The Theology of Conservative Judaism

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An enormous two-volume history of the conservative movement in American Judaism, Tradition Renewed, edited by Jack Wertheimer and celebrating more than a hundred years of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has recently appeared. It describes the school (and, implicitly, the movement centered on and directed by the Seminary) in detail and with an honesty and persuasiveness that elicit admiration. Many of the writers come from the Seminary itself, but many do not, and some have left the precincts of American Conservatism for Israel's universities or other exotic alternatives.

The power of the movement derives, in my view, from the strong leadership that it has enjoyed (unlike that of Reform or Orthodox alternatives), strong in scholarship, charisma and, at least originally, conviction. The Reform movement was fatally handicapped by an improbable theological history which begins in America with the ludicrous Pittsburgh Platform, a document of late Enlightenment hubris that surrenders all that is precious in our tradition in favor of crudely rationalist proclamations. Orthodoxy has been compromised by an obscurantist temptation that has continually, and increasingly, undermined even its brightest and most eloquent spokesmen. The two dominant American theologians of our century, both from the Seminary, Mordecai Kaplan in the first half and Abraham Joshua Heschel in the second, are matched only by the lonely voice of Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Neo-Orthodoxy and the synoptic dialectics of Eugene Borowitz in Reform Judaism. While it is, of course, true, as these annals show, that both Kaplan and Heschel were marginalized at the Seminary, they were still able to produce eloquent disciples and interpreters who have conveyed their vision to many searching American Jews who came to feel their impact, if only at second hand. In a sense, we are now all Reconstructionists in our behavior and followers of Heschel in our longing for spiritual moorings.

Another plus for Conservative Judaism was surely its placement in New York City, the heartland of Jewish ethnicity and the center of its intellectual life. While the Seminary located uptown, far from the teeming masses of Jews on the lower East Side (no accident that), so that sometimes the students had to be transported far downtown to see Zionist groups or other varieties of living Jewish self-expression, they were still close enough to breathe the atmosphere of really existing Jews. This contrasts sharply with the Rav, living isolated in Boston, or even more, with the Hebrew Union College in the once important Queen City of the West, which turned out to be a backwater, at least in Jewish history.

It is commonly said that the Seminary was created by and with the money of German Reform Jews to make sure that the new Jewish immigration would be moderate and moderately enlightened in its sudden Americanization. This tums out to be far from the whole truth, though the anomaly inhering in technical direction of the school residing in men who did not accept its theological principles or its ritual performance, remains puzzling. Whatever the Schiffs and Warburgs wanted, however (and I am not at all sure they knew exactly what they wanted), the Seminary was to be Schechter's or Adler's or Finkelstein's and not theirs. For decades, the Seminary was the whole movement, until, at last, it discovered that it could only survive by creating a more independent movement. In Reform, of course, it was the movement that created the school, and in Orthodoxy there was and is no unified movement at all.

There are some surprises in this great compendium of information and interpretation. There were more German Jews on the JTS faculty than at the Hebrew Union College. The attitude of leadership toward Zionism was equivocal, to say the least. Cyrus Adler and Louis Finkelstein were hardly in favor of political Zionism, though both learned something from the rational Jewishness of Asher Ginsberg. …