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What are arguments that Orthodox Jews have published (not on Mi Yodeya) that Conservative Judaism is an invalid form of Judaism?

Have any Orthodox authors written articles or books that made such arguments in detail?

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  • To debate each and every position independently (as @Shmuel has done for three examples) is also far from desirable in this context... I'm assuming you want discussions of the movement's position as a whole, right? Jan 11 '15 at 1:27
  • @Matt I'm looking for specific arguments purporting to demonstrate that the movement is illegitimate. This could involve either the general positions or the movement or specific examples that prove the general point.
    – Kordovero
    Jan 11 '15 at 1:51
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    The movement as a whole? How would you argue that, if so many of the leaders believe(d) and said different things? Arguments that the whole movement is a deviant sect and any member ipso facto a פורש מן הציבור? I've seen such comments, but only in the form of polemics or announcements not arguments Jan 11 '15 at 1:58
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Jan 12 '15 at 3:03
  • You should notice that Rabbis must be very careful because practically every argument can be equally turned against the orthodox movement also, based on the Talmudic discourse.
    – Al Berko
    Dec 24 '20 at 18:51
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I'm going to paint this in overly broad strokes, but here goes:

Theologically, the official stance of the Conservative movement is that the Torah was "inspired by God, but written by man." Orthodox theology believes this to conflict with one of Maimonides' principles of faith, that the Torah was dictated by God word-by-word to Moses.

An early practical demarcation between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues was the presence/absence of the mechitza, with many Orthodox rabbis opining that it was prohibited to pray at a synagogue where the men and women sit together. (Much ink has been spilled on this, and at one point a major Orthodox seminary issued all its graduates a copy of The Sanctity of the Synagogue, a book all about this subject.)

On various other matters, Orthodox scholars have felt that Conservative rabbis' readings of halacha have been "overly creative" in the service of whatever conclusion is desired, put mildly.

Here's how Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein puts it:

... the responsa of other denominations. I have seen quite a few (they used to be far more popular decades ago, when they made more of a pretense of being halachic) that follow a predictable sequence:

1) Decide what conclusion you want to arrive at. This will often be based on predicting what the Jewish ethical response must be in a world that has changed so significantly from the early legal texts of Judaism, that the modern author is given much leeway.

2) Find a few gemaros that seem to deal with the issue. If they don’t agree with your conclusion, either ignore them altogether, or find some understanding of each counterexample which will make it irrelevant to our times. This can be done by finding a single Rishon whose explanation of the gemara makes it possible to argue that the rabbis of the Talmud simply would not have said the same thing today. It doesn’t matter if that Rishon’s thinking is outweighed by a huge number of contradictory opinions.

3) Alternatively, show why such thinking is simply at odds with contemporary insight and reasonableness, and therefore must be discarded as foreign to the “spirit” of Jewish law and its inherent resiliency and flexibility.

4) Find a medrash as a springboard to show how quintessentially Jewish, how much in the spirit of Jewish law your own conclusion is.

5) Accept your original argument.

Or as our friend Fred put it in a comment below (thank you mori urebbi):

The common thread in those examples is that the Conservative movement (broadly speaking) purports to be a halachic movement but they employ untenable halachic arguments to suit a desired outcome that is itself based in extra-Judaic (or even contra-Judaic) ethics or values.

Here are some nice illustrative examples:

Driving a gasoline-powered car on the Sabbath: (Rabbi Adlerstein gives this example.)

Orthodox: The Torah says don't burn things on Saturday, therefore you can't drive a car as it burns gasoline.

Reform: The Torah is wrong. The point is to rest, and burning things is only a lot of work when you have to rub stones together. Driving is a much better way of resting than walking a mile!

Conservative: Well ... the Torah says don't burn things, but ... well ... the Talmud says it's not as bad if you do it for different purposes than its Biblical use. The Biblical use of burning was to boil water [to cook dyes for tapestries], but when you burn gasoline the purpose is for transportation. (Orthodox response: the Talmud's example of alternate-purpose is burning a document to destroy it. The Biblical use case is burning as a fuel source, which is exactly what a gasoline engine does.)

Intimate touching between two men.

Orthodox: The Torah says men shouldn't sleep together. It also says "don't come close to shameful acts"; just as it's wrong for a married woman to do "everything but" with someone other than her husband, it's wrong for two men to do "everything but."

Reform: The Torah is wrong. Religion should have no say on what consenting adults do with their private parts.

Conservative: Well ... we can't contradict the verse in the Torah ... so we can't actually allow certain actions ... but ... well we'll just have commitment ceremonies, we don't know what they'll really do in private ... and because of human dignity, we'll allow "everything but." (Orthodox response: "human dignity" is used Talmudically to allow minor infractions in situations where they've accidentally collided with human dignity, e.g. there's no pre-cut toilet paper in the bathroom and now you're stuck. Not to do away altogether with a prohibition.)

A female cantor reciting the Amida out-loud, and a man in the congregation will listen to fulfill his obligation

Orthodox: the Talmud says you can only fulfill someone else's obligation if your level of obligation is greater than or equal to theirs. The Talmud also says that men have more obligations vis-a-vis prayer than women; therefore, a woman praying out-loud can't fulfill a man's obligation.

Reform: The Talmud is wrong. There should be no gender differences in Judaism. What's more, the whole concept of a monarchical deity dictating is outdated. Prayer should respect personal autonomy and individual spirituality.

Conservative: well, we can't argue with the Talmud ... but ... well, we can demand our female cantors take a vow to pray thrice daily, thus reaching the same level of obligation as men. (Orthodox response: that obligation would be due to the force of the vow, not the original obligation to pray per se.) Or ... we will hereby obligate all women to pray thrice daily, and if most of them don't or can't do so, well, that's not our concern.

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    @CharlesKoppelman I think Shalom's elaboration on the examples was on-topic and illustrative. If you disagree, I think downvoting is better than a radical revision. As far as sources, I agree that this should be sourced, but all of Shalom's claims about the Orthodox positions and rebuttals have mainstream sources and can be sourced without too much difficulty. So far as I know, Shalom's depiction of the Reform and Conservative positions is broadly true (if somewhat oversimplified), though the variation within those movements is makes it difficult to address them completely in a brief answer.
    – Fred
    Jan 11 '15 at 4:18
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    @CharlesKoppelman The common thread in those examples is that the Conservative movement (broadly speaking) purports to be a halachic movement but they employ untenable halachic arguments to suit a desired outcome that is itself based in extra-Judaic (or even contra-Judaic) ethics or values. I agree that sourcing is important, however.
    – Fred
    Jan 11 '15 at 4:34
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    @Fred Ok, now find someone (external to this site) who's made that argument and used it to dismiss the Conservative movement as an invalid form of Judaism and that's a legitimate answer. Jan 11 '15 at 4:37
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    @CharlesKoppelman Now that Rabbi Adlerstein's quote gives the general case, the examples point out how that general statement applies. This seems to be a good answer. Jan 11 '15 at 15:10
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    It is worth noting that historically speaking many Orthodox Union affiliated congregations in the early 20th century did not have a mechitza; today only one in Denver does not. I'm not saying the halacha changed, but certainly in practice, Conservative and Orthodox used to be quite close.
    – user5540
    Jan 12 '15 at 0:25
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One of the consistent promoters of Torah/Orthodox Judaism is Rabbi Avi Shafran.

Already in his first book, "Jewthink" published in 1977 he laid out very clearly the Orthodox perspective that any form of Judaism that claims to be legitimate must (among other things) accept halacha as being binding.

This would of course delegitimize Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, since they do not claim to be bound by halacha. But obstensively, Conservative Judaism would still be included, since they claim fealty to halacha.

Over the past few decades, he has repeatedly demonstrated that the Conservative movement is not actually a halachic movement. His most famous piece discussing this was published in Moment Magazine February 2001 under the title "The Conservative Lie." (It's available from Moment through a subscription based archive service here, along with the follow-up. Rabbi Shafran has made the article available on his own website here.) Here are the opening few paragraphs (slightly abridged):

Sincere and dedicated Conservative Jews need to face an uncomfortable fact: Their movement is a failure. To make so sweeping a statement is painful to me... I hope I will be forgiven by Conservative readers for my forthrightness, but their movement is effectively defunct.

...But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment—to inspire Jews to Jewish observance—not only remains unrealized, but recedes with each passing year.

That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The Conservative rabbinic leadership has done all it could to set less demanding standards for Jewish religious observance, and has produced reams of paper purporting to justify them. It has established pulpits, produced rabbis, and attracted members.

But even the movement’s radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of Jews who identify as Conservative. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29 percent of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat. A mere 15 percent consider themselves Sabbath observant (even by Conservative standards).

A study of Conservative congregants conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer in 1996 confirmed that the movement was utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled said that it was “all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths.” And nearly three-quarters of Conservative Jews said that they consider a Jew to be anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a gentile—the official Reform position, rejected by Conservative leaders as nonhalachic. Tellingly, only about half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were kosher, by any standard.

There are two explanations for Conservatism’s striking failure: (1) The movement is not honest, and (2) it is superfluous.

The dishonesty is regarding their stance on halacha. he first quotes a few major Conservative rabbis who emphatically proclaim that Conservative Judaism is bounnd by halacha. He then goes on at length to cite numerous examples of how the Conservative movement is not a halachic movement, including copious statements from conservative rabbis themselves who openly acknowledge this.

He mentions there as well a general critique of the Conservative halachic process:

The law of probability leads us to expect that there will be times when the halachic result will be more lenient than one might expect, and other times when it will be more demanding. Tellingly, though, and practically without exception, Conservative “reinterpretations” of Jewish law have entailed permitting something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was driving a car on the Sabbath, the introduction of “egalitarian” services, or the Biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the “reevaluations” have virtually all, amazingly, resulted in new permissions. That is a clear sign not of objectivity but of agenda, of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah wants from us and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool to promote personal beliefs.

(The second point he mentioned, about Conservative Judaism being superfluous, was a separate point about how the Reform movement is more effective at doing what Conservative movement tried to do; it's not relevant for the discussion here.)

Moment Magazine subsequently published two articles responding to Rabbi Shafran, written by very prominent Conservative rabbis. The magazine then published a rebuttal by Rabbi Shafran in June 2001. In that piece, he apologized for the name of the prior article; "The Conservative Lie" was chosen by the magazine, not by him.

More significantly, he focused on the responses of the two Conservative rabbis. He pointed out how their articles only focused on the fact that Conservative Judaism is thriving, and that they accused him of sinas chinam (baseless hatred). But they never actually offered any evidence contradicting his point that their movement is not halachic!

Many of the points he makes in the article also feature prominently in his earlier book "Migrant Soul." It's the story of a man who converts, first to Conservative Judaism and then to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Shafran knew the man (and his Jewish wife who is also becoming more religious) while they were going through the conversion process and helped them with the conversion.

In the book, there are numerous real-life examples of how this sincere convert to Conservative Judaism keeps finding out that Conservative Judaism isn't actually halachically compliant. It describes how the conservative rabbis said the local seafood restaurant was kosher, even though all the fish was cooked with non-kosher oil; shatnez isn't applicable, nor is there a need to kasher dishes which were used for non-kosher food; laws of family purity should not be followed today; and much more. These are actual examples from first-hand knowledge that Rabbi Shafran recounts in the book.

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