Modern Conservative Judaism


Modern Conservative Judaism

Evolving Thought and Practice

Elliot N. Dorff
Foreword by Julie Schonfeld

JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought Series

484 pages
Appendix, index


June 2018


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June 2018


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eBook (PDF)
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June 2018


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About the Book

A major Conservative movement leader of our time, Elliot N. Dorff provides a personal, behind-the-scenes guide to the evolution of Conservative Jewish thought and practice over the last half century. His candid observations concerning the movement’s ongoing tension between constancy and change shed light on the sometimes unified, sometimes diverse, and occasionally contentious reasoning behind the modern movement’s most important laws, policies, and documents. Meanwhile, he has assembled, excerpted, and contextualized the most important historical and internal documents in modern Conservative movement history for the first time in one place, enabling readers to consider and compare them all in context.

In “Part 1: God” Dorff explores various ways that Conservative Jews think about God and prayer. In “Part 2: Torah” he considers different approaches to Jewish study, law, and practice; changing women’s roles; bioethical rulings on issues ranging from contraception to cloning; business ethics; ritual observances from online minyanim to sports on Shabbat; moral issues from capital punishment to protecting the poor; and nonmarital sex to same-sex marriage. In “Part 3: Israel” he examines Zionism, the People Israel, and rabbinic rulings in Israel.

Author Bio

Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University and visiting professor at UCLA School of Law. He was an editor of the official Conservative statement of principles Emet Ve-Emunah and coeditor of the Conservative commentary Etz Hayim. He is author of twelve books, four published by JPS, including To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (2002), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.


"This volume forms part of a valuable service provided by The Jewish Publication Society in publishing separate volumes on each of the movements, collections of documents which reveal the history and thought of each movement from past to present."—Religious Studies Review

"Modern Conservative Judaism deserves to be described as [Elliot] Dorff's magnum opus."—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

"Modern Conservative Judaism offers the background needed to understand and negotiate this process. It serves as a valuable tool for sharing the relevancy and authenticity of Conservative Jewry with the next generation."—Jonathan Fass, Jewish Book Council

“Rabbi Elliot Dorff is a master teacher. The spiritual depth and intellectual richness of the Conservative movement are evident throughout his wonderfully clear guide to Conservative Judaism’s thought and practice. The volume will be welcomed by congregants, rabbis, and students alike.”—Arnold Eisen, chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary

“Anyone interested in what Conservative rabbis and scholars believe and how Conservative Judaism differs from Orthodoxy and Reform will find no better sourcebook than this passionate work by one of the movement’s foremost scholars and thinkers. An invaluable collection of documents concerning beliefs, rulings, and responsa.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

“As a magisterial scholar of Jewish law and philosophy who possesses an unparalleled ability to write in a balanced and clear manner, Rabbi Elliot Dorff has produced a comprehensive book on Conservative Judaism that he alone could write. The documents and explanations he offers permit the pluralism as well as the distinctive legal-historical-religious character of the Conservative Movement to shine forth. All who seek a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the movement and its evolution and postures will find themselves richly rewarded by this work. Modern Conservative Judaism is required reading for scholars and laypersons alike, and all students of American Judaism and American religion will delight in its pages!”—Rabbi David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and chancellor emeritus and former president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion

“I cannot think of another work that provides such a detailed survey of historical and internal documents relating to the history of Conservative Judaism, let alone with this level of firsthand insight into the interior thought processes of the movement’s most important authors and thinkers. The author’s appreciation of the importance of the documents cited and his talent at abridging them thoughtfully and well will make them accessible even to readers to whom they are entirely new. The worth of Modern Conservative Judaism will be obvious to any student of modern Jewish history.”—Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, senior editor of The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews

“Conservative Judaism continues to remain a mystery even to many of its adherents, in part because it is a complex movement, with sophisticated underlying principles. Modern Conservative Judaism is therefore a very significant contribution to helping make the Conservative Movement widely understood. With a multitude of original materials, encompassing earlier debates within the movement through current ‘hot topics,’ and Rabbi Dorff’s illuminating introductions, members of Conservative congregations will find the book enlightening—helping them to more fully appreciate the ideas, approach, and practices of their Jewish home.”—Rabbi Wayne Franklin, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Providence, Rhode Island

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld    
Introduction: The Roots of Conservative Judaism    
Conservative Judaism’s European Beginnings    
Taking Root in America    
Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s Concept of “Catholic Israel”    
Taking Off in America    
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s Concept of “Judaism as a Civilization”    
Articulating Conservative Judaism’s Faith and Practice    
Definitions and Demographic Declines    
Reading This Book    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 1. God
1. Emunah: Theology    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Theology    
Modern Conservative Theologies    
Religious Naturalism    
Process Thought    
Feminist Theology    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
2. Tefillah: Prayer    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Prayer    
Introducing Conservative/Masorti Theories of Prayer    
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan    
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson    
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff    
Prayer through the Lens of Prayer Books    
Maḥzor Lev Shalem Offers a New Window into Conservative Prayer    
The Evolving Conservative Prayer Service    
The Next Frontier in Conservative Worship    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 2. Torah
3. Talmud Torah: Study    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Jewish Study    
Dr. Arnold Eisen on Conservative Jewish Learning    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
4. Halakhah: Legal Theories
1913 Preamble to the Constitution of the United Synagogue of America    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Jewish Law (1988)     
Understanding Theories of Law    
Some Conservative/Masorti Theories of Jewish Law    
Rabbi Joel Roth on a Deductive Legal System    
Rabbi Neil Gillman on Communal Responses to Shared Myths    
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff on an Organic System That Expresses Love and Addresses Morality    
Rabbi Harold Kushner on Jewish Law as an Opportunity for Holiness    
Rabbi Alana Suskin on Investing Jewish Law with Egalitarian/Feminist Principles    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
5. P’sak Din: Determining Conservative Practice
The Local Rabbi    
A Central Communal Institution    
Movement Organizations and Local Institutions    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Authority for Jewish Practice    
Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s Rationale for Pluralism in Jewish Law    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
6. Nashim: Women in Jewish Life
Emet Ve-Emunah’s 1988 Stance    
The Report of the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis    
Aftermath of the Commission Report    
Responsa on Women’s Issues    
Rabbi Pamela Barmash’s Responsum on Women’s Equality    
Egalitarianism in Practice Worldwide    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
7. Ḥayyim u’Mavet: Rulings on Bioethics
Responsum on Contraception    
Responsum on Procreation    
Responsa on Birth Surrogates    
Responsum on Abortion    
Responsum on Stem Cell Research and Cloning    
Responsa on End-of-Life Care    
Responsum on the Distribution of Health Care    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
8. Masa u’Mattan: Legal Rulings on Business Ethics
Responsum on Intellectual Property    
Responsum on Whistle-Blowing     
Responsum on Employers and Employees    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
9. Bein Adam LaMakom: Rulings on Ritual Observance
Responsum on Tattooing and Body Piercing    
Responsum on Forming a Minyan on the Internet    
Responsum on Playing Sports on Shabbat    
Responsa on the Dietary Laws (Kashrut)     
Magen Tzedek (Shield of Justice)     
Suggestions for Further Reading    
10. Tikkun Olam: Moral Guidance on Social Issues
Traditional Means of Inculcating Morality    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Building a Moral and Just World    
The Rabbinic Letter on the Poor    
Responsum on Capital Punishment    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
11. Ḥayyei Min u’Mishpaḥah: Moral Guidance on Sex and Family Life
A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations    
Responsum on Family Violence    
Addressing Interfaith Marriage    
Addressing Gays and Lesbians    
Responsa on Transgender Individuals    
Responsum and Documentation on Divorce    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Part 3. Israel
12. Am Yisrael: Peoplehood
Developing the Doctrine of the People Israel    
Emet Ve-Emunah on the People Israel    
Emet Ve-Emunah on Judaism’s Relations with Other Faiths    
Dr. Arnold Eisen on Why Our Covenant Matters    
Who Is a Jew?     
Suggestions for Further Reading    
13. Tziyyonut: Zionism and the State of Israel
Early Religious Responses to Zionism    
Conservative Movement Responses to a Jewish State    
Emet Ve-Emunah on the State of Israel and the Diaspora    
Conservative/Masorti Life in and for Israel    
Why Israel Matters to Conservative Jews    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
14. Teshuvot Medinat Yisrael: Masorti Responsa in and for Israel
Responsum on Ceding Land in a Peace Agreement    
Responsum on Extraditing a Jewish Criminal from Israel to Another Country    
Responsum on the Conscription of Women into the Israel Defense Forces    
Responsum on the Conscription of Yeshivah Students into the Israel Defense Forces    
Responsum on Riding to the Synagogue on Shabbat    
Suggestions for Further Reading    
Epilogue: The Ideal Conservative Jew    
Appendix: Institutions of the Conservative Movement    
Academic Centers of the Conservative Movement    
Professional Organizations of the Conservative Movement    
Lay Organizations of the Conservative Movement    
“Joint Commissions” of the Conservative Movement    
Source Acknowledgments    
Authors of Excerpted Texts    

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