Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.
Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.
Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.
But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.
Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.
In the Second Temple era, for instance, the schools of Hillel and Shammai routinely disagreed about matters both great and small. In one famous case, Hillel even accepted a convert who rejected the Oral Torah—a gross deviation from mainstream Judaism that had led Shammai to spurn the would-be convert. Yet despite such disputes, their adherents would still marry each other’s children.
In the 17th century, Chassidim and non-Chassidim fought viciously. Yet in modern-day Israel, despite ongoing disagreements, their commonalities have united them into a single haredi political party.
Sephardi and Ashkenazi interpretations of halachah still differ enough that Israeli bakeries typically obtain dual kashrut certification to ensure that everyone can eat their products. Yet Sephardi-Ashkenazi “intermarriages” are common.
What enabled all these divergent groups to remain one Jewish people despite their halachic differences was that all agreed on the basic principle: There is such a thing as Jewish law, and it’s binding on all Jews, just as American law binds Americans or German law binds Germans. Exactly how that law should apply to real-world situations is something Jewish scholars have wrangled over throughout history. But that doesn’t negate their fundamental commitment to halachah, just as Americans’ legal wrestling over constitutional interpretation doesn’t negate a shared commitment to the Constitution.
Obviously, most Orthodox Jews (myself included) find some Conservative halachic rulings to be untenable. But how many Orthodox Jews have never encountered an Orthodox ruling they find untenable? (My personal bugbear is the Israeli rabbinate’s growing practice of retroactively invalidating conversions, which violates centuries of tradition.) The truth is that any movement that grapples seriously with the challenge of applying halachah to modern life will probably produce some rulings that others find untenable.
Nevertheless, in a world where personal autonomy increasingly reigns supreme and the very idea that religious tradition could obligate future generations is widely scorned, the Conservative movement’s willingness to publicly insist that Judaism entails religious obligations is no small thing. And its traditionalist faction does take halachah seriously.
As one example, consider its ruling letting people drive to synagogue on Shabbat. Though in retrospect, I think it’s proved disastrous, the ruling was based on a longstanding halachic principle called hora’at sha’ah, under which the normal rules can be temporarily suspended in times of crisis. The “crisis” in this case was that in 1950s’ America, far-flung communities, widespread Jewish illiteracy and the fact that Saturdays were generally workdays meant many people simply wouldn’t be able to pray if they couldn’t drive to synagogue.
In Israel, however, virtually everyone lives within walking distance of a synagogue and is also literate enough to pray alone. Consequently, no such crisis exists, so the movement’s Israeli branch forbade driving on Shabbat.
Now contrast this halachic balancing act with the Reform movement, which scrapped the entire idea of binding halachah and replaced it with personal autonomy. There’s no way to paper over a departure of that magnitude from the halachic framework that has kept Jews together for millennia. But the gap between traditionalist Conservatives and Orthodoxy isn’t so large by historical standards that it ought to be unbridgeable.
Neither side is blameless in this rift. Inter alia, too many Conservative Jews scorn the Orthodox as benighted reactionaries rather than valuing their ostensibly shared fidelity to Jewish tradition; many also seem to prioritize progressive politics over Jewish needs. See, for instance, the American Conservative movement’s opposition to government vouchers for religious schools, despite the importance of Jewish education to Jewish continuity and the fact that its own Jewish day schools are in even worse financial shape than their Orthodox counterparts.
But the biggest barrier to cooperation is that too much of the Orthodox world views the Conservative movement as “non-halachic” and therefore beyond the pale. When some Orthodox Jews won’t call a Conservative rabbi “rabbi” even if said rabbi faithfully upholds the movement’s stated commitment to halachah (a practice sadly not unheard of in Israel, though less common in America), cooperation is obviously impossible.
In a world where the very idea of binding religious obligations is increasingly out of fashion, both sides have an obvious common interest; consequently, greater Orthodox-Conservative cooperation could be mutually beneficial. But even if it produced no benefits, it’s the right thing to do. As long as the Conservative movement remains officially committed to halachah, it remains within Judaism’s age-old tradition. And that’s a common denominator that ought to outweigh any interpretational divisions.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.