Today is the dramatic wrap-up (stupendous summation / sensational send-off) of the seven-part Summer Sermon Series, a definition of who we are at Temple Israel, and a vision of who we should be.
A few years back, Temple Israel’s Institute for Lifelong Learning celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman’s seminal work, Tradition and Change. Among the featured speakers was his son, Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, who regaled the attendees with a litany of ways in which the world had changed since 1958, when his father’s book was first published.
The world has not merely changed in the last half-century. Rather, the world has been completely turned upside-down. Consider just one thing: the ubiquity of small computers for personal use has changed our lives in ways that are so profound that many of us cannot even imagine a world without them. Of course, most of us here remember a time without such devices, and of course we all managed just fine. But the way that we receive, store, and use information has changed who we are in fundamental ways.
And of course, the Jewish landscape has changed as well. Jews have many more options today for their Jewish involvement, including, of course, the option of opting out entirely. Torah learning is widely available through wonderful translations and new electronic tools, as I noted earlier this summer.
And when Tradition and Change was published, the Conservative movement accounted for half of American Jewry. Today, demographic studies suggest that about one-third of affiliated American Jews are members of Conservative synagogues. And the number of Conservative synagogues is going down as smaller congregations merge or close.
In Rabbi Waxman’s original introduction, he points out that critics of the Conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century charged it with failing to define itself. He saw his task in editing the book to defy those critics, and define Conservative Judaism. He indicated the following (among others) as essential features of our movement:
1. A commitment to Kelal Yisrael: Rabbi Waxman uses Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s term, “Catholic Israel,” the idea that all Jews are one people, united by common texts, rituals, and values, a common language and shared history.
2. Foundations in Positive-Historical Judaism: This is a concept that originated in the 19th-century German-Jewish sphere, that our approach to Judaism is at once aware of the historical changes within Jewish law, halakhah, and custom, minhag, and that we emphasize our connection with history as we look to the future.
3. Acceptance of modern thought: Our approach to Torah demands that we open our minds to the changing currents of science, philosophy, archaeology, Biblical criticism, and so forth, and not ignore them or obfuscate when they challenge accepted tradition.
4. Authority and interpretation: We are bound by Jewish legal tradition, and our reading of halakhah depends on the classical methods of interpretation that Jewish scholars have used for millennia in different lands. And yet we are able to make serious changes in halakhic practice based on our engagement with modern thought and values. We are, in body and in spirit, involved in modern life, and as such seek to marry our heritage with who we are, and where we are today.
I believe firmly in this formula. I could never have articulated this stuff before going to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but looking back at the Conservative synagogue of my youth, my summers at Camp Ramah in New England, even my family’s Shabbat dinners, I can see how these ideas were essential to my formative years: how all of the members of my family read Torah, how my Hebrew school experience complemented my secular studies, how I knew that although driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat would violate several Shabbat principles, that nonetheless the Conservative movement had decided that it was more in the spirit of Shabbat to drive there than not to go to synagogue at all, etc.
No matter the numbers of the Conservative movement, we are still here. And we still stand for the principles of Tradition and Change - of the approach to halakhah / Jewish law, as halakhic decisors have guided it for centuries. That is, rabbis have always issued halakhic decisions appropriate to the times and places in which Jews have lived. What was true for Rambam in the 12th century in Egypt was not necessarily true for Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema, in 16th-century Poland, and so forth.
Rabbi Waxman’s principles still apply today. And, of course, the Conservative movement has changed in the last half-century. In particular, in 1958, the extent of egalitarianism in American Judaism was mixed seating. I think we have also witnessed a change in Conservative clergy. The Rabbi Waxman model was rabbi-as-academic-scholar. Today’s Conservative rabbis and cantors are scholarly, yes, but are also expected to make personal connections and work harder at community-building initiatives, to focus on pastoral care and counseling congregants in new ways.
And, of course, the Conservative laity has changed dramatically. While the bulk of Jews in the Conservative pews in 1958 were immigrants and children of immigrants, people that knew the sound and feel of Central and Eastern European synagogues, today’s membership is in a different place. We are largely not naturalized Americans. We are Americans, no longer living in the shadow of the Holocaust, no longer plagued by the types of institutional anti-Semitism that kept our people down for centuries. The State of Israel is a given. Attendance at synagogue service is way down. Sermonic pyrotechnics and cantorial recitatives that moved congregations of the last century are rarely heard, let alone appreciated, by Jews under the age of 40.
And American society has changed dramatically as well. Formality is out; digital interconnectedness is in, even while our actual, physical interconnectedness (that which sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is down. Personal choice is our highest ideal. Membership in organizations of all kinds, including religious institutions, is declining. Intermarriage of all kinds is in; homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.
And for all these reasons, the need for synagogues like Temple Israel of Great Neck is as prominent as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Judaism needs the American middle. Let me tell you why:
The vast majority of American Jews (near 90%) are not Orthodox, and no matter how much money Orthodox organizations like Aish HaTorah and Chabad spend on outreach, most of us will never be Orthodox with respect to Jewish practice. Yes, there will be a few young people who grew up in non-Orthodox homes whom they will succeed in bringing into the Orthodox fold. so-called “ba’alei teshuvah.” But most American Jews are very well educated, and will be unwilling to buy into a set of beliefs that refuses to admit to the human hand in the Torah, that demands commitment to the tiniest stringencies, some of which only emerged just last week, that tends to isolation from our non-Jewish neighbors and co-workers, that in some cases even rejects the State of Israel and Zionism. We do not live in a shtetl, and most of us are not moving back there; we are integrated into American society, proud of our heritage, and dedicated to maintaining our Jewish connection without isolating ourselves.
And yet, most Jews want some kind of Jewish experience, and many of those, when they come for their Judaism fix, they want it to be traditional, and yet open to contemporary thought and sensibility.
Consider the recent Conservative publication, The Observant Life. Meant as a successor to the classic halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979), The Observant Life contains all you need to know not only to practice the ritual aspects of Judaism (kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, daily tefillah / prayer, mourning practices and so forth), but also includes chapters on such non-ritual topics as business ethics, civic morality, sexuality, intellectual property, caring for the needy, and so forth. As such, this book is an invaluable addition to the contemporary Jewish bookshelf, providing useful, readable answers firmly based in Jewish sources, from a moderate, open perspective. You should own this book (and btw, I get no commission; and also Rabbi Stecker and I will be leading a seminar for adults on this book in the coming year, so watch for it.)
American Judaism needs the middle. And that means that we in the middle are going to have to work harder to maintain ourselves. We need to take a longer, harder look at the “Change” part of Rabbi Waxman’s slogan, and consider ways to make the middle more viable. What makes us Conservative Jews is that we accept change conservatively, and even Rabbi Waxman conceded that by 1958, there had been few really drastic changes effected by the Conservative movement. But the world around us continues to change. To that end, I am going to suggest two important areas that we need to address, in the spirit of Tradition and Change.
1. Ladies and gentlemen, the social fabric of America has been permanently altered. The very definition of what it means to be a family has changed, and Judaism needs an authentic Jewish response to single-parent families, to families with two spouses of the same gender, to intermarriage.
Some of you may have heard that Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the most prominent Conservative synagogues in America, recently announced that he and the other clergy will perform gay marriages. He was taken by surprise at the very serious backlash to this announcement. But in his recent three-part sermon series on Conservative Judaism’s take on God, Torah, and Israel, he noted that Jews are meant to bring light into this world, and that we cannot do this if we do not engage with it.
Now, we may not be ready yet to have that particular conversation here. After all, this ain’t California. But we cannot close our eyes to the changing realities of the modern Jewish family.
2. Ladies and gentlemen, the powers that be in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism decided a few months ago to cut funding to Koach, the on-campus arm of the movement. This move virtually guarantees that the only people reaching out to our college students will be various types of Orthodox organizations. There are many of these, trying to bring us into their fold; they dismiss our approach to Judaism, and believe very strongly and teach that we are illegitimate.
At the same time, in the current issue of The Jewish Week, there is a profile of the newly-named President of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken. What’s he talking about? The congregation that wants their rabbi outside the building - finding the Jews at Starbucks, meeting them at the gym, bumping into them at the bookstore. He hopes to make “creative outreach,” including the use of various new technologies, a key component of Reform rabbinic training.
And you know what? Kol hakavod to all of them, to putting their resources into attracting young people. Why aren’t WE doing that as a movement?
Today in Parashat Shofetim, we read about the commandment to the (at this point theoretical) Israelite king that he must keep a copy of the Torah next to his throne. Nobody is above the words of the Torah, the words of God. But a flesh-and-blood king deals with real problems; he must be engaged with society in real time. The Torah is not to keep him in the past, but rather to help him confront the present.
One more thing that Rabbi Wolpe mentioned: when Rambam was asked why he rejected astrology, when the rabbis of the Talmud clearly believed in it, he answered by saying that our eyes are in front of us, so that we look to the future, and not to the past.
We will continue in the spirit of Tradition and Change, and change we must if we are continue to provide a home for the much-needed Jewish middle ground.
A final note: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is celebrating its 100th year, October 13-15 in Baltimore. Rabbi Stecker and I will be there, and Rabbi Waxman will be there in spirit. Join us.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/10/2013.)
This is the seventh and final installment in the Summer Sermon Series, an exploration of the most essential values of Temple Israel of Great Neck. The previous six installments were:
6. Tiqqun Olam (repairing the world)