History and Halakhah, Hanukkah and Hasidism
Nov 17th 2014

Take the opportunity to study and reflect on what we—as Conservative Jews—uniquely do.

A hallmark of Conservative Judaism has been a fidelity to Jewish law and observance combined with an awareness of the historic development of Judaism. In mid-19th century Europe, the forerunner of what came to be Conservative Judaism called itself Positive-Historical Judaism. “Positive” meant that (1) Judaism was structured by laws that oblige a specific action (lex posita) and (2) we had an affirmative attitude toward halakhah (in distinction from Reform Judaism). “Historical” meant that (1) to properly understand Judaism, it must be studied historically, and (2) Judaism was a religion that had been influenced by people and places in history (in distinction from Orthodox Judaism).

As a result of this twin commitment, Conservative Judaism retains a practice of halakhah which governs our congregational communities, schools, youth programs and professional organizations. Rabbis will often speak about Jewish law and will strongly advocate the relevance, significance and obligations of Jewish practice to individuals and families associated with our synagogues and for the broader Jewish community. Conservative Judaism finds itself most strongly associated with Orthodox Judaism in its commitment to Shabbat observance, kashrut, daily prayer and other aspects of Jewish ritual. 

Our awareness of historical development leads Conservative Judaism to differ from Orthodoxy in our approach to Jewish law. We seek to preserve Jewish practice but are willing to review and restructure some elements of halakhah. Those changes are not made lightly and require careful legal justification. The role of women in ritual, the way electricity is used on Shabbat, some prayer practices, medical ethical concerns, approaches to conversion and new conceptions of gender are all areas where we have differentiated ourselves from Orthodoxy.

The recognition that halakhah has a history is what links us to Reform Judaism. We each teach about a Judaism that adapts and evolves over time in response to socio-economic factors and ethical-spiritual insights. Our awareness of historical development provides an intellectual-spiritual framework that stimulates careful examination of how Jewish life may have been influenced by the culture and communities in which we lived. We differ from Reform in that our willingness to describe change is independent from a decision to prescribe change. We are more conservative and give primacy to communal practice and historic precedence over individual choice when determining what is authentically Jewish.

This year, we have planned two study opportunities that highlight new research into the history of Judaism. Each will challenge accepted “truths” about Judaism and highlight the polarity between a received tradition and what new historical insights might teach us. They provide an opportunity for you to become more knowledgable as Jews and to consider how you synthesize the different elements of history and halakhah.

From December 1 to 3, Professor Lee I. Levine of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will be the Ralph and Roslyn Halbert Lecturer at Beth Tzedec and the University of Toronto. He will join us just before H̱anukkah for a series of presentations on Jews and Judaism in the ancient world. At the University on December 1, Dr. Levine will explore art and archeology to argue for a new paradigm of how classical Judaism came to be. At Beth Tzedec on December 2 and 3, he will explore “What Triggered the Maccabean Revolt?” and whether the Maccabees were “Religious Extremists or Prudent Politicians”. Rabbi Levine’s new conceptualization has implications for current issues in Israel and Jewish life. As Conservative Jews, your pattern of practice of H̱anukkah may continue as in the past, but your understanding of “what H̱anukkah is” will definitely be changed.

In the spring, after Pesaẖ, we will welcome our Louis and Moshe Weisfeld Lecturer, Professor Moshe Rosman of Bar Ilan University. Dr. Rosman will articulate a revised understanding of the cultural, social, economic and political context of the “golden age” of Polish-Jewish history. In that context, Rabbi Rosman will also discuss the surprising role that Jewish women played in the culture of early modern Jewish life. As well, he will present a new history of Hasidism, based less on what Hasidism thought and more on his archival research into the life and times of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer—known as the Ba’al Shem Tov—the 18th century mystic whose followers profoundly influenced the shape of modern Judaism.

Whether it is ancient Judaism or its early modern expression, we want you to have the opportunity to study and reflect on what we uniquely do (Jewish practice, halakhah) and how it developed by borrowing from and resisting the societies around it (history). This approach is characteristically found in rabbinical schools, synagogues and educational programs associated with Conservative Judaism. Rather than tell you what Judaism is, we want you to discover how various expressions of Judaism evolved. At Beth Tzedec, we are pleased to present all this to you without apologies or apologetics, encouraging you to develop your own synthesis that incorporates Jewish behaviour, belief and how it all came to be.

Some sources for further study:

Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants. (USY, 1996). See on-line excerpts at

Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence? (Washington, 2008).

Moshe J. Rosman, Founder of H̱asidism:  A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. (Littman, 2014). or