The future of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Artson delivered this address as the keynote speaker of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism “Conversation of the Century” centennial conference in Baltimore, Md. on Oct. 13, 2013.
I will lift my eyes to the mountains from where my help comes. My help comes from the Holy One who makes heaven and earth (Ps 121: 1-2).
We Conservative/Masorti Jews have forgotten to lift up our eyes.
We have of late become a little too defensive, as if we could refute our challenges through debating points.
We have become a bit too brittle, eager to shift the blame to each other or to some third party beyond our control.
We have become too petty and too small, focusing on issues of denominations, borders, and turf, as though those were our core missions as Jews.
It is time to once again lift up our eyes above our limitations, above the statistics, above the unnecessary divisions.
When ancient and medieval Jews did their work, they asked grand, universal questions, and they mobilized Jewish tools to create the answers that could make meaning for their generation. With the onset of modernity, we have reversed their course. We, instead, ask parochial Jewish questions and then mobilize universal academic tools to try to address those questions. Small wonder that so many turn away uninterested. Once, in Biblical times, Judaism was bigger than religion. It was the very life of the Jewish People. Under Roman rule, in the searing heat of oppression, Judaism shrank to become a religio, a binding, a religion. And so it was for almost two thousand years. But we now live after the onslaught of the Shoah, after the miracle of the reestablishment of the Jewish State in our Homeland. Perhaps it is not too much to ask: are we not living in the dawning of a new era, a third Jewish age? A time in which perhaps once again, being a religion is too small, too confining to express the fulness of our aspirations, our capacities, our hope. Is it possible once again for Judaism to find its rightful and natural place as the life of the Jewish People? As our window into the light? As our portal onto the world? Now, perhaps, with our challenges so clearly articulated and brandished before us, let us muster the courage to transcend our fears, to rise in vision, and to return to our own truest ways.
“I lift up my eyes.” Let us all lift up our eyes once again to grandeur, to possibility, to daring to dream God's dreams.
Conservative Judaism is not alone in confronting this challenge. All wisdom traditions struggle in an age in which the shifts in culture are so massive that they will not be met by merely a few institutional adjustments, as valuable as those may be. Nor will they revive because of a changed name or the slick slogan, although those might also be helpful. No, our challenge is to step beyond habit, to reach beyond fear, to return to a core vision that is worthy of our passion and our talents and our lives.
Our challenge is to provide wisdom, consolation, and courage, as people seek to live their lives and to fashion communities of inclusion and justice.
Our challenge is to mobilize Torah and Jewish sources to heal those wounded by cultures of brutality and violence, by the crass commercialization of life's most sacred relationships, by the endless dehumanization of work and family and identity.
Yet this is not merely a time of challenge, this is a time of unprecedented opportunity. We are called, each of us individually, and all of us together, to be God's melachim, God's messengers, God's angels: to comfort the lonely, to hold the afflicted, to cherish the disdained.
I would like us to try, as a venerable and striving religious movement, to build on the remarkable energy of these past several days, this upwelling of Conservative/Masorti passion, depth, and authenticity, to meet these human challenges with Jewish tools. That is our opportunity and that is our proper struggle. It is for that purpose that we are here together, so permit me, on behalf of the One in whose service I labor, as do you, to return yet again, to consider four invitations that are really one.
I will be your God and you shall be my people (Leviticus 26:12). We are invited to a life of covenant, to be able to enter life not as “I” against the world, but as “we' together in service to the world. We have been invited by the Oneness who sustains Creation, who brings the world into becoming and invites us to take God's side in the eternal struggle against chaos, to bring cosmos, order, where there was none before. If you will be my people, says God, then I will be your God. Let us recommit ourselves, beginning now, to lives of true covenant that radiate out from this room and this place, to embrace all of our people, all of humanity, all life and our entire planet.
You shall teach these words to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 11:19). We transmit our covenant through learning, and we always have. There is no instrument in the universe as complex and miraculous as the human mind. Our ability to internalize the experiences of people we have never met, our capacity to think the thoughts of our sages, and to transmit those insights, to be able to think God's thoughts and to internalize and to translate them into life, this is a uniquely human gift. Let us commit ourselves here, tonight, to reenter this kind of vibrant, open, aware living. Such a deep and aware living is only possible through the cultivated and disciplined life of the mind, not of disinterested cognition, but of a mind engaged; learning for the sake of living; learning for the sake of transmission. In contribution to commitment I have a brief announcement to make. I am happy to let you know that after two years of intense negotiations and extensive cooperation with the other arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement – Masorti Olami, The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue – I am proud to let you know that in November the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies will provide religious supervision for the world’s newest Conservative/Masorti rabbinical school, which will serve the entire continent of Europe. In league with the University of Potsdam, this school will train students for the communities of the European Union in order to energize Masorti Europe and to bring greater glory to the continent where liberal Judaism was first born. The Zacharias Frankel College is yet the latest symbol of the continuing vitality, energy, and power of Conservative/Masorti Judaism unleashed.
Let my people go that they may serve me (Exodus 9:1). Ours is a life of service, and we find our fullest expression as Jews and as human beings when we ask the question, not “what is in it for me,” but “how may I help? What may I offer? What may I do?” Burdens that are unbearable for the solitary soul become possible to manage when there are other shoulders that help us to lift. Ours is a tradition of engagement and of service. Let us pledge to think of each other before we act, to integrate each other’s needs and concerns into our own, to be able to act as one, in diversity, with pluralism, but with one heart as Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide.
Serve God in joy and come before God in gladness (Psalm 100:2). Let us this night recommit ourselves to lives of passion and joy, not as distractions from a religious life, but indeed as God's greatest hope for us, just as we wish for our children that they should know life's delights, that they should know the beauty of love, that they should know a good laugh, sweet humor, a caring community. Let us also know that the harvest of true spirit is joy and let us share that joy with each other and the world from this day forward.
The Path Forward
Permit me to invite you to join with me in this passionate path and a worthy way of life. I was not born a Conservative Jew: I came to this Movement as an adult willingly, because I loved its peoples, I loved its practice, and I loved its value. And now, 30 years later, I love these people more; I yet love this way of learning and living Torah. Conservative/Masorti Judaism has provided a path of life for me as it has for hundreds of thousands of other Jews across the continent and around the world. Let us share that good news. Enough with handwringing; enough with despair.
Let us lift our eyes to a path that eagerly seeks a spiritual quest, mining the writings of our sages and of the world's for ways to break our hearts open so that we feel each others' joys, so that nobody mourns alone.
Let us walk again on a path that is the halacha – our peoples' way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a magnificent flourishing Etz Hayim, a Living Tree.
Let us join together in a path that reaches out to those previously marginalized; for the many who have not felt the embrace of our community in the past because of our own shortsightedness, perhaps because of our own fears. Let us leave that fear behind and know that the only risk is passing by the possibility of love. And let us reach out in love, to everyone who would have our love, because in the end they are us; because we need everyone's wisdom, everyone's passion, everyone's strength and everyone's distinctiveness.
Let us walk the path that venerates learning as a portal to the wisdom of the Holy One, poured through our ancestors, our sages, prophets, and philosophers to us, their children's children, so that we in turn may harvest new insights and new teachings that add to the glory of our tradition leaving it stronger and more vital for our children.
Let us cherish a path that translates learning into life through Mitzvot, Judaism's sacred deeds; a learning that is engaged; a learning that is not dispassionate, but rather full of passion, full of energy, full of life.
Let us walk a path that centers its heart proudly in the land of Israel, in the reborn State of Israel, and at the same time wraps its arm around the whole wide world.
And let us walk a path of the ineffable, dynamic God whose truest name is Hayei ha-Olamim — the very life of life, the heartbeat of the universe, the breath of our breath.
Holy One, You who have invited us to this banquet of soul, to the feast of brotherhood and sisterhood, to this great and raucous mishpacha/family that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism, we know that the task is great, we know that the opportunities are worthy and that a world awaits our touch, Your love, our shared wisdom.
Help us, Holy One, to embrace our most expansive humanity. Help us to breathe in your energy to renew our Conservative/Masorti family, so that we transcend fear, we leave behind rigidity, no longer look back in the smug self-righteousness that threatens to turn us into sulfurous pillars of salt, and instead, turn us to the Light.
May we face the future that our choices create with courage, enlisting the same vibrant fusion of old and new as did our ancestors before us, so that then, joining hands with all humankind, we can say, as has your prophet, On that day, God will be one and God's name will be one.
And then, for God's sake, let us lift up our eyes!
Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union. A regular columnist for the Huffington Post, he is the author of 10 books and over 250 articles, most recently God of Becoming & Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights).