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Wisdom from the Middle Movement: Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads


In anticipation of the upcoming inauguration of Arnold Eisen as Chancellor at Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative Movement’s central institution, the Jewish Forward invited Conservative leaders to consider, “Is Conservative Judaism suffering from malaise? If so, what is the nature of the problem? And how should Conservative Jews steer their ship into the future?” Two responses caught my interest.

David Wolpe, LA’s star conservative rabbi, wrote lyrically and poignantly (as usual):

Covenantal Judaism. That is our philosophy and should be our name. Renaming heralds our rejuvenation. We believe in an ongoing dialogue with God. Not everything significant has already been said, nor is the modern world uniquely wise. Our task goes beyond mere clarification of the old or reflexive reverence for the new. As with a friendship, we cherish the past but are not limited to its formulations or assumptions. Venerating the teachings of Maimonides does not negate that tomorrow, with the tools of modern study, a new Rambam may arise. The Judaism of relationship. Covenantal Judaism. Such is our creed, our dogma, our gift.

Now that’s a Judaism that grabs me! Sounds like Reform Judaism at its best.

Jay Michaelson, director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality and a professor at Boston University Law School, wrote eloquently about the challenges that all streams of Judaism must face:

First, we live in an age of terror and unprecedented change, and the religions that are responding effectively to those conditions are the ones which get us in our kishkes — in the non-rational, spiritual, primal, mythic and even mystical aspects of ourselves.

Second, American Jews today are pragmatists: They want what works. Meditation works; serious, lively text study works (for educated elites, anyway); drum circles work; spirituality works. Rattle-your-jewelry Judaism, old clichés about antisemitism and Israel, and the sober, boring conventionality of much of Conservative Judaism just doesn’t work. Nor do dead theologies and dogmas which no one believes anymore.

Finally, the Conservative movement spent so much energy worrying about whether gays could be good Jews that they forgot to ask why anyone would want to be. Now it needs to ask, “What do we provide that nothing else does?” The answer isn’t community, ethics or culture; Jews can get those elsewhere. But the spark of divinity, the charge of holiness, the power of myth — these are treasures that we can’t get anywhere else. We just have to dare to embrace them.

I hope they, and we Reform Jews, listen to this wisdom.

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