- The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement by Michael R. Cohen
In his new book, Professor Michael Cohen intensively examines the previous interpretations of the founding of the Conservative movement, formulates his critical analyses of these interpretations, and offers his own, very cogent and quite controversial, alternative proposal of how to properly understand the founding, growth, and (of late) decline of American Conservative Judaism, all issues that warrant close analysis and study by the current (and future) leaders of this movement.
There are two dominant theories of the rise of the Conservative movement. One (promoted by Moshe Davis and Mordecai Waxman) drew a direct line between the positive-historical school of nineteenth-century German leader Zacharias Frankel and the institution-building of Solomon Schechter, the formation of the United Synagogue and expanding numbers of congregations related to the Seminary and the United Synagogue. The second (offered by Marshall Sklare) offers a sociological explanation for the growth of the movement: second-generation East European Jewish immigrants wanted recognizable Jewish rituals in their synagogues, but refused to adopt the church-like forms that had become prevalent in the Reform congregations. These newly adapted institutions formed the core elements of the emerging Conservative movement, and it was largely pioneered by these Americanizing second-generation children of the earlier immigrant population.
Cohen rejects both of these interpretations. The Sklare analysis, Cohen maintains, could easily have described the development of most modern Orthodox synagogues, just as reasonably as it did the Conservative synagogues under analysis. The Davis/Waxman interpretation, based on the Historical School and the Frankel connection, Cohen suggests, fails to take into account the strong resistance noticeable as late as the 1940s and 1950s, to the creation of a new movement. Indeed, it is clear, he writes, that in their day Schechter and his disciples continually tried to avoid creating a “third movement,” and made many concessions (unsuccessfully) to induce the [End Page 88] modern Orthodox to maintain a unity of traditionalist congregations, in line with their firm belief in “Catholic Israel.”
Instead, Dr. Cohen offers his own revisionist interpretation. American Conservative Judaism was in reality created by a group of younger rabbis, he argues, who took over the mantle of leadership in the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue from Schechter’s “disciples,” and began to assert their new-found power and confidence in the 1940s and 1950s. They finally decided to abandon the search for unity with the modern Orthodox and laid the concept of “Catholic Israel” to rest. They reconstituted the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and began to entertain the possibility of departing concretely from accepted Orthodox halakhic norms. In 1950, they adopted two major rulings: one permitting driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, and the other allowing use of electricity on the Sabbath. Once these heteirim (permissions) were in place, the stage was realistically set for additional innovations and the rapid separation of the Conservatives from the Orthodox, and a new movement now became a clear reality.
Cohen documents this interpretation with a broad variety of supporting archival material, most notably from the Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism and the Archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also interviewed family members of some of the central figures in the Schechter disciples’ generation: Rabbis Charles Kauvar (Denver), Elias Solomon (New York), Herman Abramovitz (Montreal), and Max Drob (New York). Each of these men had decided at particular points that there had been a conscious break with the Orthodox, and that they themselves could no longer go along with this break, deciding instead to remain loyal to their Orthodox beliefs.
There is, however, data to challenge this narrative. The modern Orthodox felt that the Seminary and its supporters had been drifting toward separatism, merely unwilling to make a clear break until about 1950. Yet, to hold such an opinon requires glossing over the fact that the Orthodox Union (established in 1898) very...