Not long ago, I attended the Centennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism held in Baltimore. The convention was billed as the “conversation of the century,” an effort to launch and sustain a movement-wide conversation about the future of Conservative Judaism. Throughout the three days of the convention, participants attended multiple sessions led by scholars, educators, rabbis and leaders of our movement that addressed the wide array of issues and challenges facing Conservative Judaism, such as the nature of prayer and worship, the meaning and application of Jewish law, education, Zionism, outreach to the unaffiliated, intermarriage and conversion, inclusivity, building relationships, and the role of the synagogue in the 21st century. I think it’s fair to say that a conversation was begun at the convention, and that USCJ hopes that the conversation will continue in each congregation among its members, leaders and clergy. I’d like to begin a conversation at Oheb Shalom on the meaning and future of Conservative Judaism, a conversation that is honest, candid and productive, one that I hope will engage a great many of our members in a spirited dialogue about what it means to be a Conservative Jew.
The keynote speaker at the celebratory dinner held on a Sunday evening at the convention was Rabbi Harold Kushner, my own mentor and teacher. Rabbi Kushner spoke about the need to condense the essence of Conservative Judaism to a phrase that can fit on a bumper sticker. Ask an Orthodox rabbi what Orthodoxy is all about, he said, and you will hear “Torah and Mitzvot.” That is, Orthodoxy can be described as a movement of Jews committed to the Torah as the directly revealed word of God, who commanded the performance of the Mitzvot. Ask a Reform rabbi what Reform Judaism is all about, and you will hear “Tikun Olam.” Reform Judaism has long been known as a movement committed to social justice as an expression of religious identity, with the degree of engagement with tradition and Jewish law left up to the individual. But ask a Conservative rabbi what Conservative Judaism is all about, and you will receive a 36-page pamphlet (indeed, such a pamphlet- Emet Ve-emunah- was issued by the Conservative Movement in 1988). Conservative Judaism is described as a “centrist” movement, and centrist movements, being a magnet for some from the left and some from the right, often lack a specifically articulated identity. But if we are to thrive in the 21st century, we must become able to clearly define what we stand for.
For many years, our “bumper sticker” has been “Tradition and Change,” a phrase coined by the late Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, who used it as the title of an anthology he published in 1958 on the development of Conservative Judaism. Waxman intended to convey that our movement is defined by a commitment to traditional Judaism while simultaneously embracing change that is inspired by a scholarly analysis of history, the evolution of human civilization, and changing perspectives on life informed by our encounter with science and technology. “Tradition and Change” assumed a reasonably solid, air tight and consistent commitment to following the tradition and Jewish law by Conservative Jews. An honest assessment of our movement today would have to include an admission that most Conservative Jews do not have an allegiance to halacha (Jewish law) and practice the traditions of Judaism on the basis of what feels right and meaningful on a personal level.
Kushner suggested that Conservative Judaism’s “bumper sticker” should read, “Kadsheinu B’Mitzvotecha,” or “Sanctify Us By Your Commandments.” In brief, he defined Conservative Judaism as a serious attempt to make life a quest for holiness through actions that are specifically and uniquely Jewish, rooted in tradition but not necessarily anchored in an absolute commitment to the primacy of Jewish law. As an example, a Conservative Jew might sanctify the act of eating when in a restaurant that is not certified kosher by choosing carefully what to eat from the menu. While not in strict conformity with halacha, such an approach may ironically emphasize the sanctity of the “Jewish way of eating” even more so than eating in a strictly kosher restaurant, where one need not give much thought at all as to what to order for dinner since everything on the menu is kosher.
So what does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? What should go on our bumper sticker? For me, being a Conservative Jew implies a consistent engagement with Jewish life in all its aspects- study, prayer, performing acts of gemilut chasadim (loving kindness) and tikun olam (social justice). Such an engagement is enhanced by an intellectually honest encounter with history and acknowledges that human society evolves. My bumper sticker would probably read “Tradition and Change.”
Let’s get a conversation about what it means to be a Conservative Jew started. We’re just beginning the conversation, and future blog posts- and your comments- can zero in on specific issues in Jewish life.
Let’s start talking…