Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow

Jewish culture By Professor Arnold Eisen 10th Feb 2016


Covenant requires community: vital and caring face-to-face communities that are the building blocks of the global community, linking Jews across the generations and around the world. The task of building, maintaining, and transforming local communities remains one of the greatest challenges confronting Conservative (and every other form of) Judaism today.

Fortunately, it is also one of our greatest blessings. What I most love about Conservative Judaism, I think, is the quality of the face-to-face communities in which it has enabled me to participate: the joy and depth of the relationships it has afforded my family and me as we walk the path of Torah.

We Jews have always needed strong communities to help us take care of one another when no one else will, provide meaning and comfort in the face of hostility or indifference, and advance the agenda agreed upon at Sinai. Only strong face-to-face community has the power to persuade Jews to remain Jews and to sustain the conviction that our beliefs and values really matter to the world. Jews who have experienced the pleasures of face-to-face communities—whether in a synagogue or school, at a summer camp, on a mission to Israel or around a Shabbat table—know first-hand that that experience is one of the most palpable benefits of Jewish commitment in our day. A vibrant Jewish community offers a sort of meaning and connection not available elsewhere. It is the source of some of the deepest joys and satisfactions life has to offer.

That is particularly true of Conservative communities that take maximum advantage of the rich variety of backgrounds, interests, talents, and perspectives represented in their membership. Community is enriched when women share positions of leadership with men and when all are encouraged to bring their diverse skills and voices to the learning and practice of Torah. The web of relationships centred on Torah thrives most when the group and all its members strive—in keeping with the essence of Conservative Judaism—to combine the fruits of their full participation in the larger society and culture with full and authentic engagement with the observances, texts, and norms of Jewish tradition.

This is true in every aspect of our lives and every facet of our institutions. Synagogues work better when they are “houses of study and assembly” as well as houses of worship; prayer on Sabbaths or holidays has a different quality when members of the congregation have come together for other activities during the week. Schools work better when parents and teachers share and exhibit the core values and activities being taught to the students. And communities of every sort are enriched by the presence of old and young, gay and straight, Jews by choice and by birth, fighters for social justice, and fervent daveners “who come early to the house of study morning and evening.”

Diversity of this kind can sometimes strain communities to the breaking point—which makes it all the more important that the bonds of connection linking them are reinforced in activities and commitments that all share. When Conservative communities find a way to elicit and integrate the varied talent in their midst, those communities grow stronger as a result. The diversity helps everyone to grow.

I remember—and hope you have had similar experiences—the Shabbat mornings when my children became b’nai mitzvah in our Conservative shul. In particular, I recall clearly and feel the emotion of the moments when the Torah was taken out of the Ark, and my children held it proudly while reciting the Shema’, then led the procession around the sanctuary as my wife and I remained at our assigned places in the front row. Our kids, we realised, had joined the community of the synagogue and the generations at that moment, even before saying the ritual blessings and receiving the ceremonial kiddush cup. We had presented and given them over to that community; its joys and responsibilities were already familiar to them.

Other memories too are vivid: how the community supported me when my parents passed away; joyous dancing with abandon at Simhat Torah and at community simhahs; heated discussions over Jewish belief or practice that ended without lasting damage to communal or personal bonds because relationships that had been built up over years were strong enough to weather argument; the regular satisfaction of learning, praying, or working beside people whose kids I have watched grow up, whose illnesses I have helped see them through, whose opinions are at times happily predictable and, still more happily, have not lost the capacity to surprise me.

Successful Conservative institutions are true communities of mutual responsibility and shared commitment; places where people not only know your name but need and value your gifts. Such institutions provide palpable assurance to everyone who walks through the door that they are never alone in the world. Large synagogues accomplish this through warm greeting of both regulars and strangers, invitations to share Shabbat meals or home study groups, and the formation of havurot that gather regularly for celebration, study, or worship.

But the most important source of community among Jews is the Covenant to which we are summoned. A Conservative Jew has a front-row seat at Sinai, so to speak—and a seat at the tables of Jewish learning and action, where we do our best to figure out how Torah should be lived and taught here and now—in ways that have never before been imagined. Every one of us is needed for that work, not just rabbis or scholars. Physicians and scientists are needed, artists and investors, parents of children and children to aging parents. The experience of undertaking the task as part of a community enables us to understand why Torah has long been a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Held fast by community, we chant those words with special fervour and hope that our dance around the Torah will never end.

Arnold M. Eisen is one of the world’s foremost authorities on American Judaism, and the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. 

You can purchase the hard copy or Kindle eBook of ‘Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow’

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