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Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice

Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice

by Elliot N. Dorff, Julie Schonfeld
Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice

Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice

by Elliot N. Dorff, Julie Schonfeld


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A major Conservative movement leader of our time, Elliot N. Dorff provides a personal, behind-the-scenes guide to the evolution of Conservative Jewish thought and practice over the last half century. His candid observations concerning the movement’s ongoing tension between constancy and change shed light on the sometimes unified, sometimes diverse, and occasionally contentious reasoning behind the modern movement’s most important laws, policies, and documents. Meanwhile, he has assembled, excerpted, and contextualized the most important historical and internal documents in modern Conservative movement history for the first time in one place, enabling readers to consider and compare them all in context.

In “Part 1: God” Dorff explores various ways that Conservative Jews think about God and prayer. In “Part 2: Torah” he considers different approaches to Jewish study, law, and practice; changing women’s roles; bioethical rulings on issues ranging from contraception to cloning; business ethics; ritual observances from online minyanim to sports on Shabbat; moral issues from capital punishment to protecting the poor; and nonmarital sex to same-sex marriage. In “Part 3: Israel” he examines Zionism, the People Israel, and rabbinic rulings in Israel.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827613874
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Series: JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 504
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University and visiting professor at UCLA School of Law. He was an editor of the official Conservative statement of principles Emet Ve-Emunah and coeditor of the Conservative commentary Etz Hayim. He is author of twelve books, four published by JPS, including To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (2002), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Read an Excerpt




The word "theology," although etymologically "the study of God," also includes a religion's understanding of human beings, nature, and the relationships among all three. Although Conservative leaders have openly articulated their approaches to Jewish law, study, and practice, by and large they have been reticent to address matters of theology in an official way.

There are several reasons for this. The leaders wished to open the tent of Conservative Judaism as wide as possible, given the considerable spectrum of God beliefs among Jews. They further wished to uphold a central tenet of Conservative Judaism — be historically authentic — knowing that Jews from biblical times and throughout the ages have also articulated a wide variety of theologies. Also underlying their thinking was the understanding that Jews have always identified themselves as Jews through their adherence to law and ethnicity, not theology.

This last factor is not true of Christianity and Islam. Both are creedal religions, defining themselves by official theological beliefs and welcoming to the religion only those who affirm those beliefs. One cannot be a Christian without believing, in some manner, that Jesus is Christ, and one cannot be a Muslim without believing Muhammad is the primary prophet of God.

Judaism, in contrast, defines a Jew through matrilineal descent or conversion. A Jew can therefore be an agnostic or atheist or believe all kinds of other things about God (except perhaps that God is more than one or incarnated in a particular person) and still be a Jew, because for the vast majority of Jews, Jewish identity is defined not by ideology but by biology.

Jewish identity is thus akin to American identity. A person born in the United States is an American citizen, even if he or she does not speak English and has never heard of George Washington. Conversely, a person born in France who serves as professor of American studies at the Sorbonne may know more about the United States than 95 percent of American citizens and yet not have American citizenship.

This said, Judaism does uphold certain theological and related beliefs. In the medieval period, under pressure from Christians and Muslims, a number of Jewish thinkers sought to articulate these beliefs. Moses Maimonides, for example, pronounced Thirteen Principles of the Faith. But as soon as he did, other thinkers took issue with his list; Joseph Albo, for example, trimmed the tenets down to three.

Beyond the numbers, Maimonides's principles were open to interpretation. Rabbi Louis Jacobs's Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964) cataloged the wide variety of Rabbinic and other interpretations that emerged over the centuries, listing, for example, thirty different understandings just of Maimonides's single tenet that God is one!

Emet Ve-Emunah on Theology

In 1988, responding to movement-wide calls for a document articulating the beliefs of Conservative Judaism, its leaders issued the first and still only official statement of essential Conservative convictions: Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. (For more on this process, see the introduction to this volume.) Committed to showing diversity within the movement, Emet VeEmunah presented a variety of viewpoints concerning four theological topics: God, revelation, evil, and eschatology (how we envision the future and what that means for us at present). To keep this book reasonable in size, this chapter includes excerpts from Emet Ve-Emunah solely on the first three topics and explores only the topic of God in some depth, omitting the range of Rabbinic perspectives on revelation, evil, and eschatology. To learn more about all four topics, see this chapter's suggestions for further reading.

The following passages from Emet Ve-Emunah discuss God, revelation, and the problem of evil. Note that when this document was written in 1988, sensitivity to gender-neutral language, especially with regard to God language, was in its infancy. Today, the text affirming "the kingship and fatherhood of God" would undoubtedly have been written differently while still avowing God's sovereignty and parental care for us. This is not only a matter of political correctness; it is also theologically important. As Maimonides asserted, God, when properly understood, does not have a physical body of any sort, male or female. Nonetheless, since human beings generally can relate to God more easily when picturing God as embodying a humanlike form, contemporary translators, thinkers, and liturgists tend to either use gender-neutral language for God or alternate between male and female images.


We believe in God. Indeed, Judaism cannot be detached from belief in, or beliefs about God. Residing always at the very heart of our self-understanding as a people, and of all Jewish literature and culture, God permeates our language, our law, our conscience, and our lore. From the opening words of Genesis, our Torah and tradition assert that God is One, that He is the Creator, and that His Providence extends through human history. Consciousness of God also pervades Jewish creativity and achievements: the sublime moral teachings of the prophets, the compassionate law of the Rabbis, the spiritual longings of our liturgists, and the logical analyses of our philosophers all reflect a sense of awe, a desire to experience God in our lives and to do His will. God is the principal figure in the story of the Jews and Judaism.

Although one cannot penetrate Jewish experience and consciousness without thinking of and speaking of Him, God is also a source of great perplexities and confusions. Doubts and uncertainties about God are inevitable; indeed, they arose even in the hearts and minds of biblical heroes such as Abraham, Moses and Job, the biblical prophets and Wisdom teachers, among the greatest masters of rabbinic midrash, and in the writings of renowned Jewish thinkers and poets to the present day. One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions.

Does God exist? If so, what sort of being is God? Does God have a plan for the universe? Does God care about me? Does He hear prayer? Does God allow the suffering of the innocent? Every one of these questions, and many others, have been the subject of discussion and debate among theologians and laypersons alike for centuries. The biblical book of Job agonizes over each of these, concluding that God and His ways cannot be comprehended fully by human beings. The Jewish tradition continually has taught that we must live with faith even when we have no conclusive demonstrations.

Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God, but does not specify all the particulars of that belief. Certainly, belief in a trinitarian God, or in a capricious, amoral God can never be consistent with Jewish tradition and history. Valid differences in perspective, however, do exist.

For many of us, belief in God means faith that a supreme, supernatural being exists and has the power to command and control the world through His will. Since God is not like objects that we can readily perceive, this view relies on indirect evidence. Grounds for belief in God are many. They include: the testimony of Scripture, the fact that there is something rather than nothing, the vastness and orderliness of the universe, the sense of command that we feel in the face of moral imperatives, the experience of miraculous historical events, and the existence of phenomena that seem to go beyond physical matter, such as human consciousness and creativity. All of these perceptions are encounters that point beyond us. They reinforce one another to produce an experience of, and thus a belief in, a God who, though unperceivable, exists in the usual sense of the word. This is the conception of God that emerges from a straightforward reading of the Bible.

Some view the reality of God differently. For them, the existence of God is not a "fact" that can be checked against the evidence. Rather, God's presence is the starting point for our entire view of the world and our place in it. Where is such a God to be found and experienced? He is not a being to whom we can point. He is, instead, present when we look for meaning in the world, when we work for morality, for justice, and for future redemption. A description of God's nature is not the last line of a logical demonstration; it emerges out of our shared traditions and stories as a community. God is, in this view as well, a presence and a power that transcends us, but His nature is not completely independent of our beliefs and experiences. This is a conception of God that is closer to the God of many Jewish philosophers and mystics.

The two views broadly characterized here have deep roots in the Bible and in the rest of Jewish tradition. They are both well represented in Conservative Jewish thought and coexist to this day in our movement. They, in fact, have much in common. In particular, they both insist that the language and concepts traditionally used to speak of God are valid and critical parts of our way of life. Although proponents of both views use metaphors to speak of God, we all affirm the power of traditional terms (such as the kingship and fatherhood of God) to influence our lives in very positive ways. Our liturgy and our study of classical texts reflect that acknowledgement of the power of God in our lives.

That there are many questions about God that are not fully answered does not mean that our beliefs on these issues do not matter. On the contrary, they can change the world, for what an individual believes about God will both shape and reflect his or her deepest commitments about life. A belief in the unity of God, for example, creates and reinforces a belief in the unity of humanity and a commitment to standards of justice and ethics. Similarly, a people that believes in a God who "adopts orphans and defends widows" and commands us to do likewise will construct a society vastly different from that of a community that glorifies only the autonomy of human beings. God's elusive nature has always given us many options in deciding how we shall conceive of Him and how that will affect our lives. The human condition being what it is, some choices in these matters must inevitably be made. In our own fragile world, the tenacious belief in God that has characterized our history since Abraham and Sarah stands as instruction and inspiration, and continues to call us to pattern our lives after the God in whom we believe.


Conservative Judaism affirms its belief in revelation, the uncovering of an external source of truth emanating from God. This affirmation emphasizes that although truths are transmitted by humans, they are not a human invention. That is why we call the Torah torat emet [a Torah of truth. The Torah's truth is both theoretical and practical, that is, it teaches us about God and about our role in His world. As such, we reject relativism, which denies any objective source of authoritative truth. We also reject fundamentalism and literalism, which do not admit a human component in revelation, thus excluding an independent role for human experience and reason in the process.

The nature of revelation and its meaning for the Jewish people have been understood in various ways within the Conservative community. We believe that the classical sources of Judaism provide ample precedents for these views of revelation.

The single greatest event in the history of God's revelation took place at Sinai, but was not limited to it. God's communication continued in the teaching of the Prophets and the biblical Sages, and in the activity of the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, embodied in Halakhah and the Aggadah (law and lore). The process of revelation did not end there; it remains alive in the Codes and Responsa to the present day.

Some of us conceive of revelation as the personal encounter between God and human beings. Among them there are those who believe that this personal encounter has propositional content, that God communicated with us in actual words. For them, revelation's content is immediately normative, as defined by rabbinic interpretation. The commandments of the Torah themselves issue directly from God.

Others, however, believe that revelation consists of an ineffable human encounter with God. The experience of revelation inspires the verbal formulation by human beings of norms and ideas, thus continuing the historical influence of this revelational encounter.

Others among us conceive of revelation as the continuing discovery, through nature and history, of truths about God and the world. These truths, although always culturally conditioned, are nevertheless seen as God's ultimate purpose for creation. Proponents of this view tend to see revelation as an ongoing process rather than as a specific event.

The Problem of Evil

The existence of evil has always provided the most serious impediment to faith. Given the enormity of the horror represented in Auschwitz and the threat of nuclear destruction symbolized by Hiroshima, this dilemma has taken on a new, terrifying reality in our generation. The question of how a just and powerful God could allow the annihilation of so many innocent lives haunts the religious conscience and staggers the imagination.

Despite centuries of debate, we must realize that no theology can ever justify the mass slaughter of the blameless, the death of a single child, or the seeming randomness with which natural disaster strikes. The Torah itself reflects the tension between the inscrutability of God's will and God's own assertions that He is the Author and Prime Exemplar of morality.

Ultimately, we cannot judge God because we cannot discern His workings from beginning to end. A discrepancy will always exist between our finite characterizations of God and His own infinite nature.

Although we cannot always reconcile God's acts with our concept of a just God, we can seek to further our understanding of His ways. By creating human beings with free will, God, of necessity, limited His own future range of action. Without the real possibility of people making the wrong choice when confronted by good and evil, the entire concept of choice is meaningless. Endowing humankind with free will can be seen as an act of divine love that allows for our own integrity and growth, even if our decisions can also bring about great sorrow.

We must recognize that much of the world's suffering directly results from our misuse of the free will granted to us. Poverty and war are often the product of human sloth and immorality. Our own passivity or injudicious behavior can exacerbate the ravages of hunger or disease. Given the organic relationship that binds all humankind together, the cruelty or stupidity of some can have wide-ranging, hurtful effects on others, especially when such acts go unchallenged. We can honestly assert that our actions do have consequences. Even if ultimately vindication or recompense is delayed, it is true that in general, right-doing does lead to well-being while wrong-doing results in disaster.

At times, however, we are confounded and even angered when we cannot discern the purpose of suffering or the warrants of evil's targets. We deny as false and blasphemous the assertion that the Holocaust was the result of its victims' transgressions or of the sins of Jewry as a whole. But even when the causes of human evil are traceable, the justification of natural disaster or genetic disease remains a mystery to us. When words fail us, when our understanding cannot grasp the connection between suffering and our deeds, we can still respond with our acts. Tragedy and personal suffering can spur us on to new levels of compassion, creativity, healing and liberation of the human spirit.

When caught in the throes of pain, the sufferer can find little comfort in theodicy. Thus, attempts to vindicate God by posting tragedy as a necessary condition of life, or by asserting that evil is either the mere absence of good or the work of an autonomous demonic realm, may have some philosophic value, but they cannot alleviate the immediacy and intensity of sorrow. During moments of travail, we can find solace in God who identifies compassionately with us in our struggles. When the world seems chaotic following bereavement, the traditional blessing barukh dayan ha-emet ("blessed is the righteous Judge") and the kaddish can provide a sense of stability and order. They serve as signposts on the road from mourning to consolation while affirming our belief that all is not chance, that there is a divine plan even when we cannot clearly discern its contours. The image of olam ha-ba (a hereafter) can offer hope that we will not be abandoned to the grave, that we will not suffer oblivion. Stripped of all illusions of self-sufficiency by the reality of death, we can gain a deeper consciousness of God who caringly grants us the fortitude to endure, and the ability to find meaning even in our loss.


Excerpted from "Modern Conservative Judaism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Elliot N. Dorff.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld    
Introduction: The Roots of Conservative Judaism    
Conservative Judaism’s European Beginnings    
Taking Root in America    
Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s Concept of “Catholic Israel”    
Taking Off in America    
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s Concept of “Judaism as a Civilization”    
Articulating Conservative Judaism’s Faith and Practice    
Definitions and Demographic Declines    
Reading This Book    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 1. God
1. Emunah: Theology    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Theology    
Modern Conservative Theologies    
Religious Naturalism    
Process Thought    
Feminist Theology    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
2. Tefillah: Prayer    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Prayer    
Introducing Conservative/Masorti Theories of Prayer    
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan    
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson    
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff    
Prayer through the Lens of Prayer Books    
Maḥzor Lev Shalem Offers a New Window into Conservative Prayer    
The Evolving Conservative Prayer Service    
The Next Frontier in Conservative Worship    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 2. Torah
3. Talmud Torah: Study    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Jewish Study    
Dr. Arnold Eisen on Conservative Jewish Learning    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
4. Halakhah: Legal Theories
1913 Preamble to the Constitution of the United Synagogue of America    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Jewish Law (1988)     
Understanding Theories of Law    
Some Conservative/Masorti Theories of Jewish Law    
Rabbi Joel Roth on a Deductive Legal System    
Rabbi Neil Gillman on Communal Responses to Shared Myths    
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff on an Organic System That Expresses Love and Addresses Morality    
Rabbi Harold Kushner on Jewish Law as an Opportunity for Holiness    
Rabbi Alana Suskin on Investing Jewish Law with Egalitarian/Feminist Principles    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
5. P’sak Din: Determining Conservative Practice
The Local Rabbi    
A Central Communal Institution    
Movement Organizations and Local Institutions    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Authority for Jewish Practice    
Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s Rationale for Pluralism in Jewish Law    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
6. Nashim: Women in Jewish Life
Emet Ve-Emunah’s 1988 Stance    
The Report of the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis    
Aftermath of the Commission Report    
Responsa on Women’s Issues    
Rabbi Pamela Barmash’s Responsum on Women’s Equality    
Egalitarianism in Practice Worldwide    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
7. Ḥayyim u’Mavet: Rulings on Bioethics
Responsum on Contraception    
Responsum on Procreation    
Responsa on Birth Surrogates    
Responsum on Abortion    
Responsum on Stem Cell Research and Cloning    
Responsa on End-of-Life Care    
Responsum on the Distribution of Health Care    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
8. Masa u’Mattan: Legal Rulings on Business Ethics
Responsum on Intellectual Property    
Responsum on Whistle-Blowing     
Responsum on Employers and Employees    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
9. Bein Adam LaMakom: Rulings on Ritual Observance
Responsum on Tattooing and Body Piercing    
Responsum on Forming a Minyan on the Internet    
Responsum on Playing Sports on Shabbat    
Responsa on the Dietary Laws (Kashrut)     
Magen Tzedek (Shield of Justice)     
Suggestions for Further Reading    
10. Tikkun Olam: Moral Guidance on Social Issues
Traditional Means of Inculcating Morality    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Building a Moral and Just World    
The Rabbinic Letter on the Poor    
Responsum on Capital Punishment    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
11. Ḥayyei Min u’Mishpaḥah: Moral Guidance on Sex and Family Life
A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations    
Responsum on Family Violence    
Addressing Interfaith Marriage    
Addressing Gays and Lesbians    
Responsa on Transgender Individuals    
Responsum and Documentation on Divorce    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 3. Israel
12. Am Yisrael: Peoplehood
Developing the Doctrine of the People Israel    
Emet Ve-Emunah on the People Israel    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Judaism’s Relations with Other Faiths    
Dr. Arnold Eisen on Why Our Covenant Matters    
Who Is a Jew?     
Suggestions for Further Reading    
13. Tziyyonut: Zionism and the State of Israel
Early Religious Responses to Zionism    
Conservative Movement Responses to a Jewish State    
Emet Ve-Emunah on the State of Israel and the Diaspora    
Conservative/Masorti Life in and for Israel    
Why Israel Matters to Conservative Jews    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
14. Teshuvot Medinat Yisrael: Masorti Responsa in and for Israel
Responsum on Ceding Land in a Peace Agreement    
Responsum on Extraditing a Jewish Criminal from Israel to Another Country    
Responsum on the Conscription of Women into the Israel Defense Forces    
Responsum on the Conscription of Yeshivah Students into the Israel Defense Forces    
Responsum on Riding to the Synagogue on Shabbat    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Epilogue: The Ideal Conservative Jew    
Appendix: Institutions of the Conservative Movement    
Academic Centers of the Conservative Movement    
Professional Organizations of the Conservative Movement    
Lay Organizations of the Conservative Movement    
“Joint Commissions” of the Conservative Movement    
Source Acknowledgments    
Authors of Excerpted Texts    

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