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Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow – Learning

By Anne Cowen

The following is an extract from the book ‘Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow’, by Professor Arnold Eisen.

The central questions facing every individual Jew and every generation of Jews are these: What role will we play in fulfilling the Covenant linking Jews to one another, to God and to the world? What world will we say in the conversation begun at Sinai? What chapter will we write in the story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah.

How can I make sure I leave the world better than I found it?

It is impossible to answer these questions responsibly without serious Jewish learning. Our knowledge of how Jews have lived and taught Torah until now must be broad and deep enough to be adequate to the challenge of teaching and living Torah now and in the future. That challenge includes the momentous questions posed by every serious human being: How shall I use my time on earth well? How can I be a good person, a good friend, spouse, or parent? A good child to my own parents? How can I make sure I leave the world better than I found it? How should I think about and serve God? Jewish human beings, like all thoughtful individuals of every background or creed, want answers to these questions as well as the others I have named. We need those answers. That more than anything else is what drives Jewish learning.

Conservative Judaism at its best offers distinctive formulations of both these questions and the answers:

  • It speaks forcefully, honestly, and authentically to contemporary dilemmas, in the conviction that the Torah, properly interpreted for changed conditions, offers the wisdom needed to guide us through present-day complexities in our private lives and our public lives; in the Jewish community and in society at large.
  • Our movement maintains that the diversity of voices sounding forth from the sacred texts of our tradition, and the variety of ways Jews in the past have applied the Torah’s teachings to new circumstances, are essential to the Jewish future. We thrive on that connection to the Jewish teachings and practices handed down to us. We are enriched by responsibility not just to our contemporaries but to our ancestors and our descendants.
  • Conservative Judaism believes as well that Jews cannot carry our tradition forward without appreciation for the rich encounter between learned and observant Jewish communities, past and present, and the larger societies and cultures in which Jews participate. “Who is wise?” ask our sages in Ethics of the Fathers. “He who learns from every person.” And, Conservative Judaism adds, from every culture, every religion, every corner of ancient or modern human knowledge and experience.

All of these elements shape Conservative Jewish learning. We believe that all of them are needed to make the world better by means of Torah.

Louis Finkelstein, the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1940 to 1972, summed up what he considered the “fundamental premises” of Conservative Judaism in the twin affirmations that Judaism “is a developing religion” that has always undergone change; and that “this change was not one of deterioration and ossification but of growth, self-expression, and foliation”. We are no less worthy than the ancestors by virtue of membership in our century rather than theirs. Our task now as ever, our privilege now as ever, is to study the sages of old so as to emulate them: to render Judaism compelling for this revolutionary age, as our learned ancestors did for theirs.

Finkelstein’s statement explains why, for Conservative Jews even more than others, the rabbinic principle holds: Talmud Torah ke-neged kulam, the study of Torah is weighed against the importance of all the other commandments combined. The task of discerning and following the Torah’s precepts is daunting. Relating Torah to the finest insights of the larger culture, and adapting Judaism responsibly to changed conditions when necessary, add a further measure of difficulty. Both these added tasks – fundamental to Conservative Judaism – require a thorough, complex, and nuanced knowledge of the Jewish past that includes understanding of the manifold in which Jews over the centuries have interacted with the larger cultures of which they were a part. Conservative Jewish learning – whether of texts and practices (the positive in Frankel’s “Positive-Historical Judaism”) or of the changing historical context of belief and practice, demands attention to patterns of continuity and transformation, diversity and unity, that for other movements in Judaism are far less salient.

Learning of this sort is a central commandment for Conservative Jews and one that, as Finkelstein stressed, is often undertaken in love. “We are drawn to the Torah with the bonds of love for it and for its norms. We love its ceremonies, its commandments, its rules and its spirit. We delight in its study.” I hand found this to be true; Conservative Jews – if fortunate in their teachers and study partners – experience moments of excitement, joy, and real gratitude from active participation in the age-old conversation with Torah. Their experience of learning is heightened by the realisation that everyone at the table – women and men, adults and teens, professionals and laypeople – has a great deal to contribute.

I will never forget the man in his 50s who told our prayer group about the day he had first understood the Shema – word by word – when it was read aloud from the Torah. He had cried then, he said, and welled up in tears as he shared the story. So did we.

I remember occasions when members of synagogue and Federation boards grew excited and inspired upon learning that some of the most difficult dilemmas they faced have been confronting Jewish communal leaders for many centuries. I’ve treasure the struggles of young Jews to draw boundaries between Judaism and the larger culture – bringing the two together at some points, pushing them painfully apart at others – in the company, thanks to learning, of Jews who had made similar efforts a thousand years ago.

And I certainly recall with gratitude the realisation that gradually came to me in my teenage years while poring over the biblical text in Hebrew, along with medieval commentaries likewise studied in the original. I could join those commentators at the table of Jewish learning, I realised. Their disagreements and novel perceptions constituted a kind of invitation. Learn enough, practice enough, and we too could forge a link in the chain of Torah. The excitement of that opportunity has never left me.

It is deeply satisfying to come closer to the Torah and tradition in this way. How wonderful that no question is ruled out of bounds a priori and no body of knowledge is considered irrelevant. Every person, every profession, every life experience and line of work has the potential to add to the understanding of what Torah means and what is wants of us.

Professor Arnold 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’ via: jtsa.edu/today

Posted on 22 March 2017

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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