Teaching the Torah of Conservative Judaism
Posted on May 26, 2016
The following address was given at the 2016 Rabbinical Assembly convention.
Let me begin by saying that for me it is an honor beyond words to address my colleagues in the RA once more as chancellor of JTS. Working with you over the years; visiting the institutions that you lead; teaching and learning with you each January at RTI; benefitting from the excellent mentoring that you provide year after year to JTS students; getting the benefit of your wisdom, experience, and friendship in frank conversation on issues we face in our community and at JTS; partnering with RA leadership on these issues, publicly and behind the scenes; hearing the Jews you work with sing your praises—which does happen more than you might realize—all of that and more fills me with pride.
At a deep, personal level, you provide me with the pleasure of companionship, as together we walk a path in Torah that is not as well-travelled these days as we might like, if it ever was, but which—I believe, as you do—is of great and enduring importance for the future of our community and to the vitality of Torah. JTS would not be investing in the campus construction that has forced us to meet at Park Avenue Synagogue instead of 3080 Broadway if we were not confident in the future of our institution and in the kind of Judaism that inspires us. For reasons I shall explain in a moment, I believe that future is bright.
The personal meaning I have in walking our distinctive path in Torah is greater still because of the close connection to Conservative Jewish leaders who preceded us. For me, of course, that means especially the men and women who walked the halls of JTS and paced the dalet amot of the Chancellor’s Office. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual conversation with Gerson Cohen. Many in this room, of course, knew him well. I spoke to Cohen at length only once: about 30 years ago, when he offered me a position on the JTS faculty. But I’ve been reading him a lot lately, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Blessing of Assimilation” address. In the course of that reading I was particularly struck by an essay called, “Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Jewish Faith,” which Cohen delivered at an RA Yom Iyyun in 1981. Several passages in it say a lot about the Torah that is distinctive to the kind of Judaism that you and I teach and try to live.
The first occurs in the opening paragraph of the talk, right after Cohen asserts that “critical scholarship and traditional faith and practice are the pillars upon which Conservative Judaism rests.” He then says the following: “If learning and scholarship do not affect our religious faith and behavior, we are simply engaging in a kind of antiquarian exegesis. If critical learning does not have an effect on our theology, on our experience of God, we have to ask ourselves why we are engaging in it with such tenacity.”
Exactly. To me, “Conservative Torah” as you and I teach i—whether our Torah she bichtav, found in the set of texts from Frankel to the present that I teach in my seminar on Conservative Judaism at JTS—or Torah she b’al peh, transmitted and embodied in countless drashot, modes of practice, and styles of discourse, as well as in distinctive sensibility, emotional valence, and musical traditions—is permeated by our desire to bring together what we know about our history, our texts, and the history of our texts, with what we know about our world and from our world.
We seek wholeness, we Conservative Jews; we want the two parts of levaveinu, minds and hearts, to be in sync as much as humanly possible, and to be in sync too with our souls and our strivings; we want to serve God as best we can in this world, in shul and out, in our homes and on the way. We want to be God’s partners in making the world more just and compassionate. And we know, oh do we know, how hard that is. The work requires serious Talmud Torah, in the expanded definitions of learning and of Torah that have always been a distinctive feature of our Conservative way.
Citing etymological evidence from the Akkadian, Cohen argued that the passage from Proverbs that serves as his key text—“bekhol derakhekha da’ehu” (Proverbs 3:6)—means “that we must experience God in every ramification of our lives.” Lada’at means to know something [or someone] “ethically, sexually, physically, intellectually.” We should make it the central principle of our lives, Cohen said, “to experience the presence and the Word of God in every area of our being.” Only so “will we be able to overcome the fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.” And because the point is to live God’s Torah in the real world, which is rapidly changing, “one thing is certain: we cannot allow ourselves to be rigidly confined by the authority of earlier ages.”
Several implications follow directly, in my view, for the teaching of our Torah. One is that contemporary Jewish ethics, both personal ethics and social ethics, must be front and center when we Conservative Jews teach Torah and seek to live Torah. My veneration for Abraham Joshua Heschel stemmed initially from the fact—and photograph—of his march beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and from his remarkable integration of great learning and piety with courageous social/political activism. That is true for many of my generation, and remains the case today.
I believe that Gerson Cohen would have strongly approved of JTS’s new degree program and adult learning initiative in the field of ethics. Indeed, it seems to me that in 2016 we cannot but recognize that humanity faces a global ethical challenge never before encountered: all the children of Noah may soon be unable to “live upon ha-aretz la-vetach,” in such a way that “the land yields its fruit and we can eat our fill,” as Parashat Behar puts it (Lev. 25:28-19). Leviticus is in many ways the most intimate of the Torah’s five books. It meets us frail, mortal human beings where we live, in our skins and with our families, in private spaces of home and tabernacle. But in this passage the Torah instructs us as a society, as a species, that divine blessings of rain and sun will surely turn to curses if we do not do our part in stewarding God’s earth properly.
The curses we will soon read in Parashat Behukotai bear time-sensitive significance as never before. Massive disruptions of rain and fertility are happening before our eyes, millions of people are already without food and shelter as a consequence, human dignity suffers greatly every day—all this the result not of divine punishment (at least not visibly so) but from human action and inaction. Ancient Israelites were promised a second chance by God, once the Land has observed the Sabbaths it had been denied by non-observance of sabbatical laws. The scientists hold out no such hope for us.
Conservative Torah, echoing Moses’s Torah, must have a lot to say on this point now and in coming years. We can’t allow the universality of the problem to dissuade us from raising a distinctive Jewish voice of alarm and address, any more than we can permit the particularity of our love and concern for Israel to silence our defense of its legitimacy or our aspiration that it live up to the promises of its Declaration of Independence and the prayers of countless generations.
In order for Conservative Torah on this or anything else to be heard in 2016, or to deserve to be heard, two other aspects of bekhol derakhekha da’ehu seem to me essential.
One is the emphasis upon experience. Conservative Judaism, with strong input from JTS, has never lacked intellectual heft. Its ideas, its emphasis upon learning, its devotion to intellectual achievement and intellectual integrity, have been of incalculable importance to many of us over the years. They are obviously important to me. I’d venture to say that Benjamin Sommers’s book, Revelation and Authority, published last year, will take its place on the shelf of key texts that define Conservative Torah and fortify our conviction as Conservative Jews. I trust that books and ideas will never cease to play a central role in our kind of Judaism.
Even so: when I look back upon my life—upon my life as a Jewish human being, upon my life as a Conservative Jew—it is not the intellectual piece that seems most salient. Experience counts for more. Reflect with me now upon your own lives and I bet the same will be true for you.
I’m thinking of the wedding made for my wife and me by Minyan M’at in 1982; the day, like the congregation that danced us to and from the huppah, was a creation of havurah Judaism that was in turn a direct outgrowth of Conservative Judaism and could not have existed without it.
The single greatest religious experience of my life without a doubt was watching my daughter come into the world at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. I remember dancing around the room with her in my arms, singing “Baby, baby I hear a symphony,” and saying over and over again, “Thank God, thank God.” I had reviewed some reproductive biology, and accepted it as scientific fact; I also knew for a fact that my wife and I had not performed that miracle alone. God was in that place, ve-anokni kein yada’ti (“I, I did know it”). Conservative Judaism had freed us for that synthesis of faith and science, undergirded it with reason, and helped me to translate it at that moment from thought to primal emotion.
I know from the survey data that I am typical in the fact that so much of the deepest meaning in my life is bound up in my family. Sovereign selves melt in gratitude at ritual events with children, grandchildren, or extended family. In my case the memories that pack the most emotional punch, even now, include my daughter’s brit bat in Jerusalem and my son’s brit in Palo Alto; blessing our kids at the Shabbat dinner table, and watching my father cry every time he was present for that blessing; the way my wife and I learned from our communities to celebrate our kids’ bat and bar mitzvah, just as those communities helped us to find the strength—emotional and cognitive, to deal with our parents’ deaths.
Kaplan was not entirely wrong when he said that recital of the Shema is an occasion for experiencing the thrill of being a Jew. I certainly feel that thrill when the Torah is returned to the Ark each Shabbat morning to one of the soaring chants we use in Conservative shuls for Etz Hayim Hi. I know that Torah is my life, and it is satisfying to feel that, and to know that everyone around me is feeling it, too, each in his or her own way. The same is true when we dance at Simhat Torah or chant that final Avinu Malkeinu at Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, or rise to sing Ha’tikva on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. The gifts of Community with a Capital C and Meaning with a Capital M are on vivid display on such occasions. The power of those two gifts acting in unison is deeply felt.
My point, familiar to every rabbi here, is that we dare not neglect this non-intellectual, affective, and highly personal aspect of the Jewish self: the one that forms the backdrop to most of Leviticus; the one so wrapped up for me (and not only me) in music. Conservative Torah needs to take its cue from Moses’s Torah in addressing this experiential dimension of the self, evident when Rebekka cries out to God during childbirth, or Esau cries out to Isaac with bitter weeping, “Bless me too, my father” (Gen 27:34), or Jacob, having run a from Laban and about to face Esau, says to God in one of his finest moments, “I am unworthy of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have done with Your servant” (Genesis 32:11). I am grateful to God for the chance to meet up with those pesukim and many others year after year. Heschel’s lyrical evocations of the soul’s yearnings stir me to the depths. Be’khol derakhe’kha da’ehu.
I believe, despite all the depressing statistics of Pew reports, that if Conservative clergy continue to share this sort of experience with others, Jews and non-Jews alike, drawing on all of who we are, many of those individuals and families will want to be part of our community of Torah. That reference to the survey data will not be my segue to defending our movement’s strength and prospects at length yet again. But I will say a few words on this subject. We all know, or should, that Conservative Jews have a lot going for us right now—and that we have a lot of work to do. Our numbers are not what they once were, and will likely continue to fall in coming years. But that is no reason for talk of decline, let alone demise. If you are among those driven to despair by the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, make sure you are familiar with the valuable context provided by Pew reports on American religion as a whole, as well as the altered view of the data that results from disaggregation of the “non-Orthodox” category. We’re indebted to Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer for that important work and to Alan Silverstein and others for bringing it to our colleagues’ attention.
My confidence in the future derives in large part from the quality of our people: proud Conservative Jews who in so many cases are leaders in their fields, and who do what they do in the world, whether professionally or as volunteers, because of the Judaism they have been taught in Conservative auspices. Our future is bright as well because of the kind of talent gathered in this room, and—perhaps most important—because of the excellence of the students, person for person, who have elected to spend their lives serving the Jewish people and our Torah. As of last week, I am happy to report, 19 new rabbinical students are signed up to join the JTS community this coming fall—chai plus one, a very good number for signifying vitality and growth.
I am not Pollyanna-ish, as you know, but I have no patience with reports that confuse numerical decline with imminent demise. The figure always cited for Conservative Judaism’s decline reflects self-identification: an answer to the survey question, “What kind of Jew are you?” If you look at membership percentages, however, Conservative Judaism comes in at 11 percent, compared to 9 percent for Orthodoxy and 14 percent for Reform. The number of the most active Conservative Jews has actually grown in recent years. Success stories in camps, schools, synagogues, and elsewhere abound. Our new Lev Shalem siddur is another case in point. Please: Let’s not lose respect for ourselves or our Jews.
Instead of talking more sociology, I’d like to conclude by stressing one final aspect of the bekhol derakhekha da’ehu theme articulate by Gerson Cohen: how the quest to experience God’s presence and Word in “every area of our being”—the sacred, the Transcendent, the Most High and Deep, the “ineffable” realm of the spirit—helps to overcome the “fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.”
Cohen had that right. I don’t know about you, but I know from experience what he means by fragmentation. I am familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Life pulls us in so many directions. So much to do, so little time, so much suffering to bear with and ease, so many needs to meet, so many desires, noble and less so, so much anxiety for Israel, for America, for our families. I am intensely grateful for the sense of wholeness that Judaism provides. The words “every” and “all” mean a lot to me. We cannot experience this sense of wholeness if we repress the doubts and convictions of our 21st century minds, or if our minds are at odds with our hearts or with our souls. It is not possible to seek wholeness, let alone achieve it, if we are unaware that we have souls and that our souls are in need of cultivation—or if our ritual observance is out of sync with our ethical striving—or if my love of Motown or Cezanne, for example, cannot co-exist in synergy with my love of Carlebach niggunim and the Rambam.
The Torah calls on all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, all our effort to find happiness and fulfillment as part of a people and a faith larger than ourselves. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the possibility of you and I achieving any “be-kholness” in life is a function of God’s “ehad-ness.” The Shema connects the two for us, in plain sight, and has us recite the promise of that linkage—and its unbreakable connection to love—each morning and evening of our lives. At rare moments we get to experience it—and perhaps to figure out, thanks to such experience, what the words mean. This central element of Conservative Torah is one for which I am deeply grateful.
I love this Judaism of ours, and I cannot be pessimistic about its prospects, certainly not when I am here with you, surrounded by rabbis older and younger, women and men, gay and straight—our collective “be-kholness.” I cannot not believe our future is anything but bright, given all we have going for us.
Conservative Torah is alive and well because it is Torah that we live for and live by, drawing on age-old Jewish wisdom about the needed balance between that which must change, lest Torah fail to speak to dramatically changed circumstances, and that which must not change at any cost, lest we lose what is most precious in our tradition—and in the process lose ourselves. I hope that that in the weeks and months to come every member of the RA will take advantage of the increasing number of ways in which JTS can help you to locate that balance and bring this Torah to more and more Jews hungry for the community and meaning that is Torah’s gift to all who take hold of it.