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Conservative Judaism: How the Middle Became a Movement

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Conservative Judaism is the form of the Jewish religion that occupies the middle ground between Orthodoxy and Reform, with its center in the United States, where it is the largest of the three movements, and with adherents in other parts of the world. The Theoretical Origins of Conservative Judaism The two key thinkers of Conservative Judaism are Zachariah Frankel and Solomon Schechter, the former describes his religious position as that of “positive historic Judaism.” the latter stresses the idea of “Catholic Israel,” that the ultimate seat of authority in Judaism resides in the consensus of the Jewish people as a whole on the meaning of Judaism. The attitudes of Frankel and Schechter were by no means novel in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where it became obvious to many thinking, observing Jews that, in the light of modern historical investigation into the Bible and the classical sources of Judaism, a reappraisal was required of the whole idea of revelation. For these Jews, the too-neat picture of the doctrine “the Torah is from heaven” as presented in Orthodoxy, was unacceptable, since historical research has demonstrated the developing nature of Jewish religion as it came into contact, throughout its history, with various and differing systems of thought. On the other hand, these Jews saw Reform as too ready to accommodate Judaism to the zeitgeist and to abandon practices and doctrines hallowed by tradition, especially in Reform’s indifference, if not hostility, to the system of Jewish law, the Halakhah. The attitude of such Jews was articulated in Frankel’s maxim: positive historic Judaism –“positive” in its acceptance of the tradition and all of the Halakhah, “historic” in that it conceived of these in dynamic rather than static terms. Schechter spelled it out further in his writings. Since, ultimately, as historic research has demonstrated, the dual process of acceptance and adaptation of ideas in conformity with the spirit of the religion was determined by the way Jews actually lived their religion, the Judaism of tradition is Judaism, although expressed in different ways in different times. On this view, the Jew can have an open mind on the question of origins. He may come to the conclusion, as the Bible critics argue, that some of the institutions of Judaism such as the Sabbath and the dietary laws originated in primitive taboos. It is not the origins that matter but what the institutions actually became of the Jews long quest to discover the will of God.