As Communities Change, So Must Rabbis, And the Organizations that Serve Them

Beginning last summer and continuing on throughout this year, the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, has been engaged in a process of “re-visioning,” evaluating how best to understand its function and serve its members. This process is both time and energy-intensive, and not something that the organization, of which I am the immediate past-President, undertakes lightly. The stakes are high, particularly at a time of challenge such as we are facing. If you’re going to do it, you’d better do it right.

While this project relates directly to the world of the Conservative rabbinate and not the laity per se, I think it is important for the wider community to understand why it is that we are doing this. The questions we are asking, and the answers we hope to arrive at, go to the heart of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.

For all that religion as a whole, and Judaism certainly so, is about cherished traditions, it is equally important to understand that the people who practice religion, and the societies in which they function, are constantly evolving and changing. It is not uncommon to hear some traditional Jews say that the Judaism that they are practicing is the way Judaism has been practiced for many centuries, but that is not really true. Every place where significant numbers of Jews have called home for a serious amount if time has impacted the Judaism that we now practice. Even Eretz Yisrael itself, when it was under Greek and then Roman occupation, incorporated substantive changes. Our prayer book and prayer services have changed through the ages, adding new prayers, and omitting old ones. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi diaspora experiences have led to the evolution of two distinct sets of customs and practices, and Jews of the Arab world have their own chants and styles of worship.

Simply put, every living organism changes: even Judaism. I know that he very thought of that is unsettling to some, to the point of arguing its truth. But the reality of change in the religious world is not really arguable; only the degree to which one wants to accommodate that change, or not.

What one might call the “modern period” of Judaism, from the European Enlightenment and political Emancipation of European Jewry from the ghetto, has brought enormous change to the religious world. The modern denominational categories that we are used to in this country are all reactions to modernity, as Judaism continues to try to arrive at a modus vivendi with modernity that will both accommodate change and preserve tradition. That is the challenge of Judaism in the modern period; finding a way to evolve without subverting the essence of our traditions, or even worse, losing our connection to them.

The last sixty or seventy years in this country have brought an unrelenting onslaught of societal change in both thinking and practice on multiple issues relating to religion. The feminist revolution has forever changed the way the Western world understands male and female roles, and old assumptions about everything from parenting to the workplace, and the synagogue, have been displaced. New understandings about the etiology of sexual orientation have likewise called into question traditional, religiously grounded notions of what constitutes an appropriate lifestyle, to the exclusion of all others. The better part of the late twentieth century was witness to many sectors of the religious community, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, struggling mightily to come to a new equilibrium on gender and sexual orientation issues. In many quarters, the struggle still continues, and judging by recent headlines and reactions in social media, even the Orthodox world will have no choice but to engage these issues head on, as its leadership (i.e., rabbis) are increasingly feeling the pressure.

But in these early years of the 21st century, the challenges to Jewish religious traditions and “the way things have always been done” continue to manifest themselves. What should the architecture of a synagogue sanctuary look like? What should synagogue music sound like? Should it be the cantorial traditions that informed the great synagogues of Europe and also this country in the earlier twentieth century, or the “Carlebach-style” sing-a-long melodies that younger Jews tend to favor? Is there still any relevance to a synagogue that has one service where everyone prays together, or should the synagogue be a multiplex that features varied options to suit every inclination, from contemplative yoga to black hat? And perhaps more to the point, are brick and mortar synagogues still relevant? Today’s younger Jews are notoriously reluctant to join synagogues, or to identify by the ideological labels so familiar to previous generations.

All of which leads to the meetings that I’ve been sitting in all week. In light of all these questions and challenges, what qualities/skills should characterize today’s rabbi? And, further, how does the umbrella organization of the Rabbinical Assembly serve its members when so much of their world is changing or being challenged on a daily basis?

As my wife is fond of quoting in a context like this, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye encountered the very beginning of these questions in fictional Anatevka, but we all are living them, in real time, all across America, and indeed the world.

Dealing openly and honestly with these challenges is terribly difficult, and not always pleasant. I, for one, am proud of my Rabbinical Assembly for meeting the challenge head-on. Its work is not only important to its members, but to American Judaism as a whole. We all need to be thinking hard about making the Judaism we practice relevant and appealing to the widest possible swath of American Jews. The trick, of course, is to do so while preserving tradition.

You can almost hear Tevye playing a violin up on the roof …

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.