Origins of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox

TRACING THE TREE OF LIFE by Lawrence Keleman
JEWISH ACTION, Summer 1999, pp 17-21
333 7th Ave, New York, NY 10001

The path to Orthodoxy is long and labyrinthine. Does G-d exist? Did He give the Torah? Did He also provide an oral tradition? Like many Jews rediscovering their heritage, I had to confront and resolve each of these challenges.

Eventually, we pre-baalei teshuvah [returnees to Judaism] arrive at the denominational crossroads. Convinced of the Torah's Divine origin and aware that, to be decipherable, the Pentateuch must have been given with an oral explanation, I sought the Jewish movement in possession of that ancient mesorah [oral tradition].


Working chronologically, I began with the Orthodox. About 2,000 years before the Reform and Conservative movements arrived on the scene, Orthodox sages recorded the claim that the oral tradition was received from G-d at [Mount] Sinai in [the year] 1,248 B.C.E. and passed down intact to the sages of the Mishnah(1). Later Talmudic texts affirm a belief in a G-d-given oral tradition(2), as do the writings of medieval and post-medieval Orthodox scholars(3).

Although the Sadducees and the Karaites rejected the oral tradition of the Orthodox, secular scholars concur that these groups were short-lived splinters off the historical mainstream of Orthodoxy(4). Until today, Orthodoxy claims, the oral tradition has been passed down intact, parent-to-child and teacher-to-student(5). Theoretically, the Orthodox could possess the original oral tradition.


The second-oldest extant Jewish movement is Reform. The grandfather of Reform was Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786). Although Mendelssohn never publicly rejected the oral tradition's Divine origin, perhaps portentously, four out of six of Mendelssohn's surviving children converted to Christianity(6).

In a parallel event, one of Mendelssohn's greatest students, David Friedlander (1765-1834), wrote to Pastor Teller, Counsellor of the Prussian Ministry of Religion, on behalf of himself and several other Jewish householders, offering to join the Lutheran Church. Only after Pastor Teller rejected Friedlander's request for conversion did this student of Mendelssohn set himself to reforming his own religion(7).

What Mendelssohn hesitated to say publicly about mesorah [the Divinely revealed oral traditions of the Jewish People], Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the most influential of Reform's second generation, boldly proclaimed. In 1837, Geiger called the first Reform rabbinical conference in Weisbaden, Germany, and declared:

"The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted HUMAN books, as a divine work must also go.(8)"

With this declaration, Reform became the first known group in 3,100 years of Jewish history to deny the Torah's Divine origin(9). The Reform [also] rejected the mesorah.

Shortly after Geiger organized German Reform, his American counterpart, Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) launched the movement in the New World. In an 1850 debate at the Charleston synagogue, he declared that he didn't believe in a personal messiah or in bodily resurrection(10), both of which were pillars of the Jewish oral tradition(11).

In 1857, Wise published a new prayer book which omitted the traditional prayers for a return to [the land of] Zion, the rebuilding of the temple, etc., paving the way for Reform's official declaration of anti-Zionism at the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885(12). Wise went on to found the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, and at their first graduation ceremony in 1883, Wise served "Little Neck Clams, Filler de Boef, Salade de Shrimps, Grenoiles (frogs legs) a la Creme, and Ice Cream.(13)"

In mid-November 1885, Dr. Kaufman Kohler convened the Pittsburgh conference of Reform leaders, hoping to formally establish official Reform positions on a range of subjects. Kohler attempted to set the conference's tone with statements like,

"We consider [the Holy Scriptures] composition, their arrangements and their entire contents as the work of men, betraying in their conceptions the shortcomings of their age;(14)" and "We must discard the idea as altogether foreign to us, that marriage with a Gentile is not legal.(15)"

In his opening statement to the conference, Kohler told the assembly:

"I do not for a moment hesitate to say it right here and in the face of the entire Jewish world that... circumcision is a barbarous cruelty which disfigures and disgraces our ancestral heirloom and our holy mission as priests among mankind. The rite is a remnant of African life... Nor should children born of intermarriage be viewed any longer exclusively by the primitive national standard which determines the racial character of the child only by the blood of the mother... I can no longer accept the fanciful and twisted syllogisms of Talmudic law as binding for us... I think, if anywhere, we ought to have the courage to emancipate ourselves from the thralldom of Rabbinical legality(16).

With few modifications, the conference unanimously adopted Dr. Kohler's proposed Pittsburgh Platform. The Reform movement thus accepted "as binding only the moral laws" of Judaism, rejecting, "all such as not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization." The platform swept away Jewish dietary laws because "they fail to impress the modern Jew." Kohler was then selected to be president of the Hebrew Union College, and a year later he declared,

"There is no justification whatsoever for... the most precious time of the student to be spent upon halachic discussions... [and] the inane discussions that fill so many pages of the Babylonian Gemara.(17)"

Under Kohler, the HUC preparatory department required no Talmud study, although students were asked to take courses in New Testament and Koran(18). Kohler referred to Reform Jewry as, "We who are no longer bound to the Shulhan Aruk.(19)" Within Reform circles, the mesorah was then not only lost; it was anathema.

By 1972, Reform had drifted to the extreme. A survey commissioned that year by the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis, reported that "Only one in ten [Reform] *RABBIS* states that he believes in G-d in the more or less traditional Jewish sense.(20)"

The remaining 90% [of Reform *RABBIS*] classified their faith with terms like: "Agnostic", "Atheist", "Bahai in spirit, Judaic in practice", "Polyoxist", "Religious Existentialist" and "Theological Humanist"(21).

During the 1990 Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis' debate on the ordination of professed homosexuals, an HUC professor reminded the committee that Leviticus 18 calls homosexual acts an abomination; but a member of the majority easily disposed of his objection, saying,

"It's pretty late in the day for scripture to be invoked at CCAR debates.(22)"

The same year, about 25% of Reform leaders under age 40 had married gentiles(23). By 1991, the overall intermarriage rate among Reform Jews had topped 60%(24).


A debate had long raged among Reform activists over the pace at which Judaism should evolve. While Abraham Geiger felt that reformers should ACTIVELY lead the community away from "outdated" beliefs and practices, his colleague Zacharias Frankel, whom many cite as the Conservative movement's intellectual ancestor, felt that progressive leadership would build resentment and stimulate rebellion, and therefore:

"the reformer's task was simply to confirm the abandonment of those ideas and practices which the community set aside.(25)"

Thus Frankel wrote(26):

"The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye."

This in-house debate continued through the period of the Hebrew Union College banquet and the publication of the Pittsburgh Platform. Reform's accelerating leaps away from Jewish tradition jarred those who preferred Frankel's more subtle approach, and these conservatives branched off to form a new movement -- Conservative Judaism. In 1886, they founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, named for Frankel's Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau(27). An article printed in the new institution's magazine declared that JTS would steer a course between "stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform.(28)"

As a branch off of Reform, then new Conservative group possessed no more affinity to mesorah than their parent movement. Solomon Schechter (1849-1915), who took over JTS in 1902, violated the Sabbath publicly(29) and wrote that "the three Rs" stood for "rotten ranting rabbis.(30)" Conservative historians say that Schechter's successor, Cyrus Adler (1863-1940) "shared the anti-clerical bias.(31)"

Reform scholars laud the next head of the Conservative seminary, Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991), for creating "a new willingness on the [Jewish Theological] Seminary's part to apply [secular] critical method to the study of [C]Humash.(32)" Under Finkelstein's guidance, JTS organized an essay competition in 1959 on the theme "The Traditions in Genesis 1:1 -- 25:17 -- Resemblances to, Dependancies Upon, and Contrasts With Traditions of Other People(33)" and by 1970 Finkelstein had introduced an advanced Bible seminar whose course description promised "an analysis of the various sources of the Pentateuch.(34)"

Finkelstein's progressive approach had instant practical consequences: Despite the Biblical prohibition on lighting fires on the Sabbath,(35) the Rabbinical Assembly issued a paper permitting driving automobiles to Sabbath [prayer] services(36). Just as its Reform ancestor had, Conservative "Judaism," was unraveling.

Finkelstein's wife entirely repudiated her faith and dropped all Jewish observances(37). Finkelstein's attitude toward halachah might best be illustrated by his approach to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh [saving human lives] during World War II. In the period beginning 1938, when many young German Jews applied to JTS to get visas to America, Finkelstein refused to issue letters of acceptance(38). According to history, published by JTS itself:

"The plight of ordinary Jews in Eastern Europe did not occupy Finkelstein's attention... There is no doubt that Seminary leaders, faculty and students knew of Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II. As a member of the American Jewish Committee and the Joint Distribution Committee, Finkelstein regularly received reports about Nazi atrocities... Although moved by the plight of European Jewry, he nevertheless neither responded to direct appeals to participate in protest actions on their behalf nor involved the Seminary in any public activity about the Holocaust."(39)

The JTS document states, "There is no evidence that the Seminary tried to raise money in order to rescue German Jews by admitting them as students.(40)" Indeed, money was not the obstacle: In 1938 Finkelstein found all the funds necessary to launch the Seminary's Institute for Inter-denominational Studies, which "brought together Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy and scholars for courses on the various religious traditions,(41)" and "during the war Finkelstein sought to expand the Institute, raising money from Littauer, the Warburgs, and other Seminary contributors, and obtaining a $20,000 grant from the New York Foundation.(42)"

In 1943, when asked why he was diverting critical resources to interfaith dialogue while European Jewry was being exterminated, Finkelstein explained that the Interfaith Institute "has evoked such high praise in many quarters, and has done such effective work, that I am sure all of us agree it must be kept open and expanded at all costs.(43)"

When the Holocaust ended, Finkelstein's interest in international affairs was suddenly kindled. Citing a letter he wrote to the New York Times on 11 August 1945, the Seminary history boasts that Finkelstein's concern for brotherhood and democracy prompted him to extend sympathy also to the Germans, and he urged the Allied occupation forces to treat them benignly."(44)

Gerson Cohen (1924-1991), Finkelstein's successor, spent most of his career fighting for the ordination of women rabbis. Cohen was initially opposed to such a radical departure from tradition(45); but when a JTS-commissioned survey found that synagogue members favored women's ordination, Cohen did an immediate about face(46). Cohen was initially stymied by the opposition of the entire JTS Talmud staff; but he dealt with this problem by creating an independent commission to decide the issue and awarding only one (of 14) commission seats to a JTS Talmud staff member(47). Half the commission seats were given to laypeople(48). Cohen confided to his friends that he would "try to ram the commission's report down the faculty's throats.(49)" HUC's Ellenson and Bycel observed that:

"The [Jewish Theological] Seminary -- in deciding to ordain women as rabbis -- broke dramatically with whatever remained of its Orthodox roots.(50)"

Ismar Schorsch, JTS' current Chancellor, admitted in 1986 that all of the Conservative clergy's ties to the past, to the mesorah, have been broken:

"There is almost no common denominator between the profession of the modern [Conservative] Rabbi... and the [Jewish] religious leadership of the Middle Ages.(51)"

David Lieber, once president-emeritus of the JTS branch in Los Angeles and president of the International Association of Conservative Rabbis, offers these (by now trite) confessions:

"I do not believe in the literal divine authorship of the Torah(52)," and "I do not believe The Law in its details to be of divine origin.(53)"

JTS Professor of Jewish Philosophy Neil Gillman describes the [Conservative] movement's position more eloquently:

"The biblical account of the revelation is classic myth... Torah then represents the canonical statement of our myth.(54)"

And again, disconnection from the mesorah has practical consequences. At the 1980 convention of Conservative rabbis, Harold Kushner, one of the movement's most influential leaders, offered these sober observations:(55)

Is the Conservative movement halachic? Not "Should it be halachic?," not "Would the world be better, would my job be easier, more gratifying if it were?" But "Is it?" And the answer is that it is obviously not. Conservative Judaism is not halachic because Conservative Jews are not halachic, and increasingly even Conservative rabbis are not halachic.

Although it takes time, lack of mesorah eventually corrupts observance; and lax observance stimulates spiraling assimilation. In the Conservative movement today, we see the beginnings of the spiritual and demographic unraveling that rips apart any Jewish movement disconnected from mesorah: One study found that 4% of Conservative Jews rediscover Orthodoxy each year, 13% move into Reform, and 35% drop all Jewish affiliation; another [study] found that 37% intermarry(56).


The Conservative movement splintered twice, spinning off the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in 1968 and the Institute for Traditional Judaism in 1985.

Reconstructionists, led by JTS professor Mordechai Kaplan, broke off to the left, jettisoning belief in the supernatural altogether(57).

The Institute for Traditional Judaism, led by JTS Professor David Weiss Halivni, broke off to the right, arguing that G-d had given something to Moses at Sinai, but that the original revelation had been corrupted and lost during the Babylonian exile(58).

According to Weiss Halivni, the Torah represents only a sixth-century B.C.E. man-made guess as to the original materiel's form and content. According to both groups, we do not possess a G-d given Torah, let alone a Divine oral tradition explaining the Pentateuch.


Analysis complete, I stepped back to witness Orthodoxy flowing straight through history, reiterating in each generation its ancient claim to a Divine [Divinely-Revealed] Torah and oral tradition. Reform branched off two centuries and immediately confessed that it had no mesorah. Indeed, it intended to reform what it had received. Reform passed its lack of mesorah to Conservative, who bequeathed the same to its left-wing and right-wing splinter groups.

Today, not only does Orthodoxy claim to possess the G-d given solution, their demographic performance attests to it. Even in the midst of the worst assimilation in recorded Jewish history, today's Orthodoxy produces the lowest intermarriage rate (2%) and boasts not only the largest day-school enrollment rate, but also the largest adult enrollment in rabbinical seminaries (over 10,000)(59).

Moreover, I saw that even Orthopraxy-without-mesorah -- Jewish learning and mitzvah observance conducted without intimate connections to the previous generations's sages (Mendelssohn-style) -- eventually decays, producing increasingly assimilated "movements," until nothing is left physically and spiritually of Judaism and its carriers.

Today, I realized, there are only two groups: Orthodox who possess mesorah, and everyone else who doesn't(60).

Finally, perhaps crucially, I permitted myself a personal immersion in the world of mesorah. I entered a community of sages and detected what thousands before me found: a profound sincerity that even the leaders among the non-Orthodox admit they can not replicate. HUC Professor of Jewish Religious Thought, Eugene Borowitz, thus offers this confession(61):

"When the Bible was G-d's book and the Oral Torah had been given to Moses at Mount Sinai, there was no question why we should give them reverent attention.

They were G-d's own communications and, in a time when there no longer was prophecy, the best way one could be in touch with the Divine. When Reform Judaism insisted that the various books of the Torah tradition were largely human creations, that had the advantage of allowing unprecedented innovation. It also devalued the old texts and made them less sacred.

A simple experience brought the point home to me tellingly. I was teaching in a group together with... an Orthodox scholar. After reading a rabbinic passage to the group he put his book down on a desk, but so near the edge that it became unbalanced and fell off . He quickly retrieved it, kissed it, and put it more carefully on the desk, not stopping the development of the theme he was presenting. Kissing books, particularly when they have fallen, is a nice old Jewish custom which reflects very much more than respect for authors and publishers. It is related to our belief that our books derive ultimately from G-d -- that in loving G-d one must love G-d's words, the Oral and Written Torah.

I wonder if Liberal Jews with their sense of the humanity of our sacred literature could ever come to such regard for Torah that -- leaving aside their sense of propriety -- they could ever think of kissing one of its volumes."

I cried the first time I saw a yeshiva daven [pray] -- ordinary, but sincere people pouring forth their hearts in whispered praise and pleas, the way their teachers and teachers' teachers had for centuries.

I was dumbfounded watching Orthodox businessmen arrive in the beis medrash [study room] at 5:00 A.M. to pore over daf hayomi [daily page of Talmud] -- a feat that many non-Orthodox rabbis are incompetent to perform -- and touched when I found that they also returned after work each evening to prepare with their rebbe [teacher] for the next morning's class.

I remember vividly the first time I accompanied Tomche Shabbat -- an unlikely conspiracy of teenagers, young professionals and elderly sages -- on their way to furtively deliver crates of challahs, grape juice and chicken to the community's needy every erev Shabbat; and I recall trembling when I discovered that such an organization exists (and has always existed) in Orthodox communities around the world.

I will never forget the intense concern that filled my teacher's bright eyes when, stroking his white beard, he read me the Talmudic passage, "If a man masters the entire Bible and Talmud, but fails to make intimate connections with the previous generation's sages, he forever remains an ignoramus.(62) I will never forget how he held my hand and whispered, "You must always have a rebbe."

It was with this portrait before me that I returned to Orthodoxy, to mesorah, and to a world of promise and awe -- a world in which my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will touch Divinity and, with reverence and passion, lovingly kiss their sefarim [holy books].

[Back to Home Page] | [Back to "Still Jews" Gateway] |


1. For example, see Pirke Avot 1:1-2.

2. For example, see Talmud, Tractate Berachot 5A, Shabbat 31A, Megillah 19B and Gittin 60B

3. Maimonides' Introduction To Seder Zeraim.

4. See Josephus, Antiquities XIII:7, Hyam Macoby, Revolution In Judaea (New York; Taplinger Publishing Company, 1973) pp 55-74; Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology (New Haven; Yale Univ. Press, 1952).

5. For example, see Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman, Die Erste Mischna (Berlin, 1882), p 3, and H. Chaim Schimmel, The Oral Law (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1987) pp 19-35.

6. Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (University of Alabama Press: 1973) pp 4-5, 98.

7. David Rudavsky, Modern Jewish Religious Movements: A History of Emancipation and Adjustment (New York: Behrman House, 1967) pp 156-7.

8. Michael A. Meyer, Response To Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) p 91.

9. Even the Sadducees, Karaites and Christians professed belief in the Torah's Divine origin; they only rejected the Orthodox oral tradition.

10. David Rudavsky, Modern Jewish Religious Movements: A History of Emancipation and Adjustment (New York: Behrman House, 1967) pp 288.

11. Maimonides' Introduction To Perek Chelek (Tractate Sanhedrin), Foundations # 12 and # 13.

12. While the historical mainstream clung tightly to the dream of a return to Zion for [approximately] 2,000 years of exile, the fifth item in the [Reform] Pittsburgh Platform declares, "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."

The [Reform] movement softened its position in the 1937 Columbus Platform, but still feared offering enthusiastic encouragement through the return from the Diaspora: "In all lands where our people live, they assume and seek to share loyally the full duties and responsibilities of citizenship... [yet] in the rehabilitation of Palestine we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren."

In its 1976 San Francisco Platform, the Reform movement echoed this limited Zionism, "We encourage aliyah for those who with to find maximum personal fulfillment in the cause of Zion," immediately adding, "We demand that Reform Judaism be unconditionally legitimized in the State of Israel."

13. See John J. Appel, "The Trefa Banquet," Commentary, February 1966, pp 75-78.

14. Walter Jacob, ed., The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect: The Changing World of Reform Judaism, (Pittsburgh: Rodef Shalom Congregation Press, 1985) p 104.

15. Ibid, p 112.

16. Ibid, p 101.

17. Jack Wertheimer, ed., Tradition Reviewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, volume 2, (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1997) p 550.

18. Tradition Reviewed, volume 2, p 551.

19. Ibid, p 550.

20. Theodore I. Lenin and Associates , Rabbis and Synagogue in Reform Judaism, (West Hartford: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1972) pp 98-99.

21. Ibid

22. Milton Himmelfarb, "What Do American Jews Believe" symposium, Commentary, August 1996, p 35.

23. Elliot Abrams, Faith or Fear, (New York: Free Press, 1997) p 108.

24. Egon Mayer, "Jewish Continuity in an Age of Intermarriage," in Symposium on Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, vol 1, Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly, Baltimore, Nov 21, 1991.

25. Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) p 91.

26. Ibid, p 86.

27. Tradition Renewed, vol 2, p 57.

28. American Hebrew 57:18 (6 Sepetember 1895), p 426. In the history of Conservative Judaism published by the Jewish Theological Seminary, American Hebrew is described as "an unofficial voice for the [Jewish Theological] Seminary, indeed an arm of Seminary propaganda and publicity" (Tradition Renewed, vol 1, p 38).

29. Ibid, p 60.

30. Ibid, p 68.

31. Ibid, p 56.

32. David Ellenson and Lee Bycel, "A Seminary of Sacred Learning: The JTS Rabbinical Curriculum in Historical Perspective," in Tradition Renewed, vol 2, p 559. Ellenson is Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion [Reform] in LA, where Rycel is Dean.

33. Ibid

34. Ibid

35. Exodus 35:3

36. Tradition Renewed, vol 2, p 420.

37. Ibid, vol 1, p 530.

38. Marsha L. Rozenblit, "The Seminary During the Holocaust Years," in Tradition Renewed, vol 2, p 278-9. Rozenblit is Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

39. Ibid, p 282-289.

40. Ibid, p 279.

41. Ibid, p 286.

42. Ibid, p 287.

43. Ibid

44. Ibid, pp 295-6.

45. Ibid, p 489.

46. Ibid, p 497-9.

47. Ibid, p 492-5.

48. Commission members included: Victor Goodhill (Professor of Otoloic Research, UCLA); Marion Siner Gordon (Attorney); Rivkah Harris (Assyriologist); Milton Himmelfarb (American Jewish Committee); Francine Klagsbrun (Author); Harry Plotkin (Attorney); and Norman Redlich (Dean, NYU Law School).

49. Tradition Renewed, vol 2, p 502.

50. Ibid, p 574.

51. Ibid, p 575.

52. David Lieber, "What American Jews Believe" symposium, Commentary, Aug 1996, p 53.

53. David Lieber, "The State of Jewish Belief" symposium, Commentary, Aug 1966, p 116.

54. Neil Gillman, "What American Jews Believe" symposium, Commentary, Aug 1996, p 23.

55. Harold Kushner, "Is the Conservative Movement Halachic?" in Proceedings Of The 1980 Convention (Rabbinical Assembly, 1980).

56. North American Jewish Data Bank data extrapolated from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. See also Chaim I. Waxman, American Jews in Transition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), p 186.

57. Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism As A Civilization (New York: The Macmillian Co, 1934) pp 303-405.

58. David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997) pp 1-10.

59. Elliot Abrams, Faith or Fear (New York: The Free Press, 1997) pp 166-197. See also M. Herbert Danzger, Returning To Tradition: The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983).

60. The non-Orthodox editors of Commentary made the same observation in the introduction to their 1996 symposium The State Of Jewish Belief: "Reading the responses, one sees that the true division is between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Cover the identifications of the non-Orthodox and what they write will not usually give you a clue to a Reform or a Conservative affiliation."

61. Eugene Borowitz, Reform Judaism Today (New York: Behrman House, 1977) p 133.

62. Talmud, Tractate Brachot 47B.