Hebrew as the irreplaceable language of Jewish expression is the second core value of Conservative Judaism. According to them its existence is coterminous with that of the Jewish people and the many layers of the language mirror the cultures in which Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never merely a vehicle of communication, but part of the fabric and texture of Judaism.
Words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values, and literary associations. Torah and Hebrew are inseparable and Jewish education was always predicated on mastering Hebrew. Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the unending dialectic between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages, between God and Israel. To know Judaism only in translation is, to quote Bialik, akin to kissing the bride through the veil.
These are some of the sentiments which prompted Zacharias Frankel, the founder of Conservative Judaism in central Europe, to break with Reform over the issue of Hebrew at the Frankfurt Rabbinical Conference in 1845. Despite the leniency of Jewish law, he was not prepared to endorse a resolution which would acknowledge that synagogue services could theoretically dispense with Hebrew.
Given the rapid shrinkage of Judaism with the advent of emancipation, the fostering of Hebrew for Frankel became a symbol of historical continuity and national unity. Much of his scholarly oeuvre was intentionally written in Hebrew. And the language has remained at the heart of the Conservative agenda ever since.
In a series of rabbinical conferences at Brunswick (1844), Frankfurt (1845), and Breslau (1846), the German-Jewish theologian, author, and the outstanding leader in the early development of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger incisively presented other main tenets of Reform Judaism: the necessity of simplifying ritual and of using a liturgy spoken in one’s native tongue; an emphasis on the prophetic teachings as presenting the core of Judaism, a core that will not lose validity with changing time and place, unlike other components of religion; and a deemphasis on a return to the land of Israel.
In 1838 Geiger had become junior rabbi in Breslau (now Wrocław, Pol.), where his known Reform leanings aroused Orthodox opposition. His magnum opus, Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel in ihrer Abhängigkeit von der innern Entwicklung des Judentums (1857; “The Original Text and the Translations of the Bible: Their Dependence on the Inner Development of Judaism”). In the latter work, Geiger analyzes the Sadducees and the Pharisees, Jewish sects in whose history he sees a paradigm of a basic idea of Reform Judaism: in some respects, the Jewish religious consciousness grows and changes, and this development is reflected in the succeeding editions and translations of the Bible.
Geiger’s last years were spent as a rabbi at Frankfurt and at Berlin, where he also lectured at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Institute of Jewish Science”), the liberal seminary.