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Are We 'Going Orthodox'? Are We 'Going Reform'?

            Believe or not, I have gotten both questions asked of me by members of Adas Israel who have noticed changes in our services and in our approach, and who are trying to make sense of them.  Some have noticed that we now celebrate the fact that we are one community comprised of various minyanim—some more ‘traditional’ in style than others, and wonder if this means that we’re going ‘more Orthodox.’  Others have noticed my willingness to entertain new ways of welcoming people into our congregational experience, and wonder if we’re moving toward the Reform. 

            We are very much a Conservative congregation, in the best sense of the term.  I’m happy to tell you that, in fact, we are neither becoming more Orthodox nor more Reform.  Conservative Judaism--it’s true--has been going through something of an identity crisis of late.  I personally think that this is very healthy and exciting.  Adas Israel has the potential to be a great teacher to the world about just what a healthy and vibrant movement Conservative Judaism can be. 

            Some people have seen Conservative Judaism’s process of redefinition as reflecting a lack of clarity and direction in the movement.  But there’s another way of looking at the situation:  we’re less limited these days by doctrines and concepts that lock us into one way of being.  Some Conservative congregations in this country look almost indistinguishable from some Orthodox congregations.  Others seem almost identical to some Reform congregations.  A colleague, upon meeting with rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, once remarked to me that most of the students today are more likely to self-identify as “Post-Movement” Jews than as “Conservative” Jews.  This is very exciting. 

            There is a fundamental realignment going on in our movement, a moving away from fixed ideologies.  It’s a movement toward finding new categories of meaning and expression.  It’s an exciting development because this is the very direction in which the American Jewish community is moving.  Just take a look at Adas:  there are those for whom a clergy-led service is meaningful and fulfilling.  There are others for whom grass-roots, lay-led experiences are a compelling Jewish experience.  There’s room here for all of it:  the traditional together with the progressive, the conventional and the experimental.  We don’t have to “force” our members into one way of ‘doing Jewish.’ We’re living in a time when we’re waking up to the deeper truths of Judaism.  We’re realizing that the “forms” of Jewish expression aren’t as central as the core messages and meanings.  What matters more than “traditional” or “liberal” expressions—what matters more than movement ideologies-- are the ways in which we find the relevance of Judaism in our lived experiences. We’re realizing that what really makes us Jewish is how our heritage and practice inspires us to change the world for the better.  In living for these Truths, we are flexible, organic, and inclusive in this new era.

            You will see me leading services in the Smith joyfully leading English readings, clapping along with instrumental music, and supporting the non-traditional shortened Torah readings and other abbreviated prayers.  On another Shabbat, you’ll see me davening fervently with the Traditional Egalitarian Minyan, swaying and ‘mumbling’ the prayers and singing the traditional melodies.  You’ll sometimes see me in the Havurah, joining happily in the group experience, and not batting an eye-lash when they skip the traditional Musaf service.   I’m happy to be an enthusiastic, respectful participant in all of our minyanim and other groups, because I am comfortable living in the enriching complexity that comes with multiple interpretations of the tradition.  My scholarship of Jewish history shows me that the Jewish people have always lived in these multiple interpretations and expressions, and in our shrinking and high-tech world, it’s possible today to find these multiple interpretations in one congregational community.  I want to encourage more expressions and interpretations, not fewer!

            Multiple subcommunities, each with their own  interpretations, are not at all the same thing as a “free-for-all”  and “anything goes” congregation.  What’s truly remarkable to me is how flexible and porous our halakhic (Jewish legal) system actually is.  It’s about enabling us to find meaning in the tradition much more than it’s about setting limits and shutting us out if we don’t follow one way alone.  The multiple interpretations in our congregation are not as dissimilar to each other as we may think.  All the variations in our practices in our different services still orbit around basic Conservative values and approaches:  commitment to Halakhah (Jewish law and legal interpretation as defining the practices of the community), traditional minhagim (customs), progressive and egalitarian outlooks, commitment to critical thinking and modern scholarship, etc.  As the senior rabbi, I have a special role in the community as the Mara D’Atra (the chief halakhic decisor) whose job it is to keep our various practices, customs, and interpretations, within the fold of Conservative Judaism and to prevent a ‘free-for-all.’ This system enables us to embrace change, while also knowing that we are respectful of and grounded in tradition at the same time.

            I’m proud of our pluralistic congregation, and I want to foster it as much as possible.  We’re not going Orthodox or Reform.  We’re deepening our experience of what it means to be Conservative Jewish in this wonderful, fascinating, exciting Post-Modern world we live in. 

            Let’s all join in celebrating that we can live in more than one interpretation of our tradition, and still be one proud community.  Let’s all embrace a spirit of flexibility and inclusiveness when we think about the many different kinds of Jews who are seeking a spiritual home in our great congregation.  Let’s schep nachas for the Jews of our shul who are both more traditional and less traditional than we are.  And let’s be proud that we’re leading the way in showing the world what a vibrant Conservative congregation can look like in the 21st century


Thalia said…
I sat in on your service about two weeks ago from today. I loved it. I learned a little more than when I am at the Reform congregation.

But I don't know what the minyan is?
arichard said…
Glenn Easton told me, some years ago, that he knew (from his occupational perspective) that everything was going well, when half the Congregation said it was too cold, and half said it was too hot. The same may be true for denominational issues. Shabbat shalom.

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