Integrating Traditions and Change

Bradley Shavit Artson

Recently a child celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah at our congregation.  This, in itself, was not unusual. Nor was it unusual that I did not know the father of the Bar Mitzvah until a month before the ceremony. It wasn=t even noteworthy that this family rarely attended Shabbat services. On the morning of this child=s Bar Mitzvah, I noticed something unusual, a symbol of a tension deserving consideration. Posted at the front of the synagogue=s lobby was a formal portrait of the child, professionally photographed and elaborately framed. This was clearly the statement of how the parents wanted to remember their son=s childhood. The boy was dressed in a lovely suit, draped in a large tallit. He gazed reverently into a Siddur.

People who attend services no more than annually, who serve on no congregational committees, who participate in no adult education classes, who never have visited Israel, want to remember their son=s childhood as one of piety, Yiddishkeit and commitment! And they are far from unique.

In such a community, where sporadically-observant Jews care about traditions they do not practice, where Jewish ritual is revered more than performed and Jewish texts are handled lovingly but rarely read, how are rabbis to integrate the claims of tradition into the lives of congregants? To perceive their eclecticism as lack of interest is surely to miss the surprising resilience of contemporary piety.   After all, it is remarkable that Jewish rituals are still respected, that reverence is itself treated with veneration and that traditional texts are indeed looked upon with love.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel once remarked that the principal difference between Reform and Conservative Jews is not their level of practice, but that: Reform Jews are comfortable permanently closing the door on the possibility of traditional Jewish observance whereas Conservative Jews want to retain that possibility. They want a rabbi to raise the issues of Sabbath observance or the dietary laws, to press them to consider the role of mitzvot. While many may not yet be traditionally observant, Conservative Jews affiliate with communities that adhere to traditional forms in order to retain that tradition as an option. Refusing to relegate Judaism to a matter of intellectual consistency, political activism or static transmission, our congregants respond to Judaism as a living culture,  insisting on the public retention of traditional melodies, language, ritual and ethos, requiring a leadership conversant with those norms and able to justify those standards in the light of contemporary perspectives and concerns.

What is the role that tradition can and should play in such congregations! And how are we to translate the priorities and profundities of our Jewish heritage  into a language spoken by our people?

Advocating Traditional Practice

The heritage of Judaism can remain a vital and humanizing force only if nurtured as a living, integrated system.  Rather than selecting only those parts of the Jewish worldview, we struggle to maintain the interconnectedness of all of Judaism, convinced that it is only as a complex, interdependent, living organism that Judaism can retain coherence and vitality. In this regard, Judaism is not unique. Every civilization, every language,  survives because its practitioners utilize random and interlocking symbols to signify objects and to communicate meaning. Each society develops a network of stories, prohibitions, festivals and institutions to distinguish its adherents and to propagate its worldview. As we treasure Jewish values, identity and practices, so we work to maintain the fullest organic complexity of Judaism as an entity.

Our approach to Jewish tradition, therefore, must be unabashedly positive, reflecting an abiding commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, the interconnectedness of Jewish practices and the recognition of our sacred traditions as the essential vehicles for cultivating our covenant with God.  Only when the traditional position runs counter to our deepest moral convictions, when it imposes an intolerable burden, violates what we know about the world or distances Jews from their heritage can we dare to rupture the living synthesis of the mitzvot. In the vast preponderance of cases, our priority is to bridge the gap between congregant and tradition.

In my congregation, this presumption of insight and the value of our most ancient traditions has led to a restoration of birkat kohanim (the Priestly blessing) at our High Holy Day services. Each year I instruct a class of kohanim (male and female) in the history of the Temples and of the priesthood. Those kohanim bless the congregation on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, and during the year are available to bless Bar and Bat Mitzvah children. Asking a kohen to perform birkat kohanim allows me to demonstrate that a rabbi is not holier than any other Jew,  permits my congregants to bless each other  and gives continuing life to an ancient institution.

Another example of this encompassing advocacy of traditional practice involves Tisha B=av, which my congregation had never observed. Prior to the recital of Lamentations two years ago, I asked them to remove their shoes, sit on the floor and light candles. This traditional practice created an ambience which allowed for genuine mourning. When the Hazan chanted, there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary. The following year, word was out that Tisha B=av is a service not to be missed. It may well become our most popular event! The traditionalism of sitting in the dark with candlelight, so incongruous for so many of our decorous and elegant synagogues, provided a depth of meaning and a connection to feelings otherwise inaccessible.

This is ultimately the role of the rabbi: to embody the tradition and to demonstrate its warmth, sanctity and compassion in his or her deeds, words and values.  We give life to Torah and to our understanding of tradition as dynamic by cultivating an enthusiasm and a sincerity visible to all. Our legitimacy depends on that involvement.

The task of the rabbi is demanding, as is Torah. Since we are exemplars of our traditions, it follows that the rabbi represents an optimum of Jewish tradition within any particular community. Any practice not observed by a rabbi is effectively removed as an option for the congregation. Much as rabbis might like to be viewed as simply more learned among equals, rabbis stand out by virtue of how their communities and traditions perceive them.  Our deeds are Torah B what we exclude through inattention, human fallibility or deliberate decision no less than what we practice.

What we do, and the standards we insist on, present an optimum toward which our congregants may strive, or beside which they may measure their own behavior. When the rabbi drives to the synagogue, few congregants will consider the possibility of walking.  Because our deeds and words reflect a maximum, our role as rabbis might require a heightened observance beyond what we would find compelling simply as Jews. It may be necessary for us to do more than we would otherwise do in order to open the fullest range possible to our communities and congregations. For example, I will not attend any se=udat mitzvah that serves non-kosher meat.  Although this practice causes disappointment to beloved congregants (as well as to my wife and me) there is a need to stress the connection between the meal and the mitzvah that preceded it, and to emphasize the centrality of kashrut as a communal standard. Though I would attend a function of relatives at which non-kosher meat is served, within the context of my congregation and community my presence makes a statement as rabbi. It is not enough that I keep kosher; I must reinforce its communal value as well.

An essential component of traditional life is the necessity to make regular time for talmud torah, and to let the congregation know that one does so. Beloved are they who learn, and even more beloved are those who make their studying known.  My congregation agreed to fixed study time in my contract B two hours a day when I would not be disturbed, except for emergencies. Congregants must see that learning never stops, that all Jews, rabbis included, must invigorate their Judaism through regular exposure to our sacred sources.

Study must lead to practice.  Previous generations of Conservative rabbis faced the awesome tasks of establishing institutions to house the explosive growth of our movement and of generating support for the newly-established State of Israel.  I am daily made conscious of their great work and of my dependence on their efforts. But I am also aware that the preeminent task left to my generation is to make the case for mitzvot, halakhah and observance.  In this regard, we have three principal areas where we can contribute as rabbis. The first is that our congregants see us taking halakhah seriously. There is no substitute for a rabbi=s personal practice. Also, we strengthen our community=s connection to tradition by referring not only to poskim of antiquity but pointedly to modern Conservative poskim, particularly the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.  Given the tremendous diversity within our movement, what holds us together functionally is allegiance to institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the University of Judaism, and respect for the authority of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.  It is there that halakhic consensus, reflecting the broadest coalition of the movement, is hammered out, that limits are established and new areas pursued and incorporated into our collective inheritance. By communicating to our congregants the deference we show to contemporary Conservative poskim and to the Law Committee, we again affirm our conviction that the tradition lives, serving as a conduit for God=s presence in the world.

Tradition is not simply an inherited body of practice or of doctrine. Tradition is an orientation to the past,  a way of construing meaning illumined by the practices and written testimony of a continuing community, a way which transcends geography and time through a common identity and purpose.

In Jewish terms, being traditional means that our worldview centers around Sinai, that we consider ourselves as the latest extension in time of that earliest encounter with the sacred.  Such a view is not rigidly bound by the past because the past still lives in the present. In some sense, being traditional means obliterating the distinction between past and present. Our dialogue encompasses and intertwines both.

Such a worldview takes rabbinic instruction and insight seriously, no less seriously than it takes the needs of contemporary Jews, the latest representatives of that tradition.  What is needed, then, is an approach that reconciles those two sources of holiness and authority without abandoning the integrity of either, that integrates the needs and aspirations of contemporary communities with the commandments of God as perceived through the Torah and through later Rabbinic traditions. The arena for that continuing readjustment and harmonization is to be found in the development of halakhah.

Because of the dynamism inherent in the traditional notion of how God and Jews interact,  our relationship to different aspects of tradition will also vary. How we react in each instance can either nurture or rupture our relationship to the inherited parts of Jewish tradition, leaving our heritage more vibrant and encompassing or weaker, more brittle and less relevant.

Overall, our response to tradition must be positive and historical, by which I mean that our reverence for the past is demonstrated by our conviction that the vast bulk of Jewish traditions reflect wisdom and holiness and retain relevance.  There must be a presumption of insight and value in our accumulated writings and practices, as well as a recognition that Judaism has a history, that its growing corpus of writings reflect the ages and places in which Jews have lived.  Thus our overriding task is to uncover the profundity inherent in traditional Jewish forms, and to communicate that wisdom to our congregants.

Reinterpretation, Modification, Silence and Abandonment

Despite our pervasive affection for our heritage, there will be times when the traditional practice and its rationale simply cannot be maintained. In such instances, I would propose the following four-point approach.

My first effort when presented with a practice with which I am troubled is to provide a new explanation or meaning to give the practice a different context, thus permitting its retention.  The tradition of hakafot (in which a bride circles a groom seven times) is visually beautiful, and ethically troubling in its imbalanced demonstration of the man=s centrality and the woman=s subservience to her hatan (groom). Rather than abandon hakafot, I choose to provide a new coherence. I explain that it is Jewish practice to cover what we hold to be precious B hallah on a Shabbat table, the Torah during parts of the service. During the larger setting of the wedding ceremony, the hatan lowers the bride=s veil, thereby covering her during the bedeken, to symbolize her preciousness for him. The hakafot is the second half of that covering, her response demonstrating his centrality to her.

The process of expounding a new explanation for an old practice is itself quite traditional.  In the process of articulating what we mean by a certain ritual we enrich our actions with the depth of continuity, we provide symbolic form for our own convictions and we add to the multivocality of Jewish observance. The Torah and its traditions emerge greater from such an encounter.

There are times, of course, when the insertion of a new explanation is inadequate for resolving the moral difficulty of a specific practice. At such times I expand or modify the observance to remove the difficulty without obliterating the practice entirely. Thus we have added women to our list of kohanim, building upon the precedent of Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman=s teshuvah.  The retention of the categories of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael adds a connection to our Biblical roots, demonstrates the victory of the Rabbinic revolution over the inherited priesthood, frees rabbis from imitating priests and reminds our congregants that our synagogues are not temples,  by which I mean that we live neither in an idyllic past nor in a messianic future. Our buildings of worship are transitional, reflecting the incomplete nature of our lives and our world. Temples are symbols of perfection, of our hopes for a world redeemed.

Faced with the problem of excluding women, we could have simply abandoned the kehunah entirely. Rather than take a step that would remove a living emblem of our people=s sacred history, I included the daughters of kohanim themselves. The process of expanding this powerful ritual has stimulated further education, has fostered extensive discussion and has allowed greater participation in our holy day services.

In a related matter, it is our congregation=s policy to require all who come for an aliyah, male or female, to wear a headcovering and tallith.  The discussions around this modification of the traditional practice were often heated and emotional. Several women felt that wearing a tallit was an abandonment of tradition in favor of feminism, while other equally adamant opponents viewed it as an overly zealous resurgence of ritual. Because I believe that this modification is a necessary consequence of extending the right of aliyot to women as well as an occasion to teach that new privileges entail new obligations, I was willing to struggle with my congregants on this issue. I met with the members of the Sisterhood, spoke with the Board of Trustees, and utilized the congregational bulletin to teach my congregants about the history of these ritual articles. Based on the study of traditional and contemporary scholarly sources,  the congregants learned that the tzitzit and tallit are symbols of religion rather than demarcations of gender. Over a period of months, our community matured as a result of this sometimes wrenching process. It is today quite heartening that several women, many in their sixties and seventies, wear a tallit with great pride throughout the Shabbat morning service. The process of modifying and expanding a traditional practice has added to its luster, and to its value for my community.

There are times, not often, when even the modification of a practice does not eliminate an intolerable conflict. In some cases, the problem is contextual, emanating from our own social structures rather than from some inherent trait of a particular practice. So it is, for me, with the laws of family purity. I find no difficulty with the idea of sanctifying sexuality, just as we sanctify other aspects of behavior, through periodic abstention. Such abstention, channeling of impulse and limitation of the permissible are all typical of how Jewish practice imposes holiness on eating,  business affairs,  education,  and all manner of human endeavor.  So my problem is not with the laws of tohorat ha-mishpahah in themselves. My problem is with our society, in which family purity means only menstruation, with its implication that a woman=s functions are impure. In its ideal context, all secretions B seminal as well B would be data for the system. But the reality is that we still live in a world which considers women secondary to men and somehow deviations from a male norm. In such a context, I do not believe that the practice of niddah (foregoing contact with a menstruant) can avoid sustaining and contributing to the suppression and denigration of women. I hope that sexism will pass, and that my children or their children will be able to restore hilkhot niddah to their rightful place, but I cannot do so now. In this instance, my best response is simply silence. I do not preach against the practice, but neither can I advocate on its behalf. My silence is not an oversight; it is an intentional ideological stand.

Failing those first three responses, the only remaining remedy is abandonment. If I cannot reinterpret or redesign, and cannot simply remain silent, then I am forced to actively terminate a practice. At the moment, I can think of only one such instance, which is the institution of mamzerut (offspring of prohibited marriages).  I cannot live with a tradition that exudes Jews who wish to be a part of our community simply because of their parents= actions.  I cannot re-explain the practice, and I cannot modify it to remove my horror at its implications. Whether or not laws of mamzerut were ever justified, they most certainly are not justified now. At present, retention of the laws of mamzerut would threaten the survival of the Jewish People, would throw into question the morality of our traditions and would impugn the viability and compassion of Torah and halakhah, Mamzerut must be removed from contemporary practice.

In most instances, I strive to encourage the full range of traditional practice. On occasion, I feel impelled to diverge from that traditional form, in which case I can either reinterpret, redesign, refrain from action or speech or B as a last resort B terminate an intolerable and unreconstructable practice.

Such a scheme extends beyond the limits of the law, just as the range of tradition extends beyond halakhah. Custom, after all, experts a powerful influence on our congregants= religiosity. Thus, on whether to wear a robe during a service, on whether to force congregants to remain in their places for Yizkor, even on whether to use an organ during services, issues of perception and emotion require a look beyond the law to a larger, more comprehensive question: What approach will most open our congregants to a positive consideration of the rich array of Jewish practice! While there is certainly no prohibition against wearing a robe, I do believe that our attempt to define decorum in terms of the aesthetics of a church service distances our congregants from Judaism as a living system. Robes are perceived to be less Jewish, and therefore function that way. Similarly, those with living parents may not need to leave the room for Yizkor, and the force of their insistence may border on the superstitious. But one person=s superstition is another person=s conviction.  If the superstition does not harm another person, if it reflects an obedient response to a traditional practice, it represents a thread connecting the individual to Judaism, a road on which one may return to greater religious involvement. Such superstition, if you will, provides a building block for Jewish commitment. It should be nurtured and directed, rather than militantly opposed.  In such matters of custom, let us strive to create an environment open to tradition, supportive of inherited practice and piety.

Exalting the Torah: Accommodation and Standards

The role of the rabbi is that of exemplar demonstrating the vitality of the Mitzvot in daily life, being sufficiently steeped in the world of aggadah and midrash to allow its insight, humor and compassion to permeate counseling sessions and casual conversation. In addition, the rabbi exemplifies the constant interplay between a growing corpus of written authority and the pressing demands of life.  Situated at the border between the chorus of current concerns and ancestral priorities, the rabbi performs religious triage; allocating finite human energy and time to the seemingly limitless requirements of friends, family, society and Judaism. Constructing the middle way and persuading our communities of its vitality and viability constitutes our prime method of bridging the amorphous piety of our congregants and the comprehensive provisions of Jewish law and lore.

In this struggle to balance and to integrate, timing is everything. To be a successful rabbi is to know when to give in, when to look away, when to compromise and when to say no.  Each of those approaches, in the wrong context at the wrong time, will do ultimate harm to the tenuous but venerable link between our people and our Torah. In each instance we must ask: What response holds the best likelihood of uniting Am Yisrael and Masoret Yisrael, which response will best integrate attachment to Jewish tradition and a sense of simhat mitzvah?

Permit me a few examples of these different responses in my own congregation:

When I arrived at Temple Eilat, coffee percolators and tea pots were simply plugged in during Shabbat services, in violation of the de-oraita prohibition of cooking on Shabbat.  I spoke to my Sisterhood board, explaining why I was so troubled by this practice. I also told them that this is not an issue with which I could compromise. While I could not accept any conclusion other than one conforming to the requirements of halakhah, I did tell them that I would be flexible as to how quickly they moved to implement a permissible method of providing hot drinks on Shabbat. It took them an entire year, full of great drama and complaint, before they did finally install timers. The Great Coffee Timer Crisis has generated the greatest controversy in my service at Temple Eilat thus far. While I recognize the triviality of the issue and the inconvenience, from the perspective of my Sisterhood, I also explained that from my perspective, backing down on this question would be to concede that the commanding voice that I hear permeating the Torah and subsequent rabbinic traditions is unable to erect and maintain a world of meaning and of sanctification. Where I to admit that I would have to leave the rabbinate. by taking such a strong stand on an issue that could seem consequential only from a traditional perspective, through a willingness to risk my position in the congregation for such a seemingly petty practice, I asserted the living centrality of Jewish tradition in a manner that was impossible to ignore.

A bat mitzvah family wanted to have an evening celebration during the summer, when Shabbat ended extremely late. They were willing to have a kosher meal at the synagogue, but were unwilling to give up music.  Would I permit music on Shabbat? In this instance, my response was different than on the burning question of hot coffee. After speaking with some twenty Conservative rabbis nationwide, I decided to permit Jewish music B Israeli, klezmer or contemporary.  By waiving a shevat, I was able to assure that no writing, no photography and no tampering with fire occured during Shabbat, and to guarantee the kashrut of an affair that otherwise would have been treif. By demonstrating a willingness to meet the needs of involved congregants, and by distributing a teshuvah which explained and justified my decision, the ability of halakhah to adapt became a living part of our communal life.

When I arrived at Temple Eilat, we had difficulty getting a minyan on Saturday morning. Thank God, that is no longer a problem. This year, I implemented p morning minyan, but knew that my congregants could not sustain such a commitment every day. So, at present, we meet only on Monday and Thursday morning.  Admittedly, our practice is incomplete, and there is room for growth. But we are moving in the right direction, and I speak often of the need to expand into a full daily minyan.

In each of these instances, particular methods differed while the goal remained the same. As rabbis, we might on occasion dig in our heels and refuse to budge, we might alter a practice where there is room to do so in our tradition, or we might accede to a less than traditional arrangement. In each instance, the goal is to strengthen the links binding Jews, God and Torah to present traditional Jewish sources and practices as relevant options for living Jews and to contribute to Judaism=s process of growth, enhancement and self-rejuvenation.

An approach that alternates among opposing non-traditional practices, compromising with them, ignoring them and acceding to them is clearly one which evades a neat schematization, and which calls for the deepest levels of subjective interaction and involvement from each rabbi.  Halakhah requires of the rabbi precisely this subjective blending of inherited text with contemporary need. It is perhaps here, by reasserting the authority and the necessity of the active role of the posek, that the Conservative movement may best contribute to the restoration of flexibility and authenticity to the halakhic process.

How we respond as poskim also reflects a recognition of the developmental nature of Jewish identity and of human growth.  Few people can become instantly observant. Particularly in a culture which prizes human independence, Jews integrate unfamiliar and challenging practices only gradually and over an extended period of time.

We must make public our willingness to construe that process of growth in a positive light. Fearful of being labeled a hypocrite, a congregant may not share with her rabbi that she now separates milk and meat, although she still eats improperly slaughtered meat. After considering kashering their home, a family may back away from that decision because they are unwilling to give up eating non-kosher food in a restaurant. As a hospital chaplain, I was told more than once that a patient wanted to light Shabbat candles in the hospital but would not because he could not commit to continuing the practice at home.

This blight of an all-or-nothing mentality plagues our efforts to move Jews toward greater involvement with Judaism. We must clearly and publicly repudiate it. It is not hypocrisy to make one=s home a place where all Jews can comfortably eat whether or not one feels commanded by God to do so.  It is a commendable act of identification, and an advance along the road toward fuller Jewish living. Where we currently stand, mentally and spiritually, is but one point on a trajectory which began with our birth and which will continue beyond our death. Seen in this light, the piecemeal implementation of Jewish practices reflects a growing presence of Judaism in our congregants= lives and values. Too few congregants are encouraged simply to take the next step, however small or partial that step may be. Our tradition does not operate well on the level of lofty imperatives and sweeping theoretical constructions.  Rather, Jewish civilization B indeed, the very essence of covenant B emerges from a collection of small, concrete actions. Our philosophy emerges from our deeds.

We affirm our commitment to tradition, and our love of the real flesh-and-blood people Israel when we encourage incremental growth in the observance of mitzvot while holding out the sense of a Commander behind the commandments, the m=tzaveh to be encountered and served in the mitzvot.


How traditional should we be.?

Recognizing that our tradition is flexible and dynamic, a way of response rather than the response itself, I would assert that we must be completely traditional. Maximal in goals while gradual in process, Conservative Judaism represents a coalition in practice and learning, with standards high enough to encourage all affiliated, regardless of their level of knowledge or observance, to continue to grow. Such a community, led by a rabbi who serves as a model of enthusiastic study and increasing practice within the context of fidelity to the values and methods which emerge from the aggadah and find expression in the halakhah led by a rabbi who embodies the life of Torah and who articulates a respect for differences and for standards, will bless our people for many long years.

Like the prophets of ancient Israel, rabbis are called to serve a triple purpose.  Before God, we plead on behalf of our people. Before people, we plead on behalf of our God. And in the presence of both God and our people, we engage our traditions B Torah, Talmud, Midrash, philosophy and codes B as the continuing arena for the cultivation of Jewish souls and the establishment of God=s sovereignty on earth.