E Pluribus Unum

This famous phrase- “E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One,” which is found on the seal of the United States of America, is not only a statement about the unity of our nation. It can also be understood as a challenge to us as Jews, especially Conservative congregations like ours. The challenge is to translate our religious diversity into a unified whole and create a balance between the standards and expectations of the community and the needs of the individual. It is a challenge especially for the Conservative Movement of Judaism, because we are a centrist movement founded on the notion of pluralism. While its core ideology remains focused on adherence to Jewish law and tradition, Conservative Judaism is, in reality, a community of people who span a broad spectrum that ranges from traditional to liberal in their beliefs and patterns of Jewish practice. How can we create community out of such a diverse group of individuals?

The tension between the individual and the community was the subject of a class taught by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach last Sunday at Oheb Shalom. Rabbi Uhrbach, a scholar and master teacher, shared a wide variety of texts written by scholars across many centuries. Far from being theoretical, Rabbi Uhrbach introduced a case study involving prayer in which the pull between the individual and the community is played out. Such a case study presents the opportunity to discuss and debate real scenarios. For example, in a community made up of individuals that have varying levels of skill, experience and background, as well as differing ideologies and interest in spiritual matters, how can one worship service be created that meets everyone’s needs? Additionally, in a congregation that historically embraces certain religious practices, rituals and standards, is it fair to insist that those standards be altered because some of its members do not wish to invest the time to learn Hebrew, study the history and structure of Jewish prayer, or gain experience in the way that congregation worships through regular attendance? What responsibility does the community have to sustain the individual’s spiritual needs? Equally important, what responsibility does the individual have to the community?

These are crucial questions for our congregation, as I often hear from congregants that they find it difficult to participate meaningfully in our worship services. In the same way, these questions are equally compelling for our society, as we consider the individual’s responsibility to our community and the community’s obligation to aid and support each individual.

This is an important issue, and I would like to hear your thoughts and opinions, especially in the realm of congregational worship. Please share your thoughts on these questions:

  • How can one worship service be created that meets everyone’s needs?
  • How does a congregation know that a “course correction” is needed and wanted in its ideology (which is presumably expressed in its rituals)?
  • Is it fair to insist that a congregation’s worship patterns be altered because some of its members aren’t prepared to participate meaningfully?
  • What responsibility does the community have to sustain the individual’s spiritual needs, and what responsibility does the individual have to the community?

Beyond these issues, I urge you to attend Rabbi Uhrbach’s second session in a 3-part series on Jewish tradition in the modern world, scheduled for this Sunday, May 11 from 9:30-11:00 AM.

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