Are Reform/Conservative Judaism A Separate Religion?

Orthodox Rabbi Reuven Spolter writes:

In a "Modest Proposal" styled op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi David Forman finally throws down the gauntlet. After years of trying to gain recognition from the government as legitimate streams of Judaism and years of failure, it’s time for the Conservative and Reform movements to declare themselves as a separate religion. He writes,

IN LIGHT of all the above, if, together, the Reform and Conservative movements were to declare themselves a separate religion from Orthodoxy, which in fact they are – perhaps not in some of their ritual and liturgical traditions, but most certainly in their ethical moorings regarding their respectful tolerance and concern for the "other" – the state would have no choice but to grant them the rights and privileges enjoyed by other religions in the country, which would necessarily include control over life-cycle events for their own constituency.

Several thoughts crossed my mind:
Click here to read more1. I find it fascinating that he automatically binds Conservative and Reform Judaism together, as if they share identical values, religious beliefs and dogma. Do they really share that much in common? His inadvertent bundling reminds me of my earlier post on the issue, and serves as just another indication that the two streams flow ever-so-slowly towards the inevitable merger. See also this article in the Jewish Standard (that I found via Hirhurim) about the chairman of the Conservative movement which said that

Eisen — co-author with sociologist Steven M. Cohen of “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America” and a respected scholar of American Judaism — acknowledged that he hears much talk about post-denominationalism and has visited some successful, non-affiliated synagogues. “I think that movements are indispensable,” he said, but noted that there’s room for those congregations that are “beyond” movements as well as for cooperative ventures among the different institutions.

2. Despite the derogatory rhetoric about Orthodoxy, I find it refreshing that Forman is finally willing to face the truth: Reform and Conservative Judaism might not be the same religion as Orthodoxy. This raises thorny questions about what a religion really is. How do we distinguish between different faiths versus dividing different streams within a single faith? What would the implications truly be were the two more liberal denominations to declare themselves distinct religions?

BARUCH PELTA POSTS: When R’ J. David Bleich suggested that Reform and Conservative be considered different religions, people got really ticked off.

I guess it’s cool as long as an Orthodox person doesn’t say it.

MYCROFT POSTS: Does Fohrman really think that the move would help the movements? While they might achieve minor benefits in Israel (which is truly doubtful, to be honest), what would the costs of such a move be?"

The costs to Orthodox in the US would be immense-what political power would a religion of 400-500K have in the US especiallyy when the majority would be centered in a couple of counties inNew York State.

In Israel-one should not forget that the anti-religous vote is now as large as the religous vote-Israel Beitenu main bargaining points for coalition were conversion and civil marriage issues-represents 1+million Russians inIsrael. Certainly a high percentage of Meretz, Labor and Kadima were voted for because they have next to no religious support-see egLivnis campaign at the end of the recent Israeli election.
In JerusalemPorush lost to an outand out secularist-Jerusalem where UTJ got approx 10% of the vote-Tel Aviv probably more typical UTJ got 1%.

HAGTGB POSTS: Certainly it was not the Conservative movement that was first to make this move. During the rise of Reform (and later the Conservative movement) the Orthodox went all out to try to keep them out of the official communal bodies of Europe and tried to deny them communal funds (and often, when the Reform took over, they were happy to try to return the favor). As we all know this was because the Orthodox could not legitimize these movements, i.e. saw them outside of Judaism. And the Israeli Rabbinate (and the RCA, Agudah etc.) proudly keep this tradition.

Later, when the Reform took over in Germany, it was R’ Samson R. Hirsch who first moved to have the Orthodox declare their independence from the formal Jewish community. Of course his movement’s goals failed but the point is he went to considerable effort to be declared officially separate from the Reform. Another religion. Separate monies.

And that was for ideological purposes (primarily). Here, we have the Conservative and Reform seeking independence for practical purposes (i.e. to get money to Orthodox have made sure they don’t get).

What I’m trying to say is that what is being suggested is hardly radical. I do agree with R’ Spolter that it is unlikely to have dramatic benefits for those consideration it. It doesn’t change underlying dynamics it appears to me. And as to its effect as a statement, just ask R’ Hirsch. It nearly ruined him.

JOSH POSTS: I agree with the larger point here–this is definitely not a positive development for Klal Yisrael. But I hope perhaps it will serve to highlight how often Orthodox leaders have insisted that Conservative and Reform Judaism are not, in fact, "real Torah Judaism." And yes, this sort of disrespect is sometimes a two-way street, but let’s be honest: has anyone ever heard of a Conservative community rejecting an Orthodox conversion?

A couple other thoughts on a very thought-provoking post:
A. It’s not clear to me how the Eisen quote illustrates Cons and Reform Jews being lumped together. "Post-denomenationalism" and Independent Minyanim are an important phenomenon in the Modern Orthodox world as well (though not to the same extent as in the Conservative world)–Indy Minyanim like Hadar in NYC draw significant numbers of MO Jews as well, and even more importantly the growing tide of Shira Chadasha style indy minyanim emerging from MO communities is a part of that trend too.

B. Also not clear to me how losing a tie to Orthodox Judaism hurts the other movements in practical affiliation #’s. I don’t know many Reform Jews who are active in their Reform temple because it’s not an Ortho Shul but hey, at least it’s the same religion! For better or for worse (I’m probably vote worse), most non-Ortho Jews really don’t care all that much what Ortho Jews think of them. Or, put in more empirical terms–the Jews leaving Cons and Reform aren’t for the most part, joining Orthodoxy. They’re becoming less connected, less affiliated.

DR. D.M. KALMAN POSTS: Is this not like the situation with the Kariates? They are known as "Kariate Jews" but certainly no longer viewed as actual Jews by mainstream or Torah Judiasm. As the Reform and Conservative give the "get" and make converts in non-orthodox ways they will move more and more into a completely different catagory–only the first generation of the breakaways will be acceptabe back into to fold should they choose to do tshuvah. I suspect the same will eventually happen to Chabad if it doesn’t turn back from the nonesense with which it has become involved.

ARYEH POSTS: In my community, there is such a minyan. I would not view it a spart of modern orthodoxy. It meets in a Reform temple library. Its members almost exclusively grew up conservative shuls. Perhaps their only touch point with Orthodox Judaism was some years in a Modern Orthodox day school. Creating something new, and saying it is part of Orthodoxy, does not make it so. BTW I am Modern Orthodox Jew, not some right wing radical, but someone who lives in the modern world with a professional job etc.

On the larger topic, this is where our path has lead us. Woe to us! Conservative and Reform have become one because ni really practices Conservative Judaism anymore (how many Conservative Jews only drive to the nearest shul, not to the one they like to go to, or ot to breakfast before shul), and Reform has become more "traditional" in its ways (kippot). Unlike most, though, I view the idea of klal yisrael as more important than temporal issues. We need to find ways to come together even we disagree theologically. Saying we are a different religion, ends those chances.

JOSH POSTS: Aryeh, that’s actually very interesting to hear–it’s quite different from my own experience with a few of these Shira Chadasha style minyanim in different cities. The ones I’ve been to have a majority of congregants who are children of Ortho families, grew up in Ortho shuls–very much coming out of the MO world. I’m not calling these minyanim Orthodox; that’s why I think they’re "post-denominational," but I think they’re the primary way post-denominationalism has an impact on MO communities.

Also, the minyan you describe is puzzling to me. What’s the attraction of a Shira Chadasha style minyan for non-Ortho Jews? Many non-Ortho Jews I know dislike Shira Chadasha style minyanim because it feels regressive–why go from fully egalitarian davening to only partially egalitarian davening if you don’t feel halachically constrained to do so?

ARYEH POSTS: Josh, I think for the group I am describing it comes down to two types: 1. A compromise between spouses who might otherwise be in different places; 2. People who grew up Conservative, but practicing who feel that the Conservative movement has left them entirely and certainly does not have many Shabbat communities. These "partnership minyanim" provide that community for them. That is all fine for them, but there seems to be some longing to be indentified as Orthodox, and to explain why Orthodoxy has a big problem that is solved by their minyan. Orthodoxy, MO in particular, has many problems. But, none of them are solved by this type of group.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Conservative Judaism, Israel, Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.