Approaching the Torah

September 17th-21st: Yom Kippur
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, Approaching the Torah. My Yom Kippur sermons, Remembering the Exodus as a First Step and Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict, will be posted in subsequent weeks.

 Approaching the Torah

 When I was a teenager, one of the popular Jewish Identity programs was to ask us how we saw ourselves as Jews. Is our Jewishness a religion, or a race, or a culture, or a nationality? They would put up each of those categories on a different wall in a large room and ask each member of the youth group or class to choose a sign and go to it. Each self-chosen group would then draft a statement about why Judaism is to us a religion, or race, or culture, or nationality, and then we would present our position to the larger group.

 The problem with the program is that it is often quite difficult to choose only one of the categories. For many of us, our Jewish Identity is a combination of two or more. For me, personally, it is a religion and a culture—and there is also the biological dimension. When we would complain, the leaders would say that we should not get too specific and just play along—that there was something to be learned from the conversation, and that we were not declaring a permanent interpretation. The point was not the label but the discussion and its insights: what we would learn about the nature of Jewish Identity.

Many of us have a similar quandary when asked about which denomination or stream of Judaism best describes us. For many of us, the standard labels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist can be too constricting for something as personal and complex as our religious identity, and so we chaff at the attempt to put us into a box.

 Our Congregation is a case in point because our members—you, who are now gathered for communal worship—are from many different kinds of Jewish backgrounds, and you describe yourselves with a real variety of Jewish labels. Realizing this and respecting our multivalent sensibilities of Jewishness, I have recently been referring to something called Liberal Judaism, a term covering the three of Judaism’s streams: Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.

 My question for today is about the appropriateness or validity of this grouping. Should Conservative Judaism be included in this expansive category of Liberal Judaism, or should it be included in a category along with Orthodox Judaism which we could call Traditional Judaism? The point of the question is like that of all categorization exercises. I am much less interested in  pigeon-holing Jews than in what we may learn about ourselves and others in terms of self-definition and Jewish Identity.

So, vos is dos? What is this thing called Conservative Judaism? Let me start with an anecdote about our red Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, published by the Conservative Movement in 2001. Since its inception in 1902, the Conservative Movement has taught the Documentary Hypothesis approach to the Torah: that the Torah is not a single document dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai some 3200 years ago (the Orthodox position), but is rather a composite document, combining several independent literary traditions from different authors and finally being compiled around 500 BCE. This has been the official teaching of Conservative Judaism for a century, but, when Etz Hayim was published in 2001, many members of Conservative synagogues were surprised or even shocked at this break from the traditional Torah miSinai teaching of Orthodox Judaism they thought their movement shared.

 At its heart, the Conservative movement does not see the Torah and the mitzvot as authoritative instructions (commandments!) from the Lord God, but as something else. The Torah is important, compelling, the center of Judaism, but it is not the literal word of God. Consider these defining descriptions of Conservative Judaism by some of its leading thinkers and note how different the language is from that of Orthodox Judaism.

From Emet Ve’Emunah, The Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism (1988): “Conservative Judaism affirms its belief in revelation, the uncovering of an external source of truth emanating from God. This affirmation emphasizes that although truths are transmitted by humans, they are not a human invention...The Torah’s truth is both theoretical and practical, that is, it teaches us about God and about our role in His world. As such, we reject relativism, which denies any objective source of authoritative truth. We also reject fundamentalism and literalism, which do not admit a human component in revelation, thus excluding an independent role for human experience and reason in the process.”

 From Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1995): “If dogmas or doctrines are the propositional language of a theological system, core values are the felt commitment of lived religion, the refraction of what people practice and profess... Conservative Judaism is best understood as a sacred cluster of core values...that imprint Conservative Judaism with a principled receptivity to modernity balanced by a deep reverence for tradition: the Centrality of Modern Israel, Hebrew as the Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression, Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Yisrael (Jewish unity), the Defining Role of Torah in the Reshaping of Judaism, the Study of Torah, the Governance of Jewish Life by Halakha, and Belief in God.”

 Conservative Judaism sees Judaism as an encounter between humans and God, and sees the process taking place both in the Biblical experience and in the Talmudic experience. In fact, it sees the Rabbinic/Talmudic Period as an adaptation of Biblical religion that became the definition of the Judaism that our leaders have been following and tweaking and developing ever since. As Dr. Schorsch expresses it so poignantly, there are both a “principled receptivity to modernity” and a “deep reverence for tradition” that have been combined by the Rabbis to create a traditional and modern way of being Jewish, a living halachah.

 How, then, does Conservative Judaism hear the term Torah mi’Sinai? Does it mean that God literally gave the whole Torah—both Written and Oral—to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that its instructions are literal commandments that we are all commanded to follow? Or does it mean that the Revelation at Sinai represents the beginning of a relationship that we Jews have with God, a relationship that has developed over the centuries and which holds the possibility of a genuine and soulful encounter with the Divine?

 I understand the sentiment that Conservative Judaism belongs on the Orthodox side because of its bias toward and adherence to traditional forms, but, to me, it belongs on the Liberal side because of its belief in the role humans play in defining and redefining our faith and practice.

 I also understand the reluctance of Conservative Jews to being grouped with Reconstructionist or Reform Jews. Their “deep reverence for tradition” warns them that too much individual autonomy and redefinition can move us too far from the cluster of Jewish essential values. Their desire for traditionalism runs very deep in their sense of personal and communal Jewish identity. And, yet, given their belief in the human role in the developing Divine-human relationship, I think we need another way of framing their position.

 When I read through the definitional statements or platforms of the Reform, Conservative, and  Reconstructionist movements, I see a real convergence of opinions. None approach Torah mi-Sinai in terms of absolute obedience. All hear the term Torah mi-Sinai figuratively, spiritually.

 How can we explain the different sensibilities among these Liberal denominations? How can we understand how some Jews find some observances or traditional elements meaningful and other Jews who also have a strong Jewish identity do not find them meaningful? Sometimes, I find the word dosage to be helpful—that different people prefer differ amounts of ritual and traditional observances. Or, perhaps the metaphor of a recipe might be more apt. Each denomination speaks in very similar language about the spiritual call of Sinai and about the developing relationship with God that is called Judaism. Each denomination believes that the secret to our continuing success—in addition to God’s involvement—is our adaptability. But, each denomination puts the pieces of Jewish thought and practice and community together in different ways, the ways that recipes for the same kind of food—for a chocolate cake, for beef stew, or for gefilte fish—can be slightly different, adjusted for particular tastes.

 In many ways, all of our modern denominations were influenced by Mordecai Kaplan who spoke of the definitional quality of Jewish texts and Jewish practices. His word sancta, communal and personal sanctifying practices, can be felt in the approaches of not only Reconstructionist Judaism—a movement founded upon his teachings—but also in Conservative Judaism, the movement to which he devoted decades of his life. And, it can be felt in Reform Judaism, a movement with which he struggled but which ultimately absorbed the influence of his insights and suggestions. Though different, each is striving for a Jewish approach to life—to a way to be both traditional and modern.

 As we, individual Jews from a variety of religious backgrounds, pray together during these High Holy Days, I believe that a good foundation for our spiritual community lies in realizing the similarities and common aspirations of our various approaches. Thus can we individually and congregationally approach the Divine.