The Cornerstones of Conservative Judaism
First Day Rosh HaShanah - September 9th, 2010
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
I know why my family affiliated with a Conservative synagogue. In 1956, when looking to move from Brooklyn, New York to New Jersey where my father found a job, a flat tire led my parents to inquire about housing in the little town of Belleville. There was one synagogue. It was Conservative. They joined it. There my brother and I grew up. It was the portal to Judaism and everything else Jewish for four generations, from my parents to my grandchildren. There I discovered my Jewish identity, the content of our religion, the language of Hebrew, the far away country of Israel, and the five thousand year long history of our people. I was captivated. I was enriched. I was proud. While I heard about other divisions of Judaism, they did not interest me. Conservative Judaism, steeped in tradition while vibrant and modern had more for me than I could possibly have absorbed to fill my religious quest.
Clearly the style, brand, [the word I loathe - "product" - ]called the "Conservative" synagogue was very appealing. Synagogues like Temple Beth-El sprung up across North America mainly because of the nature of its presentation of Judaism, neither too far right nor too far left, attracted the growing American Jewish population. Yet I believe, that in all those decades, it would have been most difficult for the members of these synagogues to answer the following two questions:
1. Are you a member of a Conservative synagogue or are you a Conservative Jew?
2. What is Conservative Judaism? What does it stand for? What does it represent?
In concise manner, I phrase the question:
Why are you in this synagogue today and not elsewhere?
While it was not necessarily wrong, but because we were so completely dedicated to teaching Judaism, so devoted to the Jewish people in general, we never articulated clearly and meaningfully that we were presenting Judaism through a very specific prism. We never inculcated "brand loyalty." We didn't 'grow' Conservative Jews. I remember that the language always was: we were not Reform and we were not Orthodox. We needed to articulate what we are! What is so unique, so completely special, so distinctive that is Conservative Judaism? Why should anyone join us? Why should anyone remain here?
I will answer that today.
At the Rabbinical Assembly Convention this past May, held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, Rabbi David Wolpe opened the Convention by addressing this very issue. He challenged us to come up with a new name. I haven't, though I have thought hard. I have taken up his suggestion to define us. Rabbi Wolpe's suggestion was to define Conservative Judaism through the prism of relationships, because our core word is covenant – brit. Conservative Judaism is unique because it brings us to stand in a series of special relationships. I build these remarks on those of Rabbi Wolpe. I call them: The Cornerstones of Conservative Judaism.
1. We stand in relationship to God. The Jewish story begins with Abraham who heard God's call. That call called our people into being. That is our raison d'être. Faith gives us the purpose to exist. We gave the world the gift of our faith. Historical events such as the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the many persecutions, the Holocaust, never robbed us of our faith in God. I suppose that every Jew throughout history has had their moments of doubt and questioning. Maybe we have taken Abraham's posture and even argued with God. Conservative Judaism means to standing in that relationship, even as it changes as we do, even as it grows, even when challenged, for it is the core part of our identity and daily life as a Jew.
2. We stand in relationship to Torah. Conservative Judaism teaches to study Torah, in shul, at home, in classes, on the computer – and any other media. Torah is alive today. We see the Torah text as speaking in the present tense. We are the participants in its drama. In its laws and in its narrative we find the core values of our faith, different from all the others. We use modern as well as classical scholarship to continue to discover its meanings. We hear God's voice in and between its lines. I pay homage to my predecessor Rabbi Milgrom, may his memory be for a blessing, who brilliantly elucidated the Biblical texts. He truly represented Conservative Judaism.
3. We stand in relationship to our tradition and mitzvot. Conservative Judaism teaches us that we are the inheritors and repository of gold: Shabbat and the Chaggim, these holy days, Jewish law and personal mitzvot, our liturgy and our literature. They connect us to God. They weave us into relationships with each other. They are beautiful! They are joyful! They are glorious! Each and every component is imbued with meaning, and spirituality. I wish we could feel the pulsating power of Tevye's singing "Tradition," not that I want to live in Anatevka, but with the unfettered freedom to know that the wisdom of the ages is ours, the connecting web that transcends time and place to reach to the infinite is ours. While not every tradition with a small 't' will speak to each of us, so much can, and so much more can be added to the stock of tradition. Our relationship is infused with joyful obligation to halacha, Jewish law.
4. Klal Yisrael – We stand in relationship to every Jew alive. While there are many divisive ideologies, Conservative Judaism stands for the unity of Jew with Jew, the overarching unity of the Jewish people: those born, those by choice, those with kipot, those without, those of every color, those with faith, those without, those of every gender, here in Richmond and around the world. There are compelling reasons to propagate and maintain the existence of the Jewish people. Conservative Judaism teaches that we stand face to face with each other as the Jewish people, bar none. We may argue. We may fight. We are one.
5. We stand in relationship to the State of Israel. As Conservative Jews, we are Zionists. Conservative Judaism teaches that while Israel is a political state, and we don't have to agree on every policy, it is a religious-state-of being for the Jewish people. We do have different but dual allegiances. I am a faithful citizen of the United States. I am a loyal Jew to Medinat Yisrael. We do have a national corporate entity. Israel is part of the faith of a Jew. When the faith wanes our loyalty becomes subject to politics. We may differ on our politics but never on our loyalty to Medinat Yisrael. That is a core value of Conservative Judaism.
6. We stand in relationship to the non-Jewish world – HaOlam kulo. In our distinctiveness we are a part of the world, neither shunning it nor being overwhelmed by it. We are proud to maintain our identity in the marketplace of America, even when making difficult choices to observe our traditions and law. As Conservative Jews we bring our Jewish values into play with the issues of our day: illegal immigration, unfair taxation, gay civil marriage, the unemployed. Conservative Judaism welcomes those who truthfully seek to join the faith, to embrace those who embrace the faith. We truly welcome with a warm countenance and respect those who accompany their Jewish spouses and partners without any condition. Securely and confidently we face inward and we face outward.
7. Lastly - We stand in relationship to our history and our posterity. I receive many college and church classes in this Sanctuary. There is an audible awe when I teach them that this place – the synagogue - is two thousand years old, that Jewish history began nearly two thousand years earlier than that. There is such a depth to have our rootedness. We sweep the panorama of time and place. Conservative Judaism teaches us to have a positive relationship with our past as we live it and use it to write the present and future. It includes all the languages we have spoken and the Hebrew of our liturgy and Medinat Yisrael. Conservative Judaism uniquely teaches to appreciate and critically review the immense expanse of being a Jew.
God, Torah, masoret and mitzvot, Klal Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, HaOlam kulo, and our history, these seven, like the days of creation, are the cornerstones of Conservative Judaism. This number represents the creative forces and dynamics which are so special about Conservative Judaism. While other formulations of Judaism contain some of these components, we have them all, in our unique and singular combination. These are the elements that define us and shape us, in the past and in the future. Our Conservative Judaism stresses the covenantal quality of our existence, internally and externally, inwardly and outwardly. I feel it beautiful and a faithful and faith-filled formulation of Judaism. I am thankful for my family's good fortune that brought us to Belleville, New Jersey, a Conservative synagogue and Conservative Judaism.
The world has changed greatly from the heyday of Conservative Judaism. It is the time when the daughter of the past President of the United States and the Secretary of State, a Baptist and a Methodist respectively, married a Jewish boy on Shabbat, with a ketubah, under a chuppah and wearing a Talit with a minister and a rabbi. These are complex and complicated times. In the ongoing discussion about the marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, Rabbi Irwin Kula wrote a masterful article on the Huffington Post: "From the Cathedral to the Bazaar: What Chelsea Clinton's Wedding Says About Religious Syncretism." He notes that the fastest-growing religious identity in America is "none." 18% of Americans say that they don't belong to any religious group. He then introduces a new acronym – MBBS - to characterize American society: "mixers, blenders, benders and switchers…Religious identity is becoming fluid, permeable and an ongoing construction."
The challenge for Judaism and particularly Conservative Judaism is to be compelling, to be a source for spiritual nourishment, to have a persuasive and convincing presentation to ourselves and to the world, to maintain our integrity while being magnetic. We can do it! For the future of the American Jewish community, we must do it! These pieces that I have enumerated – and others - are the cornerstones for our expression of Judaism.
We need to live them, to express them in a life-giving community.
We need to be a true community.
We are not a membership list. We are a holy community – kehilah kedoshah.
Then we have something precious to say to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren.
Then we have something captivating and compelling to say to the world, to the MBBS.
In this year ahead, let us come together as such a community. Let us be pray together, learn together, work together, throughout the year, not just these days. These days must be the foundation from which we climb higher.
May that climb begin today, layla u'l'ayla.
Shanah Tovah Tekatayvu.
May this be a great year.