Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow – Mitzvah
By Professor Arnold Eisen
Don’t present mitzvah as all or nothing, take it or leave it, black or white.
On this as on other essential matters, Conservative Judaism ordains a balance that seems exactly right to me. My predecessor as chancellor of JTS, Ismar Schorsch, captured it well in the phrase “stereophonic Judaism”, a refinement of Heschel’s “key concept” of polarity. Locating that balance is difficult – and it is essential.
Several implications follow from these assumptions, presented here with the hope of furthering Conservative practice – both of which are essential, in my view, to our Movement’s future.
Meet Jews where they are. Don’t present mitzvah as all or nothing, take it or leave it, black or white. Begin with a few of the many accessible entry points to observance that are features of current practice and give them added meaning. “I started by not spending money [on Shabbat],” a young rabbi explained recently to her congregation. “My next experiment was not using electricity…I remember being surprised that it made such a difference.” I will not soon forget the young woman who told me, unsolicited, that lighting the candles on Friday night had changed her life.
Begin, as JTS’s Mitzvah Initiative does, with honest discussion of what mitzvot Jews do and do not practice and why. Some Jews will be surprised to find that they observe as many mitzvot as they do, not realising that some acts they perform regularly are requirements of Torah. Some will confess that they do not obey God when they perform mitzvot but rather heed the voice of conscience or the voice of ancestors or the needs of their local community or a summons to Jewish responsibility. Others will confess that they do obey God and believe that the Torah transmits God’s will.
Encourage the multiple meanings that Jews bring to Jewish practice. Value lifelong exploration, circuitous journeys, and seeming detours that turn out to be essential stages on the way to mitzvah. “Understanding the historical traditions and the theory behind our most treasured practices has helped me to discover what I consider most important to me,” one participants in the Mitzvah Initiative wrote. “I hope to sustain some of the pathways that have been opened for me.” She valued the experience of study and practice because she and her husband have grown as individuals, as a couple, and as members of their community.
A friend once told me that she began lighting Friday night candles soon after her father passed away because her mother had asked her to start using the candlesticks passed down from her great-grandmother. My friend hoped her own daughter would do so in turn. “IT’s not about God,” she said. But it is about Judaism, obligation, a distinctive Jewish act that binds the generations one to another.
Recognise that there are so many such thoughtful and committed Jews of all ages in Conservative synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups, and organisations. We need not idealise or romanticise them to appreciate their quality. I think sometimes that Conservative Jews do not accord sufficient respect to themselves and one another. We need not compare ourselves to Jews more punctilious than we about observance of ritual commandments but less active in serving the community, less generous in philanthropy, and less devoted to kelal Yisra’el. We should rather encourage Conservative Jews to expand their practice in accordance with norms to which they assent and values that stir them deeply: the quest for wisdom, concern for justice, and unswerving loyalty to the community. There is much room for growth in our congregations, both individually and collectively, and much potential for achieving it.
Some individuals and communities have opted to increase observance as a result of the Mitzvah Initiative, selecting a “signature mitzvah” that will expand their practice in coming months. one group decided to start a hevrah kaddisha. Others have resolved to visit the sick, attend daily minyan, or study. Perhaps there are signature mitzvot that cry out for urgent attention here and now from the entire Jewish people. Three such mitzvot seem to me especially vital in the contemporary Jewish situation. They call on Jews in North America to guard the State of Israel from its enemies, take every step to ward of assimilation, and exercise global citizenship for the planet and its inhabitants. None of these can wait. All demand great effort, and demand it now.
A higher standard of practice by a critical mass of Conservative Jews seems to me essential to the future of our Movement. Mitzvah is essential to any kind of Jewish life, and therefore Conservative Judaism. The Covenant demand such observance – and those who engage in it to testify to the many rewards of doing so for self, family, and community. Debate over the source of authority for the commandments has always been a feature of Conservative Judaism at every level. Does Torah command us because of a literal revelation by God at Sinai? Because of ancient traditions and/or current responsibilities of the Jewish people? What is the relative importance of belief and practice, Halakhah and Aggadah? Agreement on the centrality of mitzvah in Conservative Judaism has gone hand in hand with disagreement on the meaning of individual commandments and of commandedness as a whole.
I do not want this disagreement. Learned and vigorous conversation about mitzvah is one of the things that most defines our Movement. But that discussion needs to take place in context of heightened personal and communal practice that would enrich individual lives, strengthen our communities, and enable our Movement to thrive on, rather than be threatened by, longstanding differences in what we observe and why.
Professor Arnold 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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