Faithful Innovation and the Conservative Rabbinate

I want to re-frame the issue of how to respond to religious innovations we don’t necessarily like with the following confusing story: The Conservative Movement has a wonderful new tradition that I will share with you. For one week during the academic year, the seniors in the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary are joined in Manhattan by the seniors at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and for one week they conduct their job searches together, under the auspices of the Rabbinical Assembly.  I traveled with my seniors this year to be on hand for them and to see firsthand what that experience was like. It was really very heartening to see the way the two institutions work in harmony, and to witness the friendships that have developed between members of the two rabbinical school classes.

But for Friday night I discovered something that I think will surprise you and which fits absolutely in with a concern about religious innovation – apparently, the regular Friday night services at the Seminary have been canceled.  There is no downstairs Minyan with separate seating, nor, indeed, is there a service upstairs in the Women's League Synagogue.  The reason there is no official service is that the students of the Seminary took it into their own hands to start what they refer to as (and I quote) the "Happy, Clappy Minyan."  The "Happy Clappy Minyan" meets in the Bet Midrash, and it is what I like to think of as “Carlebach loose,” because everybody present smacks the tables and pounds the walls. They stomp and stomp as they belt out one Carlebach melody after another. That is the entirety of the service: militant simchah. 

Now, my friends, nothing makes one feel quite so old as going to the place where you think you know what is supposed to happen, and then something completely different happens.  So, there I was, sitting, being very unhappy and very unclappy, and I had two thoughts.  The first was - Oh my God, I have lived long enough to become Joel Roth! And my second thought was - Thank God, my teacher, Simon Greenberg, isn't here to see this. 

Now, I raise this sense of my personal discomfort, because it frames the issue and how we can choose to respond to religious novelty. The people in that Seminary beit midrash were not marginal Jews, the people in that room are people who have given up the last five years of their lives to engage in rigorous study of text, of modern critical scholarship with some of the finest teachers that Judaism has gathered in New York, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles.  And these people were so bored by the existing Friday night service that they created their own, and the “official” Friday night service collapsed for lack of attendance.  This one, however, is packed. When the students don't have the "Happy Clappy" service at JTS, then most of them go to 110th Street where there is an Orthodox version of "Happy Clappy"(Happy doesn’t get to sit with Clappy). 

There are two ways to respond to my discomfort.  The first one, which is, I think, the easier way, but nonetheless not helpful, is to respond by condemning it.  This is not, by God!, the Seminary that I knew, this is not the kind of decorous piety, the kind of worship of God in holiness with which I am accustomed, and which, I still believe, to be proper, and therefore, we have to route it out.  That response is very tempting, I have to tell you.  I came extraordinary close to responding that way that night.

But ultimately I think what we have to make ourselves do is look under the surface, under the parokhet, and ask: what light of godliness is this innovation attempting to bring to the surface?  What worthy and sacred impulse are the students attempting to bring into their rabbinical education in this form, (one, which admittedly, I am very uncomfortable with)? 

That same choice pertains to the larger Jewish world.  We can either write off those things that don't fit into our preconceived patterns or we can attempt to win them to us by learning from them and then co-opting their best features.  What we cannot do, is make these innovations (or innovators) go away.  They won't.  So we can choose then to know them well enough to be able to take from them what is unprecedented yes, but good, and connect it into the larger fabric of traditional Jewish observance and life as we have always done. 

At this point, I need to create a context for what will follow: I am one of the few people in this room who attends a Conservative synagogue without being paid to do so, and I went to a Conservative Rabbinical School not because I wanted that particular Rabbinical School (which I did like very much). I went there because I loved Conservative services, and I still do.  I like responsive readings.  And I want, therefore, to say something seldom heard about American Judaism and about the urge to innovate. 

What is remarkable about Judaism in America in general and Conservative Judaism in particular, is not how badly we are doing, but how well we are doing.  I believe that if you look at the Conservative Movement over the last hundred years, you will see a Movement whose founding ideology has become the ideology of Klal Israel with one very big exception. We started this century alone insisting that Judaism was a peoplehood and a civilization, and that therefore, the proper stand of the American Jew was to be pro-Zionist. Nowadays, nobody thinks of that as distinctively Conservative, they just think of that as being a good Jew. 

We started the century before this one insisting that to be a rabbi in America meant to be part of Western Civilization rather than apart from it. We insisted, therefore, that our rabbis had to be trained in Western academic study and deliver their sermons in mellifluous English.  We were alone in asserting that a hundred years ago and nowadays, that's just being Jewish in America.

We started a hundred years ago insisting that the proper stand of any denomination was multi-denominational. It was our own Solomon Schechter who taught us that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.”  And we were therefore, that denomination whose people served (and serve) disproportionally on Federation Boards, on non-denominational Agencies, in Congresses and Committees, and Leagues. I say that as a point of Conservative pride, not as a point of failure. 

The one issue on which we have not yet succeeded, is that we also began a hundred years ago by insisting that a Judaism divorced from Halakhah was not Judaism and could not survive. I believe that we were right a hundred years ago on that point, and I want to affirm that there were good reasons for the generations before my own not to make that their first priority.  Let me remind you in the comfort of Philadelphia in the year 2000, that the century before us witnessed a murder of 6 million of our people and the unprecedented re-establishment of our people in our ancient homeland.  The rabbis of the Conservative synagogues of the 40s, and 50s, and 60s properly understood that their number one job was to build the institutions that would house this exploding movement of ours, create the Camps Ramah that now dot the continent, and pour the resources of an organized Jewry behind the emerging State of Israel. 

They did that so successfully that we now have the luxury of returning to their unfinished business.  But let us do it as the statement of loyalty to them, and continuity with them, and not with the smug delusion that we know what they didn't.

The truth is, in each and every age, Judaism has done the impossible -transforming the tradition and integrating new insights and new expressions into that traditional observance.  My friends, let us not now, at this late stage become timid and afraid of change.  But let us at the same time never be apologetic for a tradition that is wise and profound, and has stood the test of time.  We will continue to differ on important and significant points, but on this foundation we have always faithfully stood:

1.  Judaism is the preeminent vehicle of God's will for the Jewish people, to which we devote our life and service.
2.  It is our duty as loyal and traditional Jews to study the tradition and to integrate it into our lives, into our breath, and into our actions.
3.  If we merely transmit what we have inherited, then we have betrayed the generations of mothers and fathers who have come before us — the rabbis and the prophets, the priests, sages, and activists — who enhanced the tradition they inherited and left a better one for their children.
4. Torah is not static, yet neither is it a free-for-all.  Yet it is precisely in that uncomfortable, complicated, and multifaceted place that the Torah is to be harvested, where God is to be found, and where we have always stood.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).