Speech at the Westchester County-wide Lecture and Town Hall Meeting

October 12, 2006

It is really great to be here. You are the first stop in a series of conversations I hope to be having over the next months with rabbis and Conservative laypeople all over the country, talking about our movement and how the institution that I am going to lead can best serve this movement.

I am going to very briefly speak a little about myself—the personal journey that led me to seek the position I am now beginning to occupy, my vision for JTS, and most important some ideas I have about the Conservative Movement; and then I will take questions from you and give some brief responses. And then at the end of the evening I am going to pose some questions to you and urge you to respond to me. We have set up as of today on our website a feedback form, because I really want to have a dialogue over the next months with Conservative Jews around the county to formulate a vision together on how to take our movement forward.

I am in this position because I've been a Conservative Jew all my life. I was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, but it wasn't just a matter of going to a synagogue and Hebrew school. As a teenager I was crucially influenced by several people, among them Conservative Rabbi Zol, who set my direction. Also by having a formative conversation, at a key turn in the road in my life, with Abraham Joshua Heschel, who granted me a two-hour interview at his office and changed my life by his honesty, by just fully being there for two hours and answering the chutzpah of a twenty-year-old kid who dared to ask him, "Aren't you wasting your life marching in those picket lines?" and "What good are all these books doing?" And Heschel, instead of kicking me out, answered patiently with the kind of wisdom that drew me in and set me on the path that led even further, so that I could then a few years later find myself as an adult recently married, even more recently a parent, moving to Palo Alto, California, and looking for a synagogue and considering myself as part of the Conservative Jewish community, and finding a Conservative shul that has been my home for the last twenty years.

Now, my focus inside the general area of modern Judaism has always been American Judaism, and the people who have most occupied my attention have tended to be associated closely with 3080 Broadway. So, as I like to put it, Heschel and Kaplan were not known for having honest conversations in the halls of JTS (they sometimes found it difficult to talk to one another). But Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel talk to each other every day in the corridors of my mind. And what I think about most is the future of JTS and the future of the Conservative Movement, and I ask myself literally: What would Kaplan say about this? What would Heschel say about that? And, how do I try to find a middle way between the arguments they fruitfully have?

There came a certain point in my considering the possibility of assuming the chancellorship when a member of the search committee put it to me rather directly and candidly, saying, OK: you have been thinking about this stuff for twenty-five years, you have been giving advice through your books and through your speeches for twenty-five years. We've got enough kibbetzers around here; how about being a leader?

It was the challenge of being a person studying and giving advice and trying to draw on my personal experience and scholarship and my personal life, to take all that together and try to lead the major institution of Conservative Judaism—and increasingly one of the greatest institutions of American Jewish life. That challenge was one that I could not resist. That person on the search committee knew exactly how to get me, knew exactly what was drawing me, exactly what was tempting me. And that is what I am here to talk to you about for a few minutes tonight: my vision of how JTS can best relate to this movement that has nurtured me my whole life and that now I would like to help nurture in return.

I am a scholar. I love scholarship. I love the act of scholarship. I love losing myself in the page, whether it is a page I am reading or a page I am writing. I have always been convinced, like the great teachers of JTS have been convinced, from Solomon Schechter onward, that scholarship is not an end for its own sake.

If you read Solomon Schechter's opening address to JTS, from 1902, he will first extol the virtue of scholarship and tell you about the need for Jews to understand their past in depth, to grasp its complexity; and then he will tell you that we have to understand this past well, so we can take it confidently and courageously into the future.

Schechter spends several pages talking about scholarship, and then he says that scholarship does not exist for its own sake. Scholarship exists for the sake of truth, and then you find out a page later that, according to Solomon Schechter, the Jewish name for truth is Torah.

This is how I understand the mission of JTS. We are here to be great scholars. We always have tried to be that. We have had a century of producing great scholarship, but the scholarship is not for the sake of having people pore over the footnotes in the libraries. It is to understand the past well enough so that when you have to take it into the future, you can be confident that this new path really is an authentic continuation of where you have been and not something new. You can be confident only if a new situation presents itself that is radically different from our ancestors'. You can be confident that you are really carrying on this past only if you know it well enough to know its ins and outs, its ups and downs, the highlights and the low points, the successes and failures, the roads not taken, and the different possibilities raised.

That is why we do Talmud like we do it, with all the options on the page, so we can pick up on these options and carry them forward. That is why, when you have a new possibility, like a future role, or set of roles, for Jewish women, and you want to know how to carry your tradition forward in a way that builds on the past, you need to look into the roles taken and denied Jewish women in the past. You need to dig up and study those few sources written by women or for women or those sources discussing women, and blend that together with the best thinking of your own day, just as Jews have been doing for more than 2,000 years. And then you come out with essays like those of Solomon Schechter, who on one page is quoting Rashi and the Rambam and then moving comfortably to quoting Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman in the very next paragraph. This is who we Jews are, and this is who we are as Conservative Jews. People committed to knowing the past so we can confidently address the present and build the future. People who are convinced, as Schechter put it in words I have been quoting, that faith and scholarship are not irreconcilable.

What we stand for is the conviction that the freedom to criticize goes along with and strengthens our commitment. It does not undermine it. Knowing Torah well, inside and out (which means knowing the disagreements that Jews have had about Torah and adding to that conversation ourselves)—this is the key to building the future.

So, I see JTS as an institution committed to scholarship for the sake of building Jewish communities animated by Torah in all the broad senses of Torah that we Jews have embraced over the centuries. Not just books, but lives. Not just conversations, but deeds that we do for the sake of God and Torah and Israel. This is my sense of what it means to have an institution dedicated to scholarship married to Torah. When you have an institution with these kinds of resources, you are obligated to share what you have with the world. Again, this is because we are not just doing scholarship for the sake of putting some more books up there on the shelf. JTS does not exist for itself alone. It doesn't have that luxury.

I identify three constituencies that we are obligated to serve, that all of us want with our hearts and minds and souls to serve. We want to have a more intimate connection to the Conservative Movement. We want to have a clear service rendered to the Jewish people. If you have the gift, as I do, of becoming the next chancellor of a seminary that has institutions associated with it that it helped to give birth to (in Moscow, in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem, and in Los Angeles), think of the possibilities given to you on a silver platter, as it were, for bringing the Jewish people closer together. Think of what you can do in terms of interchange with your students, and not just your rabbinical students or cantorial students, but your education students and your undergraduates and your PhD and master's students. Think of the interchanges of lay people that are possible. And we have barely scratched the surface of fulfilling the possibilities open to us for strengthening the Jewish people just by virtue of these institutions at a time when American Jews and Israeli Jews desperately need to draw closer to one another. Think also of the obligation incumbent upon us given our association with the Masorti Movement in Israel, and with Machon Schechter in Jerusalem. It is a crime not to take advantage of these connections and use them to pull affect.

And finally I want to reiterate the ringing message that Louis Finkelstein gave to JTS and to America in 1940 when the war clouds were gathering and danger was encroaching upon the Jews of Europe. Louis Finkelstein did not respond to this challenge by withdrawing into a shell and cowering; instead he proclaimed for anyone to hear that we Jews have a message that America needs. We have something to say to this country, something to say to the world. And he used JTS as the place where the leading scholars and scientists and philosophers, Jewish and gentile, of America would gather to ponder the problems that beset us collectively. Because Finkelstein was convinced that Judaism has a word to say in this conversation about the future of America and Canada and the world, a word that we have an obligation to say loudly and clearly.

Just to give you one example, it seems to me incumbent upon us (in particular in this day and age, given the history of Israel and the history of the United States, and given the fact that we have a seminary in New York) that we use JTS as a place where Jews and Muslims can talk about the groundwork that we most have in common: religion. We need to talk together precisely because of what divides us right now. I don't think I need to make the case that it is urgent for America and for Jews that Muslim culture be changed in its course a little bit, but we can't affect this by coercion. I think the best way we can affect this is by dialogue. Dialogue that doesn't cover over our disagreements but is honest about them, dialogue that takes place on the ground where we have met for many centuries now, which is the ground of faith and of tradition and of community.

So, one of the services that JTS can render to America is to make sure this dialogue between Jews and Muslims happens. But we also need to have a larger dialogue where we can say, hey, we know that loyalty to our tradition does not mean lack of tolerance for other traditions; we are convinced davka that loyalty to our tradition goes along beautifully with pluralism toward people of other faiths. We are convinced that open-mindedness, a critical approach to our tradition, does not undermine our loyalty to it. We are convinced that analytical study of our tradition, where we throw at it the breadth, the best that contemporary culture can bring—that is integral to our carrying on of this tradition. And we think this is a value not just to ourselves, but to people of other cultures and other traditions, as well. We think we have a word to say in a larger conversation of America and the world, and we are going to say it.

Clearly, we have a special relationship with and a special obligation to the Conservative Movement. This is a great gift that is built into our situation and one that we need to exploit. So, let me just say a few words about where I think we are in our present situation.

I hope that none of us will succumb to the notion of "crisis," or "malaise," or "failure," or any of these other words that some people, especially in the media, like to casually attribute to us. I spent my life studying the history of modern Judaism and especially history of American Judaism, and I have to say that whereas the sociology, if you will, of larger movements in society worked to our great advantage as a movement in the 1920s, and helped us even more in the 1950s and 1960s, those larger patterns are not working with us right now.

OK, so what do you do? So, you are a Jew, you are an American Jew, and the American Jewish population is declining. What should we do? Should we stop being Jews because the Jewish population in America is declining, for all sorts of reasons that we know well? No. We are going to redouble our efforts as to the quality and quantity of American Jewry. What do I do as a Conservative Jew if my share of the larger Jewish population is declining? Am I going to give up being a Conservative Jew because my numbers are down for the moment? No.

What I am going to do is try to understand my situation and maximize the incredible resources of professionals and lay people and institutions that we have in our movement and move ahead confidently on several fronts. Now, if this were a year from now and you invite me back, I will be happy to share with you a concrete vision of where I think the Conservative Movement should go. I could give you the outline of that vision tonight, but I think that the vision should come not just from one person and from that person's scholarship, but from you and Conservative Jews like you from across the country. So, before I put forward a concrete vision of where I think we should be going as a movement, I am going to spend this year listening in person, on the phone, in video conferences, and on the websites we are setting up to field your questions.

What I just want to say tonight, rather than duck the issue entirely, is that I think we have three areas in which we can move forward and in which JTS can be particularly helpful.

Number one: I think we can do a lot better in formulating and articulating a message about what Conservative Judaism is, has been, and should be. We are not simply some middle ground. You don't want to be Reform; you don't want to be Orthodox, so let's stick ourselves in the center and be Conservative. Come on: we have a proud history, a history of ideas, of values and commitments, which distinguishes us. I think that we know that this is a movement that really does stand for something. We really do, as Solomon Schechter says, we do know something after all these years. And it is our job to communicate this effectively—more effectively than we have often done—to ourselves and most of all to young people who are wondering what this set-up is that we call Conservative Judaism and why they should consider it seriously as a path on which they should embark for their lives and their families. So, we've got some work to do in the area of message, and I think that JTS can be particularly useful in this regard.

Secondly, we can work on quality. I will here quote Barry Shraig, a friend of mine who is the president of the Boston Federation and who said in my presence one day: if most Jews are not involved with their federations, the fault in part lies with federations that are not worth being involved in. You understand that, and you understand what I am talking about. We don't always excel on issues of quality when it comes to our schools, our camps, our synagogues, our professionals. We can do better. I know JTS can do better in the training of professionals to help guide this community. We are determined that we will do better. We all know that we are not perfect, and there are many occasions where we know what excellence looks like, and we know we fall far short of it. Frankly, I find this very encouraging. Because if we were living up to our full potential there would be no room for growth and no way to hope that if we are more excellent, more Jews will find their way to our doors.

I am convinced what Barry Shraig said about federations has a great deal to tell us about schools and shuls and camps, and every other institution that we as Jews create and maintain. We have the added challenge of living in the situation of voluntarism, of facing up to Jews with choices every day, who every day can choose to go the other way and do. So, we have to deliver something of excellence, something of beauty, something of depth, something of intelligence—something that is really part of this culture, but also authentic, something that is real, something that is fun. When we do this, when we create real communities, places of real connection, and these communities are full of Torah, of wisdom to live by, of stuff that we recognize as the profound things of life; when we do that consistently, enough Jews will come back for more. Quality is something we could improve.

The third factor, which I learned from my years at Stanford, frankly, is organization and structure. I had the gift of teaching at one of America's great universities. I have learned that Stanford remains successful because over the twenty years that I have been there, they have gone through repeated restructurings and reorganizations and serious questionings of how to operate. Stanford doesn't remain a great university by standing still, by doing things the way they did them even twenty years ago.

I like to give the example of my father, thank God alive at ninety-five, who tells my son about the ice trucks and the coal trucks that used to come up to his house in Philadelphia to make deliveries. The Judaism that was my father's and the Judaism that was mine cannot be the Judaism that is my son's. And this is true of the message, this is true of the quality, and this is true of the organization and the structure; the way we make Judaism live for people cannot be done in the same forms that it was done twenty years ago (let alone one hundred years ago), and in many cases, that is exactly what we are doing. We are trying to fit twenty-first-century ideas inside structures and organizations that are fifty and one hundred years old. And if they don't fit, there is a reason for that. So, here is another area we have a lot of work to do. Here is another area that fills me with confidence.

And let me just say now in closing, this is a movement, not just with enormous potential, this is a movement with enormous present strength. Let no one persuade us we're in crisis. We just have some work to do. And you don't cry and you don't complain; you roll up your sleeves and you get to work, because the work itself is a great part of the meaning of our lives. This is certainly true of me, as I am beginning this job as chancellor of JTS. I believe that it's true of many of the people here this evening, so let's get to work.

Thank you very much.