A Letter to a Conservative Jew. Some things your Rabbi never told you


Rabbi Shlomo Cohen


Conservative Judaism makes a claim to being the true keeper of the Judaic tradition. Your leaders claim to walk in the path of the prophets of old. Your movement, reminiscent of the Sadducees, Hellenists and Kairites, have maintained that, while they believe in the Written Law, they have chosen to reject what they call Rabbinic Law.

As we are going to see, this decision poses some very interesting problems. Indeed, it places your leadership on the horns of a very real dilemma. What is more, it places you, dear reader, in an uncomfortable situation.

I know you. I grew up with hundreds of people just like you. I know, for instance, that you consider yourself well educated, somewhat sophisticated and quite open-minded. I also know that you’ve been sold a bill of goods.  You’re also probably nowhere near as open minded as you think you are.  If you are afraid of ideas that may topple some of your sacred cows, read no further. If, on the other hand, you are a truth seeker, read on at your own risk.

First off, I must assume that you, like most non-orthodox Jews, have never read the Torah cover to cover. Most assuredly you have not even dabbled in Rabbinic law. At best you have the equivalent of a second grade education in Judaism. Just as you would, rightfully, not take the opinion of any person who dropped out of school in second grade very seriously you must recognize your inability to reach any definitive, educated conclusions regarding your own religion.  Naturally, you turn to your Rabbi. Pay attention now. He (or she) has been willfully misleading you with intellectual dishonesty, disinformation and calculated propaganda. Truth is not their forte, maintaining their job is. So much the worse if it has not been willful and they are ignorant or misled themselves.

To anybody who has studied the Torah, it becomes patently obvious that a great deal of highly pertinent information is simply not there. We are told that cows must be ritually slaughtered yet the Torah does not even tell us at which end of the animal. Did the Rabbis simply come along afterwards and make up a set of rules to fit what they thought should be the proper process? The list of similar examples is quite extensive.

–      The Torah tells us to wear Tefilin with no instructions as to what they look like.

–      What is the Mezuzah on your door post supposed to consist of? We don’t know from the text.

–      It tells us to guard the Shabbos very carefully and gives no clue what we’re guarding against.

–      Various dates are mentioned without a calendar to set them in.

–      We are told to put Tzitzis on the corner of our garments with no hint as to what they look like.

–      Blow the Shofar on Rosh HaShana. What is a Shofar? Blow what? (I can actually blow a recognizable “Yankee Doodle” on my Shofar. I’m sure that’s not what G-d had in mind.)

–      The Torah does not actually explicitly state that we must fast on Yom Kippur. To “afflict” one’s soul might take many forms. Yet, fast we do.

The point is that the Torah as a written document makes little sense without an oral tradition, which explains it. You and I could get the entire required reading list from HarvardMedicalSchool. Even if we were to wade through all of them we could hardly lay claim to a Harvard education. What we are missing are the lectures, the oral part of the education. One without the other means nothing. The oral segment is so important that even if two medical schools use identical texts one will be considered better than the other solely on the strength of the faculty and the oral lessons they provide.

Your leadership makes no distinction between ‘Oral Law’ and ‘Written Law’. Many Conservative Jews I’ve met assume that the Orthodox make no such distinction either. In point of fact, this is of crucial importance. Many pages of Talmudic discussion concern this very idea. The difference lies in a very simple, straightforward concept. The Oral Law was given to Moshe on Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. The Written Law was not actually written, dictated to Moshe only 38 years later. In effect, the Written Law was given to remind us of what we already knew from Sinai. Rabbinic Law, on the other hand, was promulgated thereafter by a series of Sanhedrin (The Jewish High Court of 72) for specific reasons within very tightly controlled parameters. The bottom line reason was Tikkun Olam, a specific societal need that required action. For example, the Prozbul, a legal device declaring all debts to belong to the Jewish Courts, was enacted to enable the wealthy to lend money prior to the Sabbatical year when all loans are forgiven except those owed to the Courts. Poor people were thus able to borrow money and the lenders were able to collect the debts.

Another example is the second day of the Holidays, Rabbinic in origin, promulgated when communication problems with communities far from Israel were unaware of when the Jewish court declared the New Moon. Conservative Judaism simply declared these days unnecessary in light of advanced communications. It was also highly inconvenient to those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take off from work on those days.

Convenience has clearly been a factor in the thinking of the Conservative movement. In 1995, the Masorti Movement (the Israeli branch of Conservatism) held a Rabbinic convention. They discussed whether the American Conservative decision allowing the use of automobiles on Shabbos had any basis in Jewish Law. Their conclusion- autos may not be driven on Shabbos according to Jewish Law. (By the way, is this not rabbinic law!?) What was the American Conservative reaction to this decision? They ignored it! Why? Because few conservative Jews live within walking distance of their synagogues. Prohibiting driving would be tantamount to closing down scores of multi-million dollar plants. Keep in mind that the original decision permitted driving to synagogue and back home, nowhere else. How many conservative Rabbis have reminded their congregations of that? In fact, how many Conservative Rabbis drive on Shabbos to places other than Synagogue themselves?

Let us keep in mind that when the baseball commission decided to change the distance to the outfield and the weight of the ball there was a hue and cry across the country. How can anyone dare tamper with the rules? This tempest occurred over a GAME. Imagine, then, how justifiably upset the ‘purists’ are when the rules have far greater ramifications!

Of far more serious ramifications are the myriad laws, which are not Rabbinic. For a movement which purports to believe in the Written Law how is it possible to justify ignoring out and out statements which do not lend themselves to any misunderstanding. Eating pork is called an abomination. So too, shrimp, lobster or clam. Yet these very foods are served in homes of conservative Jews. Now, not all Conservative Rabbis ride on Shabbos or eat Treif. In fact, many Conservative Temples maintain a level of Kashrus. Yet, the decision lies with the individual Rabbi or Temple, not the movement as a whole.

The list of direct commandments, which are simply ignored, includes almost all of them: Talis, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Kashrus, family purity, working on Shabbos and holidays, eating Chometz on Passover, etc. etc. etc. In fact, the reader will be hard pressed to identify many Mitzvot kept by the majority of Conservative Jews outside of a few, like charity, which are not singularly Jewish (or don’t have a tax break). You generally circumcise your sons, albeit not according to Halacha. Did you ever stop to realize that the Hebrew word for the ceremony is Brit, meaning covenant? What covenant is that? Or, how about Bar and Bat Mitzva? You celebrate the coming of age of your children by calling them “children of”, or more exactly “people of Mitzvot”. What Mitzvot?

What is even more ridiculous is what conservative Jews actually do. While professing to not believe in Rabbinic law, should a conservative woman opt to do one thing for Shabbos, likely as not she will decide to light candles – Rabbinic! The blessing she recites?- Rabbinic. If the family decides to go one step further, chances are they will make Kiddush on wine -Rabbinic! Should they choose to go to Synagogue to pray most of what they will say is, you guessed it, Rabbinic!

Of all the holidays, the one most kept is Chanuka – Rabbinic! Or Purim- Rabbinic!

The Talis conservative women now insist on wearing, the number of knots – Rabbinic!

Many choose to wear a Kippa in Synagogue- Rabbinic!

They blow Shofar on Rosh HaShana. Most of the notes you end up listening to are – Rabbinic!

The text of the Ketuba (marriage contract) and the ring- Rabbinic!

Four cups of wine at the Passover Seder- Rabbinic! The text of the Hagada – Rabbinic!

Perhaps Amida is beneath you being only Rabbinic. What about Shema twice daily-Torah Law.

How many Conservative Jews sit in a Succa? Torah law!

How many wave the Lulav and Esrog? Torah Law!

How many avoid shaving with a straight razor? Torah Law!

What do we do with people who place far more emphasis on Thanksgiving than on Rosh Chodesh – Torah law! Or Shevuos – Torah law!

You don’t even have a clue regarding Shatnez- Torah Law!

You know nothing of Taharas HaMishpacha- Torah Law!

Have you ever recited Birchat Hamazon? – Torah Law!

Do you insist on kosher meat? – Torah Law!

Do you “Guard the Sabbath day and keep it holy”? – Torah Law.

 How seriously are we to take people all of whom know who Jesus’ mother was, few who know who Moses’ mother was; who can easily complete the line “Our father who art in heaven….”, but not “ Modeh Ani L’fanecha….”; Who are familiar with “Amazing Grace”, “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” but only know “Hava Nagila” because it’s been sung by half of Hollywood; who would most likely feel less uncomfortable in a Roman Catholic Mass than an Orthodox Jewish Shabbos service. Do you know anything of the grandeur of Jewish history?

Your heroes are most likely gentile. Can you name 10 of the most famous historical Jewish figures?

Your rabbinate allows ‘convenience’ abortions. They, minimally, turn a blind eye to homosexuality, another thing the Torah calls an abomination. Once again, there are individual Conservative Rabbis who condemn these practices.

Women rabbis are the result of a decision by the conservative rabbinic leadership. Thus, it is a ‘rabbinic law’. Why are current rabbinic decisions okay (if they are conservative rabbis, at any rate) and any traditional or normative Rabbinical decision is to be ignored, at least in principle.

Few conservative Jews can trace back more than, depending on their age, three, four, or at most, and rarely, five generations before finding Orthodox forebearers. Most Conservative Rabbis go back only one or two.

Few are aware that the Conservative movement began here in America as a compromise between Orthodox and Reform. Few could maintain the high level of observance required by Jewish law in a country intolerant of Sabbath observers and with Sunday “Blue Laws” in effect. On the other hand, most immigrants were totally uncomfortable with Reform’s total rejection of Torah and its slavish copying of Protestantism. Early Reform congregations went so far as to “keep Shabbos” on Sunday. This was too much for most people, so Conservative Judaism developed simply to fill a void. Rather than opting to study orthodoxy and make those compromises necessary to life in the United States, the founders chose instead to merely ‘upgrade’ Reform practices to the minimal comfort level of their constituency. This did not begin with, nor did it ever really develop, neither a sound philosophical base nor an intellectually honest approach. Traditional, normative Judaism has been practiced in the same manner for millennia. Conservative Judaism is a dim shadow of the real thing, a travesty of your own ancestors’ beliefs and a mockery of G-d’s words.

Note that after a century your leadership is suddenly calling for a return to doing Mitzvos. Don’t for a moment think that this is altruism on their part. Having destroyed generations of Jews, realizing now that without a Jewish education there won’t be any Jews is like locking the barn doors 100 years too late. Look at vested interest. Six-figure salaries are at stake. Scores of multi-million dollar plants sit empty. When I was a child, the Conservative synagogue in the city had an afternoon school of over 1,000 children. The school closed entirely several years ago due to lack of interest.

If, as you claim, you believe that the Torah represents the word of G-d not to educate yourself in at least a modicum of your professed religion is the height of folly, intellectually dishonest, self-delusional and unfair to yourself, not to mention the generations of your progeny. For 3300 hundred years of Jewish history your ancestors chose to maintain their Judaism in the face of every adversity a very cruel world could throw at them. Had they not, you would not be Jewish today. Had they not, you would not even be here today.

You pay lip service to G-d at best.  Can you honestly say that you are proud of not knowing any real information about who you really are?

For further information on how to proceed, please contact your conscience and your immortal soul.

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