1. Shabbat Shalom
2. Our Parsha begins with a very famous verse. “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse; blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”
3. Clearly, we have an obligation to follow the laws of the Torah. The entire purpose of the Torah is to teach us what God expects of us and what exactly we each need to do in order to live a righteous and pious life. It is not a law that is supposed to be a burden to us, rather the law is supposed to help us create a better world. But as we have seen over the past weeks, trying to understand what God and the Torah expect from us is not easy.
4. We have seen over the past two weeks, Conservative Judaism teaches us that the laws of the Torah have to be able to change in order for the laws to still be a living part of our life. The laws of the Torah have to be open to new interpretations and sometimes they need to be extended; other times they need to be limited in how they affect our lives. We have seen how the laws of the Torah are extended to include women as active participants in Jewish life. We have seen how Jewish law was restricted so that we would not have to deal with laws relating to sacrifices and the hereditary priesthood. Last week we noted that God speaks to us every day, extending the words of Torah through a deeper understanding of how we should apply the law. The Torah was not given just one time, long ago at Sinai. It is given to each of us every day, and we need to pay attention to the direction it is taking us as we struggle to find our way in this modern world using our ancient faith.
5. This Shabbat we will answer a third question. If the law is not fixed for all time and the word of God is heard in every generation, what is it that we, as Conservative Jews are supposed to do? How are we supposed to know how to live a Jewish life, especially since it all seems so fluid all the time? If we want blessings and if we want to avoid the curse that is mentioned in our Parsha this week, we need to know what is expected in the life of a Conservative Jew.
6. Since we don’t follow what is written blindly, it is hard to explain how being a Conservative Jew is supposed to work. If we take a look at our members, we can see that there is a very, very wide range of practice that can be found in our movement. Just looking around this congregation we are aware that there are some here who do not accept a changing role for women in the service. We can also observe that there are some women who have decided to wear a tallit in prayer. Some of us keep kosher homes, some of us eat only kosher food outside our homes, some of us don’t require all of our food to have kosher supervision and some of us don’t seem to care at all about what we can and cannot eat. So where do we come together? Where does this wide range of observance take us as we look to define what being a Conservative Jew is all about?
7. Unlike Orthodox and Reform Jews, we are not defined merely by our practice. Our movement is pluralistic, which means we accept Jews wherever they may be on the spectrum of observance. We don’t want to chase anyone away from finding a path to God. We certainly don’t want to ridicule anyone who finds comfort and meaning in Jewish ritual and observance. There are many reasons that people increase or decrease the level of their observance. The Masorti way is to give everyone the space to find their own way. So what is our philosophy of Jewish practice? What do we teach our members about living an observant life?
8. The first thing we desire in Conservative Judaism is that each Jew be a willing participant. Judaism today will not work very well if our members join us kicking and screaming that they don’t want to be here. Someone who does not care about Judaism, Torah or God just will not make a good Conservative Jew. This is not to say that one has to like everything about Judaism, but we have to be positive that Judaism is the right path for our life. We have to believe that Jewish prayer is our preferred way to express our spirituality; that Jewish law has something to say about how we live our lives; and that Jewish morality is the base upon which we want to build the relationships that matter in our life.
9. Nothing that is Jewish should be foreign or alien to someone who is a part of our movement. The first place we go when we have questions is to see what our tradition has to say about them. When we are planning our lives, we should do so around Shabbat and Jewish holidays. No matter what the issue may be, a Conservative Jew must first turn to our tradition as the baseline for how he or she should respond to the matter at hand. But being willing is not just about decisions about living life; it includes surrounding ourselves with Jewish music, art and culture.
10. This leads us to the second thing we teach: a Conservative Jew must be learning. I have guided a large number of people who were looking to convert to Judaism for all kinds of reasons. I make sure to let them know that if they want to learn everything there is to know about Judaism, then they should realize that it will take 80 or so YEARS to acquire all that knowledge. I tell them that so I will not scare them off. We who have grown up Jewish know that it could take many lifetimes to acquire all one needs to know. Therefore, we need to be constantly learning what Torah has to teach us; how the Rabbis and Sages have interpreted the laws of Torah in every generation; how the law can be applied in situations that affect our lives and the extended life of all those in our community.
11. Listening to your Rabbi’s sermon is one way of learning. Reading books from the library or buying them from the Judaica section of Barnes and Noble is another way. The classic form of learning in Judaism is sitting in a classroom and discussing the issues with a teacher and with classmates. In the discussions themselves we can often find the word of God. I know that there are some of you here who don’t like it at all when I come off the bima to engage in discussion with the congregation. And yet, that is the traditional way to learn, as we struggle together to understand the difficult concepts we have to master. Once we understand the concepts, it is easier to make the choices about how we will live our lives.
12. If we are really willing to make Jewish values the foundation of our life, we need to be learning so we know how Judaism can strengthen that foundation. This is not to say that Judaism has all the answers for the problems of life, but our faith remains a place we can turn to first to see how our ancestors responded to the similar situations. Not only should our homes have Jewish art, but to be a learning Jew, we also need to fill our homes with Jewish books.
13. Finally, a Conservative Jew must also be a striving Jew. We do not permit ourselves to say that “I have done enough”. Each day we have to be open to new lessons and then be open to how those lessons can change our life. There are no Jews who have become so pious that they can not improve their lives. Each and every day is an opportunity to learn something new and to try something new. If someone does not keep kosher, perhaps it is time to start just by buying kosher meat. If one does not keep Shabbat, perhaps one can grow by keeping Shabbat for just a few hours, long enough to have a Shabbat dinner, with candles, wine and challah. We don’t have to jump into ritual and mitzvot in their entirety; we only need to strive to do more.
14. One of the great modern Jewish philosophers was Franz Rosenzweig He discovered his Judaism later in his life and slowly grew in his understanding of the faith and in the way he practiced his religion. Sometimes someone would challenge him, asking if he was now observant and practicing all the mitzvot. Rosenzweig always responded, “not yet!” He understood that what was important in Judaism was less about where you ended up and more about how you get there. Rosenzweig was, in this sense, a good Conservative Jew.
15. This clearly constitutes one of the most striking differences between Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews see the mitzvot as a recipe in a cookbook. All we need to do is perform the right deeds at the right time in the right order and inevitably, we will end up religious. Just like if you combine eggs, flour, water and a few other ingredients and inevitably you will end up with a cake. Conservative Jews see mitzvot more like a work of art, and that each of us has to paint the picture in our own way. There is no one way to create art; the final product is in the hand of the artist.
16. We now see exactly how our movement places itself in the Jewish world. Rather than accept Halacha blindly or to reject Halacha blindly, we place ourselves in a completely different position. It is not at all about what we observe, it is more about if we are willing to make Judaism the central pillar in our life; if we are learning more every day about the way Judaism can and does color our view of the world, and then strive every day to grow in our learning and in our commitment to living a Jewish life. This is why so many Conservative Jews are in so many different places. What ties us together is the direction we travel in life, the commitment to learn as much as we can along the way and the striving to go a bit further on our Jewish road every day, a road that we believe will help us live a meaningful life and bring us closer every day to God.
May God bless us with a long life so we will willingly learn more as we strive to live better lives… and let us say, Amen