Shaping Tomorrow - Masorti & Us

Every Jew is called to a dual task – to fashion his or her life as an expression of the age-old covenant linking God and the Jewish people, and to express the dynamism and creativity of that covenant according to his or her own unique personality. Like those who have come before us, we rise to take our place in both the transmission and the expansion of God’s Torah. This bifurcated mission we share with every other generation of Jews.

But our age boasts three distinctions that make us unique in the annals of Jewish history: most of the world’s Jews live as citizens in democratic and free societies; ours is an era blessed with an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel; and ours is a generation grappling with recreating life and meaning in the shadow of the Shoah (Holocaust). These three catalysts for responsible action are inextricably intertwined, and all three impinge on the duty toward Judaism that we share with those who have gone before and with those yet to come. They lend historical specificity to the challenges we face.

For now, the Jewish people live primarily in two centers – North America and Israel. The Jews of Israel must wrestle with the implications of sovereignty as a people, seeking ways to integrate Jewish teachings in a pluralistic and democratic mode. What do Torah and Talmud contribute to the ethos of a Jewish state, and what wisdom might they offer to Jews who are secular or even hostile to religion? What obligation does a Jewish state have to its non-Jewish citizens and residents? How should Jewish sources constrain or shape civic life and recourse to power? Jews in North America also must grapple with questions of sovereignty and power, not as a people per se, but as citizens who are expected to contribute as equals to the advancement of the societies in which they dwell, and who can reasonably turn to the canon of Jewish sources to provide insight to frame the conversation, if not to provide specific answers.

Because these tasks overlap, because we need each other’s perspectives, the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora must find ways to speak to each other, harvesting Jewish insight across specific divides (denominational, religious/secular, majority/minority, Zion/Diaspora). We must learn to frame our discussion with those who approach their Jewish identities quite differently than we do, with Jews whose life context may be quite different from our own, Jews who understand the authority of Jewish tradition quite differently.

I would like to consider two approaches for meeting this challenge.

As a first step, I propose that we find ways to learn without seeking common ground. That is to say, that we simply accept Jews as they are, and we open ourselves to learning with and from each other. That type of openness takes place, for example, during the Israel year for the students in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and in the American Jewish University’s College of Arts & Sciences. The undergraduates study at Hebrew University or at the Lowy School of Tel Aviv University. The rabbinical students, joined by those from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, study at the Schechter Institute (our sister Conservative seminary in Jerusalem). But many of them supplement those studies at other institutions where they can learn with a broader range of Jews, secular and religious, Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox, Israeli and American. These opportunities challenge each of the participants not to win over those with different views but to clarify their own convictions and choices.

While they are in Jerusalem, many of the students make time to volunteer with different organizations or synagogues affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement. These activities allow them to participate in Israeli society, getting to know the people and having a chance to let Israelis get to know them as well. The opportunity for Jews from different streams to learn together and to learn about each other can unlock possibilities that may enrich each of our communities and Jewish life as a whole.

At the same time, we also feel a draw to dig deeper, to seek the broader context in which our conversation moves to embrace an integrated way of living with each other. In that regard, I believe that Conservative/Masorti Judaism has a special contribution to make to the entire Jewish people.

From its inception, the enterprise of Zionism has necessitated a shift of focus, from faith to politics, from exile to sovereignty. In the Zionist vision, Jewish identity extends beyond the circle of religion (creed and observance) and aspires to address nothing less than the integration of every aspect of life. In that shift from belief to life, the founders of Zionism drew their inspiration from the nationalist movements of 19th-century Europe (for Theodor Herzl) and the philosophies of Romanticism (for Ahad HaAm). But Jewish grounds are needed for a Jewish integration into life. For Zionism to strengthen an authentic Jewish identity, it must create continuity with Jewish sources and the Jewish past, not simply present a Jewish replica of general culture. It is precisely here that the thinkers of Conservative Judaism have a contribution to make, not only in the Diaspora but in Zion, too.

By articulating its understanding of Judaism as having a history, as embodying the particular insights of concrete communities, and by framing the history of the Jewish people as the authoritative ground through which Torah is translated into life, Conservative/Masorti thinkers – beginning with Leopold Zunz and Zecharias Frankel and extending into our own times – provide a way of understanding Jewish sources that can speak both to secular and religious Israelis and to those in the Diaspora who seek to integrate the insights of each new age into Jewish life. If Judaism is the communal expression of Torah in each age, inevitably (and properly) there will be several different ways of living that commitment in each period, reflecting the rich diversity of Jewish experience. And that is as it should be.

But this search will not unfold in the chill air of disembodied dogma or purely personal expression. A living people builds on its own past, mines its own heritage, renews its dynamism by adding its own interpretations and re-readings to those that have come before. Masorti/Conservative Judaism provides a method – not just for North American Conservative Jews but for Jews of every commitment and every continent – of integrating the best of academic and scientific scholarship with the wellsprings of Jewish tradition, faith, observance, and culture. In that integration, we re-energize both modernity and tradition. And that remains, as it always has been, our sacred task.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) is the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, where he is vice president. He is the author of more than 200 articles and 7 books, including Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections & Inspirations (McGraw Hill).