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In the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva.

 Our rabbis have taught, four entered into the Pardes [Orchard]. They
 were Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher and Rabbi Akiva.[...] Ben Azzai
 cast a look and died.[...] Ben Zoma looked and became demented [...]
 Aher mutilated the shoots.[...] Rabbi Akiva departed unhurt. (1)

The Jews in twentieth-century America entered an orchard of richness and opportunity beyond anything their parents could have imagined. And with this opportunity came the same risks that the rabbis found in the ancient Pardes of esoteric, secular philosophy and divine speculation--that with the prospect of participating in secular society comes the danger of being consumed by it. The warm embrace of this great land has proved to be a powerful counter-force to tradition.

Providing a mediating approach to the tension between religion and modernity, Conservative Judaism attempted to offer an option that allowed Jews to engage fully in American society, while retaining our Jewish traditions. And for much of the twentieth century, because of the numbers of its members and synagogues, it seemed that Conservative Judaism was flourishing.

Most American Jews, however, did not choose the movement's ideology consciously; they parked in the Conservative synagogue, which came to serve as a convenient rest stop between the traditional Orthodoxy of their parents and the Reform of their children. Many were not interested in a deep engagement with Judaism--a bar mitzvah where Bubbe and Zayde felt comfortable and the pleasures of suburbia were paramount. Conservative Judaism often failed to make its best case; it did not motivate enough of its members to experience the transformative power of a religious life. In the absence of a coherent ideology and of passionate commitment, many sought alternatives. Its rabbis were taught to be "intellectual wise-guys," successfully emending texts in Hosea, (2) but somehow not as gifted in transmitting convincingly our three thousand year old faith. Conservative Judaism's marketing was poor and its institutions lacked the ability to build and sustain the movement with creativity and vision.

Today we are floundering, lacking direction, and diminishing significantly in number. We in the movement must have a serious conversation about our future direction and all the arms of the movement must have a voice in these deliberations. All too often the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is unfairly viewed as having more interest in dues collection than vision formulation. The Jewish Theological Seminary, whoever its new chancellor may be, must justify its claim to leadership of the movement by building a faculty of outstanding scholars whose concerns go beyond Wissenschaft to a continuing encounter with the movement it purports to lead.

As we study the range of positions within Conservative Judaism today, we identify two major camps. (3) One sector claims that the focus should be on the core, contending that we must strengthen our most committed members and build a halakhic movement. The other, while less monolithic, espouses more creativity and a less firm commitment to tradition.

There is no doubt that we need both of these poles: within traditional Conservative congregations, we must have multiple minyanim and different approaches to worship--through study, meditation, chanting niggunim, kri'at ha-Torah and traditional davening. We must continue to encourage Solomon Schechter Day Schools and Ramah Camps and promote the growth of groups in our congregations dedicated to serious observance of Shabbat, kashrut and tefillah. (4) And we must find new and creative ways to invite in the unaffiliated and intermarried members of our community. We must be wary of altering our approach because of social pressures to conform to what is current and popular; concern about membership retention and growth is not a principle of our faith. While we all want to be winners, in this arena the scoring is based on values, not numbers.

Amidst the declining membership figures in our movement, there is some good news. Our core is getting stronger, as is evidenced by the increase in day school students and adults engaged in serious study. Particularly striking is the fact that those who join Conservative synagogues today, usually couples in their thirties and early forties, are on the whole more observant than their parents. (5) This is the reverse of what obtained in previous generations when the typical Conservative synagogue member was less observant than her or his Orthodox-affiliated parent.


We must find a way to convince our members that our approach is serious about halakhah. Though the leadership continues to debate this viewpoint, (6) our movement has always placed halakhah and tradition at its center. From its inception, it has asserted that the chain of tradition leads directly from God and Moses at Sinai to our authority today; that the knowledge of Jewish history and our participation in the modern world allow us to develop a halakhic approach which can address today's issues with sensitivity and relevance.

Conservative Judaism has always embraced Jewish law and observance, even as modern scholarship peeled back the layers of Jewish history. If we were to give that up or stray too far from our classic approach in an effort to widen our tent, we would make a grave mistake, becoming Reform with a permanent kippah. That model of Judaism would hardly provide a serious, compelling basis for Jewish life throughout the world.

As Rabbi Joel Roth has said, we must assure--even as we confront the most difficult issues facing us--that the Conservative Movement's halakhah continues to write "the next chapter in the same book, and not the first chapter in a new book." (7)

There seem to be two approaches in our movement to outreach. One concentrates on our more observant members, fearing that we may lose many of our most committed people to Orthodoxy, since we have not been able to create a vibrant, passionate Judaism. (8) The other claims that we must widen the tent and bring in those on the periphery.

While we clearly need to do both, favoring one approach inevitably diminishes the other. Since we do not have limitless resources, either financial or human, I would argue that we begin by cultivating and encouraging our core, our center pole, lest the entire tent collapse. By building passionate committed communities, we will also offer a meaningful Jewish life to those on the periphery.

When we deal with those on the margins, we have to be most careful that in our zeal to attract them we don't compromise our basic values. How do we make a strong statement supporting endogamy without offending intermarried parents and their children? (9)

There are many potential pitfalls. Some rabbis have been asked to consider omitting the word huppah (the bridal canopy) from various blessings at birth or Bar/t-Mitzvah where one normally wishes the child or youth "a life of Torah, huppah, and ma'asim tovim," in order not to exclude the intermarried.

At times, such requests are painfully ironic: a rabbi shared with me a comment made by a shul member, a man in his forties. After a long search, the man married a Jewish woman and was congratulated in the shul bulletin alongside someone who had intermarried. The hatan felt that by making no distinction between his inmarriage and the other's intermarriage, the shul bulletin was equating the two and thereby diminishing the significance of his quest. The movement as a whole must think critically about issues like this.

In the Footsteps of Rabbi Akiva

Conservative Judaism requires a powerful paradigm: Shabbat, spiritual creativity, serious learning and religious passion and commitment.

Shabbat Community

Spend a Shabbat at any Camp Ramah and you will feel it. There is nothing like the experience of observing Shabbat maximally, of being freed from cars, televisions, the internet, cell phones; of closing our eyes and having a capella singing stir our souls to new heights. Shabbat demands much; it is the manner in which we shape our lives as Jews living in time, every day of the week. With that awareness, we can create communities where Shabbat does not end at Kiddush.

Spiritual Creativity

Synagogues should adopt a plan to have multiple minyanim, a variety of options that embrace singles, young families, our children, and adults of all ages, while also responding to their diverse needs. We should encourage our members to live near each other in the vicinity of shul. The driving teshuvah is a failure--it has not increased Shabbat observance, but has dispersed our members, widening the physical and emotional spaces between us. Too often we do not attract those who want a more intense Shabbat experience; they, too, need a place in our tents.

While I, like many others, appreciate traditional davening, we must be more willing to experiment within the bounds of halakhah. People experience God in different settings: in nature, in spaces set aside for meditation and yoga, and in nurturing discussion groups and spiritual direction sessions. Some are drawn to Carlebach services replete with niggunim, soulful melodies, and dancing. Our shuls should provide these options for those seeking an encounter with the Almighty.

Prayer and serious study of our liturgy sensitizes us to the needs of others and can inspire us to perform acts of hesed. The art of spontaneous prayer must be revived both for clergy to utilize in pastoral moments and for all of us to incorporate into our daily lives. Too much of our prayer life has been scripted without enough room for true kavanah (inner feeling). If we do not allow enough time to finish an Amidah, we will surely have no time for the personal, spontaneous prayer that should follow its conclusion.

Serious Learning

The Conservative movement must create a culture of serious learning that pervades our communities from our pre-school tots to our most senior adults. While we have many introductory classes, advanced offerings should be a mainstay of every shul so that serious students find a home with us and need not look elsewhere. In addition, we need to create web-based learning and more books like the Etz Hayim Humash and Or Hadash Siddur to reflect our hashkafah, our point of view, so that Conservative Jews do not have to rely on Art Scroll, which is often at odds with our theology.

Family education for all ages and study programs for parents of young children help families integrate Judaism into their homes. Summers in Israel for teens on Ramah or USY trips should become a regular rite of passage, along with many more teens spending a year in Israel before, during, or after college on programs like Nativ and the Conservative Yeshiva. Dollars and reprioritization are required to make this a reality.

Religious Passion and Commitment

Passion--we need much more of it. For most Conservative Jews, Judaism is at best a Shabbat thing, revolving around the synagogue. But to be a passionate Jew, one must place Judaism at the center of daily life. For too many, the clergy--rabbis and cantors--become surrogate Jews, nurturing Judaism for laypeople whose own commitment is peripheral to their lives. It takes passionately committed clergy to help foster and model a Jewishly-driven life, clergy who do not burn out in a profession in which they are often--unrealistically and unreasonably--expected to be available 24/7, clergy whose vocation holds them to a high standard of personal commitment.

Perhaps on some level we have become too comfortable to spread the message of God, of Conservative Judaism to Jews living in places where it has yet to be heard. Our movement should seed new congregations both on this continent and abroad, providing them with rabbis, cantors, and educators. Where are our efforts? Chabad is everywhere and the Reform movement helps new and struggling congregations. For a movement of our size, we seem to have a chronic shortage of funds for most programs beyond the congregational level. Maybe we should challenge our professionals--those starting out and those at the end of their careers--to undertake the task of community building.

Nowhere is this chronic near impecuniousness more revealed than in our activities in Israel and throughout the world. Rabbis in Israel who have dedicated their professional lives to serve God and the people Israel have been compelled to find other employment or to return to this country to continue to work in their chosen calling at a compensation which permits them to support themselves and their families. This is tragic because the prospects of our Masorti Judaism in Israel and in other places around the globe have never been brighter, if we would only fund them better.

Since the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have reduced the need for conversion with their acceptance of patrilineality, and the Orthodox have made conversion so difficult that they seem almost unwelcoming, we must be the ones to carry the beauty of our tradition to those who might join our people. While there are conversion institutes in many communities, they, like so many other programs in our movement, do not receive the resources and the priority attention they merit.

Entering the Pardes

Our message is a rich one. We need to remain committed to our core values, even if they will not find wide acceptance everywhere in North America today.

Let us cast off some of our ambivalence and assert our principles. We are open to modernity and embrace it--our synthesis fuses women's participation in our tradition, a historical approach to Judaism, critical study, with our commitments to the triad of God, Torah, and Israel. And we must be passionate about what we espouse. If we do not create Shabbat communities, of people who come to shul to daven, to study Jewish texts, to engage in mitzvot, to perform acts of hesed, then we will simply be irrelevant.

Let us infuse our movement with resolve and energy, following in the path of Rabbi Akiva to find a dazzling Pardes whose blossoms and fruit enrich us with a love of God and godliness.


1. B. Talmud Hagigah, 14b.

2. "You cannot base a movement on being intellectual wise guys, except perhaps in these halls here [at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention] and even here, it doesn't really work any more." Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Speech at Rabbinical Assembly 2005 Convention, Plenary: "Conservative Judaism as a Dynamic Force for the Jewish People."

3. See, for example, Rabbi Edward Feld, "A Divining Rod has Two Branches: Choices for the Conservative Movement," Conservative Judaism, Vol. 55: 3 (Spring 2003): 52-57.

4. About Ramah in particular, see "Eight Up" The College Years (Jewish Theological Seminary, 2004) by Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin. The findings about the Jewish affiliation patterns of Ramah campers and Ramah staff especially are particularly impressive.

5. Steven M. Cohen, "Assessing the Vitality of Conservative Judaism in North America," in Jews in the Center, edited by Jack Wertheimer (New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 2000), p. 35. The "Eight Up" study also demonstrates that there is a core of college-aged Conservative Jews who are receptive this message.

6. At the 2005 Rabbinical Assembly Convention, Rabbi Harold Kushner stated: "When I was a rabbinical student, the chancellor of the Seminary was a Talmudist and we advertised ourselves as a historical movement, that we made changes not because we found a passage in the Yerushalmi or a line in the Mordechai, but because social conditions had changed. Two generations later, the chancellor of the Seminary is a historian and we define ourselves as a halakhic movement. I am not sure how that changed. I don't remember ever voting on it. I don't remember it even being advertised," "Conservative Judaism as a Dynamic Force for the Jewish People," Rabbinical Assembly 2005 Convention, question and answer period. I would argue that we need both, but I am troubled by Rabbi Kushner's perspective. Rabbi David Wolpe among others also asked Conservative rabbis to consider if we are a halakhic movement, seemingly implying that we should not be. Rabbi David Golinkin's response to Rabbi Kushner: "We have always been a halakhic movement."

7. Private Conversation and see Dr. Zvi Zohar, "A View From Without," Responsa of the Va'ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel: Volume 6: 332-335. An Orthodox scholar, Dr. Zohar states that there is no Orthodox or Conservative halakhah, but a halakhic process.

8. Shaul Magid, "Walking Softly on / with the Law: Apologetic Thinking and the Orthodox / Conservative Debate," Conservative Judaism, Vol. 54: 1 (Fall 2001): 44.

9. A Place in the Tent (Oakland: EKS, 2005), written mostly by a group of Conservative rabbis in Northern California, while containing many interesting ideas and perspectives, does not include a strong statement regarding the need for endogamy.

DAVID G. LERNER, an alumnus of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, is rabbi of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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Author:Lerner, David G.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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