The Orthodox – Conservative Split and Rabbi Solomon Goldman

In its time, the Cleveland Jewish Center case in 1927-1929 was considered the Scopes Monkey trial for the Orthodox community, fully covered by JTA and the Jewish newspapers, generating a public reaction of creating lasting denominational sides.

Rabbi Solomon Goldman a graduate of RIETS and JTSA and a follower of Mordecai Kaplan was challenged by a fraction of his congregation that did not like the direction that he was taking his 1500 family synagogue. They started a court case to force the rabbi to abide by old-time Orthodoxy.

Before proceeding it is important to not confuse denominations and deviant practices. A denomination is a fixed self defining group with a common name, structure, and doctrine. They have separated themselves from competing groups and are know as their own group. A deviance is a practice done within a single denomination. An Orthodox rabbi who advocates the abolition of Yom Kippur is a deviant not a denomination. Or the 1960’s case of the Conservative rabbi who substituted a frolic in the ocean for immersion in his conversions was a deviant who received censure; he was not now a Reform rabbi.

In addition, it is important to note as a premise that the United States does not interfere in the creation and definition of religious groups; hence the US is unique in its multiplying and contractions of denominations. In the real world, property is one of the biggest criteria for the stability of denominational structure. Who owns the land? Episcopalians despite declining numbers survive because they own vast amounts of property. Most other groups like Methodists who only own paltry converted homes, sell them and decline.

Court cases about denominations determine who owns the property based on the court assumption that founders wanted a certain denomination. Between the 1930’s and the 1950’s the number of topics of contention between the Conservative and Orthodox denominations got whittled down to mehitzah as the division between denominations since a judge could visually rule on the topic. A study of these extremely important court cases and the testimony on both sides is a disideratum and would make a great dissertation. Because of these cases the Young Israel movement had a clause that they can claim your synagogue property if they disagree with them. The recent repeal of the clause is one of the most important under-reported changes in Orthodoxy in the last few years. Legally, it allows the congregations to go their separate ways.

Back to our story:

In 1924, some of the old-timers in Cleveland took Goldman to court to say he is deviating from Orthodoxy. There were blow by blow dispatches from court.

Testimony to Establish What is Orthodoxy’ Will Be Presented in Courts November 4, 1927
Celebrated Cleveland Case to Force Decision on Orthodox vs. Conservative Issue
The friction on theological grounds obtaining throughout the country between strictly Orthodox congregations and those termed Conservative, affiliated with the United Synagogue of America, is being aired, preparatory to a trial which will begin in the Cleveland courts on Nov. 15.

The taking of depositions by rabbis and laymen, leaders of the Orthodox and Conservative wings in New York, began yesterday at the Manhattan Square Hotel for the forthcoming trial in the suit of a group of Orthodox members of the Cleveland Jewish Center against Rabbi Solomon Goldman, spiritual leader of the congregation.

The conflict between the Orthodox group and the Rabbi dates back two and a half years. The congregation, which has been in existence fifty years, has built the Jewish Center in which it was stated a million dollars was invested. A committee of the Orthodox members… filed a suit against Rabbi Goldman, alleging that he has diverted from the constitution of the congregation which provides that as long as ten members will insist on the Orthodox ritual, the congregation is to remain Orthodox. The committee insists that the Center continue to adhere to the Orthodox ritual.

The present board of the Center and Rabbi Goldman contend that the mode of worship, ritual and practice introduced by Rabbi Goldman is in accordance with traditional Judaism.

The trial, the first of its kind in the United States, will thus have to be decided on the question of what constitutes Orthodoxy. So far the testimony of Dr. B. Drachman, Rabbi Leo Jung, Rabbi M. S. Margolies, Rabbi Eliezar Silver of Springfield, Rabbi J. L. Selzer of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of the Union of Orthodox Congregations and Mr. Gedaliah Bublick, editor of the Orthodox “Jewish Daily News” has been taken.

The witnesses are asked to answer to 33 questions which pertain to the charges brought by the Orthodox committee against Rabbi Goldman. Among the charges are that Rabbi Goldman had denied the Sinaitic origin of the Torah and the Decalogue, that he had permitted men and women to sit together in the synagogue, that he abolished the saying of grace at public dinners, that he had abolished the priestly benediction at the synagogue services and that he kisses the brides after performing the marriage ceremony.

According to Jacob Joseph Weinstein author of the biography Solomon Goldman: A Rabbi’s Rabbi other complaints included he eats with an uncovered head and does not say grace, that the Rabbi carries his books on the Sabbath, that he removed pitom haketoret and other parts of korbanot, that he read from progressive authors from the pulpit, that he invited left-wing radical speakers.

In his theological writings, Goldman declares he is not a deviant from Orthodoxy but that he is an entirely different denomination willing to make sweeping changes nationally and locally. In later years, he distributed newsletters of comprehensive changes needed in the Shulkhan Arukh. The changes are based on viewing the tradition as understood in American Protestant Congregational terms, the low-church ability to say that each and every church is independent and can make its own application of the tradition as found in Congregationalists and Methodists. Later in life he moves closer to Reconstructionist positions based on peoplehood. Goldman views Orthodoxy as the deviant:

A new Judaism dubbed Orthodoxy was unconsciously but dangerously approaching Catholicism. Whereas the reward of a mizvah was considered to be the performance of another mizvah now it guaranteed salvation-personal salvation in the world to come…Many a maggid emulated revivalist and evangelist and he cracking fires of hell lent force to many a sterile derasha.(81)

Goldman himself took the stand and gave a lecture on the history of Judaism and denominations.

Defendant denies that the term “traditional” is synonymous with “Orthodox,” as applies to Judaism. Defendant avers that there has been no governing body of Jewish churches for the past eighteen hundred years but that each congregation makes up a separate entity, responsible alone to itself and without control by any other organization. Among the Jews, the word traditional is used in connection with Jewish law, and in Judaism from time immemorial there has been recognized the existence of both a written law and a traditional law.

The word “Orthodox” in the Christian Church has been used to designate rigidity and inflexibility in creed and was never applied to ritual or practice. In the Jewish religion on the other hand there has never been a rigid definition of creed and the term “Orthodox” has not had a meaning in the Jewish religion until the last century and then it has been and is used in connection with ritual or practice.”

The Orthodox Jews insist upon the rigid observance of Jewish customs and practices outside the synagogue as well as within. They insist upon eating with covered heads, in the ceremony of washing their hands before a meal and in the ceremony of grace before and after meals. The ritual forbids shaving. The Rabbis of the defendant congregation are shaven, as are the members and even the plaintiffs in this action. The synagogue has never had a central platform which is usual in Orthodox churches. The members, including some of the plaintiffs, eat with uncovered heads, and many of the members, including some of the plaintiffs, do not observe the ceremony of washing hands or grace before or after meals.

The customs, rituals, and practices of the defendant congregation have been largely in conformity with those of Conservative synagogues. During the reign of its first rabbi and since the present one, it has had a late Friday evening service, in conformity with other Conservative churches, as distinguished from Orthodox churches.(15-16)

In response, Reform Rabbi Stephan Wise wrote to Goldman:

So you are the Yiddisher Bishop Brown. I am sorry that I cannot get in the fight with you. It ought to be lots of fun, and I will pay you the compliment of telling you that I am rather sorry for your opponents. I think they are going to be very sorry that they tackled the thing at all before you get through with them.” (17)

The congregation replied in court to its challengers

Cleveland Center Leaders Reply to Orthodox Charges November 20, 1927
“We, the undersigned, members of Congregation Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo, known as the Jewish Center, beg to declare: “On November first and second members of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and the Union of Orthodox Congregations made reply to a series of questions contained in the petition submitted to the Cleveland Court of Common Pleas by a number of dissatisfied members of our Congregation against the congregation and Rabbi Goldman. These questions and answers received wide publicity in the Yiddish press, conveying the impression that the Congregation and Rabbi Goldman are admitting the truth of these charges.
In the meantime, may we be permitted to state the following:
1. “The impression has been giver that the Jewish Center has been an Orthodox congregation for fifty years and that Rabbi Goldman, with the assistance of a few newcomers in the congregation, have sought to reform it,
“It is true that our congregation was founded sixty years ago, but for more than a quarter of a century it has been moving in the direction of what is generally known as Conservative Judaism. As a matter of history, the Orthodox members deserted the congregation when our building on Thirty-Seventh Street and Woodland Avenue was erected more than thirty years ago, Some twenty years ago we engaged as our spiritual leader the late Rabbi Samuel Margolis, who was known to shave, to eat without a hat, and seldom if ever attended daily services.
Our congregation never pretended to be Orthodox. We have had late Friday evening service for more than a decade. We have had religious school and confirmation of boys and girls together for about fifteen years. We were never, for example, identified with the Mizrachi. Rabbi Margolis was known as a general Zionist and the congregation always followed him. Ours was also one of the first congregations to join the United Synagogue of America. In 1921 prior to Rabbi Goldman’s coming to our congregation we considered a merger with a well-known Conservative congregation in Cleveland.

“Rabbi Goldman was well-known in the city of Cleveland, where he had occupied the pulpit of the Ben Jeshurun for three years prior to his coming to the Center. He never pretended to be an Orthodox rabbi any more than our Congregation pretended to be an Orthodox congregation.

2. “It has been stated that a large clement of the Congregation has brought suit against the Center and Rabbi Goldman.
“This, of course, is equally untrue. The Congregation, which is the largest Conservative congregation in America, consisting of eleven hundred members, is supporting Rabbi Goldman and the Board of Trustees heart and soul. The official list which the opposition has thus far submitted to us consists of thirty-one names. Seven of these are non-members. Of the twenty-four others twelve have returned to the congregation and have ever since attended our services regularly.

3. “All the other charges brought either against Rabbi Goldman or against the Congregation are equally untrue.
“Rabbi Goldman has never ridiculed either Orthodoxy or Orthodox leaders. We have never refrained from inviting lecturers and speakers because of their Orthodoxy. We have not eliminated the saying of grace, the washing of hands at our Congregational dinners. Rabbi Goldman has made no practice of kissing the brides, he does not partake of non-kosher food, he never denied the divine inspiration of the Torah.

4. “It has also been stated that we refused to appear before a Beth Din of the Agudath Harabonim.
“This is true, but our Congregation felt perfectly justified in its action. The summons from the Agudath Harabonim was not sent directly to our Congregation, but to the few opposing members. The summons was photographed and printed as a paid advertisement in the ‘Jewish World’ of Cleveland. It was only after it appeared in the newspaper that it was delivered to us. We considered this act of the Agudath Harabonim un-Jewish and their Beth-Din prejudicial. Then again, we felt that the opposition should have brought the case either to the Rabbinical Assembly of which body Rabbi Goldman is a member or to the United Synagogue of America of which organization our congregation has been a member for the past nine years.”

The case was dismissed by the court because “charging deviation from the Orthodox ritual, will not end the fight between the Orthodox and Conservatives in that congregation.” The Orthodox plaintiffs said they would press the case further. January 20, 1928

In July 23, 1929, the Orthodox plaintiffs claimed before the appetite court

That the congregation was incorporated for the purpose of promoting traditional or orthodox Judaism in the worship of God, and to build a synagogue for a like purpose;
That this congregation was formed in 1917 by a consolidation of two orthodox congregations which at all times before accepted and promulgated the doctrine of orthodox or traditional Judaism, and in the church services adopted the rites, ceremonies and practices appertaining thereto…That by reason of the facts set forth herein above, a trust was imposed upon this church property, and that it should be used for orthodox Judaism only;
That the defendant Rabbi and the trustees are opposed and hostile to orthodox Judaism and the ceremonial observations pertaining thereto;
That, in 1924, a meeting of the congregation was had for the purpose of adopting a new constitution, where and when a new constitution was adopted, ignoring orthodox Judaism, but its adoption was contrary to the terms of the old constitution.

On October 1, 1929, the Court of Appeals, dismissing the suit as a strictly ecclesiastical question.
The case was not accepted by the Supreme Court. Rabbi Solomon Goldman, moved to head a synagogue in Chicago. He was succeeded in Cleveland by a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The opinion written by Appellate Judge John J. Sullivan, unanimously affirmed by his two associates, read:

The prayer for this court to adopt a rule by which the congregation in question shall abandon its present administration and conform to the doctrine of traditional orthodoxy and Judaism, even if this legal tribunal had the right to interfere in religious matters for which provision has been made as to the control within the church itself, is incapable of being granted for the reason that every member of the congregation of the church might have a different view as to what this doctrine is in all its various phases and it would be impossible to lay down a rule, with these conflicting opinions, which a board of trustees could follow, because in order to do so, the religion would have to be as definite as a science and even with respect to science it would be impossible to do so because of the diverging opinions that exist among scientific men upon scientific principles.

The judgement was reaffirmation of American freedom of conscience and freedom of thought before the encroachment of ecclesiastical bodies.

Two months prior in May 1929, there was a convention of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada [Agudas Harabbonim] and they submitted their own Communication to the Editor of the JTA. The president, Rabbi Israel Rosenberg attacked Conservative Judaism, as the greater enemy of Orthodoxy since it is “going about masked, making a false pretense at being traditional Judaism.”

The president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis launched a bitter attack on some of the Conservative rabbis who, he asserted, are violating Jewish religious tradition by permitting mixed pews in the synagogue, by disregarding the laws concerning the purity of family life and the ritual bath, by taking upon themselves the authority to issue religious divorces in English, instead of the prescribed Hebrew “gett,” and by officiating at weddings contrary to the Jewish religious law, without the required presence of qualified witnesses.

He suggested the organization of a federation of Orthodox synagogues and rabbis and the formation of a young people’s league to be headed by the younger Orthodox rabbis. He put forward a proposal for the convening of a world conference of Orthodox rabbis to be held in Europe this summer to consider the part of Orthodox Jewry in the Jewish Agency, and pleaded for generous support on the part of American Jews for the maintenance of yeshivas in the United States and in Europe.

The RCA came to be as a self-proclaimed Orthodox organization six years later in 1935. Their constituency and demographic was the same as the less influential Conservative congregations. Some of the RCA members took down mehizot in their congregations or conducted late Friday night services. They were almost all affiliated with Mizrachi and Poalei Mizrachi, both quite liberal and anathema to the Agudas Harabbonim. If they were lucky, they took Jewish Centers as pulpits with their implicit Mordecai Kaplan ideology of peoplehood, civilization and cultural centers. And in that very year, Rabbi Jacob Agus graduates RIETS and goes on to formulate the ideology of the liberal wing of the Conservative movement. In addition, he formulated the most liberal view on divine revelation considered to this day the liberal boundary of Conservative Judaism. However, he did not leave Orthodoxy until 1945. Rabbi Agus, the RIETS graduate and former RCA member, was to become the author of the famous responsa that allowed driving on Shabbat. The RCA was ceaselessly attached by the Agudas Harabbonim and spent more than 28 years trying to establish their positions.

In the 1930’s Conservative congregations were still called “modern Orthodox” but the rapid rise of recognition of the Conservative denomination in the 1940’s they predominately become called Conservative. President Belkin and his circle preferred the term traditional and to label Conservative and Ultra-Orthodox as non-traditional.The RCA called itself Orthodox and a small group of intellectuals revived the term modern Orthodox in late 1950s. But those are other tales to tell.

6 responses to “The Orthodox – Conservative Split and Rabbi Solomon Goldman

  1. Two points: First, I am still in Varanasi time 10 1/2 hours ahead of EST but I finally have a portable hotspot for wifi!
    Second, for those not familiar with the Conservative movement of the 1930’s and 1940’s, you should read Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: an American religious movement (1955) and for newer discussions see Zach Mann on Jacob Agus or The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples… by Michael R. Cohen (2002).

  2. What was Rabbi Revel’s attitude towards those Rabbis whose congregations did not have Mechizot ? I read that he revoked the simcha of Rabbis who stayed in those congregations ?

    • Rakefet cites one case from 1933 where Revel asked someone to leave in a specific situation and they did not. He does not give many details except that it also had a mixed choir. It was also a few years after the Goldman case. Revel had no problem having Goldman as featured speaker. From the recent scholarship on the early Conservative rabbis, we see that Revel still tried to keep them on his team. It should not be globalized without going through the class roster, several of who had mixed pulpits or were no longer following the Shulkhan Arukh. In addition, if they already had ordination from Rav Moshe Soloveitchik or JTS, it did not matter. And Rabbi Belkin certainly did not have that policy.

  3. To give some interdenominational context:

    This issue seems to have come to a head in the immediate aftermath of the attempt to merge JTSA and RIETS in 1927. See my writeup on this based on Gurock & Schachter’s book “A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community”.

  4. Whereas the reward of a mizvah was considered to be the performance of another mizvah now it guaranteed salvation-personal salvation in the world to come…Many a maggid emulated revivalist and evangelist and he cracking fires of hell lent force to many a sterile derasha.(81)

    I don’t understand this statement. “Hell”, in one form or another, has been part of Judaism for centuries. Jews have been brought up with threats of dire postmortem consequences for faithlessness or disobedience; there are lurid descriptions in the Talmud. It’s a theme common to all religions. It was liberal Judaism that put a stop to it.

    As far as the phenomenon of the itinerant preacher is concerned, they already had them in the old country generations earlier. It had become such an accepted part of their lives that Singer inserted it into his stories. I suspect a lot of it was due to the influence of Hasidism, but you would know more about that than I.

  5. Thinking about gehinnom makes me feel warm and cosy on cold winter days.

    The Maggid of Kelm would wax lyrical with descriptions thereof. Once some people started laughing at him during one his derashas because of his dramatic descriptions, he reponse was to open the aron hakodesh and say lo lichvodi asisi etc.

    I don’t think that Judaism beleives in the absoluteness of I+Y+ (which is what the repudiation of hell seems to be getting at).

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