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eBook The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2002
Language:  English
Pages:   550

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ISBN: 1-59045-190-2

About the Book -- The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America


Throughout its long history, Judaism has come in contact with a variety of traditions and cultures. It has been affected by them and has, in turn, contributed to many of them. Confrontation with the American environment has proved to be especially strong and pervasive. Conscious and unconscious forms of identification and adaptation were introduced by the Jews into their Tradition as they established themselves in America and were acclimatized there. Elements of the Jewish spirit, latent in other ages and experiences, were vitalized as they met American thought, life and expression. The historic idea of Judaism, which was congenial to the American temper, was introduced in Colonial times by the earliest Jewish settlers. It has undergone widely diverse changes. It is still undergoing complex changes, for the Jewish settlement in America is comparatively young and reflects constant mobility in a land and in an age which are characterized by continuous change and growth.

Any attempt to describe the authentic spirit of Judaism in America has to be based, in large measure, on religious group life and institutions. In the history of Judaism, the religious institutions had been the chief bearers and interpreters of the Tradition. Without in any way underestimating the vital place of all other forms of communal expression, it was primarily through religious institutions that the Tradition also expressed itself in America. To grasp the essential nature of American Jewish religious life in its expansion and fluidity, it is best to begin with the early decades of the past century, when American Judaism was still the expression of a religiously united community. We can then probe the tensions and new forms of Jewish institutional and personal practice as they resulted from the needs of Jewish experience and from contact with American tradition, ideas and events. That is [the author’s] concern in this volume, although the scope of the subject is limited to one current of thought in American Judaism, which emphasized historical evolution.

About the Book



List of Illustrations


The Historical School in Nineteenth-Century America


One: Transition: From Unified to Diversified

Community (1825–1840)

Two: Education

Elementary Education; Adult Education; Attempts to Found Institutions of Higher Jewish Learning; Maimonides College

Three: The Changing Communal Order

Social Welfare; Jewish Hospitals and Orphanages; Absorbing the New Immigrants; Overseas Aid and Activities for Eretz Yisrael; Civil Rights; Defense of Jewish Rights Abroad; The Board of Delegates of American Israelites; Identification with American Thought and Society.

Four: Uniting the American Synagogue

Proposals for Congregational Unity and Practice; Wise and Leeser Cooperate for a National Religious Organization; Two Trends in the Historical School.


One: The Growth of Reform Judaism

Isaac Mayer Wise; Reform Rabbinical Conferences; Counter-Reform or Conservative Judaism.

Two: Common Action with the Reformers

Jewish Education and Culture; Immigrant Absorption; Religious and Communal Activities.

Three: The Struggle for an Independent Religious Movement

The Synod Proposal; The Basis for Separate Action; Open Conflict.


One: Program of Action

The Jewish Theological Seminary Association; Education and Study; The Impact of Russian Immigration; The Role of Zionism; Religious Questions: Sabbath Observance and the Synod.

Two: Interpretation of the Jewish Faith

Belief in God: Torah and Mitzvot; The Messianic Idea and the Mission of Israel.

Three: The Turn of the Century: From Historical School to Conservative Movement

Appendix A: Biographical Sketches

Appendix B: Supplementary Documents





An Excerpt from the Book -- The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America

The Struggle for an Independent Religious Movement

The act that established the Jewish Theological Seminary which, in turn, gave rise to the organized Conservative Movement, was one of the consequences of the Board of Delegates’ submergence in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Having lost the prevailing vote of the Board— then the only all-embracing Jewish organization—the Historical School seemed to have no choice but to develop its own institutions. The School perceived that, despite protestations to the contrary, the Union would ultimately become entirely Reform. The watershed was, then, 1878. From that year on, until the convening session of the Seminary in January 1886, the Historical School followed an ambivalent policy in its relationship with the Reform group. On one hand rabbis and laymen cooperated with the Reform elements in local, community activities and national operations. On the other hand, they rallied their own strength within the cooperative effort by developing an independent ideology plus the rudiments of an organizational framework.

The Synod Proposal

The ideological statement which outlined the future Conservative Movement was published in 1879, the year the American Hebrew appeared. The statement called for recognition

that much of the Shulhan Arukh had outlived its usefulness as the decisive code of Judaism, and for a return to the condition of halakhic interpretation which had prevailed in Jewish life during the period of the Talmud. To achieve this, the members of the Historical School advocated the establishment of a modern rabbinical authority through the organization of a synod. Until such a new authority could be realized, the program of the Historical School called for a fresh attempt to reconstitute traditional authority under its own leadership. The School hoped to accomplish this program by institutionalizing traditional Sabbath observance in the synagogue, strengthening kashrut in the home and, in general, invigorating Jewish life by emphasizing the mitzvoth. The resettlement of Eretz Yisrael became a basic plank in the expanding program, and the Hebrew language was to be retained in its prime position in the synagogue and Jewish education. Concept and program were welded into constructive acts of organization by Alexander Kohut, who emerged as the architect of the Historical School in the eighties. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 was the point of no return in a division which was evident, after the Cleveland Conference in 1855, and which actively widened on both sides from 1878 on. Examining the events of the historical drama, we realize that in those decisive years, not only the Conservative Movement was being born but, simultaneously, American Judaism was taking the form we in the twentieth century know.

The case for a world Jewish synod as presented by the editors of the American Hebrew was an ingenious attempt to solve the problems of authority, ideology and program for the Historical School. It was a leap over divided opinion within American Jewry, an effort to engage the enlightened traditional rabbinate in the aims of the American Historical School. But at least two more factors were introduced: the need for constructive change within the framework of the halakhah, and the realization that American Jewry was part of the contemporary Jewish world and not a detached, independent segment across the seas. The following editorial from the American Hebrew eloquently presents the case for the new era, and it is interesting to note that the use of the term “conservatism” began to enter the vocabulary of argument and description during this period:

The sad lack of harmony which has so long been felt in Jewish matters has done much to retard Judaism. Time was when a Jew from any quarter of the globe felt at home in a Jewish synagogue, but with Minhag America and Minhag Poland and Minhag Reverend This and Minhag Reverend Doctor That, we may call ourselves fortunate if we succeed in becoming familiar with the ritual and the laws prior to their being changed for some other. This is equally true of Europe and of this country, yet we doubt whether American Jews recognize their own importance as a factor in universal Judaism. Not even the most orthodox of our brethren will deny that many beneficial changes can be instituted in the rabbinical rules—provided a tribunal of acknowledged competency and authority be organized to consider and advise these changes. And did we not so sorely lack men of character, ability and disinterested conservatism among our American Rabbanim, the United States would be the place of places to assemble such a convention. New problems can here be worked out on a new field unhampered by ancient interests and the American solution would by force of example soon become worldspread. Much of the Shulchan Aruch has outlived its usefulness and a return to the condition prior thereto is both desirable and practicable. The only obstacle lies in the pulpit. Here is an opportunity for our American ministers to prove themselves worthy of their positions . . .

The editors of the American Hebrew demanded action. Their suggestion was that a new body convene as the representative of congregations adhering to traditional Judaism. Week after week they agitated for the convention, each time carefully explaining what the purpose and function of the proposed European-American Jewish synod would be.

The true want of the age is a recognized religious authority, which shall obviate all fear of head and neck change, we mean not the exaltation of a man, whose will shall be law, no Jewish Pope, far from it—but we ask for a periodi- cal synod of the Jewish clergy, to consider the advance of the times and the change of thought, to decide what customs are obsolete, what innovations are desirable; to speak with a voice which shall ring through the Jewish world, because of the fact of its being the united voices of the renowned ministers of our faith in Europe and in America. No longer should our worship be fashioned after the whims and private tasks of the members of a congregation; how can they be trusted to legislate upon anything connected with Judaism when their ignorance is notorious? The brains which should think out these problems, and recommend solutions for adoption, are the brains of our ministers; it is they whose specialty consists of a study of the progress of the age, it is they alone, who know what does and does not clash with the principles of our religion, it is they alone who can, and who ought to act. But the age marches on, and Judaism is left to shape itself because shepherds are not allowed to confer, or lack cohesion, or their congregations fear that their progress may be condemned.
The dangerous sentiment gains ground, that a man can live and believe like a Unitarian and yet be considered a Jew, so long as he is born such—this is the danger of the hour, an over-liberal Judaism. There is no authoritative body to say this is wrong, or that is wrong—why should there not be a synod? Limit it to those ministers whose congregations are large, limit it how we will, but every thinking Jew will listen to its admonition with respect, and if it bid the orthodox to yield here a little, and the reformer yield there a little, the innate conviction of all of the advantages of a closer union would smooth any soreness . . .

Morais joined the ranks of those who advocated a synod. However, he wanted to expand its field of activity to include the organization of charitable and educational agencies and to assume responsibility for the strengthening of congregational life. He contrasted the situation in America with that in France, where the Central Consistory, located in Paris and represented by Grand Rabbi Isidor, united under its authority all the Jews from the English Channel to the Pyrenees. The editor, who reported Morais’ views, continued on the same theme and drew the analogy: “To this tribunal all disputes are referred: its verdict is authoritative, and as a result, Judaism in France has both unity and uniformity, and enjoys universal esteem. In America, the situation is just the reverse.”

An Excerpt from the Book

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