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.”

One thought on “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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