Thursday, March 13, 2008

Some Suggestions for Revitalizing the Conservative Movement

Some Suggestions for Revitalizing the Conservative Movement

With Arnold Eisen making his Fairfield County debut tonight at Beth El in Norwalk, I thought this might be the best time to dust off some suggestions I first made a year ago at lectures in New City and Palm Beach:

· Be “The Movement that Looks Like America” - Embrace Theological Humility and Intellectual Honesty

o Most Americans agonize over complex issues like abortion, capital punishment and sexual orientation. Their religion should, too. Americans are craving an authentic spiritual alternative to the so-called “moral clarity” of fundamentalism, a few questions to go with all the pat answers. This muddle in the middle is an uncomfortable place to reside, but it is equally a dynamic one. The strength of Conservative Judaism lies in the creative tension that is at its core. Like most of us, Conservative Judaism lives in a real world of tough questions. It thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront imperfection: Judaism’s, society’s and our own.

· Advocate “Passionate Centrism” – not Muddy Compromise

o Being a passionate religious centrist means affirming that even diametrically opposing positions can be the words of the living God. But it also means that at times compromise is impossible. When bold steps need to be taken, especially for compelling ethical reasons, the movement should accept them even without consensus.

· Champion Human Dignity – Become the Mussar (Ethics) Movement

o Rabbi Eliezer says, “Let your neighbor’s dignity be precious to you as your own. (Avot 2:10)
§ Gay decision based on this premise: a negative commandment can be overruled for the sake of maintaining human dignity.
§ Social action, yes…but Social INTERACTION even more crucial
§ We need “Behavioral Covenants” – create model communities
o “I’m a good person but a bad Jew.” – Render that statement obsolete.
§ Ritual (e.g. Shabbat and Kashrut) as means to ethical ends
§ Campaign against Gossip
§ Climate change and energy policy
§ Business ethics
§ Food and contemporary life
§ Privacy Issues and Relationships, “Shalom in the Home”
§ Redefined roles for men and women: modeling a proud egalitarianism in shul AND at home

· Be Less About the Brain – More About the Heart

o It’s not an ideology that we need – it’s a pulse!
o The movement has tended to shed its most passionate parts fueling its intellectual shell.

· “Sing Unto God a New Song” – Services should aim for authenticity, spontaneity and passion

o What people bemoan as clergy-centered "performance Judaism" has little to do with it being a performance and lots to do with it being a bad performance. The psalms themselves are imploring us, "Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash," "Sing unto Adonai a new song."
o Shabbat services should be seen as a drama in 52 acts. It’s all about connecting individuals and forging community.
o Hebrew as strength (resonates with authenticity), not a handicap

· The Power of the Individual – One Size Doesn’t Fit All

o Synaplex / power of choice / multiple services / reaching people at different stages of the journey
o Acceptance above all – be a movement of LOVE, not rejection
o Every Jew is a Jew by Choice.

· Embrace the Sacred Journey – Welcome Fellow Travelers

o The journey is dynamic - the ladder of observance – 24/7 “striving Jew”
o Barriers to participation need to be broken down (“Judaism for Dummies”)
o “Keruv” extended to all – including non-traditional family units.
o Judaism is merely our language of expressing the universal experiences of being human. It is an exquisitely beautiful, textured language, derived from a history of astounding length, breathtaking variety and unmatched portability.
o Conservative Judaism is best equipped to draw from the wisdom of all dimensions of the Jewish experience, as well as other religious traditions.
o As we are on a journey, our operative direction should be neither left nor right, but forward.
o As a co-traveler and guide, the Rabbi’s role needs to be redefined and invigorated.

· Revelation is Here and Now

o “The classical Jewish view teaches “the decline of the generations” — since Sinai we have grown further from revelation and stand, as a result, on a lower level of holiness. The covenant does not fade or weaken with time. Our future is as promising as our past is powerful. For the Covenantal Jew, dialogue between the Jewish people and God began in the Bible and continues today.” (Rabbi David Wolpe)…Our own self image has impact on our self image as a movement – we’re the movement that is always slouching, the “ever dying people.” It’s time and stop slouching.

· “Apocalypse Later”

o “If you are planting a tree and the Messiah comes to the gates of the city, finish planting the tree, then go out to greet her.” (Talmud) It makes sense to finish planting the tree, for two reasons. 1) If the Messiah turns out to be Al Gore, you’ll get some real brownie points. And 2), because in rabbinic Judaism, the Messiah’s actual coming is beside the point. For the rabbis, the key to waiting for the Messiah was the waiting itself. They understood how dangerous it is when messianism gets out of hand – that’s why they call it messianism: because things get so messy -- and the Judaism that they created was expressly designed to prevent that from happening. But the rabbis didn’t dare eliminate the messianic strain entirely from Jewish tradition. The belief in some sort of end of days, the ultimate goal of a perfect world, a Nirvana -- is essential to all spiritual quests. So while we dare not eliminate speculation about the Messiah, nonetheless, authentic rabbinic Judaism falls squarely on the side of Apocalypse Later.

· “They Like Us…They Really Like Us!” We Need To Capitalize on Judaism’s Popularity

o …the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article titled “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah,” detailing the growing trend of non-Jewish children begging their parents for big bar/bat mitzvah bashes of their own. When non-Jews can so casually assimilate what has long been the decisive generator of Jewish identity, it makes us wonder what sort of monster we’ve created. A successful monster, that’s what. The hard work has already been done. From a marketing perspective, bar mitzvah is becoming the Coca-Cola of American adolescent initiation rites. The most amazing thing is happening: Non-Jews are teaching Jews how to be Jewish.” (Joshua Hammerman, “Bar Mitzvah Nation,” the Jewish Week, 5/7/04)

· A Life-Affirming Zionism – Israel (People, Land, and State) as a “Light unto the Nations” and a “Light unto the Jews.” Diaspora Jewry as Full Partners

o Connect American Jews to Israel in any manner possible, especially with trips to Israel.
o Israelis love everything American and they are also on spiritual quests – we can share our journeys with them

· Take “Yes” for an Answer

o Judaism is a glass-half-full religion. So why, then, do so many Jews tend to be glass-half-empty people, weighed down by our glass-mostly-empty history. Why does bad karma happen to good religions? On paper at least, Judaism is optimistic to the core, a faith based on messianic aspiration and a positive view of human potential.

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