Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Derekh Eretz and Being Refreshed in Texas

I lived in Texas for five and a half years, earning an M.S. at Texas A&M University (Go Aggies!) and then working in steamy Houston for a huge, multinational engineering and construction firm. When I returned to Dallas last week for the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative / Masorti rabbis, I was flooded with memories of my time in Texas, and particularly that Texans LOVE air conditioning, and prefer it to be blowing on them on full blast at all times. So while the weather outside the Dallas Hilton was pleasant and not too hot, inside it felt like March in Iceland.
Nonetheless, the company was warm, and the material was hot. I had a few shiurim with one of my beloved Bible teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Walter Hertzberg, who laid out a stunning array of traditional commentaries for us to sample and draw on. I heard sessions on crafting new, engaging tefillah experiences (a particularly timely talk with respect to our process here in Great Neck), reaching out to so-called Millennials and Gen-Xers, expanding adult learning options. 

I also participated in a stellar four-hour marathon examination of textual sources with Dr. Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (where Rabbi Stecker is sabbatical-ing in July) on the tension between fulfilling God’s word and moderating some of the extreme halakhic positions found in the Jewish canon. Maimonides, for example, notes in his halakhic compendium, the Mishneh Torah (Laws Pertaining to Acquisition 9:8), that while the Torah permits one to order your Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor, it is more important to treat slaves justly and mercifully. Not that slavery of any kind today is permitted or encouraged in any way, but the wider point that Maimonides makes is that even within the letter of the law there is an obligation to treat others with respect and dignity, even if it may contradict the fundamental understanding of the written and oral Torah. This wider message is essential for the work that we do in the Conservative movement: halakhah (Jewish law) is valuable and binding, but must also be moderated by derekh eretz (respect) as well as contemporary sensibilities.

The convention atmosphere was bullish on the future, and as we welcomed a new president of the RA, Rabbi William Gershon of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, speeches were made about the vitality of the Conservative movement and the bright spots that lay ahead despite the well-known challenges that we face. While my own optimism has been occasionally challenged by the relentless stories of the movement’s decline that may be found in virtually any Jewish newspaper, I always find my spirits buoyed by fellowship with colleagues. To hear about the inspired work that my colleagues and Seminary buddies are bringing to their individual congregations is always encouraging, and so I return with not only new insights to offer as divrei Torah, but also a list of hot new ideas that have succeeded in other communities.

Put succinctly, we’re not dead yet. My rabbinic colleagues and I are still working to engage, inspire, and enlighten our kehillot (congregations), and to do it in a way that reflects our positions of moderation and derekh eretz. I look eagerly to the future with a renewed sense of purpose.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(To be published in the Temple Israel Voice, 5/29/14.)

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