With the drumbeat of the approaching Passover holiday growing ever louder, I am trying to put aside my obsession with the election campaign and turn my attention inward, to the Jewish world. With that in mind I went up to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the center of Conservative Judaism, to chat with its chancellor, Arnold Eisen.
That branch of Judaism has been my home for most of my life, and the seminary, where I studied during my college years, the source of much of my Jewish knowledge. In those days the Conservative movement was the largest of the Jewish religious denominations, far surpassing the Orthodox and Reform. That has changed, with the Reform leading in numbers, the Conservative in second place, and the Orthodox growing at the fastest pace. I wanted to know more about that and about the thinking of Conservative’s current leaders. Chancellor Eisen has headed the movement for nine years and is a passionate spokesman for it.
The number of Conservative Jews in relation to the other movements, he pointed out, reflects in part high birthrates among the Orthodox and the widespread acceptance of intermarriage among the Reform. Then, too, shifting demographics have left once-thriving large synagogues in small towns and suburbs empty. With all that, there are still between one and two million Conservative Jews around the world, not an insignificant figure, and the number of active members of the movement — those who attend synagogue, serve on boards and the like — continues to grow.
What about the common perception that as the Reform move toward the right, accepting more ritual, and the Conservative to the left, ordaining gays, for example, the two movements will merge into one?
“Certainly there is some overlap among all the movements,” the chancellor said, “but there are also substantial differences. The Conservative movement has its own distinctive patterns, in study, prayer services, day schools, and overall philosophy.” Part of that distinctiveness is its emphasis on building community: “If you look at the leadership of general Jewish organizations, whether federation or AIPAC or JCC’s, the lay and professional leadership are overwhelmingly Conservative Jews. That is indicative of our orientation, the emphasis we place on being part of the total Jewish community.”
Seminary rabbinical students are taught to be community builders, going beyond inspiring sermons to immerse themselves in education, youth groups, and many other aspects of synagogue life. Cantors, who used to be praised for their solo singing, now learn how to include the entire congregation in song and prayer. The seminary’s Center for Pastoral Care has expanded to provide advice to communities in such areas as developing “bikur holim” societies for visiting the sick and “chevre kadishe” groups for care of the deceased. A new Center for Spiritual Arts aims to enhance the spirituality of Conservative religious services.
None of this is at the expense of Jewish learning, the chancellor assured me. (“Spirituality” talk always makes me nervous, I had said. What about intellect?) “The second part of community,” he said, “is Meaning, with a capital M. Jewish learning was always conceived of as a path to finding more significance in Jewish life.” In keeping with that, “the Conservative niche involves taking Jewish knowledge and making it meaningful to people. JTS teaches rabbis to apply Jewish learning to the values needed in our lives today.”
And what of the old “tradition and change” slogan I grew up with?
“The problem with that term is that it makes it seem that tradition doesn’t change and change is not traditional, and that goes against everything we know. Tradition always underwent change, and we have the right and duty to change it responsibly, lovingly and boldly. In that sense Conservative Judaism is Judaism in its fullest form.”
Judaism starts, Eisen elaborated, with “covenant. We stand at Sinai with every previous generation of the Children of Israel, and our covenant there has two dimensions. One is vertical, in our relationship to the Holy One. The second is horizontal, in our connectedness to the Jewish people throughout the ages and throughout the world.” In Conservative Judaism that double covenant means that “Jews need to be fully engaged in their tradition and fully engaged in the society and culture of which they are a part.” To be fully engaged in Jewish tradition implies learning “Jewish history and texts, dilemmas and practices.” To be fully engaged in society implies learning “about the world we live in, its politics, its arts, its science.” Conservative Judaism, the chancellor said, “wants you to express your Judaism in the world,” not apart from it.
Which, of course, brought me back to the election. But now with Passover on the way, the chancellor’s image of all of us standing at Sinai together with every generation of the Children of Israel, is so much more compelling.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.