the Commission. These papers, as revised on the basis of this process, will be published in a volume together with the Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. Over and beyond the intrinsic value of their contents, these Ani Ma'amin presentations will afford an insight into the individual world-views of the members of the Commission and thus add a personal and pluralistic dimension to the collective Statement. It should be added that the preparation of these individual statements was optional and not all members availed themselves of this invitation.
Following the preparation of these individual papers, the Commission decided upon the specific topics to be included in the Statement of Principles. Each member of the Commission was asked to prepare a preliminary draft of one or several of these sections. In some instances the same
theme was presented in preliminary drafts by more than one member of the Commission. Each section was then studied by the entire membership, line by line, and discussed at succeeding meetings. The texts were revised, supplemented or contracted as a result of these detailed discussions. Virtually every section bears the marks of contributions by the entire membership. Most drafts were revised two or three times, some even more. The cooperative spirit between authors of the original drafts and their colleagues made these discussions a warm, friendly experience as well as a stimulating intellectual encounter for the participants.
The Commission, acting as a Committee of the Whole, then formally adopted the definitive version for inclusion in the Statement. Finally, the Editorial Committee read the text and introduced stylistic revisions that did not affect the substance.
While we believe that this Statement of Principles presents a consensus of the views of the movement, it should not be necessary to point out that the Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism is not a catechism or a test of faith. Where more than one position falls within the parameters of Conservative Judaism, that fact is reflected in the Statement. Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom. Acceptance of the Statement of Principles as a whole or in detail is not obligatory upon every Conservative Jew, lay or rabbinic. Nor is each member of the Commission necessarily in agreement with every position embodied in the Statement.
As our work progressed there were two major lessons we learned of far-reaching consequence for the movement. First, it is frequently proclaimed that Conservative Judaism is in decline, in danger of degenerating into a small coterie of survivors or of splitting into a number of hostile groups. During these two years of working together we have learned that, like the announcement of Mark Twain's death, the report of the imminent demise of Conservative Judaism is vastly exaggerated.
Second, we found what some might have doubted at the outset; that while there are differences regarding attitudes and procedures on some issues, there is a far greater area of agreement within our ranks. All groups within the movement accept the fundamentals of the philosophy of Conservative Judaism which find frequent expression in our Statement of Principles. These may summarily be set down as follows:
"In the beginning God ..." Though we differ in our perceptions and experiences of reality, we affirm our faith in God as the Creator and Governor of the universe. His power called the world into being; His wisdom and goodness guide its des-tiny. Of all the living creatures we know, humanity alone, created in His image and endowed with free will, has been singled out to be the recipient and bearer of Revelation. The product of this human-divine encounter is the Torah, the embodiment of God's will revealed pre-eminently to the Jewish people through Moses, the
Prophets and the Sages, as well as to the righteous and wise of all nations. Hence, by descent and destiny, each Jew stands under the divine command to obey God's will.
Second, we recognize the authority of the Halakhah which has never been monolithic or immovable. On the contrary, as modern scholarship has abundantly demonstrated, the Halakhah has grown and developed through changing times and diverse circumstances. This life-giving attribute is doubly needed today in a world of dizzying change.
Third, though the term was unknown, pluralism has characterized Jewish life and thought through the ages. This is reflected in the variety of views and attitudes of the biblical legislators, priests, prophets, historians, psalmists and Wisdom teachers, the hundreds of controversies among the rabbis of the Talmud and in the codes and responsa of their successors. The latter- day attempt to suppress freedom of inquiry and the right to dissent is basically a foreign importation into Jewish life.
Fourth, the rich body of Halakhah and Aggadah and the later philosophic and mystical literature, all seeking to come closer to God's presence, are a precious resource for deepening the spiritual life of Israel and humankind.
Fifth, all the aspects of Jewish law and practice are designed to underscore the centrality of ethics in the life of the Jews.
Sixth, Israel is not only the Holy Land where our faith was born and developed, but it plays an essential role in our present and future. Israel is a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people the world over, the homeland for millions of Jews and a unique arena for Jewish creativity. Together with our responsibility to Israel is our obligation to strengthen and enrich the life of Jewish communities throughout the world — including, it need hardly be said, our own.
Seventh, Jewish law and tradition, properly understood and interpreted, will enrich Jewish life and help mold the world closer to the prophetic vision of the Kingdom of God.
We hope this Statement will serve as a description of the state of belief in Conservative Judaism as a whole. We trust it will indicate to all individual Jews what is expected of them by the movement to which they give their allegiance. Above all, we pray that it will help teach each of our brothers and sisters what we must ask of ourselves as human beings and as Jews.
We also cherish the hope that many who are not now affiliated with Conservative Judaism may find that this Statement of Principles expresses their innermost convictions and ideals. We know that there are untold numbers of men and women in North America, in Israel and throughout the world who have been adherents of Conservative Judaism without being conscious of where
they belong. We hope that they will be stimulated to join our movement and thus strengthen its influence for good.
May our brothers and sisters everywhere become more concerned not merely with survival but with a Judaism worthy of survival, so that the Divine promise made to Abraham may be fulfilled for his descendants: "Be thou a blessing".
For the privilege of sitting together and pondering God's ways with Israel and Israel's covenant with God, we humbly bless and hallow His name.
Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism February
3, 1988 / Tu Bishevat 5748
The fortieth year of Israel's independence
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