Rosh HaShana 5757 - September 1996
An enlightening conversation took place in committee and Board meetings in the Congregation this past year. At first glance the discussion seems semantic or pedantic, but I believe this conversation is really over who we are as Jews, over how we define ourselves as a shul (a synagogue community), and over the very survival of the State of Israel.
A taskforce called “BEKI2000” has been preparing a process to bring this shul into the next century. This is an exciting project, for it offers a vision for a wonderfully successful spiritual shul along with a plan to realize it. You may have noticed the descriptive posters in the lobby.
The conversation began a year ago when a BEKI2000 group was drafting a mission statement for the synagogue.
A “mission statement” is a paragraph that describes the character and purpose of the shul. The “mission statement” that the committee developed, in an “early edition” since changed, described our shul, among other things, as “traditional but egalitarian.”
Certainly our shul is traditional, in that we generally speaking uphold Jewish traditions. We try to observe halakha, Jewish law, in all aspects of shul life, and we encourage members to do so at home; we espouse traditional values, such as the centrality of the family, the importance of Israel, the retention of the Hebrew language, adherence to the standard liturgy, God-centered living, and the rest. Our services and our standards of kashrut are pretty much the same as those of our ancestors 500 years ago. And so in common terms, our shul is reasonably described as “traditional.”
And, our shul is egalitarian. This means that men and women per se are treated equally with regard to shul rules and in services; or in other words, women, as well as men, count in a minyan (a prayer quorum), lead services, read Torah, and serve as shul officers.
Initially “traditional but egalitarian” seemed an apt phrase. After all, “egalitarian” appears to be outside of tradition. Yes, this is the same mahzor (prayer book) used 60 years ago, and the same Torah Scroll, but no, there was no egalitarianism in our tradition. Men and women did not sit together; women did not count for the minyan, or lead the service, read Torah, or even step foot on the bima, not even for an English reading. The way we “do it” now isn’t the way our grandparents “did it” in their day. So BEKI would be described as a shul that is traditional, except that it is egalitarian. Hence, “Traditional but egalitarian.”
Today I want to tell you that there should be no “buts” about it. Our mission statement now describes us as “traditional and egalitarian,” and that is the way it should be.
I will attempt to explain why “traditional and egalitarian” is the most accurate description, and then explore why this issue is so vitally important.
Let us begin by refining the way we think of “tradition.”
Judaism as we know it may be thought of as an attempt to answer the fundamental life question, “what does the Almighty want of us?”
And part of the way this is answered is through the process of halakha, Jewish law.
The content of Jewish law is not static. Never is, never was, never will be. It is dynamic, growing, changing. The fundamentals are eternal, the process is eternal, but the content changes.
Here we distinguish between process and content. When a given law is applied under differing conditions, the outcomes vary. The courts have to determine the facts of the case, that is, what happened; and also which laws to apply and how to apply them. This holds true not only for Jewish law but for any legal system.
A couple of illustrations: The first is a case where the rabbis agreed about the basic laws but disagreed over the place of modern scientific knowledge in the process of applying the law.
It is the case of “The Chicken that had no Heart.”
In 1709 there was a great sensation when a young girl who was preparing a chicken for dinner was unable to find its heart. Perhaps the cat ate it. But if not — if it were possible that the chicken never had a heart — then the chicken could not be kosher, for an animal missing an organ or with a defective organ cannot be kosher.
Local scholars ruled that the chicken was treif, inasmuch as it was missing its heart.
The girl, the chicken, and the cat were brought before one of the great sages of that era, the Hakham Tsvi. The Hakham Tsvi observed, based on the commonly-known science of his day,
It is apparent to anyone with an ounce of commonsense and half a brain that no creature can live normally for even a short time without a heart… (She’eilot uTeshuvot Hakham Tsvi 74; see also 77).
Since no chicken could live without a heart, this perfectly normal chicken must have had a heart when shekhted (slaughtered) and therefore was kosher. In his view, this matter of law turned on a simple scientific question of fact, to which every educated person knew the answer. The laws of kashrut were well-defined and well-known; but what we must do to comply with those laws depended on a simple scientific fact. The formula was simple; just one variable had to be entered to produce the result. That one fact, that one variable, came not from Talmudic discussion or ancient law codes, but rather from contemporary science.
However, the Hakham Tsvi apparently felt compelled to provide support from the authority of the great sages on this question, for the benefit of those who needed such authority:
Even though this is basic knowledge and does not need any proof, in order to shut the mouths of the fools eager for it, here is what I have found [among the writings of the sages]….
He then quotes Maimonides and other sources that say essentially the same thing — that an animal such as a chicken cannot live without a heart.
Not everyone agreed with the Hakham Tsvi in his day, nor do all agree with him in now. But his process of making a decision, his approach to halakha as evidenced in this case, represents a prime example of the approach followed by Conservative posqim in reaching halakhic decisions in our day.
Masorti–Conservative Judaism shares with movements of the past and the Orthodox movements of today a fundamental commitment to Jewish law (halakha), and all who are so committed recognize that the issue of whether a chicken is kosher is indeed a question of halakha. But questions of fact — whether medical, sociological, or otherwise — are often essential components of halakhic decisions. In this case the medical question of whether a chicken could live without a heart was a question of fact on which the halakhic decision turned. The approach followed by the Masorti–Conservative rabbinate is to recognize when such questions of fact are by necessity part of a halakhic decision and to act accordingly. We might say, then, that the methodology of the Hakham Tsvi, and that of many of our great sages of the past, lives on among our scholars today. This Masorti–Conservative methodology is a mainstream and traditional approach, but it is not and never was universally accepted. It is part of an age-old controversy.
This same essential distinction in approach has implications for issues of broader impact than the girl’s chicken. We now turn to the second illustration: “The Case of Women Reading Torah.“
The Shulhan Arukh, the definitive law code from the 16th century, states, “All may count as one of the seven olim to the Torah [on shabbat], including a woman, including a child old enough to know to whom he is praying; but our sages said a woman does not read in public because of the honor of the congregation” (O.H. 282:3).
In other words, basing itself on earlier law codes going back 2,000 years, the Shulhan Arukh apparently says women could read Torah, but we don’t allow it because of the “honor of the congregation.”
What has happened in this century is our sages — the real Conservative scholars — looked at that question again, as had every generation before them, and looked at what was meant by the term “honor of the congregation.”
In previous generations, when women were viewed as having a lower social class than men, and had fewer rights and privileges in society, it was considered somewhat of a dishonor for them to take part in the Torah service.
But times have changed. Today, as a matter of ideology, and as a matter of fact, we consider the social status of women to be roughly equivalent to that of men. And so there is simply no dishonor in women taking part in the Torah service; to the contrary. As part of the legal reasoning, it was determined that historically and legally this concern for “honor” was the only reason for women to not read Torah or have an aliya. It was further determined that there was no other particularly good reason to prevent women’s participation in this way, and that there were positive reasons to permit and encourage it.
In other words, a change in sociological conditions brought about a change in the outcome of halakha. The essence and process of halakha remained the same; only the outcome changed. The permission to call women to the Torah was fully within rabbinic judicial discretion, fully in keeping with the process of halakha, and fully supported by the sociological facts of the case and legal precedent; therefore it was a legitimate development.
That is an example of “change within tradition” in our day; such change is nothing new. In law codes such as the Shulhan Arukh and in the response there are literally thousands of times we are told that we used to do such-and-such, but “ha-`idna, but nowadays,” we do thus-and-thus instead. Times change.
Change is part of tradition. Not changing our practices to keep up with the times would be untraditional. Women reading Torah is absolutely part of tradition. Our “egalitarianism” is a logical development and expression of our tradition, the finest of our tradition. It is the necessary outcome of continuing the Torah’s internal logic, its blueprint for a developing civilization. The removal of the notion of the social and religious inferiority of women is a dynamic built into the Torah that we are seeing slowly realized in our day.
And so we conclude that change in general and egalitarian practice in particular is wholly consistent with and part of tradition. Ergo we are traditional and egalitarian.
After all this you might say, well and good, Rabbi, in theory that sounds fine. Nevertheless, if my great-grandfather were here, and saw this service, with men and women together like this, he’d say “in no way can this be recognized as tradition.” Well, my friends, if that were to happen, I can only tell you that that too is a tradition!
There is a fabulous story recorded in the Talmud, a story that is almost 2000 years old.
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One sitting affixing taggim (ornaments) to the letters. He said to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, what’s holding you up?”
Said the Holy One: “Someday there will be a certain man several generations hence by the name of Rabbi Aqiva who will expound upon each minute detail of Torah and Law, even on these ornaments.”
Moses said to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, I’d love to see that!”
The Holy One said: “Go back behind you and take a look.”
He went back and sat at the end of 18 rows [in the academy of Rabbi Aqiva] but did not understand what they were saying. He was overcome with grief.
Just then the class arrived at a certain subject and his disciples asked Aqiva: “Rabbi, whence do you know this?”
He said to them: “It is the law from Moses on Sinai.” Moses was then pleased. (Menahot 29b)
Traditions — and I’m talking about law, not just recipes for chicken soup — traditions and laws can change so much in the course of time that they can be completely unrecognizable as the same traditions! But in the story, Moses was contented. Change is part of tradition.
In front of this building is a beautiful tree that blossoms in the Spring. I thank the people who planted it; it is so beautiful. Thirty years ago when it was planted, it was just a little sapling. Over the years it grew and grew. It is still the same tree that it was last year, and the year before. It is growing and changing, but it’s still the same tree.
Or take our Hazzan Rachel Lovins: That young woman who stood on this bima just a few years ago as a Bat Mitzva is now a grown woman, a wife, a mother and almost a doctor! But she’s the same person. She’s the original person, only changed with the passage of time.
The same holds for children, for people, who look different as they grow, but are still the same person.
Well, if your great-great-grandfather saw our service today, maybe he would turn in his grave. But you know what, maybe your great-great-grandmother would be dancing in her place in heaven!
We should give our ancestors a little more credit. The fact is that most of these “egalitarian” things we do are not new. Women read Torah in the time of the Shulhan Arukh. Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin; the sages of old knew of women wearing tefillin, and, to quote the Talmud, lo’ mihu ba hakhamim “they did not object.”
Don’t underestimate the wisdom our ancestors. Recall that Mr. Louis Friedman, of blessed memory, accepted and supported the education of women and then their participation in shul ritual. What a vast change for a pious and learned sage from the Old World. He understood that the world changes.
We’re long beyond the point in this congregation where egalitarianism is even an issue. It’s just natural for us. But how we view this historic transition is still at issue.
I believe that this understanding of tradition is important to us in defining ourselves as Conservative Jews. We are committed to living according to Jewish law and custom, and we are committed to the traditional process by which Jewish law and thought develops. That rules out intransigence on the one hand and a free-for-all on the other. When Jewish law developed in such a way as to affirm the practice of women being called to the Torah, some mistakenly concluded that Conservative Jews abandoned the law, or that Conservative Rabbis think they can change the law willy-nilly to suit passing fashions. By understanding the traditional process of the development of the law, we see that exactly the opposite is true.
This ability to change is an essential part of our law and religious culture. If we take our law and theology seriously, we are forced to grapple with these possibilities of development which will sometimes change the way we do things.
The Torah is a Tree of Life to those who grasp it. It is a living tree, a giving tree, a growing tree, a tree of life and vitality and dynamism and change with deep roots that hold the tree firmly planted in the earth, sustaining the organism with pure waters.
At this point, I’ve gone to some length to explain why “traditional and egalitarian” is the most accurate description of our shul, why those two terms are complimentary, not contradictory. I’ve been strident in my presentation, not needing (I assumed) to convince you of the value of egalitarianism, but with the aim of convincing you that it is traditional.
Why this is so absolutely important and crucially relevant is something I have yet to explain.
Now we look at why this understanding of tradition is so vital to our lives and why it is crucial to the survival of Israel.
I want to take you to Israel. To Jerusalem. To the Western Wall.
In December 1988 a group of women attending the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem decided to pray as a group in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The group comprised women from Conservative and non-Conservative major movements as well as unafilliated women. The prayer service took place with few disturbances.
A group of Jerusalem women attempted to pray together at the Wall in January and February 1989. A group of extremist men harassed, cursed, and beat them, and tried to take their Torah scroll. The ushers and police refused to intervene. In March 1989 the women’s prayers ended when the police intervened with tear gas. This intolerable situation led four members of the group to petition the High Court of Justice to order the police, the Ministry of Religion and the Rabbi of the Kotel to allow the women to pray unmolested as a group.
The women prayed together at the Wall every Friday morning and Rosh Hodesh (new month semi-festival). In April and May extremist women violently attacked the group at prayer.
During this period the group received the organized support of the Masorti-Conservative Movement in Israel. On one Rosh Hodesh, a large contingent of males from the Israeli Conservative rabbinical school stood on the men’s side of the Kotel along the mehitza (partition) in order to shield the women from one side. We loaned a Torah scroll to the women. The leadership of the women’s group included Conservative women such as Barbara Wachs and Miriam Benson. In addition, several foreign students attending the Conservative school at Neve Schechter also participated in the women’s group and formed a support group.
A hearing was held by the High Court of Justice in May 1989. The state was given until 31 December 1989 to respond to the group’s petition. The women justifiably protested that the respondents were given an unduly long period to prepared their defense; to this Justice Menahem Elon responded: “You’ve waited 2000 years; you can wait six more months.”
In June 1989 the women were confronted by a new and unexpected obstacle. When they appeared at the Wall, without Tallit or Torah scroll in accordance with the court order, frantic Orthodox extremist women attacked and screamed that the women must not pray aloud because “qol bi-ishah `erva” – “The voice of woman is lewd.” Police and ushers refused to intervene.
In July 1989 the Ministry of Religious Affairs hired female guards in anticipation of the women’s prayer. The Women thought the guards were there for their protection. In fact, they were there to physically and violently disband and eject them at the behest of Rabbi Getz, the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel. The guards were mostly young Sephardi women and had no knowledge of the nature of the women’s prayer group. The guards ridiculed the women.
In August the women guards again greeted the women’s prayer group with harassment and threatened to remove them. The prayer group, this time prepared for the confrontation, sat down and linked arms in order to finish praying. The guards dragged them out one by one, cursing and beating them.
Thereupon the group returned to the High Court of Justice to request that the date for the state’s response be moved up from 31 December and that they be allowed to pray outloud. The court refused, again stating that they must observe the state’s current definition of the “custom of the place.” Arguing the State’s case was Nili Arad, a young, liberal, intelligent, articulate lawyer who headed the Bagatz Department in the State Attorney General’s Office. The position of the state forced Arad into the ludicrous situation of having to argue in a secular court in the State of Israel on 25 August 1989 and declare that the state’s position is that “Kol BeIshah Erva,” “a woman’s voice is lewd.”
In April 1990, the state filed its response. The response was in essence a compendium of vile misogynist statements by non-Conservative rabbis concerning women’s rights to pray together. The words most often repeated in the statements are kedaysha (prostitution), offense, Satan, desecration, unclean, forbidden, stubborn, heretical, and rebel.
Seven years have passed. In that time women praying at the Wall have been stoned and spat at, cursed and attacked. The case has been before Israel’s Supreme Court three times and has been through two Government Commissions established under court order — commissions that included not one single woman, commissions that let court-ordered deadline after deadline pass without offering a solution.
I would just point out that until 1967 there wasn’t even a mehitsa, a physical barrier, at the Wall separating men and women, and that women had prayed there sometimes in groups unmolested until 1989.
Let’s take a few steps back from the prayer area of the Wall, to the Plaza nearby.
Last Shavuot when a group of Conservative Jews were praying together at the Kotel Plaza they were stoned by extremists. A rabbinical student, the son of a Dean at our Rabbinical School, was hit in the head with a rock as he chanted the haftara (prophetic reading). The police would not protect them.
The Western Wall is the heritage of the Jewish People. It belongs to all of us. And fortunately that right is protected for us by Israel’s Basic Law, the closest thing they have to an article of a constitution. But because of politics our right is not being protected. My goodness, a group of Hadassah ladies went there to pray in all innocence last year and got arrested! Muslims and Jews share access to the Cave of Makhpela in Hevron. There are Muslim hours and Jewish hours. Why can’t we share our Kotel among ourselves?
Over ten years ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ordered that women be allowed to sit on municipal religious councils, the bodies that control access to public buildings for synagogues and other such matters. Leah Shaqdiel, a strictly religious high school teacher, was seated on the religious council in a small town in the south. Other councilors refused to recognize her, refused to give her a turn to speak, refused to count her vote.
As the years passed, in response to lawsuits, the Supreme Court also ordered that representatives appointed or elected to the councils may not be disqualified merely because they are Conservative or Reform affiliated. This order was to enforce the law as it was on the books. Mayor Olmert of Jerusalem still refuses to seat the duly appointed Conservative and Reform council members. He has no excuse!
The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhaq Rabin was a turning point. Rabin, although not especially sympathetic to religious concerns, was a man of principle, and he was willing to say no to the “religious parties” on these issues. Again, not because he cared about the Masorti-Conservative movement or its teachings, not because he was a feminist, but because he cared about issues of due process, fairness, and basic decency. Unfortunately, neither Shimon Peres nor Bibi Netanyahu are of such character.
In the Israelis elections held in the wake of the assassination the strength of the fundamentalist religious parties grew somewhat, so that they control about one-fifth of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Given Israel’s coalition-style government, these fundamentalist’s votes are decisive on so many issues that they wield disproportionate power.
There are no checks and balances in the system as we are accustomed to under the American Constitutional system, so the Knesset by a simple majority can reverse a Supreme Court ruling. There is no bill of rights, there is no principle of judicial review empowering the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional, and there is no presidential veto. Thus the rights of minorities or even of majorities is not protected. A simple majority can deprive a person of life, liberty or property.
The so-called “religious parties” have demanded, and the Likud coalition has agreed, to pass legislation declaring a felony the performance of a wedding by a Conservative or Reform Rabbi in Israel. It was just a couple of years ago that the Supreme Court ordered the government offices to recognize these Jewish marriages; now party politics will override the Supreme Court, override the rules of traditional Judaism.
Now mind you, the State of Israel will still recognize a civil marriage performed anywhere in the world. Justice of the peace Murphy can marry the Jew Cohen to the Episcopalian Smith in the New Haven City Hall, and it will be recognized by the State of Israel, but Conservative Rabbi Sachs cannot marry Dr. Cohen to Dr. Levy within the boundaries of the State of Israel.
As it is, hundreds of Jewish Israelis go abroad each year to be married in civil ceremonies, in order to avoid having a religious-party appointed rabbi officiate at their wedding.
So that will be the law of the State of Israel. Under Jewish law, as written in our law codes for the past two thousand years and more, you don’t even need a rabbi to perform a wedding. What they are trying to do is antithetical to Jewish tradition.
The parties have also drafted legislation adding a new requirement for eligibility to serve on the municipal religious councils: Each candidate must hold a “Teudat Shemirat Mitzvot,” a “certificate of religious observance,” and guess who will be issuing those certificates. This is in a country that has refused to impose a loyalty oath on Knesset members in order to accommodate the anti-Zionist religious parties who are part of this government.
The fundamentalist parties have also demanded, and the Likud coalition has agreed, to pass legislation to bar the government from recognizing as Jews anyone converted under Conservative or Reform auspices. Again, what they are trying to do is antithetical to Jewish tradition, and there is no basis for it whatever in Jewish law, but this is party politics, not Torah. Passage of that bill will mean that the thousands of Russian immigrants, the Ethiopian immigrants and others converted by Conservative rabbis would be declared non-Jews by the State, and lose their rights. It means that two-dozen adult converts in this room, and about fifty children in this building, and many of your grandchildren, will be not be recognized as Jews by the State of Israel. By Jews and Jewish Law, and in the eyes of God: Yes; but by the State of Israel: No. And for the handful here who have been converted under Modern Orthodox auspices, I have news for you: You’re next. That movement is next on their list of targets.
Again, this is not a matter of Jewish law. It is a matter of Israeli law, the laws of the State of Israel. Under the law of the Torah, there is no ground for doubt, and it is an offense to question the status of these people. No one could claim that. But the laws of the State are determined by a majority vote. What those people are trying to do is shameful. It is destructive to the Jewish People, destructive to the State of Israel.
The Supreme Court of Israel has also ruled that Conservative schools and institutions should receive funding on the same basis as the others. That, too, will be turned back.
On the one hand, the desire for religion, for spiritual guidance, among the Israeli population is great. Unfortunately the “official” Judaism of the politically empowered makes so many Jews run away from Judaism. The politicized religious parties are corrupt, and they corrupt the State and desecrate the Name of God. This generation so desperately needs Conservative Judaism, the style of Judaism that through the ages has responded positively to science and enlightenment. This is a generation of Israelis who believe that women should be rabbis, that men and women should have equal opportunity. This is a generation of Israelis who reject superstition, who reject the cynicism of the corrupt religious politics. They are told that only the Eastern European imported Orthodoxy is real Judaism. If they are not able to get the message of Conservative Judaism, the message of Torah Tradition that we are teaching, the spiritual existence of the State is in jeopardy.
Three years have passed since the Oslo Accords; and almost one year has passed since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. We know that there is a potential for Israel to be at peace. And we know that there is a potential for Israel to be torn apart by fundamentalist violence, by intolerance. There was recently a tumult when a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Israel compared the Reform Movement to the Biblical character Zimri — a man committing adultery-idolatry who Pinhas slew in an act of zealousness — an act of zealous killing for which he is praised. And Justice Aharon Barak of the Supreme Court has been similarly labeled a “public enemy deserving of death” for his temporary restraining order keeping the Ministry of Transportation from closing Bar Ilan Street in Jerusalem on the sabbath.
I say all of this not so that you will hate your fellow Jew, God Forbid! I say this not so that you will despise your religious heritage, God forbid!
I say this so that we know that what some extremists are doing in the name of Torah does not represent our Tradition. You see, a good part of why those forces oppose Conservative Judaism with such utter frenzy, with such contempt is because of the stand that we take with respect to the status of women. It just sets off emotional fireworks for many. A Masorti-Conservative shul in Israel uses the same siddur as the traditional non-Conservative shuls, and of course the service are all in Hebrew. The only noticeable difference is the participation of women. That is the greatest issue that separates these streams of Judaism. And that is why I attempted earlier to demonstrated how it is that our approach is part of tradition from the point of view of halakha.
What I’m talking about really is complicated, and has a lot of aspects to it. But a big part of it has to do with that old “but” that I tried to get rid of earlier. That “but” is the chasm that has grown in the Jewish world. On one side is tradition that has tried to stop growing, claiming that nothing may change or all will be lost, that has closed itself off to feminism and science and internationalism and Zionism, to worthy human strivings. On the other side is the tradition that has continued to incorporate evolution, and has let the feminism of the Bible and the social conscience of the prophets and the spirituality of the sages and the brilliance of the scholars and the beauty of the poets — that has embraced them and let them live, let them continue the tradition of growth and development.
The old UJA slogan “Am Ehad” “We Are One” was so powerful because it touched that part of every Jew who knew that they really are not Ashkenazic or Sefardic or Conservative or Orthodox or Reform or Israeli or Hasidic — but that they really are just a Jew, and that God loves us on that basis, just as God loves every human being. Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, Adonai our God Adonai is One; Shema Adonai, Hear O Adonai, Your People Israel, Your Jewish People is One. Deep in their heart every Jew wants to feel the unity of the Jewish People.
And every time a Jew in this world does something we are proud of, when we see her name in the paper for a scientific discovery, when we see his name in the paper for rebuilding his factory after the fire so the workers could keep their jobs, we feel we are One people. And when murderers blow up a busload of men women and children, when they launch Scuds against Tel Aviv, we feel that pain to the very core of our being, we feel we are One people.
But when we see them throwing rocks at cars driving on Bar Ilan Street on Saturday, when we feel the disgrace when they open fire at a group of Muslim worshipers, when we see them throwing chairs at women at prayer, when we hear their cheers at the assassination of a prime minister and stand shocked as the murdered leader’s opponent takes power, we say, no, these can’t be our people. If these are Jews, then I….
We are not One People. We are torn asunder. We do not feel hatred. We feel the pain, the deep pain, of love. We want so badly to be reunited — but not to go back. We can’t go where they are.
We must talk, we must teach, we must live our lives forthrightly as who we are, as the Jews we are.
We must stand together in defense of Tradition, our tradition that elevates the status of women, a tradition that is dynamic, a tradition that teaches us to respect others and their opinions, even when we disagree, that teaches us to value diversity, to resolve conflicts honorably and non-violently, a tradition that respects the right of each community to live according to Torah as it applies to them.
We need the healing power of Torah to save Israeli society. Conservative Judaism must be free to bring Torah to the masses, to bring the masses to the Torah. Despite the government’s actions, I believe that this Torah force will succeed. The Conservative approach is growing steadily in Israel, and deserves our support.
Let’s look at the bottom line. Many “liberal” Jews are supporting non-Conservative institutions, because they think the others are the “real” Jews, and deep inside they sincerely want to help “real” Judaism. How can we support non-Conservative schools and shuls that teach that our children are not Jewish? How can we support non-Conservative causes that teach that women are “kedeshas,” prostitutes, because they wish to pray together aloud as women? That teach that our elected officials and appointed judges deserve to be murdered? That our rabbis are no rabbis, our converts are no converts, our marriages no marriages?
The American organization “Jews for Jesus” spent $20 million last year bring their spiritual message to Israel. That is more than the Masorti-Conservative Movement spent.
Now that we’ve been to Jerusalem, I’d like to take you back home.
Many American Jews are deeply ambivalent about their Judaism. Some experience a tension between our progressive view of humanity, gender roles, equality, human rights, civil rights, on the one hand, and our Torah on the other. Some experience a tension between spirituality, the search for God in our lives, on the one hand, and Jewish law and synagogue life on the other. We are at times incredibly proud of our Judaism, how ethically advanced and sensitive and intellectually rigorous it is, the wisdom of our prophets; the piety of our rabbis; the dedication of our martyrs; the contribution of our scientists and social activists. And at other times we are embarrassed by the backwardness of those who throw rocks, those who hold to superstition, those who represent Judaism as sexist and otherwise oppressive.
Will the “real” Judaism please stand up?
Judaism encompasses and respects diversity of thought and practice, respects the jurisdiction of local rabbis. We may disagree over issues but not over the right to disagree. Historically we as Conservative Jews represent the mainstream approach of Judaism, how it has always developed. We are the “moderates” and that is sometimes a difficult place to be. But we must have the self-confidence as Jews to hold steady, for we understand that sometimes life is a balancing act.
The survival of what is beautiful in our religion — the acceptance of diversity and decentralization, valuing the integrity of thought and religious practice — requires us to understand that what we are doing here as a Conservative shul is tradition. Some people care about tradition per se; others don’t. Whether or not we embrace tradition, how we understand tradition necessarily affects the way we view and value our heritage, how strongly we hold our Jewish identity.
The Conservative Movement is both the newest and the oldest movement. Of the three major movements in America — Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative — the Conservative Movement was the last to be formally constituted, in the 1880s. It was formed by religious and communal leaders who saw the Reform Movement breaking away from traditional Judaism by abandoning kashrut, changing shabbat to Sunday, and radically altering the siddur. At the same time, these Conservative Founders — who included many Sefardim along with Ashkenazim — saw the recently-constituted Orthodox Movement as deviating from the tradition of halakhic development and intellectual enlightenment that has characterized our cultural and religious history.
These Conservative founders viewed themselves not as leaders of a new movement, but to the contrary, as guardians of the old tradition, as the leaders of the broad masses of traditional Jews who declined to follow the deviant approaches of Reform and Orthodox. In that sense, Conservative was the oldest of the three major groupings. It was not until the 1960s that Conservative leaders fully recognized that Conservative Judaism was not simply the non-movement of the non-Reform and non-Orthodox, but rather a distinct movement in its own right. It was not until the 1990’s that the United Synagogue took the name United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
One generation ran from the superstitious “backward” practices of “Judaism”; the next ran from the vapid fashion show Temples in the suburbs. What is it that we want? We want to experience and know God, we want some explanation that both makes sense and fits our experience; we want a firm basis of morals and ideals; we want community, authenticity, a real link with the past, roots; a value system to replace the ethical drift of contemporary America. We want equal opportunity & respect for ourselves, our daughters and sons. That is why so many people are looking, looking in Torah.
Looking at what others make of Tradition can be scary. It can be a turn-off. It’s our Torah, our Tradition, and we must claim it for our own.
Our self-image as Jews depends on how we view Tradition, for most of us think that whatever is “traditional” is the real Judaism. How we view Tradition will determine whether we really deep down inside want our kids to be Jewish, whether we really want to be part of a shul community, a shabbat community, or whether we just want to ostensibly remain “loyal” but not really live the life of mitzvot and harbor deep mixed feelings of respect and contempt for those who do.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen September 1996, 2007