Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow

Jewish culture By Professor Arnold Eisen 06th Jan 2016


To my mind, the question of what Conservative Judaism stands for is best answered by stating where Conservative Jews stand, and with whom. I believe that Jews alive today are the heirs to the Jewish story that began, according to Torah, with Abraham and Sarah.

We stand at Sinai with every previous generation of the Children of Israel and are called to reaffirm the promises made there to God, to one another, and to the world. I am convinced—humbly but firmly—that the Sinai Covenant continues today through us. Participation in the set of relationships entailed by the Covenant adds immeasurably to the meaning, joy, and purpose of our lives.

The fact that the Covenant at Sinai established a people simultaneously with a relationship to the Holy One stands at the heart of Conservative Judaism today and in the future.

That double covenant means, first and most importantly, that life as a Jewish human being is given ultimate meaning. For reasons that mere mortals will never understand, but for which practicing Jews are profoundly grateful, the Creator of the universe seeks human assistance in completing the work of Creation. The world is not good enough as it is, the Torah insists, and you and I can make it better. All of us are needed for this task: Jews and non-Jews, men and women, old and young. Everything that each and every one of us brings to the task is required: the sum total of our diverse experiences and learning, our skills and our relationships, our intelligence and our passion, all the arts and all the sciences—in the Torah’s words, all our hearts, all our souls, all our might.

A second continuing consequence of Covenant is that Judaism has always been more than religion, even as religion has always been an integral part of Judaism. Jews are not defined as a church or sect. Rather, the Torah establishes Israel as “a kingdom,” “a nation,” “a people.” As important as religious belief is to Judaism, it is not everything, and, arguably, is not the main thing. One cannot emphasize this point enough in a society and culture that tend to treat “religion” as a separate sphere, cut off from the major business of life, and to assume that only a high degree of separation from the beliefs and practices of the mainstream entitle one to the mantle of being “religious.” The Torah does not agree with that approach. It aims to impact the entirety of life, individual and collective, and not merely the aspect of it that other scriptures and traditions call “religion.” The Torah offers a way called mitzvah that—if we walk it diligently—guides and transforms all of life: when we rise up and when we lie down, when we sit at home and when we walk upon the way.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, another great figure in JTS’s history, captured an important truth about Torah’s insistence that Judaism is far more than “religion” when he famously defined Judaism as a “civilization” in his great book by that title (1934). Kaplan knew that Judaism had always included aspects of collective life that went beyond “religion” in the normal sense of the word: history, language, literature, folk customs, communal organizations, and intimate connection to the Land of Israel. Kaplan wanted to assure Jews whose doubts about God barred the way to faith that Judaism held an honoured place for them.

This point too bears repeating today. Individuals enter Conservative auspices from differing backgrounds and bearing differing needs. All of our institutions should reflect this, even while offering Jews the pleasure and meaning that come from acting, worshipping, studying, celebrating, and talking together as one caring community of Torah.

It follows that Conservative communities must be more than synagogues, and our synagogues must offer more than worship. The Conservative form of Judaism is well known for the quality of ritual observances and life-cycle celebrations; the tone set for family relations in Conservative homes; the leadership roles accorded to women as well as men both on and off the bimah; and for the distinctive tenor of Conservative conversation as it moves back and forth from ancient sources to contemporary politics, Hebrew to English, Shabbat zemirot (songs) to rock music and jazz. There is an intangible but notable warmth in our shuls and schools that comes from comfort with Judaism and one another. At our best, Conservative Jews exhibit a quiet confidence that living fully in this century and its culture at the same time as we immerse ourselves in Jewish tradition is what Torah wants us to do.

That confidence is crucial to our future; it is the key to successful Conservative communities and goes hand in hand with the sense that you and I— every bit as much as Jewish ancestors—are part of a reality and purpose far larger than ourselves, longer than our life span, wider than our mind can reach. Heschel said it eloquently: the Torah poses a question to which our life here and now “can be the spelling of an answer.” Conservative Judaism is the most compelling interpretation of Torah that I know, a precious word in the conversation begun at Sinai, guiding covenantal work here and now that only our generation can perform.

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

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