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. …