Responding to the Temperaments of Twenty-First Century Jews
Stecker, Howard, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
I envy Orthodoxy and Reform, though for different reasons. Orthodoxy is strengthened by the commitment of its laity and Reform by its unencumbered innovation. It often seems that the Conservative movement can use more commitment and more innovation. Nevertheless, after my first 13 years serving Conservative congregations, I am more convinced than ever that the Conservative position has the potential to provide the most authentic Jewish response to the temperaments of many twenty-first-century Jews who value their autonomy, but also yearn to live lives of meaning and connection.
Recognizing that a clear sense of Divine command does not motivate many twenty-first-century Jews, we will need to explore alternative ways to encourage Jewish commitment today. We can help our constituents channel their quest for self-fulfillment toward the ultimate service of God and the community. In light of what I believe to be a needed reworking of our strategy, I would like to reflect on the nature of Conservative Judaism, its ideology, its relationship to halakha, and its prospects for the future.
The Conservative movement has grounded its understanding of Divine revelation somewhere between the extremes of affirming God's will and defining it entirely as a matter of human initiative. Conservative theologians have found different means to express the intermingling of divine and human elements, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel's phrase, Torah min hashamayim b'aspeklaria shel hadorot, Torah from heaven through the prism of the generations. Elliot Dorff, writing in his book Conservative Judaism, maintained that most Conservative thinkers, despite differences of emphasis, acknowledge both divine and human elements in the unfolding narrative of the Jewish people from the time of the Torah through the present day. In addition to accepting divine and human sources of authority, Conservative thinkers have always recognized the importance of historical context for understanding Jewish sources. Historical context affects textual interpretation, which in turn has ramifications for the halakhic process.
In its p'shat commentary, the Etz Hayim Chumash, produced jointly by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, acknowledges the historical context out of which the Five Books of Moses emerged; in its d'rash commentary, it provides insights of benefit to contemporary readers. The essays in the back of the volume offer learned perspectives on a variety of topics related to the Torah. I believe that all three elements combined provide a workable lens onto the Torah for a Conservative Jew. We need to maintain multiple portals of entry to the study of Torah, and indeed each person will be attracted to a different aspect of the volume. One element that appears to be missing from Etz Hayim is a literary approach, especially one which would raise more questions than answers by hinting at multiple ways to read the text. I believe that such an approach would be consistent with the movement's acceptance of and the current trend in literary criticism toward acknowledging multiple textual meanings. It would also confer greater responsibility for interpretation upon readers, enabling them to become active participants in the understanding of Torah.
The appreciation for historical context that underscores the p'shat commentary of Etz Hayim is also a hallmark of the movement's approach to halakha. In terms of the degree to which Conservative Judaism is a halakhic movement, I would distinguish between the sensibility of the vast majority of our constituents and the process whereby decisions are made by the leadership of the movement. I am hardly the first to observe that most of our constituents do not have a halakhic sensibility, meaning that they do not by and large make life decisions based on what they believe Jewish law requires of them. I am particularly intrigued by those people I meet who believe the Torah is the direct and discreet word of God and still do not live their lives according to halakha. Who is to blame for this lack of halakhic sensibility? It would be easy to blame generations of Conservative rabbis for failing to include commitment to Jewish law as an important part of their teaching, but I believe the lack of adherence to Jewish law is at least as deeply rooted in the American emphasis on self-determination and personal autonomy, which has only grown over time. I think we will get much further by highlighting the transformative potential of halakha than by trying to foster an attitude toward divine authority more typical of the pre-modern era. When people begin to understand that halakha has the power to make their lives more meaningful and passionate, they are more likely in my experience to want to submit to its authority. Nor do I discount intimations of life's mysteries as sources of motivation toward greater adherence to halakha. In the twenty-first century, we ought to be creative in how we build bridges between Jews and Jewish tradition. With our subtle views on revelation and our appreciation for context, both historical and personal, we as Conservative Jewish leaders are well-positioned to build those bridges.
As far as decisions made by the leadership of the movement, I find overall that there is fidelity to the halakhic process. The topics that the members of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) choose to discuss are understandably going to be rooted in inyana d'yoma, compelling issues of the day. It sometimes appears to me that the responses that emerge to certain issues constitute a superimposition of a modern sensibility onto the traditional framework, rather than an organic reading emerging from that framework. But then I remind myself that the CJLS members are not the first rabbinic scholars to coax a response out of the sources not in keeping with the original, contextual sense. Often, there are compelling moral reasons to re-interpret the sources. Eliezer Diamond, a scholar of rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, observed once in class that he does not regard such considerations as extra-halakhic, but rather as part and parcel of the dynamic of halakha. In general, I don't think that instances of breaking with a traditional viewpoint, such as the responsa surrounding the ordination of women, represent a breach of halakha so much as a legitimate reinterpretation, and therefore I would argue that overall the CJLS has remained faithful to the halakhic process.
In terms of a theology that can animate a deeper connection to Jewish observance, I have generally been drawn to approaches to God that stress God's relationship to humanity. Theologian Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments identified an existentialist perspective on God which sees God in relationship to us and emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual's perceptions and experiences. Heschel's observations about God's empathy toward us and the effect that we have on God, consistent with the kabbalistic notion that our actions have a direct impact on God, provide us with a sense that our actions have cosmic significance. Clearly these formulations are anthropomorphic, but in my view they respond to the human yearning to connect to God and provide a corrective to the depersonalization that so many of us experience. We choose to believe in a God who is moved by our plight and affected by our actions. Such a theological perspective reduces our existential loneliness and lends significance to our ethical behavior and our ritual observance. Many of the people with whom I work as a rabbi are looking to God to validate their existence and basic goodness. Some may also expect God to set realistic expectations for them that will ultimately result in their spiritual elevation. We may need to explore approachs to commandedness that engage our contemporary ambivalence.
The Conservative movement has been criticized for not having a core ideology, and was recently described by the international president of the Rabbinical Assembly as being a "coalition" of individuals with different views of God, Torah, and Israel. I don't think this is an accurate assessment. I believe that Conservative Jewish thinkers are united in their basic commitment to Jewish tradition against a backdrop of intellectual openness. We have a clearly circumscribed range of attitudes toward revelation that acknowledge both divinity and humanity, and an appreciation for historical context as it affects textual and legal interpretation. There are obviously areas of disagreement within the Conservative movement, some of them major; but if anything, we possess a fair degree of uniformity relative to the other movements. My critique of the movement is that its leaders have failed to articulate unabashedly why Conservative Judaism provides the most authentic response to the temperaments of twenty-first-century Jews.
In that regard, I would like to describe what I think many people are looking toward Judaism to provide and how Conservative Judaism in particular can provide it. The people whom I, as a rabbi, meet in classes, at religious services, and at life-cycle events are looking for a framework to give their lives meaning. They welcome exposure to values and traditions that they feel will help them raise their children and pursue their careers effectively and ethically. They crave a theological framework that will give a context to their celebrations and their sorrows. Many Jews are looking for an approach that validates their intellectual openness while also igniting their spiritual passion. They also seek a community for celebration, comfort, learning, and growth. Conservative Judaism's intellectually honest approach to Jewish tradition can be appealing, provided we also find ways to present Judaism with passion. In addition, our challenge remains, as ever, to create communities of committed Conservative Jews so that no one has to "make Shabbat alone."
Conservative Judaism during the first half of the twentieth century offered American Jewish immigrants a moderate alternative to Orthodoxy and Reform. Its task in the twenty-first century, as I see it, is to respond to the needs of a generation of Jews assured of their own autonomy, while very much in need of a framework to lend meaning to their lives. Conservative Judaism can give these individuals a perspective that validates their minds and stimulates their hearts. By valuing the yearnings of our constituents, we can achieve a fruitful connection between striving Jews and Jewish tradition, creating within these Jews a sense of obligation to God and community borne of the satisfaction of their spiritual needs. In the end, we may still have things to envy in the other movements, but we will legitimately be able to take pride in our unique contribution to the future of Jewish life.…
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Publication information: Article title: Responding to the Temperaments of Twenty-First Century Jews. Contributors: Stecker, Howard - Author. Magazine title: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. Volume: 54. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2005. Page number: 217+. © American Jewish Congress Fall 1996. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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