10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Conservative Judaism

Do Conservative Jews keep kosher? Are they spiritual? And more.

Conservative Judaism has been around since the late nineteenth century, but it is often misunderstood — even by Jews who belong to Conservative congregations. Here is a list of 10 things people should know about Conservative Judaism:

1. It’s a mistake to put us in the “middle” of the spectrum between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.

We have something in common with both, and we have elements that make us distinct. For example, like the Orthodox, we maintain that traditional Rabbinic Halakhah (Jewish law) is obligatory. Like the Reform Movement, we see Torah more as a response to God’s revelation than as God’s verbatim dictation to Moses. Unlike Reform, we don’t discard tradition or radically change how it is observed. Unlike the Orthodox, we don’t render tradition immutable.

2. The use of the word “Conservative” does not imply anything about our political beliefs.

Conservative Jews run the gamut from Bernie Sanders to Eric Cantor, and everything in between. The founders of the Conservative Movement chose the name to distinguish themselves from the early Reform Rabbis, who the conservatives felt had gone too far in their reform of traditional Judaism.

3. We affirm that Jews should keep kosher.

On paper, our laws of kashrut are really not much different from the Orthodox practice. For the record, “kosher” does not mean “blessed by a Rabbi.” It does indicate the food was supervised by a Rabbi. But some foods, no matter how much you bless them or watch them, will always remain unkosher. Like bacon. And shrimp. Get over it.

4. We really do have a spiritual side.

It may not be obvious if you attend a fast-paced, much-mumbled morning minyan (service), and we do not talk a lot about spirituality. But we affirm that we are each called upon to infuse Kavannah (spirit or deeper meaning) into the prayers we recite and the deeds we perform.

5. Worship leaders cannot pray for you.

Though the Rabbi and Cantor often stand in front of the congregation, they are not really “praying” in lieu of the congregation, like surrogates. Congregations are not audiences, watching a show performed by their clergy. Each person is responsible to do the “job” of prayer. The Rabbi and Cantor serve to keep all the congregants on the same page.

6. Most of Conservative Judaism happens outside the synagogue.

We believe God gave not just 10, but 613 commandments to the Jewish people. They affect every part of life — business, relationships, and even recreation.

7. There is no one way to be a Conservative Jew.

We acknowledge variations of belief and practice, within parameters that set the limits of our belief system and practice.

8. We do not observe Torah Judaism.

We observe Rabbinic Judaism, which is Torah seen through the eyes and traditional teachings of the Rabbis of the Talmud and later history. For example, the Torah says if you poke out someone’s eye, you should be punished an “eye for an eye” and lose your eye, too. Scholars call this “lex talionis.” But we don’t do that!

We follow the Rabbis of the Talmud, who declared the Torah verse actually requires us to pay for the value of the eye, as well as for four other categories of injury. So beware of those people who quote chapter and verse and declare that knowledge of the text enables them to know just what God and Judaism want.

9. Being Jewish is about more than having a faith.

It is about being part of a people with a history, a language and a destiny. In the Bible we call ourselves a nation. In modern terms, we call ourselves a people. But it is a mistake to think of us as a faith tradition alone.

10. The Conservative Movement is not dying off.

True, many of our synagogues have closed. But more have transformed, meeting different needs than did the synagogues of the past. Our seminaries, our summer camps, our Israel programs and most of our synagogues are alive and well, if not thriving.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rabbi George Nudell
Written by

  • Arbuthnaught

    Greatly appreciate your article. Very informative on the key distinctives.