The Conservative movement, while firmly rooted in traditions that have guided Jewish practice for centuries, has also adapted over more than a century to confront societal changes.
In recent years the movement has tackled such issues as the role of women and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
The movement and its future will be explored May 10-11 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth with Rabbi William H. Lebeau, the former vice chancellor for rabbinic development and immediate past dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“How tradition, anchored in ancient texts, speaks to today’s generation and how it will speak to the next generation is something Conservative Judaism is constantly trying to understand,” said Lebeau, in a phone interview with NJJN. “Just as the Reform and Orthodox movements try to understand the texts in a way that makes it meaningful for them, we also try to understand them in a way that is meaningful to us.”
The annual Legacy Endowment Shabbaton will focus on the study of traditional texts, the history of Conservative Judaism, what the future might hold, and a look at its more controversial positions.
“Here is a man who has been intimately involved with the Conservative movement in terms of leadership who can offer a unique perspective,” said HPCT’s Rabbi Eliot Malomet. “We are trying to remind people and reorient people as to what the core ideas are. We all need a refresher to show us how tradition has been balanced with change, the innovative spirit within Jewish tradition, and how a practice evolves through time while keeping core principles intact.”
On Friday evening, Lebeau will highlight classic texts that helped shape and form Conservative Judaism and how its values are anchored in those texts.
“Studying and trying to understand Torah is not just a modern approach but goes back to the beginning of time,” said Lebeau. “Torah midrash [interpretative stories] says that 70 different voices were heard at Mount Sinai. Some say there were as many voices heard as were there. We are going to discuss and try and understand Torah for our time.”
Many commandments, he said, have been debated ever since.
“It says honor your mother and father, and honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, but what does that exactly mean?” said Lebeau, who spent 25 years as a congregational rabbi and is incoming program director for the Legacy Heritage Rabbinic Fellows Program at JTS. “The answers are not short. While honoring your father and mother sounds simple, the answer is really very complex.”
On Saturday morning, Lebeau will discuss the achievements of Conservative Judaism and prospects for its future.
The last session, on Shabbat afternoon, will concentrate on issues “never imagined by our ancestors,” such as driving on Shabbat and the status of women and gays and lesbians. He’ll discuss whether decisions approving the ordination of women and gay rabbis by the movement’s committee on laws and standards negates or justifies the movement’s claims to represent “traditional” Jews.
Lebeau cited the need to combine compassion and piety when dealing with modern society and believed Conservative Judaism was up to the challenge.
“We are going to remain committed to a tradition that is defined by rituals, values, and belief in Torah that has been embraced by generations of Jewish people,” he added. “The challenge is how we can continue to be committed to a tradition that is defined by commandments in a society that so values freedom and autonomy.”