Reform and Conservative Judaism… What’s the Difference?

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas has an interesting article in the New York Jewish Week entitled “The Re-founding of Conservative Judaism,” in which he argues that Conservative Judaism has outgrown its historical reasons for existence and needs a “re-founding” based on community organizing. He’s probably right. But as a Reform rabbi, it got me to thinking about the Jewish denominations. In recent years, I have become more and more convinced that the differences between Reform and Conservative are shrinking, and that interdenominationalism will be an important trend in the future.

I’m not here to rail against organized religion (it wouldn’t be good for my career!) or to disparage religious movements. The various Jewish movements play an important role in organizing the Jewish world, providing resources, educating leadership. My question is: Is there still a distinctive social or ideological gap between the Reform and Conservative movements?

Historically there have been at least three (and probably more) important distinctions:

  • The ethnic: Reform Judaism was founded by German Jews, who were more highly assimilated and were looking for a more assimilated Judaism. The earliest Conservative Jews were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe who were interested in more traditional Judaism in an American context).
  • The ritual: Reform initially rejected a number of traditional practices – such as kashrut and kippah – that were aesthetically or ideologically out of sync with modernity, while Conservative maintained them (partly because they provided a sense of Jewish authenticity).
  • The ideological: Conservative Judaism remains halachic – i.e. it continues to embrace the binding nature of Jewish law (though with modern principles taken into account) – while Reform affirms that halacha is nonbinding or optional.

There is truth to all of these. There is no question that German-dominated Reform Judaism was quick to discard ritual that many Eastern European Jews found necessary/meaningful/ endearing/nostalgic/authentic. The Conservative movement probably owes its existence to that fact. But it is a largely irrelevant fact so many generations later. Today, if anything, the Reform world is moving toward the right, taking on Hebrew prayer, rituals like kippah, mikveh, and aspects of kashrut.

It is also true that the Conservative movement continues to speak in the language of halacha (it has a law committee and teshuvot) while Reform speaks in the language of personal autonomy and individual choice. But even here, the divide is not so wide. The Conservative movement has always referred to itself as “Positive-Historical Judaism” – i.e. Judaism that is rooted in divine revelation (which is the meaning here of the word “positive”), and simultaneously shaped by historical evolution. But Reform Judaism similarly embraces the notion that Judaism is based both on eternal divine (however you define it) commands – the ethical mitzvot – and on historically evolving culture and folkways – the ritual mitzvot. From the 1999 Pitsburgh Principles of Reform Judaism:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

Furthermore, the Reform movement has a Responsa Committee, which deliberates and makes decisions on matters of Jewish law in a Reform context. The difference is that those responsa are nonbinding, intended to provide guidance for the Jew in choosing his or her own practice. The Reform way to talk about Jewish tradition is to use the language of “Choice Through Knowledge” – we make choices about our ritual practice based on our study and our understanding of the meanings of those traditions. Contrary to the notion that Reform is “non-halachic,” I believe that this is a type of halachic process. And let’s be honest – Conservative Jews also make choices. Conservative rabbis know this, which is why they often operate on the assumption that the more knowledge their congregants amass, the more they will choose to fulfill the mitzvot.

So while differences between the two movements remain, I think it’s more useful to think of a continuum of liberal Judaism that includes the Conservative and Reform movements with significance points of connection between them. Every continuum has its extremes, but there is too much in common here to think of them as being really separate.

What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Reform and Conservative Judaism… What’s the Difference?

  1. Thank you, Rabbi! I was seeking to determine which branch/denomination of Judaism to convert to. I have been considering converting and even spoke with three Rabbi’s to see where I would best fit! I know for a certain Conservative Judaism is for me! AND Baruch HaShem my children are also going to convert to Conservative! In fact my son and daughter are going to ‘Shul tonight to begin the process, I will have to come on alternate Sabbaths since I have to wait until someone stays with my 94 yr old aunt who has Alzheimers. (My daughter and I will take alternate Sabbaths) I hope I didnot take up too much of your time! Wanted to get all this in before Shabbos!(smile)

    1. If your looking for authentic, unadulterated Judaism I recommend orthodox Judaism. That’s the only real truth everything else is straying from that path and you might think its real Judaism when in reality its a joke. Goodluck!

    1. Sort of. Progressive and Reform are both names for the same thing (The official international name of the movement is Progressive Judaism. In North America it’s called Reform Judaism.) Liberal Judaism is a broader term for non-Orthodox Judaism, which encompasses Reform (Progressive), Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, arguably among a few others.

  2. The first time out of curiosity that I entered a reform/liberal/progressite a so called SYNAGOGUE I really thought it was some kind of Church. I was absolutely shocked. I cenjoy from a religious Jewish Middle-Eastern background therefore it was absolutely an experience out of this world for me.I was so.happy when the Shabbat sevice was over and cpuldn”t get out quick enough. I would have never be so rude as to leave while the service was in progress.

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