Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, great sage of his generation, was once walking with his disciple, Rabbi Joshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Holy Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the temple ruins and said, "Alas for us the place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins." Then Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort, saying, "Do not grieve, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness." As it is written in the words of the prophet Hosea, "lovingkindness I desire and not sacrifice (6:6)."
Avot de Rebbe Natan 11a
Like the generation of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, we live approximately 70 years after the great devastation, and it has taken 70 years to begin to regroup, to begin to realize that what was lost is forever lost. We too, like that fateful generation in Jerusalem so long ago, face a stark existential choice: do we rip ourselves up in a futile attempt to recreate precisely what is lost, to hold on to what is gone, or do we, like them, launch a bold and courageous enterprise in the conviction that there is a kaparah acheret, another way, a new form in which the old wisdom, the old holiness, the light of Torah, can also inform our generation and our times?
Much has been made this year of the imminent demise of the middle path in Jewish life. There have been studies, there have been statistics, there have been articles reported almost gleefully in the press, a public rubbing of hands in joy at the collapse of the center that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism. This is but a part of a larger collapse of Jewish life as a whole, which is itself part of a turn of contemporary life away from matters of spirit, away from matters of religion.
But here's the catch: the old modes of atonement may no longer remain accessible to us, but those fundamental deep-seated human needs are very much with us. They remain very much alive.
Because those timeless and timely needs remain pervasive, there is yet a need for some voice in our commercialized culture calling us to our better natures, reminding us of our duty collectively, to articulate the higher meaning that life might yet attain. We still need a clear affirmation that by the way we live in the world, through our choices and our behavior, we can elevate and strengthen each other.
- Through our belonging, by building communities of wisdom and joy and art and music and spirit, we have the capacity no less than our ancestors did, to fight the futility of a universe that seems intent on crushing us with meaninglessness.
- We have the need for something wondrous that can remind us of the possibility of expanding our short mortal stories into a coherent narrative large enough to hold our science and our spirit in one compatible telling - this in the realm of believing.
- We need to be reminded that when we listen to the urge of our inner compass, our true North always points towards justice, and that we need each other to renew our struggle to fight oppression, to fight violence, to fight the steady denigration and degradation of human beings and of this planet. This is the realm of behaving.
We need to be reminded that the still, small voice, that once long ago invited our ancestors into special intimacy beckons to us yet; calls to us with the call, that if we are but still for a moment and in each others' company, is discernible and transformative.
These living needs have not gone away, and they will not dissipate
- As long as there are human beings with pulses,
- As long as there are children who look to us with hope for a better tomorrow,
- As long as there are seniors who have given their all on our behalf and then turn to us to be able to let them know that their lives and their sacrifices were not in vain,
- As long as we are connected to our glorious history, of remarkable, fallible human beings who knew suffering and yet created triumphs, there will always be these core human needs.
Judaism understands these longings and articulates our most human aspirations. Therefore we must be the ones who stand on the forefront to let others know that they do not enter this struggle alone, and they do not enter it unarmed. The wisdom of Jewish tradition, if unleashed with the fullness of its spirit, if unleashed in novelty and joy and integrity, has the capacity to carry us even as it bore those who came before us.
I would like to advance four specific paths that I believe our central approach to Judaism bountifully embodies, the implementation of which the world still awaits:
The first portal is a delicate blend of lamdanut (learning): the kind of nuanced learning that understands that contemporary academics are not in conflict with traditional methods of learning. In fact, the unfettered mind can truly dance only when it is properly trained, and the surest portal to the soul is in the life of the mind. This kind of integrated learning in which, to use the words of the Rambam, "we accept truth from any source" - academic scholarship, Sufi dance, modern sculpture, art, poetry, and traditional commentaries - all inform a disciplined mind. Disciplined and enlightened by this rich cacophony of wisdom, we will cultivate and harvest Torah that will be the crowning glory of our children's children's Judaism.
The second gateway is a distinctive kind of emunah (faithfulness). The faithfulness available to us today must be one that makes robust room for skepticism and for doubt. A modern person who doesn't, on a daily basis, experience an overwhelming sense of despair and meaninglessness is just not paying attention. But to allow ourselves to be defined by those waves of despair is to abandon the great glory of what it is to be human: of being able, knowing that we are finite, mortal, and challenged - to hold on to meaning that we create with each other. Such a faith is a leavening agent for a traditional credulity and deference to Torah and Sages. Integrating this constructive skepticism with the rich loam of faith is the gift that Conservative Judaism can give to its adherents, and to the world.
We offer to the world a unique form of Sh'mirat Mitzvot - the observance of our commandments, hewing to Halakhah (the system of Jewish law and its norms) but as a living tree, one that grows and changes, and requires tending, pruning, and new nurture. We are called to be bold gardeners and stewards, discerning which leaves and branches have become atrophied by new insights, new contexts, new knowledge, and, at the same time, selecting which new imperatives have blossomed recently on the ancient tree because of our new capabilities, technologies, and knowledge. All this active shaping is the way of integrating our ancient commitment to compassion, dignity, diversity, and inclusion into ever shifting forms. Jewish tradition must retain a living law at its heart, but the law lives through us and through our willingness to so root ourselves in our sources, the commandments, God, and our living communities that we refuse to let them be sundered from each other.
Judaism insists that above even our commitment to learning, above even our commitment to observance, remains an unquenchable thirst for righteousness and justice. We insist that the life of tzedek u-mishpat, of an ethics that addresses our age, is not the abandonment of traditional Judaism, but its consummation. The mitzvot are given to train us, to discipline us to see the world, not in its compromised form, but as it might be from God's vantage point, and then to empower us to roll up our sleeves and to bring reality in line with that supernal vision.
I am a Jew who has, by choice, associated with this middle path, with Conservative/Masorti Judaism, not because I believe that the other paths are not also essential to Jewish life, they are; not because I believe that our way is the best way, or even distinctively God's way. I celebrate the vibrant diversity of contemporary Jewish expression. But this middle path is mine, and it is mine because it is that Conservative/Masorti Judaism that gives me room for the kind of learning that allows for the work of a gentile professor of Bible to sit on the same desk as a Medieval Jewish commentator both struggling to offer insights from their own training and time, and each able to add to the resources I summon to meet the needs of my own.
I am affiliated with this stream of Jewish life because I find in it a sufficiently robust faith to hold my doubt, so that neither the faith, nor the doubt have primacy, but they are forced into ongoing conversation with each other, producing sweet new fruit.
I have chosen this stream of Jewish life because it affords healthy respect to the centrality of Halakhah, but not to a Halakhah that is desiccated, frozen, or rigid, but one that lives in the life of the Jewish people, indeed of all humankind.
And finally, because however important lamdanut, emunah, and sh'mirat mitzvot continue to be, if they do not lead us to a productive dissatisfaction with the bloodthirsty compromises that allow for the renewal of slavery in our time, that allow for our children to be hungry and uneducated, that allow for the proliferation of violence, if our Torah has nothing to say about these and countless other injustices, then we practice abomination.
This pathway, this cluster that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism, provides for diverse understandings of how to seek that learning, live those mitzvot, love that justice.
It is these clusters of values that we consider the service of God. It is to this high privilege that we are called.
If we answer that call, if we rise in our joy and our duty, I know that we will merit the privilege of transmitting the bright light that shines from our faithfulness and our doubt, our learning traditional and modern, and our unquenchable thirst for righteousness and decency, and justice.
That light will illumine the world, and it will warm many hearts.