The Most Interesting Conversations: High Holidays 5774

April 6, 2014

It is hard for me to believe that my oldest child is about to become a bar mitzvah. Benjamin, or Ben as he now likes to be called, was just a year and a half old when we moved from New York to Bethesda.  We have added two more children to the mix and countless fish to the fish tank.  I should tell you that we have learned that Rebekah and I are much more adept at raising children than we are at raising fish.

Over the years, the kids have figured out that sometimes they get mentioned in my sermons.  Recently, Ben told me that he was going to trademark Ben, Maayan and Shoshana’s names so that every time I mention them, I would have to pay them something.  I had to admit, it was a clever idea.  So, if you are a trademark lawyer, I know some potential new clients for you.

Realizing that my oldest child is about to become a bar mitzvah has put me into a reflective mindset lately.  There were so many times that people told me “It goes so fast.” and “Appreciate it now.”

To all those people, yes, it was totally annoying to hear that unsolicited advice and… yes, you were absolutely right.  I cannot believe how fast it is going.

They are getting old enough now that we can sit down and have actual conversations together. I think we have hit a window of time where the older ones are big enough to be thoughtful and interesting people but not too cool to that they ignore their parents.

So yes, I am appreciating our time together and the conversations we are having. The conversation I want to have with my kids is about what is so compelling about

Conservative Judaism for me.  Just because I am a rabbi, I am not exempt from taking an active part in their Jewish lives.  ‘Why Conservative Judaism?’ is a different question than ‘Why be Jewish?’.  For the more general question, I hope we show them how Judaism adds value to our lives every day.  As parents, we try to be purposeful about how Judaism is part of our family.  I know that if we do not make Judaism a natural part of our children’s lives, we cannot expect our kids to take Judaism any more seriously than we do ourselves.

But, why Conservative Judaism? My mom still belongs to the Reform synagogue that we grew up in. My older sister belongs to a Reconstructionist synagogue.  My younger sister belongs to a Conservative synagogue.  My family has a wonderfully diverse range of affiliations.

Thus, I want my children to know what excites me about Conservative Judaism. This year is the celebration of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism 100th anniversary. Therefore, Beth El’s congregational theme will be ‘Conservative Judaism.’  It is important for all of us to reflect on our approach to Judaism.         I use the phrase ‘approach to Judaism’ rather than Movement purposely.  Movement implies institutions and strategic plans. The Conservative Movement has developed a presence across North and South America, Europe and Israel.  Additionally, we have incredible people within Beth El who are working diligently on strengthening the Conservative Movement and I appreciate what they are doing on our behalf.

But today I am not going to talk about our Movement per se.  I am interested in something more personal.  I want to talk about why I am a Conservative Jew.  I think there is a lesson here for each of us.

Simply put: I like being where people are having really interesting Jewish conversations.

That is what first attracted me to Conservative Judaism and it still excites me.  As I alluded to, I was involved in our Reform congregation growing up.  It was a wonderful, safe, nurturing place.  It was a place that I wanted to be.  It was a place where I felt that I was asked to look at the world and my input was listened to.  My comments were appreciated not because of its content but because there were terrific teachers who valued children’s perspectives.

I give a lot of credit to the clergy and educators of my youth. To this day, I do not think that religious school teachers get the appreciation that they deserve. Make sure to tell an educator you know thank you.

As I grew older, I kept looking for really interesting Jewish conversations. I simply followed the exchange of ideas and it moved me beyond where I was.  I wanted to be around people who were trying to figure out how Judaism fit into their life by bridging the past and present.  I wanted to be with people who were interested in seeing how a Jewish perspective from 1,500 years ago might actually contain insights for today.  This led me to explore different streams of Judaism and I give my parents a lot of credit for being open and patient with me.

For me, an interesting Jewish conversation is an attempt to build a connection between the rituals and perspectives of Jewish tradition and applying them to today.  Often, it has felt that either people were primarily focused on performing the ritual to the exclusion of its meaning or people were too ready to discard the ritual and tradition in order to create something new ex nihilo.

Neither polar position has ever been comfortable for me.  Practice and meaning must be intertwined.  But where is that balance? Where is the balance between valuing the tradition while also insisting that our ritual practices speak to us today?

That nexus between tradition and modernity is Conservative Judaism.  This is why I find the most interesting Jewish conversations are happening in and around Conservative Judaism.

 This approach to Judaism is what Rabbi Mordecai Waxman called “Tradition and Change.”  It puts us right in the middle of really hard but really interesting questions. More than a Movement, Conservative Judaism is an approach that is compelling to me.

For too long, Conservative Judaism has been a harbor for ‘not too much of this’ and ‘not too much of that’. Not too Orthodox and not too Reform. We have become ‘Goldilocks Judaism.’

While Conservative synagogues thrived for a long time in that Goldilocks space, it had unintended consequences.  A generation ago, being ‘just right’ made some leaders hesitant by the fear of offending people by engaging them in the hardest conversations of Jewish life.  Too often, the easiest conversations did not push people to reflect more deeply on their own practices or theology.  The ‘lowest common denominator’ became the conversation rather than the most interesting exchanges of the time.  A bigger tent seemed to require more limited conversations.

I am proud that at Beth El, building off the foundation laid by Rabbi Sam Scolnic z’l and carried through by Rabbi Rudolph and myself now, we do not shy away from hard conversations. The vibrancy of the shul proves that you also want to be part of this dialogue.

Conservative Judaism embraces the intellectual and spiritual tensions of bridging the tradition with today.  This approach is rewarding and authentic, even if it is not always consistent.

I know that our approach to Judaism is having an impact far beyond the formal synagogues affiliated with the Movement. Rabbi David Wolpe has observed that:

Some of the most spiritually charged, socially sensitive prayer groups and institutions in the country choose to not affiliate themselves with the Conservative Movement yet they are led by rabbis ordained by the Conservative Movement (‘s seminaries) and attended by congregants who grew up in the Movement.

While Conservative Movement institutions may be refocusing today, clearly our dynamic and challenging approach to Judaism remains relevant.  If you have ever attended the DC Minyan, Rosh Pina or Segulah minyanim in DC, the Hadar minyan in New York or other alternative minyanim, these are predominately led by Conservative Jews creating meaningful worship experiences.  They are taking these conversations beyond the synagogues and into new areas.  Even within Beth El, we are nurturing alternative worship experiences within the walls of the shul.  You might be surprised by the diversity within Beth El.  There is a place for you right here.

For me, these important Jewish conversations can be broken down into three classical areas: God, Torah and Israel.

To be talking about these areas means that we will likely disagree with each other about certain aspects of the conversation.  That is not a reason to shy away from these discussions.  To the contrary, after we decide that the ‘lowest common denominator’ is not adequate for building a vibrant spiritual community, we are motivated to raise the level of discussion.   These conversations are about engaging in serious thought about these topics, not creating a Beth El catechism.

Let’s look at the first in the list of God, Torah and Israel.

Following from my High Holiday sermon last year about God, a group of people chose to meet with me in the Fall to struggle with our concepts of God. We met regularly at Cosi and Le Madeleine in Bethesda and we had in depth discussions about aspects of God that troubled us.  We talked about if God exists, why people find God so comforting, and about the different metaphors for God used throughout the prayerbook and machzor.  We grappled with the Una Tana Tokef prayer – does God really decide who shall live and who shall die.  We struggled with understanding if God has a role in the illnesses of our loved ones?

The depth and honesty of these discussions were inspiring and this 3 month experiment turned into a year long conversation.

Even though we are not at a coffee shop now, we can be challenged by these questions right here.  Look at the machzor in front of you and let it push you.  Notice the diversity of ways that God is portrayed in the machzor.  God takes direct action in the world as a judge, comforter, victor, sage and healer.  Do you believe God intervenes in the world in any of these ways? When in your life would you want God do so?

These are interesting Jewish conversations.

God, Torah and Israel.  Let’s look at the interesting conversations surrounding Torah. The most fascinating question about the Torah is who wrote it and therefore what is its

authority?  In other words, why do we follow it?  This is the conversation that is frequently side stepped but is at the core of Judaism. Too often, progressive Jews, meaning Jews outside of orthodoxy, obscure this conversation rather than address it directly.  Is the Torah written by God or man or both?

Over 75 years ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan observed the same hesitancy.  He wrote: There is a tendency in certain circles to blur the sharp outlines of the traditional ideology by surrounding it with a fog of words. This is probably motivated by the desire to prove that there is no need for emphasizing the fact that the Jewish religion is undergoing radical change.2

A fog of words and radical change.  Kaplan knew about really interesting conversations. The traditional view point of Torah is that every word of Torah, the written word and the oral tradition, was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai by God.3   The tradition also has more minimalist positions. It says that Moses had an experience with God at Mt. Sinai and the Torah is Moses’ expression of that experience.

But since the Emancipation freed Jews and others to look at the Torah and religious texts with academic eyes, non-Orthodox Judaism has embraced the scholarly study of the Torah.  Countless PhDs have been granted for looking at the diverse authorships of the Bible, the influence of other Near Eastern texts on the Bible, the parallels between ancient Semitic languages and Hebrew and many more topics.  Wissenschaft des Judentums, the 19th century movement founded in Germany to study Judaism scientifically, has created obvious difficulties with the traditional belief in Torah’s Divine revelation.

On the one hand, if the Torah is the direct word of God, that has one path of authority. But, if the Torah is only the preserved collection of a people’s national story, that might offer a different sense of authority regarding why we keep kosher, observe Shabbat or pray.

Wissenschaft scholars like Leopold Zunz or Zecharias Frankel were the harbingers of Conservative Judaism.  They inspired countless interesting conversations as they were embroiled in the ‘radical change’ that Kaplan referred to.

Another thought on the authority of Torah and by implication Jewish law, is by Rabbi Neil Gillman.  Paraphrasing Gillman, the Torah is authoritative because Jews for millennia have declared it authoritative.  Gillman teaches that the Jewish People have authorized the Torah in each generation as being the sacred book of the Jewish People and that is why it is our core Jewish text.

Each position has its own inspiration and its own limitations.  My personal understanding of Torah continues to evolve and develop.   What do you believe about the Torah? Are you more apt to lead a Jewish life if you believe in the approach of Sinai, or in Zunz or in Gillman? Is the question of Torah about proof or faith?

These are really interesting conversations that shape how we understand Conservative Judaism in our own life.

And finally Israel 

Israel should be understood as both Am Yisrael – the Jewish People and Midinat Yisrael– the modern state of Israel. There are plenty of interesting conversations with both.

How do we define the Jewish People? What are the parameters of Judaism? This is at the core of the debate surrounding access to the Kotel for women and for non-orthodox prayer groups.  The group, Women of the Wall, has been fighting for full access to the Kotel for over twenty years now.  Other questions for Am Yisrael include: is a Jew only someone with a Jewish mother or what if they only have a Jewish father? What are the expectations for someone to be a ‘Jew by choice?’  What are the binds that hold the Jewish People together?  Are they cultural? linguistic? ritual?

These are important conversations. And Midinat Yisrael.

We must continually be engaged in conversations about the modern state of Israel. Growing up, Israel activism was a central part of my family.  From developing relationships with our local civic leaders to traveling to far off Washington DC to see our Congressman, the late Tom Lantos, I learned how important it is that the US – Israel ties are strong.  I can assure you that my family, then and now, has really interesting and diverse conversations about Israel.

In just the past two weeks, our country’s conversation about Syria and the region has engaged all of us. This has brought Israel and the Jewish community into the deliberations.

From understanding the policy issues and security needs of Israel to helping carve out a greater space for non-orthodox Judaism in Israel, we must remain engaged.

At Beth El, we have created space for people to learn, discuss, disagree and listen to each other about Israel. From seeing each other at AIPAC conferences to supporting Israeli NGOs like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, our conversations are broad and important.

And of course, visiting Israel is the best way to be part of the discussion.  This past year, both Rabbi Rudolph and I brought groups from the shul to Israel.  I look forward to being with you on one of our next trips.

Being a Conservative Jew is not the easiest approach to Judaism.  There is an inherit tension between preserving our traditions and applying it to today.  This tension should energizes us to take on these serious conversations.  We cannot be hesitant to share that with the next generation.

If we do not engage our youth in these discussions, they will interpret our silence as ambivalence.  They will not be inspired and then the ‘lowest common denominator’ will define who we are.

Beth El is about so much more.

I am a Conservative Rabbi and I want to elevate our conversations because that is what will inspire this and the next generations. I want us to be engaged in a back-and-forth that will challenge us and motivate us to think deeper about Judaism.

Beginning after Simchat Torah, I again will be meeting at a local coffee shop to engage with you in these conversations. God, Torah, Israel.  We will spend the next months exploring different aspects of ‘Torah in Conservative Judaism’ – its authority, its authorship and its implications.  Join me for these conversations.  Be assured that the broader the viewpoints in these discussion groups, the more interesting the conversation becomes. I look forward to seeing you.

That is why Conservative Judaism inspires me.

I hope that you will join Rabbi Rudolph, Hazzan Klein and me in these conversations throughout the year as we explore Conservative Judaism at Beth El.  Join us at the coffee shop.  Take a class in the Sam Scolnic Adult Institute, read the special articles in the Scroll which are focused on Conservative Judaism.  And maybe even more importantly, bring these conversations to your own Shabbat table.

Ask Ben, Maayan and Shoshana, that is where the most interesting Jewish conversations take place.  But you better ask soon, before their trademarks takes effect.

 I pray that 5774 is a year of health, prosperity and peace here and in Israel. Amen

Rabbi Greg Harris
September 2013