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Reform and Conservative Judaism… What’s the Difference?

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas has an interesting article in the New York Jewish Week entitled “The Re-founding of Conservative Judaism,” in which he argues that Conservative Judaism has outgrown its historical reasons for existence and needs a “re-founding” based on community organizing. He’s probably right. But as a Reform rabbi, it got me to thinking about the movements. In recent years, I have become more and more convinced that the differences between Reform and Conservative are shrinking, and that interdenominationalism will be an important trend in the future.

I’m not here to rail against organized religion (it wouldn’t be good for my career!) or to disparage religious movements. The movements play an importance role in organizing the Jewish world, providing resources, educating leadership. My question is: Is there still a distinctive social or ideological gap between the Reform and Conservative movements?

Historically there have been at least three (and probably more) important distinctions:

  • The ethnic: Reform Judaism was founded by German Jews, who were largely assimilated and were looking for a more assimilated Judaism. The earliest Conservative Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe who were interested in more traditional Judaism in an American context).
  • The ritual: Reform rejected traditional practices – such as kashrut and kippah – that were aesthetically or ideologically out of sync with modernity, while Conservative maintained them (if only because they provided a sense of “Jewish authenticity”).
  • The ideological: Conservative Judaism remains halachic – i.e. it continues to embrace the binding nature of Jewish law (within the scope of modernity) – while Reform affirms that halacha is nonbinding or optional.

There is truth to all of these. There is no question that German-dominated Reform Judaism was quick to discard ritual that many Eastern European Jews found necessary/meaningful/ endearing/nostalgic/authentic. The Conservative movement probably owes its existence to that fact. But it is a largely irrelevant fact three generations later. Today, if anything, the Reform world is moving toward the right, taking on Hebrew prayer, rituals like kippah, mikveh, and aspects of kashrut.

It is also true that the Conservative movement continues to speak in the language of halacha (it has a law committee and teshuvot) while Reform speaks in the language of personal autonomy. But even here, the divide is not so wide. The Conservative movement has always referred to itself as “Positive-Historical Judaism” – i.e. Judaism that is rooted in divine revelation (which is the meaning here of the word “positive”), and simultaneously shaped by historical evolution. But Reform Judaism similarly embraces the notion that Judaism is based both on eternal divine (however you define it) commands – the ethical mitzvot – and on historically evolving culture and folkways – the ritual mitzvot. From the 1999 Pitsburgh Principles of Reform Judaism:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these (mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

Furthermore, the Reform movement has a Responsa Committee (of which I happen to be a member), which deliberates on matters of Jewish law. The difference is that those responsa are non-binding. The Reform way to talk about Jewish tradition is to use the language of “Choice Through Knowledge” – we make choices about our ritual practice based on our study and our understanding of the meanings of those traditions. Contrary to the notion that Reform is “non-halachic,” I believe that this is a type of halachic process. And let’s be honest – Conservative Jews also make choices. Conservative rabbis know this, which is why they often operate on the assumption that the more knowledge their congregants amass, the more they will choose to fulfill the mitzvot.

So while differences between the two movements remain, I think it’s more useful to think of a continuum of liberal Judaism that includes the Conservative and Reform movements with significance points of connection between them. Every continuum has its extremes, but there is too much in common here to think of them as being really separate.

  1. April 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Thank you, Rabbi! I was seeking to determine which branch/denomination of Judaism to convert to. I have been considering converting and even spoke with three Rabbi’s to see where I would best fit! I know for a certain Conservative Judaism is for me! AND Baruch HaShem my children are also going to convert to Conservative! In fact my son and daughter are going to ‘Shul tonight to begin the process, I will have to come on alternate Sabbaths since I have to wait until someone stays with my 94 yr old aunt who has Alzheimers. (My daughter and I will take alternate Sabbaths) I hope I didnot take up too much of your time! Wanted to get all this in before Shabbos!(smile)

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