For much of the movement’s history, Conservative Judaism avoided publishing systematic explications of the Jewish principles of faith. This was a conscious attempt to hold together a wide coalition. This concern largely became a non-issue after the left-wing of the movement seceded in 1968 to form the Reconstructionist movement, and after the right wing seceded in 1985 to form the Union for Traditional Judaism.
In 1988, the leadership council of Conservative Judaism finally issued an official statement of belief, Emet Ve-Emunah Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. In accord with classical rabbinic Judaism, it agrees that Jews must hold certain beliefs. However, it notes that the Jewish community never developed any one binding catechism. Thus, it is difficult to pick out only one formulation as binding. Instead, Emet Ve-Emunah illuminates the range of theological beliefs that are desirably/permissible within authentic, historical Judaism.
For instance, Emet Ve-Emunah affirms belief in God and in God’s revelation of Torah to the Jews; however it also affirms the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of these issues. In terms of boundaries, atheism, trinitarian views of God, and polytheism are ruled out. Conservative Judaism rejects relativism, yet also rejects literalism and fundamentalism.
Conservative Judaism affirms monotheism. Its members have varied beliefs about the nature of God, and no one understanding of God is mandated. Among the beliefs affirmed are: Maimonidean rationalism; Kabbalistic mysticism; Hasidic panentheism (neo-Hasidism, Jewish Renewal); limited theism (as in Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”); organic thinking in the fashion of Whitehead and Hartshorne, a.k.a. process theology (such as Rabbis Max Kaddushin and William E. Kaufman).
Mordecai Kaplan’s religious naturalism (Reconstructionist Judaism) used to have an influential place in the movement, but since Reconstructionism developed as an independent movement, this influence has waned. Papers from a recent Rabbinical Assembly conference on theology were recently printed in a special issue of the journal Conservative Judaism (Winter 1999); the editors note that Kaplan’s naturalism seems to have dropped from the movement’s radar screen.
In agreement with traditional Judaism, Conservative Judaism holds that God inspired prophets to write the Torah (five books of Moses) and the Hebrew Bible. However, for theological reasons most Conservative Jews reject the traditional Jewish idea that God dictated the words of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal revelation. Divine revelation, however, while held to be real, is generally believed to be non-verbal — that is, the revelation did not include the particular words of the divine texts. Conservative Judaism allows its adherents to hold to a wide array of views on the subject of revelation.
Conservative Jews are comfortable with the findings of higher criticism, including the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the current text of the Torah was redacted together from several earlier sources. They go further, and the movement’s rabbinic authorities and official Torah commentary (Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary) affirm that Jews should make use of modern critical literary and historical analysis to understand how the Bible developed. These views are rejected as heretical by most of Orthodox Judaism, but are accepted as valid by all non-Orthodox Jewish movements.
Conservative Jews reconcile these beliefs by holding that God, in some way, did reveal his will to Moses and later prophets. However, records of revelation may have been passed down through the centuries in many ways, including written documents, folklores, epic poems, etc. These records were eventually redacted together to form the Torah, and later on, the other books of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible].
Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law codes as the basis for Jewish law. However it holds that “however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition”. (Solomon Schechter.)
Conservative Judaism holds that halakha (Jewish law) is normative, i.e. that halakha is something that Jewish people must strive to actually live by in their daily lives. This would include the laws of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath); the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher); the practice of thrice daily prayer; observance of the Jewish holidays and life-cycle events.
At the same time, Conservative Jews find it repugnant to coerce anyone into following religious practices. Thus, Conservative Judaism holds that Jewish law is normative, but not enforced. That is, Jewish law encompasses actions that Jews actually ought to be following in their daily lives, even though there is no enforcement of these rules. (See also, the various positions within contemporary Judaism as regards Halakha and the Talmud.)
A number of studies have shown that there is a large gap between what the Conservative movement teaches and what most of its laypeople have incorporated into their daily lives. In practice, the majority of people who have come to join Conservative synagogues only follow all these laws rarely. Most do follow most of the laws some of the time, but only a minority follow most or all of the laws all of time. There is a substantial committed core, consisting of the lay leadership, rabbis, cantors, educators, and those who have graduated from the movement’s religious day schools and summer camps, that do take Jewish law very seriously. Recent studies have shown an increase in the observance of members of the movement.
Conservative Jews believe that movements to its left, such as Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, have erred by rejecting the traditional authority of Jewish law and tradition. They believe that the Orthodox Jewish movements, on the theological right, have erred by slowing down, or stopping, the historical development of Jewish law: “Conservative Judaism believes that scholarly study of Jewish texts indicates that Judaism has constantly been evolving to meet the needs of the Jewish people in varying circumstances, and that a central halakhic authority can continue the halakhic evolution today.” (Soc.Culture.Jewish Usenet Newsgroup FAQ)
Conservative Judaism holds that Orthodox Judaism is a valid and legitimate form of rabbinic Judaism and respects the validity of its rabbis. Conservative Judaism holds that both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have made major breaks with the historic definition of Judaism, both by their rejection of Jewish law as normative, and by their unilateral acts in creating a separate definition of Jewishness (i.e. the Reform movement’s ruling in 1982, accepting patrilineal descent as an additional way of defining Jewishness). Despite the Conservative movement’s disagreement with the more liberal movements, it does respect the right of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews to interpret Judaism in their own way. Thus the Conservative movement recognizes the right of Jews to form such denominations, and recognizes their clergy as rabbis, but often does not accept their specific decisions as valid.
The Conservative position is that Orthodoxy had deviated from historical Judaism through an excessive concern with recent codifications of Jewish law. The Conservative movement consciously rejects the Orthodox understanding of Jewish history, which entails near-total deference to seemingly infallible rabbis, and instead holds that a more fluid model is both necessary, and theologically and historically justifiable. The Conservative movement makes a conscious effort to use historical sources to determine what kind of changes to Jewish tradition have occurred, how and why they occurred, and in what historical context. With this information they believe that can better understand the proper way for rabbis to interpret and apply Jewish law to our conditions today. See also under Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Mordecai Waxman, a leading figure in the Rabbinical Assembly, writes that “Reform has asserted the right of interpretation but it rejected the authority of legal tradition. Orthodoxy has clung fast to the principle of authority, but has in our own and recent generations rejected the right to any but minor interpretations. The Conservative view is that both are necessary for a living Judaism. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds itself bound by the Jewish legal tradition, but asserts the right of its rabbinical body, acting as a whole, to interpret and to apply Jewish law.” (Mordecai Waxman Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism)
The above text was written by Robert Kaiser, and was the basis of an article on Wikipedia for many years.
Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative (Masorti) Judaism
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The Rabbinical Assembly
United Synagogue of America
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism
Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs