Rooted In Tradition; Embracing the World

I’m not a big believer in slogans. Generally human activities are too complex to boil down to a catchy jingle, and there is something very Madison Avenue about even trying to reduce real human beings (candidates, for example) or social movements to a single line. We associate slogans with selling something: a product we don’t really need, something shiny that catches our attention or feeds an addiction without meeting an actual need. There’s something a bit tawdry and desperate about seeking a slogan for a lofty spiritual movement.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and religion on the whole is facing rocky shoals. The number of people who self-identify as non-religious is at an all time high, and rising. The population studies of the Jewish community, specifically, point to the likelihood of a stark drop off of children and grandchildren who consider themselves Jews. And some of the statistics staring at the leadership of Conservative/Masorti Judaism seem particularly challenging: fewer synagogues, fewer (and aging) congregants. Considerable strengths of spirit and vision remain — great clergy, superb summer camps, great youth groups, robust academic and spiritual centers, to name a few — but there is a palpable concern in the pews and pulpits of Conservative synagogues and institutions. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, we fear we might be in the midst of disappearing, retaining only our smiles and our slogans until the final curtain call.

For the last year or so, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has been prowling for a way to distill its identity into something pithy, something inspirational, into a line that might rally the troops and elicit the attention of people seeking meaning,faith,and community. After speaking with Conservative/Masorti Jews across North America,Israel and Europe, I’m persuaded that it might indeed help us gain clarity and renew our mission to distill our message into six words.

So here goes:

“Rooted in Tradition; Embracing the World.”

All Jewish groups, by virtue of labeling themselves Jewish, see themselves as rooted in tradition, and all of them strive to embrace the world in one way or another. We celebrate them all as vibrant expressions of Jewish identity, and we join with them in a shared heritage and common destiny. Still, our Conservative/Masorti way of connection to the tradition and embracing the world is distinctive, significant, and beautiful.

Rooted
The choice of “rooted” is deliberate, indicating that Judaism is a living organism, the bush that is still not consumed. Roots provide nourishment and stability; roots ground the living plant. But the energy of a plant is upward, for the benefit of the emerging buds, the stretching branches, the raucous foliage. Plants don’t idolize their roots: the purpose of the roots is fulfilled by the living tree the roots support. Plants, it seems, are directional, driven by purpose. Similarly, we see Judaism as continuous with its past, but transcending that past. The focus is on today, facing tomorrow.

Roots provide coherence: they locate a plant in a particular place, they center its stalk and nourish its bounty. That oneness grounding Judaism is the One beyond naming, beyond all conception, who we experience through covenant and serve through mitzvot. We are nourished by our connection to the One, and we stretch toward light as the expression of that oneness.

In Tradition
We cultivate our past, trusting that the harvest will be great in proportion to our tending the roots from which we emerge. In the case of Judaism, that means stretching ourselves to yearn, pray, and exult in our holy language, Hebrew. Traditional means retaining the ancient liturgy, disciplining ourselves to filter contemporary issues and advancing insight through the processes of Halakhah (Jewish law) and the study of classical Jewish scriptures (Bible, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, Kabbalah, and philosophy), expressing our spirit through the observance of mitzvot. We cherish the State of Israel as homeland, as a contemporary political bulwark against Antisemitism, and as a crucial catalyst for Jewish cultural and ethical expression. We celebrate the full cycle of Jewish holidays and festivals, and cultivate a sense of Peoplehood that connects us to our the Children of Israel worldwide and across the generations. In all those ways we are rooted in tradition as more than creed, beyond ritual, deeper than culture.

Embracing

Judaism is a weave of living, a range of deeds that connects us to each other in ways that elevate, transform, inspire. That transformative potential is released through action, nestled in relationship. Embracing can’t happen in isolation; it takes two. And embracing is no concept, abstraction, or idea. It requires reaching out and grasping another living creature. It makes possible being touched by those others in turn.

More than a way of thinking or a library for learning, we are asked to live our Judaism: to embrace ourselves, our communities, our people, humanity, the globe, the cosmos, God. All that embracing leads to more embrace. All that hugging conveys love, cultivates empathy, mandates involvement. We are implicated in each other by our love for each other, by our training to discern the divine image in each other’s eyes.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism loves the world, loves its inhabitants, and fortifies relationships in which everyone has a place and a chance to contribute.

Embracing is how we reach beyond ourselves.

The World
The Hebrew word “Olam” reflects two meanings: in the Bible, Olam connotes all moments of time. But even within the Bible, and certainly in Rabbinics, Olam also means all space, every place. When we embrace the world, we are literally creating connections to every moment and to every place. We recognize that our Judaism flowers in precious moments of compassion, inclusion, justice and dignity: and that this embrace may start in our traditions but it is consummated out there, very soon. Our Jewish concern lifts us above parochialism, attains fullest expression when it’s wisdom elevates each and all.

The focus of this rich legacy does not end with the tradition itself. The purpose of Jewish continuity is not mere continuity. That endless loop, self-centered tautology, closed circle, has failed to attract adherents, and with good reason. At its core, such collective narcissism is a betrayal of Judaism’s vision. The gifts Judaism offers are for everyone. From its earliest beginnings, Judaism has aimed at advancing a universal end of days, a time when the nations of the world live in harmony and peace, guided by the wisdom made accessible through Jewish teaching and example.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism loves the tradition in part because it seeks to repair the world in ways of peace and justice as envisioned by Israel’s prophets and sages. One can only embrace one another if we cultivate seeing everyone for the unique individuals they are, if we honor their heritage, history, and identity and open ourselves to learn from that diversity as a source of divine Shefa (bounty).

Rooted in Tradition; Embracing the World.

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.
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