October 13, 2019

Excerpts from ‘Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice’

From the very beginning of the twentieth century, men and women worshipped side by side in Conservative synagogues, and boys and girls, as well as men and women, studied together in the classroom. (To this day, in most Orthodox communities, after the third or fourth grade, learning occurs in gender-specific classes. Also, teenage boys often study Talmud, while teenage girls study Bible, commentaries, and laws governing Jewish practice.) 

In 1922 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan inaugurated the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith, and by the middle of the century most Conservative synagogues were scheduling them for young women. The ceremonies varied, however. Some bat mitzvah girls did what most bar mitzvah boys did: recite Kiddush on Friday night, chant the Torah blessings and the haftarah on Saturday morning, and give a homily on the Torah reading. At other synagogues, the bat mitzvah only recited some readings and delivered a homily on Friday night.

Some Conservative synagogues were fully egalitarian by the late 1940s, but that was rare. Only in the 1970s did a significant number of Conservative synagogues move in that direction. Gradually, legal rulings were needed to justify the emerging customs and to augment them in areas that custom could not determine. This happened with the decision to ordain women in 1983 and with subsequent CJLS [Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] rulings that enabled women to count as part of a prayer quorum, to lead services, to act as witnesses on documents, and to serve in other capacities in Jewish life.

Unlike other developments in women’s Jewish rights that entered Conservative Jewish practice first by custom, the Conservative movement’s ordination of women rabbis was a conscious decision grounded in extensive legal and moral reasoning. At present, about three hundred of the approximately seventeen hundred Rabbinical Assembly members are women. 

In 1977 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA, or, more commonly now, JTS) and the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association) formed the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. As you will read in the following excerpts from the official 1979 report, the majority of members believed that women could be ordained because most of the tasks rabbis do are not restricted to men in Jewish law. Since then, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated rabbinical rulings that open to women the few remaining rabbinical functions traditionally limited to men, such as leading services and serving as witnesses on documents. Even so, women rabbis can choose not to take advantage of these permissive rulings and ask men in their community to perform these tasks instead. 

“The role of the rabbi as we know it today is not one that is established in classical Jewish texts, but rather is one that has evolved through social need and custom. Consequently, there is no specifiable halakhic category that can be identified with the modern rabbinate, nor with the currently accepted mode of ordination. … To summarize, then: The halakhic objections to the ordination of women center around disapproval of the performance by a woman of certain functions. Those functions, however, are not essentially rabbinic, nor are they universally disapproved, by the accepted rules governing the discussion of halakhah in the Conservative Movement. There is no direct halakhic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher, and teacher in Israel.”

When the authors of classical Jewish law weighed ethical issues in medicine many hundreds of years ago, they could never have imagined today’s incredible medical advances. As a result, whereas the conditions and therefore also the rules for building a sukkah have not changed much in more than two thousand years, the medical rulings of yore offer few straightforward answers to most of today’s bioethical questions. 

Modern Conservative movement thinkers have consequently approached new medical realities by applying traditional Jewish perceptions and values to the new circumstances. Sometimes that may mean trying to balance conflicting goals. For example, one responsum permits contraception and yet encourages couples not to wait too long to have children and then to have three or more if they can. Because of the radically new medical realities of our times, it should not be surprising that different Conservative rabbis who endeavor to strike the right balance in applying the tradition to contemporary circumstances sometimes arrive at different conclusions. (This is true in the Orthodox and Reform movements as well.) So, for example, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Avram Israel Reisner agree on most end-of-life issues but differ on whether it is legitimate to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a dying patient and the amount of morphine that may be used in quelling pain.

The following responsum by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Mark Popovsky asks: When is contraception permitted within Jewish law, and what classical teachings should guide the decision to employ it? When contraception is permitted, does Jewish law determine which contraceptive method is preferable? Does Jewish law distinguish between contraceptive methods initiated prior to intercourse and “emergency” or other contraception introduced only after intercourse?

“Assuming that all aspects of safety and efficacy with respect to more than one contraceptive method are equal for a particular couple, the couple is advised to follow the order set out in this teshuvah from most to least preferable means: Hormonal contraception (the pill, implants, vaginal insertion, transdermal patch) 

“Intrauterine device — copper or hormonal (IUD) 

“Diaphragm, cervical cap 

“Sponge, including spermicidal gel; spermicidal gel in combination with another method 


“Emergency contraception (‘the morning after pill’) — only after the fact and not for regular use”

“If a woman elects to employ a method of contraception farther down the list for reasons of health, safety or efficacy specific to her circumstances, she may rest assured that such a choice represents a halakhically valid decision, fully justified within normative Jewish practice. Birth control of any means is far preferable to abortion. Every effort should be made to ensure access to and accurate information about contraception for all who might engage in sexual intercourse. The concern that such measures will encourage risky sexual activity or promiscuity is unsupported by scientific evidence and insufficient to warrant the increased health risks borne by those in communities where access to contraception is limited.”

“Today the challenge is one of seduction into the general, secular culture through assimilation, intermarriage, and a commitment to work over family. … How shall we meet this challenge? Upholding the legal norm imposed by the later Rabbis on the male member of the couple of unlimited reproduction is neither practical nor desirable. Nor does it seem right or wise to say to the female member of the family, ‘Give up higher education and a career to have a large family.’ Rather, a reasonable course would be to encourage a fertile couple to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halakhah and at least one additional child to help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain its numbers in the modern world. The first two children that a couple produces are mitzvah children in the sense that they enable the couple (specifically, the man) to fulfill the command to procreate. We would like to suggest that the third child (and any further children) also be designated ‘mitzvah children,’ not only in the sense that classical Jewish law requires us to have as many children as we can, but also in the sense that having three or more children helps the Jewish people maintain its numbers and even regain a bit of the numbers we lost in the Holocaust. Another way to think of this is that the couple should have, if possible, at least one more child than they were planning for the sake of the Jewish people, with a minimum of three.”

Excerpts from “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” by Elliot N. Dorff.

This story was featured as part of Jonathan Kirsch’s Feb. 22, cover story