Creating a Worthy Tomorrow

These may be the best of times and the worst of times for Conservative Judaism. 

Our declining numbers could be cause for alarm.  The different arms of our Movement, with their seemingly archaic organizational structures, appear to be more like competitors than cooperative partners.  Moreover, Conservative Judaism is not in synch with an American pop culture that is no longer about a work ethic, sacrifice, and honesty. Judaism that calls people to a life of service and responsibility will never be very popular in this climate. 

And the last source of concern: our children and grandchildren are now fully at home in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Israel, wherever they live. Contemporary Jews, who once affiliated out of a sense of tribal loyalty, do not need Conservative Judaism as a portal into the larger culture.  The ethnic pull of Jewish identity no longer compels. 

Yet, at the same time, we can point to signs of remarkable vitality. More of us keep kosher today than at any point in modern history. Assuming that ten percent of American Jews are Orthodox and that 20 percent of American Jews keep kosher, half of those who keep kosher are coming from outside of Orthodoxy; they are ours.  Solomon Schechter day schools continue to grow in number and in vigor. Camps Ramah continue to drive young people to a richer way of Jewish life. Together, USY and Ramah send more teenagers to Israel every summer than any other group. We do many things very well, and even this Women’s League convention is a measure of our vitality.  The Ziegler School continues to grow and thrive, as do our sister schools – Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Seminario Rabbinico in Buenos Aires, and the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem.

I believe that our best days are yet to come, if we are only bold enough and honest enough to look at what we face, and then if we are creative, resilient and faithful enough to address those challenges and opportunities.

Our mission is to represent a traditional Judaism that is serious, spiritual, supple, and synthetic.

Serious, in that you cannot construct a meaningful Jewish life that does not make demands. A Judaism that is so trivial that you cannot notice it is unworthy of our young people. Jews excel in so many areas of society and culture, yet we often present an emaciated Judaism to our own people. If we wish to call people back to Conservative Judaism, then it must be a Conservative Judaism that summons people to be the best that they can be rather than to give them excuses for mediocrity. 

We must be serious about living lives of service to God. God must be a commanding presence in our personal lives and at the center of our communal agenda. Making God a presence means elevating learning as our central focus. Our faith requires the full devotion of the mind.  The mind is a subversive organ; it refuses to be shackled. Minds probe and inquire and explore. We must become the learning center at the heart of Contemporary Jewry. And we must become serious about a life of mitzvot. We pay for the privilege of being part of this people by devoting our mundane deeds to God and by reaching out to all humankind in an act of tikkun, an act of repair. 

To build a traditional Judaism that is worthy of the name, we must be spiritual. When I went to rabbinical school, you could only use the word ‘spiritual’ with quotation marks around it. That is no longer true. We all seek to be part of something greater than ourselves.  Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Chernobyl, the author of the Maor Eynayim, teaches that whenever a Jew does a mitzvah, she links God within to God out there. Spirituality is not in conflict with intellectual or ethical rigor; it is its fruit. Judaism has always known that intellect is necessary for spiritual honesty – ein Am HaAretz hasid – you can’t be ignorant and pious. 

Let us be supple. We are creaking a bit. We are slowing. It is time to remind ourselves that we do not have to do things the way we always have. Some things do remain non-negotiable: love of God and love of Torah and learning, devotion to the people and the State of Israel, love of Hebrew, of Jewish peoplehood.  We do not compromise on these. But the style with which we present those values should change to meet the needs of each new age.

Then finally, synthetic.  Solomon Schechter famously quoted, “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.”  That’s not good enough anymore.  Our watchword must be - nothing human is alienated from Judaism.  Judaism is nothing less than the life-blood of the Jewish people. It is how we live and breathe and walk in the world. We are open to wisdom from any source. And in that openness is the fullness of Jewish life. No human creativity, whether in science or the arts or music, can remain outside of our understanding of Torah.

What then are the possibilities? Judaism must be bold enough to be inclusive. Judaism must be brave enough to welcome in even those with whom we differ, even those we normally choose to ignore. If we are not all of us at the table together, then we ought none of us to stay at the table.

I believe that Conservative Judaism can be the Judaism of engagement. I am very proud that a coalition of pushy Conservative Jews mobilized to take a stand against the devastation in Darfur. But are we doing enough? Our environment is reeling from humanity’s thoughtless greed.  Do we have anything to say about that?  Humanity continues to retreat into competing corners where we beat up outsiders.  Does Conservative Judaism have anything to say about that? Or do we have anything to say about the crushing poverty to the south of our border?  Women continue to fight for the right to be recognized as people. 

Have we nothing to say? 

The mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, is so great that our father Abraham interrupted a conversation with God to welcome guests into his tent. If someone walks into a Conservative synagogue and knows nobody, will they have a place to go for lunch? Will someone help them navigate our complicated prayer services?  

My fourteen-year-old son struggles with autism. I watch as he and his friends with special needs desperately try to find a place within the Jewish community and I wonder when welcoming noisy Jews will be more important than decorum? The only time we create singles programming is to get rid of singles.  Perhaps we should be creating congregations that make single people interested in being there.  And how about honoring the seniors who come to our services despite the way we talk down to them, despite the way we belittle them?

Why is it that to join a synagogue, you do exactly what you would do to join a country club? The standards of membership are even pretty much the same. What does that say about who we are?  Can you imagine if we talked about the beliefs and practices we expect of a Conservative Jew before discussing dues with prospective members? 

And then, the sad truth is that the arms of the Conservative Movement do not always work well together. Will we all hold on to our turf and go down individually, or will we rise above it and triumph together? Women’s League has been the leader in showing the rest of the Movement that it is possible to muster the best by working as a team.

We have a ways to go but there is a hunger to show people what we can do. 

I did not have the privilege of growing up in this Movement.  I chose it as an adult, and with every fiber of my being I am a passionate Conservative Jew.  In the years ahead, I pledge to join with Women’s League to continue to provide leadership to the Movement, so that together we will enhance the humanity of the world and the glory of God’s Torah. 

 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams & Visions (McGraw Hill) and, most recently, Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: Spiritual Resources for Leadership & Mentoring (Behrman House).