Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Creating a Worthy Tomorrow

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addressing the Centennial Conference of USCJ in Baltimore
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addressing the Centennial Conference of USCJ in Baltimore

These may be the best of times and the worst of times for Conservative/Masorti Judaism.

Our declining numbers could be cause for alarm. The different arms of our Movement, with their seemingly archaic organizational structures, sometimes appear to be more like competitors than cooperative partners. Moreover, Conservative/Masorti Judaism is not in synch with a Western pop culture that is no longer about a work ethic, sacrifice, community, and honesty. A Judaism that calls people to a life of service and responsibility will never be very popular in this climate.

And the last source of concern: our children and grandchildren are now fully at home in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Israel, wherever they live. Contemporary Jews, who once affiliated out of a sense of tribal loyalty, do not feel a need for Conservative Judaism as a portal into the larger culture. The ethnic pull of Jewish identity no longer compels.

Yet, at the same time, we can point to signs of remarkable vitality. More of us keep kosher today than at any point in modern history. Assuming that ten percent of American Jews are Orthodox and that 20 percent of American Jews keep kosher, half of those who keep kosher are coming from outside of Orthodoxy; they are ours. Solomon Schechter day schools continue to offer educations that are integrated, authentic, and vital. Camps Ramah continue to drive young people to a richer way of Jewish life. Together, USY and Ramah send more teenagers to Israel every summer than any other organized program. We do many things very well. The Ziegler School continues to grow and thrive, as do our sister schools – Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Seminario Rabbinico in Buenos Aires, and the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem. We’ve even launched a new seminary: the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam will educate and ordain Conservative/Masorti rabbis for the European Union, under the religious supervision of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

I believe that our best days are yet to come, if we are only bold enough and honest enough to look at what we face, and then if we are creative, resilient and faithful enough to address those challenges and opportunities.

Our mission is to represent a traditional Judaism that is serious, spiritual, supple, and synthetic.

Serious, in that it is impossible to construct a meaningful Jewish life that does not make demands. A Judaism that is so trivial that it never imposes or elevates is unworthy of our young people. Jews excel in so many areas of society and culture, yet we often present an emaciated Judaism to our own people. If we wish to call people back to Conservative/Masorti Judaism, then it must be a Conservative/Masorti Judaism that summons people to be the best that they can be rather than to give them excuses for mediocrity.

We must be serious about living lives of service to God, a commanding presence in our personal lives and at the center of our communal agenda. Making God a presence means elevating learning as our central focus. Our faith requires the full devotion of the mind. The mind is a subversive organ; it refuses to be shackled. Minds probe and inquire and explore. We must become the learning center at the heart of contemporary Jewry. And we must become serious about a life of mitzvot. We pay for the privilege of being part of this people by devoting our mundane deeds to God and by reaching out to all humankind and our planet in tikkun, a commitment to repair what is shattered.

To build a traditional Judaism that is worthy of the name, we must be spiritual. When I went to rabbinical school, you could only use the word ‘spiritual’ with quotation marks around it. That is no longer true. We all seek to be part of something greater than ourselves. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Chernobyl, the author of the Maor Eynayim, teaches that whenever a Jew does a mitzvah, she links God within to God out there. Spirituality is not in conflict with intellectual or ethical rigor; it is its sweetest fruit. Judaism has always known that intellect is necessary for spiritual honesty – ein Am HaAretz hasid – you can’t be ignorant and pious. But intellect is an emotional cognitive integration: heart and mind together opening to the wonder.

Let us be supple. We are creaking a bit. We are slowing. It is time to remind ourselves that we do not have to do things the way we always have. Some things do remain non-negotiable: love of God and love of Torah and learning, devotion to the people and the State of Israel, love of Hebrew, of Jewish peoplehood. We do not compromise on these. But the style with which we present those values should change to meet the needs of each new age.

Then finally, synthetic. Solomon Schechter famously quoted, “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.” That’s not good enough anymore. Our watchword must be – nothing human is alienated from Judaism. Judaism is nothing less than the life-blood of the Jewish people. It is how we live and breathe and walk in the world. We are open to wisdom from any source. And in that openness will be found the fullness of Jewish life. No human creativity, whether in science or the arts or music, can remain outside of our practice of Torah.

What then are the possibilities? Judaism must be bold enough to be inclusive. Judaism must be brave enough to welcome in even those with whom we differ, even those we normally choose to ignore. If we are not all of us at the table together, then we ought none of us to stay at the table.

I believe that Conservative/Masorti Judaism can be the Judaism of engagement. I am very proud that a coalition of pushy Conservative Jews mobilized to take a stand against the devastation in Darfur. But are we doing enough? Our environment is reeling from humanity’s thoughtless greed. Do we have anything to say about that? Humanity continues to retreat into competing corners where we beat up outsiders. Does Conservative/Masorti Judaism have anything to say about that? Or do we have anything to say about the crushing poverty to the south of our border? Women continue to fight for the right to be recognized as people. Have we nothing to say?

The mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, is so great that our father Abraham interrupted a conversation with God to welcome guests into his tent. If someone walks into a Conservative/Masorti synagogue and knows nobody, will they have a place to go for lunch? Will someone help them navigate our complicated prayer services?

My 21-year-old son struggles with autism. I watch as he and his friends with special needs desperately try to find a place within the Jewish community and I wonder when welcoming noisy Jews will be more important than decorum? The only time we create singles programming is to get rid of singles. Perhaps we should be creating congregations that interest single people to be there. And how about honoring the seniors who come to our services despite the way we talk down to them, despite the way we belittle them?

Why is it that to join a synagogue, you do exactly what you would do to join a country club? The standards of membership are even pretty much the same. What does that say about who we are? Can you imagine if we talked about the beliefs and practices we expect of a Conservative/Masorti Jew before discussing dues with prospective members?

And then, the sad truth is that the arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement do not always work well together. Will we all hold on to our turf and go down individually, or will we rise above it and triumph together? All of the arms of the Movement must demonstrate that it is possible to muster the best by working as a team.

We have a ways to go but there is a hunger to show people what we can do.

I did not have the privilege of growing up in this Movement. I chose it as an adult, and with every fiber of my being I am a passionate Conservative/Masorti Jew. In the years ahead, I pledge to join with anyone interested to continue to provide leadership to the Movement, so that together we will enhance the humanity of the world and the glory of God’s Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.