“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” — Mark Twain
I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote lately. For the past few weeks (and months and years) it seems as if everyone is ready to pronounce the Conservative movement dead. Every week we read of a different study showing us why we’re dead, or reading an account of someone whose departure signals the death of our movement.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a Conservative-trained rabbi and former dean of the Ziegler School in Los Angeles, recently wrote a poetically titled piece called “Requiem for a Movement.” In it, he mourns the loss of “the world that shaped me.” He points to reasons for the demise and tries to show where it all went wrong.
I agree with Gordis. No, I do not think Conservative Judaism is doomed; I do not think it is dead. But in the midst of his maudlin and overwrought scolding, Gordis makes some good observations about the focus and direction of the Conservative movement.
In his opinion, Conservative Judaism has not benefited from its obsessive concentration on the role and relevance of Halacha (Jewish law) in our lives. He says that instead of focusing on Halacha, we should instead focus on creating a space in which people can experience a connection to klal Yisrael, and to the history and transcendence of what it means to be a Jew. And he’s right. For a small but committed contingent of our community, Halacha is a major force and motivation in their lives. And while I applaud the close-knit and spiritual communities that are born out of that approach to Judaism, Halacha is not the guiding factor for the vast majority of Conservative Jews in their day-to-day lives.
Yes, people want to know what tradition dictates we do in our mourning practices and will ask about the proper observance of Pesach. But outside of a couple of ritual or life-cycle moments, Halacha is not a consideration.
We need to broaden our focus. As a movement, let’s focus on our personal spirituality, our community, and the world around us. We must take control of our religious lives; we must take control of our spirituality and own it.
Gordis correctly quotes Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s declaration about the Conservative movement: “Our house is on fire.” I believe the Conservative movement must put out the fire. We must say to ourselves, “This is our religion, this is our future, and we are going to be the ones who decide what it will look like.”
I am talking about nothing short of a radical transformation of our movement, our institutions, our synagogues, and our schools. We in the Conservative movement must drag them, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. We must update the way we educate, the way we worship, and the way we service our communities.
Part of that means changing the way we look at Halacha. The past can guide us. Halacha does not mean “law,” it means “path.” The rabbis of the ancient past did not give us a code by which to live, a credo to follow. They gave us direction and asked that we choose which path is best for ourselves. For too long the Conservative movement has felt the need to vie for the approval of our Orthodox brothers and sisters by asserting over and over again that we are, in fact, a halachic movement.
But what if the Conservative movement were brave enough to be honest with itself, and honestly declare that God is not some accountant king who judges us based on our punctilious observance of ritual law? What if we stopped asserting that God is somehow a parent, watching over our every move to see if we make a mistake?
Instead, let us see God and Judaism as the fulfillment of the covenant between our Creator and our people. A covenant based on the continued improvement and perfection of humanity and the world. A covenant based on a partnership that is getting closer to the truth, not further away from it. This is the change we need to make. We must change our conversation from one worrying about the vicissitudes of Halacha with one of covenant and spirituality. To create communities in which a plurality of answers exist, but the decisions are made through the lenses of Jewish values and the narrative of the Jewish people.
Unfortunately, whenever we talk about making changes in Jewish life, we hear what I like to call the “Tevye objection”: We cannot mess with tradition. I teach a weekly class, and, as one of my students brilliantly summarized, when you keep adding water to tea, eventually you don’t have tea anymore. She was saying, if we continue to water down our Judaism, eventually it ends up not being Jewish anymore.
She is right. If we continue to change Judaism, it may end up looking very different from the Judaism of our grandparents or great-grandparents. But here’s the thing: It already does. And the Judaism of our grandparents looked radically different from the Judaism of their grandparents. Every generation has had to take up the Torah, wrestle with it, and decide what it means in their lives. The Judaism that we practice is not a dilution of what came before; it is a refinement of the values and vision that are the central tenets of our people.
Our mission is to connect to the ikar, the central message of Judaism, and make sure to embrace it and pass it down to the generations that come after us. The most radical changes we can think to make will be nothing compared to the changes of the past. Almost 2,000 years ago, our people suffered through one of the darkest times in our history. Our Temple had been destroyed, and our people exiled from their homes. Beaten in battle, slaughtered and starved, these survivors declared to themselves that they were not defeated. These new patriarchs and matriarchs made the decision not to abandon their Judaism, but to ensure its survival.
And so they did. They took what was a cultic religion with sacrifice at its core and dramatically changed it to a religion of prayer and study. They traded their sacrifices for their siddurim. They traded their priesthood and nepotism for study and merit. They didn’t water down their tea; they changed it to coffee.
Last week, we read of our ancestor trying to summon up the courage to face a challenge. When he sees his brother coming, Jacob is afraid. He pleads with God, saying that he is not worthy of all the goodness that God has given him. Katonti, he says, “I am not worthy; I am small, God. Help me even though I am not worthy of this.”
While our ancestor Jacob experienced self-doubt, we do not have that luxury. Our house is on fire, and it is up to us to put it out. We must stop making ourselves small. We must stop saying katonti, we are too small, too uneducated, too unworthy. For too long we have looked achingly to the past, ascribing divine perfection to a group of men (and men only) who were trying to find their way. It is up to us to decide what comes next.
Only then will we continue, only then will the Conservative movement survive.