Friday, November 21, 2008

What I Am Is What I Am. Are You What You Are - Or What? (edie brickell)

Last night, the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, hosted a lecture by one of my teachers, Rabbi Neil Gillman on the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Doing Jewish Philosophy”. Near the end of the lecture he noted that Conservative Judaism does not have a philosophy as does the other movements at the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. When he took questions, I asked him, “In your opinion, why doesn’t Conservative Judaism have a philosophy?” Rabbi Gillman replied that he thinks there are a number of reasons. First, we are a pluralistic movement and there are a wide number of philosophies that are included in our movement; and second, when we tried to spell out a philosophy in the now seemingly forgotten book, Emet v’Emunah, after years of discussion, it came out like a menu rather than a single philosophy.

I immediately recalled another book, by one of my other philosophy teachers, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who wrote about Conservative Judaism and noted that there were at least four different groups within our movement with four different approaches to Jewish Philosophy. They ranged from traditional to Reconstructionist tendencies. Given these assessments, it is a wonder that our movement has not ruptured and fragmented as most movements seem to be doing these days. Young Jews can’t seem to understand what motivates their parents to join Conservative Synagogues and we see them starting their own “minyanim” that operate in a very different style. Rabbis in our movement argue all the time over the issue of whether we follow Halacha or not. Lay leadership of Conservative congregations is begging Rabbis to just tell them what they need to do to be good Jews and all they get is a menu of options. Canadian congregations and communities in Israel don’t think that Conservatives in the United States are traditional enough. Conservative Jews in the United States don’t seem to care what the Canadian or Israeli communities think of them.

So, who are we? What is it that binds us together as a movement? What do we Conservative Jews believe?

As usual, I believe we are looking for faith in all the wrong places. As Rabbi Gillman said, you can ask that question to a Reform or Orthodox Jew and get a coherent, definite answer because they are on the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. Our movement is in a large grey area that lies between them and thus it defies the kind of definition that comes with the certainty that lies at the ends of a spectrum.

As Conservative Jews, we believe that certainty is the enemy and that questions are the lifeblood of our movement, even if they don’t always have definitive answers.

As Conservative Jews we believe that God is unknowable and beyond our understanding but we feel the divine presence in both the secular and religious aspects of our life.

As Conservative Jews we believe that God is found in the struggle between tradition as received and the world as we experience it.

As Conservative Jews we believe that a good Jew is judged first of all in the way we treat our fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike.

As Conservative Jews we believe that we can grow in our observance and that until the day we die, we can still be struggling to understand the best way for us to live a spiritual life. But our uncertainty does not make us bad Jews.

As Conservative Jews we believe that science informs our understanding of scripture and ritual but the importance of both is not found in scientific accuracy, rather in the moral and ethical lessons that each have to teach us, lessons that are beyond the purview of science.

As Conservative Jews we are always learning about the philosophy, history and legal tradition of Judaism in the constant search for a better understanding of the meaning of our life and the life of all humanity

As Conservative Jews we believe that Jewish Law, Halacha, needs to be understood in a historical context and while it is primary to our faith, it is not the only consideration we have to weigh in our quest to live a faithful Jewish life.

As Conservative Jews we weigh carefully the needs of the community and our individual needs, understanding, as Hillel taught, If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am for myself alone, what am I, and if not now, when?

As Conservative Jews we allow that not everyone believes as we do and that does not make them bad Jews; it makes them interesting if we can learn from them something that will inform our own beliefs and practices.

As Conservative Jews we believe in the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and we are committed to improving civic and religious life there as we work to secure Israel’s future.

As Conservative Jews we don’t know what will happen after we die, but we believe that what we do here in this world will have an impact in how we will experience whatever may come next.

As Conservative Jews we understand that a Messianic Age, an age in which good will triumph over evil and life will triumph over death, will only come if we will work for it through the actions we perform every day.

Maybe everyone will not agree with me on every point above, but that is nature of our movement, to weigh, discuss (civilly) and always to grow.

Friday, November 14, 2008


So what does Conservative Judaism stand for? We take positions on egalitarianism, on Shabbat and on Gay Marriage, and then we change our minds. The practices of one congregation do not match the practices of another. We use instruments on Shabbat and we don’t use instruments. We use electricity on Shabbat and we don’t use electricity. We publish papers that take both sides of an issue and don’t tell our members what to do! Every Rabbi has his or her own agenda and do we really ever act as a movement?
The issue to me is not whether or not we are a Movement but are we acting in a way that is consistent with being Jewish? Can we still call ourselves Jews if we are so confused about what is required of a Jew and how we relate to Jewish Law? The Jews, who call themselves Orthodox, think that we Conservatives have severed any connection to Jewish Law. The Jews, who call themselves Reform, think that we attach ourselves unnecessarily to Jewish Law. Even inside our own ranks, we argue if we have lived up to the legal standards that are the foundation of Halacha (the “LAW” or the “way”, the entire corpus of Jewish law). I think that we get confused because we forget the essence of what Judaism is all about and why the law is important.
Judaism is a legal religion. It is more like Islam than Christianity since Christianity sought to disconnect from the Law from early times. Islam has the Koran and we have Torah. There is a rich legal tradition that guides Jews in all that they do, a legal tradition that is over 3000 years old. [I should note that Judaism is different from the “religion of Ancient Israel, in that we do not have a central sanctuary, a high priest who oversees a sacrificial cult and annual pilgrimages to that shrine. Judaism began when the first Temple was destroyed and we had to learn to live without it. The second Temple was built but the changes made in the time of the destruction only grew and changed so that when the second Temple was destroyed, Israelite religion died but the Judaism, that was not dependant on the service there, continues to this very day.]
It also seems to me that the Sages in ancient times, who knew that they were breaking with ancient religious traditions, understood that a faith that cannot change, cannot survive. The Torah was not enough to tell Jews what to do and so they began to find ways to expand and enrich Judaism with larger and larger circles of law. Over the ages these circles have expanded and have shrunk to deal with the issues of their age. Those who claim an unbroken chain of Law from then to now often forget that there are links missing and that there are many strands to the chains that come down to us. Conservative Judaism is born of the Historical school in Europe that taught Jews that we can learn law from the study of how our ancestors approached some of the same problems we encounter today. If we understand what they did and why they did it, we can also learn about how we should act today. Historically, Rabbis have approached the law in many different ways in order to find the solutions to difficult and sticky problems in each day and age. The Rabbis of every country and century looked to the primary and fundamental principles of Judaism and adjusted the Law to meet the new issues without compromising the fundamentals. These fundamentals include: a stubborn insistence that there is one God; that any form of idolatry is evil; justice is an imperative; saving a life is more important than almost anything; trust God; learn proper behavior from the Torah and from how God acts in the world. These are some of the values that form the foundation of our faith. We have tried to codify these ideals in Halacha.
We get into trouble when we get so fixated on the Law and we forget what supports it. It is very important that there is a Law that speaks to people and tells them what is expected from them in terms of their attention and behavior. But it is also important that we not let that same Law use its logic to defy the values that underlie it. From time to time we need to remember that the Law must give way to the values, lest the Law itself become the god. We don’t like to make wholesale changes in the Law. It makes things difficult for those who take it seriously. But we do have to make changes from time to time, not only to make things stricter to prevent legal violations, but to make the Law a living entity that people will follow even if they don’t have to. It does not mean we can do whatever we want, but it does mean that we work to keep it true to its values.
I always look at Halacha as a square; each corner stands for an important consideration. One corner is for the tradition that we have received from our ancestors. The second corner is for the modern problems that we need to address. The third corner is for the needs of individuals, and the fourth corner is for the needs of the community. The lines that connect them are elastic. When we have a problem in any one area, it stretches the square out of shape. Rabbis must then examine the concerns of the other three corners to see how we can return the square to its proper form; what else must give way or adjust to meet the needs of the other corners. All are important and we need to find a way to get it all in balance again.
This means that while well trained modern Rabbis can and do argue the law in our Movement’s “Law and Standards Committee”, we have to understand that there are different ways of bringing everything into balance again and still be true to our values. We also understand that what may work in a general situation, may not be the best answer in various communities around the world who live with different realities. Local Rabbis also need to weigh in on what may work.
This makes our lives a bit harder. We have to learn. We have to consider the reasons why one Rabbi rules one way and why another rules differently. We have to see if we are still being true to our fundamental values. It means we can have tradition and we can have change. It is what keeps us alive as a religion and keeps our faith fresh in every generation.
Perhaps it is as our President-Elect, Barak Obama says, “It is a change we can believe in.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Fought the Law and the Law Won.

First of all, I hope you vote on Election Day. The only excuse possible is that you already voted early by absentee ballot or in early voting. It is a mitzvah to vote for the candidate of your choice.

Whenever election time comes around there is always talk of the separation of Church and State. It is one of the fundamentals of our Bill of Rights, is incorporated in the very first amendment to the Constitution and is the subject of much heat by those who are passionate about it one way or the other. Some feel that religious sensibilities would be good to inject into government and others want there to be a complete wall separating the two, a wall that can never be broken.

Those who know me understand that whenever there is a choice between one way or the other, I go for a different path. The impasse between the pro and con sides in this debate over Church and State is due to the intransience on both sides. Each only sees what they want to see and perhaps they don’t understand why the amendment is written as it was.

First of all, I believe that, the founders of this nation were religious men. They may have had issues with the denominations and the formal church as it existed in their day, but they believed in God and they prayed to that God. They had no doubt that their experiment in democracy was blessed by the Divine. They were not trying to eliminate religion from the state, only to temper the role of religion in the political system.

Rabbis are often asked to recite invocations before city council and state legislative sessions. Even Congress opens their sessions with invocations. Many of my colleagues do not like to perform these invocations citing their belief that it violates the Church/State barrier. The invocation needs to be nondenominational since the people present represent many different faiths. Some clergy get this right; others seem not to be able to pray without invoking the name of Jesus, no matter how offensive such a prayer might be to those present.

I never turn down an opportunity to offer an invocation at a government event.

While I feel that it is important that government does not pass laws establishing one religion or making life difficult for another, I also feel that religion has something to say to government. It is not about whether this or that law should be passed, but that there is a need to note that while Congress can say if an action is legal or not legal, only religion is in a place to say if an action is right or wrong. This is why I oppose religions lobbying for passage of laws that promote their world view, but insist that religions speak out about laws that go against their understanding of right and wrong.

Let me take one controversial law: Roe vs. Wade and the right for a woman to have an abortion. In this country, it is legal for a woman to have an abortion. It is her legal right. But it does not make it the right thing to do. The implications for the mother and the fetus are very disturbing. I personally don’t like abortions but Judaism understands that sometimes they are needed. What I teach, therefore, is that abortion may be legal, but is not to be considered a form of birth control. It is my duty to teach that women should not get into a situation where an abortion may be needed. It is my duty to teach men and women the responsibilities that come with sexual activities. Abortion may be legal, but it is not good. It is only a last resort solution to the most dire of circumstances.

In business, there is a similar situation. It is not possible to pass legislation to cover every possibility that a person can think up to defraud a neighbor or a client. Therefore we religious leaders have a responsibility to teach ethical behavior and insist that, while the law may allow certain types of business dealings, these still may not be the right thing to do. Keeping the law is never enough. One has to go beyond the letter of the law to do what is right. The story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach teaches this lesson. He bought a donkey and when his students brought it home, they discovered, hidden in the bridle, an expensive pearl. They had bought the bridle and the donkey so, by law, the pearl belonged to the Rabbi, but he returned it to the seller since clearly the price of the donkey did not include the price of the pearl. He was not required to do it, but he did it anyway and received a blessing from the seller for his honesty and ethical behavior. No matter what business laws are passed, we have a religious obligation to go beyond the law.

We think of government with three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. But there is fourth “branch” of government, religion, which must speak to what the other three are doing. Our founding fathers could not imagine a world where faith and religion did not speak to issues of right and wrong. That is the holy work that religious people and clergy perform. Not making laws, but living by a standard that goes beyond what a law can do. Laws are needed to protect us from ourselves. As the Talmud, in Mishnah Avot, 3:2 noted, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would eat each other alive.” But government without religious sensibilities can never fully govern the lives of its citizens. Segregation was legal until religious leaders taught that it was not right. Quotas were legal until religious people demanded that they end. All the laws of Congress could not stop discrimination until religious leaders instilled in their congregations the idea that all of us are created in the image of God.

Religion needs government to equally represent the needs of the people. Government needs religion to teach what the law can’t teach: that we all must live to a higher standard.