The First Word: The Jewish center must hold

There is a dual triumphalism in modern Jewish life. Both sides are dangerous.

By DAVID WOLPE
February 18, 2010 15:45
The First Word: The Jewish center must hold

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There is a dual triumphalism in modern Jewish life. Both sides are dangerous. On the one hand there is an Orthodox triumphalism. Measured by birthrates alone, Orthodoxy is surging. But of course birthrates do not shape a successful ideology. Traditional Jewish observance is finding its footing on the crest of a worldwide wave. At a time when Islamic, Christian and Hindu traditionalism (to give them the most neutral names) are swelling, the growth of Jewish traditionalism should come as no surprise. Ancient ideas armed with advanced technology can be captivating, powerful and pervasive. At the same time there is a minimalism that presents itself as the sane alternative. In America, Jews melt imperceptibly away to nothingness - living repudiation of the idea that Jewishness conveys a special soul, or a genetic imprint that can never be denied. Reform Judaism grows, but all too often as a gateway to nullity. Despite the best efforts and teachings of gifted Reform rabbis and educators, Jewish knowledge and observance have run from oceans to streams to rivulets. Amidst increasing pressures on Jewry worldwide, the contrary spasms of reaction seem to be to build more walls or gradually acquiesce in our own disappearance. These observations are occasioned by the crisis in my own religious movement, Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews remain more than a third of all affiliated American Jews, so the numbers are not negligible. Yet the ideological momentum has slowed; the future is shaky; there is a sense of crisis among those who can neither defend their beliefs in literalist terms (God said it, and that is all there is to it) nor in societal terms (our raison d'etre is social tikkun olam or individual freedom.) Recently I proposed that we change the name of Conservative Judaism to emphasize the Judaism we do believe in - to Covenantal Judaism. The covenant, with its emphasis on relationship, epitomizes what Conservative Judaism has long believed. Covenantal Judaism is guided by three indelible, enduring covenants: with humanity, with other Jews and with God. THE VERY first question in the Bible is a question God asks of Adam: Ayecha? - Where are you? This is not a literal question, but a spiritual one, a question God asks us at each moment in our lives. The second question in the Bible is in a way an answer to the first. It's one that human beings ask of God. Cain turns to God and asks "Am I my brother's keeper?" If you answer that question, you will know your spiritual status. Do you care for those who are in need, those who are bereaved, bereft, frightened, anguished, alone? We are charged to care not only for our own. Covenantal Judaism teaches a sacred obligation to care for the suffering. Organized Judaism's reaction to atrocities in Darfur, in Cambodia, our championing the recognition of the Armenian genocide, and countless similar causes and efforts, are not strategic, or intended to reflect credit on ourselves. They are sacred Jewish obligations. Jews who care for the Jewish community alone are neglecting the first, most comprehensive covenant. At the same time ahavat yisrael, love of both the land and the people of Israel, is a covenantal responsibility. Building common cause with the communities of Israel, even those - perhaps especially those - with whom we disagree, is crucial. Our instinct to divide shows its power more clearly in religious life than anywhere save perhaps political life. Those who are able to dissent without severing ties declare their allegiance to the covenantal responsibility that binds us. The central covenantal relationship is to God, mediated through Torah as well as through nature, other human beings, and the holiness of the human heart. Conservative (or covenantal) Judaism is thus Judaism modeled on a relationship. In a relationship there is the powerful draw of the past, but also the promise of what is to come. Tradition is not a straitjacket but a platform from which to grow. The traditional model of "the decline of generations" serves to ossify relationship, not to foster it. Why could not a scholar as great as Maimonides, a mystic as penetrating as the Ba'al Shem Tov, a historical figure with the valence of Solomon, arise today? The world has changed immeasurably since ancient times, but human potential has not diminished. The covenant is not a series of strictures but a promise of intimacy, a symbol of our yearning. When A.J. Heschel writes that the Bible is the record of God and human beings seeking one another, it is a penetrating characterization not only of the Bible, but of all true religious life. Freeze yearning and it becomes punctiliousness, a pilpulistic rigor that replaces the love that ought to characterize Judaism. In the Reform movement there is openness, but despite some recent moves in the direction of ritual, the ideology of Reform negates any idea of commandedness; individual choice reigns. This runs contrary to the idea that we are commanded to be in relationship with each other and with God. Moreover, through the patrilineal decision, there is a breakage with the ideology of klal Yisrael. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, too often repudiates modern study, and turns inward. Covenantal Judaism affirms that one cannot be a light to the nations if one refuses to interact with the nations, and to take their wisdom seriously. We need a strong Jewish center that promotes non-literalist traditionalism, that believes in the sanctity of relationships with the non-Jewish world, that promotes the modern study of faith as well as traditional learning. The center, Yeats famously wrote, cannot hold. But nothing - not a bridge, a building, a people - can long endure without a center. A passionless or purely individualistic Judaism is doomed. Yet a Judaism that does not rejoice in the discoveries of the human mind, in history and science and in the humbling/ennobling experience of learning form other cultures is moribund. God calls us to a Covenant that embraces both openness and obligation. The promise of the Jewish future is as intertwined with Covenant as is the richness of the Jewish past. The writer is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom For A Modern World. This article continues our occasional series on The Jewish Future.


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