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We all learn Torah from One Another: Relativism?

On Rosh HaShanah, I talked about how I do not regard the Truth as a "problem." This means that as a rabbi, I do not consider the congregation to be a "problem," but rather the solution to all problems. I explained that, while I am a passionately observant Conservative Jew and I love teaching about observance and Jewish learning, I respect the Truth of any member of the congregation who is not interested in observance or in Jewish learning right now in his or her life.

In fact, I am happy to welcome each and every member of the congregation into the community exactly as they are, no matter how observant or knowledgeable anyone is or is not. I believe that we can "learn the Torah of who you are" together as a community. I talked about how there are many minyanim and programs and points of entry into Jewish life in our congregation, and how this is a good and healthy thing. May there always be many ways to be Jewish in our community without anyone judging anyone else, deeming them somehow "not enough," or "not good enough."

Someone in my congregation, upon hearing this, wondered if this approach implied a kind of "free-for-all," that perhaps this understanding reflects an approach of pluralism-gone-wild, or a moral relativism where there are no particular standards or measures of what constitutes a unified Jewish community.

My answer is that I agree that pluralist approaches can be dangerous. Pluralist values, where all voices are heard and respected, indeed could devolve into "free-for-alls" where all points of view are deemed equally valid, and thus, no structure at all survives.

But a free-for-all is not a foregone conclusion. I believe that there is such a thing as healthy hierarchies of values that can play out in a pluralistic congregation. As a Conservative synagogue, we are guided by the values and principles of our movement. My rabbinic role, in addition to my teaching and pastoral duties, is to fulfill the function of "Mara D'Atra," or the final interpreter of Jewish law for the congregation. It's my job to work together with the lay leaders of the community to fashion principles, policies, and guidelines the preserve the essential halakhic and Jewish character of the community.

To uphold pluralist values means that at times, we will sanction very different kinds of expressions of Jewish life in one synagogue. Upholding unified guidelines and policies based on Jewish law and tradition will sometimes be quite a challenge, but it's a challenge that I and the lay leadership are very much up to. In fact, this is the halakhic (Jewish legal) process at its best, as it has always functioned. It means that I will have to stay alert to ensure that everyone is welcomed, and that we have standards and healthy boundaries that hold the community together. Judaism has always been a dynamic religious system that seeks to uphold traditions while finding within its discourse the flexibility to meet the demands of changing circumstances and new generations.

And indeed, this means that there are limits, and those limits do change and evolve over the generations. The beauty of Conservative Judaism is that it understands and respects this time-honored process that has ensured our survival for centuries. We're open to new expressions of Judaism, but we only change judiciously, with the most profound respect for all traditions that have sustained us.

I certainly would not promote a community where any and every approach or behavior has equal moral validity. While there are Jewish people who may feel uncomfortable with observance or other Jewish ideas or traditions, this is not the same thing as people who may uphold immoral or unethical values. It is also possible that people may have certain religious ideas or practices (like Jews for Jesus) that go beyond the pale of what is acceptable in our community. I believe in a congregation where everyone is welcomed--from the pious to the atheist, from the observant to the secular. This is not the same thing as saying that any and every behavior by members is equally "good" or "acceptable" as a congregational practice. Luckily, we always have the measuring rod of Jewish tradition as interpreted in the Conservative movement to figure out what counts as legitimate and not legitimate in our community.

Ultimately, even if you are not comfortable with Jewish observance at this moment in your life, there are wonderful ways for you to express your Jewish soul in our congregation. I would like us always to endeavor to create the right conditions for you to find your place here, however you "do Jewish." Indeed, we will have our standards and respect for tradition, but when we're doing it right, you will feel embraced and "at home" here, whoever you are.


nuzze1 said…
Rabbi, great blog. In the spirit of Dover Emet and understanding different levels of faith, how about doing a showing and discussion of the new film "religulous" when it comes out on DVD in a few months. Could be a really interesting experience.
HarryE said…
Dear Rabbi Gil, Thanks so much for starting this blog! It is a wonderful opportunity for those of us from Temple Israel who miss you greatly to continue to learn from you and with you. What you are saying about relativism reminds me of a verse in Devarim (13:1) and how I believe it applies. The verse reads: "All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.." What I believe this is saying is that the Torah, the Law, while it can be interpreted in different ways, cannot be changed. Take Shabbat as an example. Some Jews are very careful and strict in how they observe Shabbat. Others observe it in a less strict manner. Some may only light candles and/or have a festive dinner. While yet others may not mark the day at all. But one thing no Jew can do is to say that the Shabbat has been changed to Tuesday or Friday or Sunday. Likewise some Jews keep strictly kosher. Some keep kosher at home but not elsewhere. Some only refrain from eating pork and shellfish, while others do not claim to keep kosher in any way. But again the one thing no Jew can do is to say that a ham sandwich is kosher. I think these examples can serve as additional illustrations of the point you are trying to get across. May your blog prove very successful and may you go from strength to strength! Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!

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