Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary
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Joining the Conversation of Torah
June 21 / 19 Sivan, 5771

Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Listen to this essay as a podcast.

The basic requirements of Conservative Jewish learning—regardless of venue, level, or age-group—follow directly from the Movement’s distinctive vision, outlined in the previous postings:

  • Conservative Judaism speaks forcefully, honestly, and authentically to contemporary dilemmas, in the conviction that the Torah, properly interpreted for changed conditions, offers the wisdom needed to guide us through present-day complexities.
  • Our Movement maintains that the diversity of voices sounding forth from the sacred texts of our tradition, and the variety of ways Jews in the past have applied the Torah’s teachings to new circumstances, are essential to the Jewish future.
  • Conservative Judaism believes that proper interpretation and practice of the Torah emerges from the rich encounter between learned and observant Jewish communities and the larger societies and cultures in which Jews participate.
  • We affirm that the continuing chain of teachings and lives that we call “Torah” results from the ongoing effort of the Jewish people to do God’s will as our tradition, refined by current knowledge and reflection, has taught us to understand God’s will. Our learning therefore includes the varieties of Jewish approaches and communities in our own day—in Israel and Diaspora, of all denominations or none—and what unifies our people despite those varieties.

Three consequences for Conservative Jewish learning flow directly from these principles.

Community. The setting for Conservative Jewish learning should be a community in the strong, face-to-face sense of the word that I described in my second posting on this blog. We want Jews to study Torah in contexts of inclusiveness, mutual responsibility, and warmth; with teachers and fellow-learners who share our Movement’s distinctive commitment to the project of Torah; in times and spaces that are open to the outside world yet markedly and proudly Jewish.

Summer campsand day schools are so successful as sites of Jewish learning in large measure because they make sports, computers, and Shakespeare part of a comprehensive and joyful Jewish reality. Supplementary schools, lest they reinforce the misconception that Judaism stands off to the side of life, must work all the harder to bind students and parents in communities that stand behind the instruction offered. All sites of Conservative learning should be places where teachers and counselors are role models of lived commitment who convey far more than information and skills and where the adults of the community participate visibly in Jewish learning. Every experience of Torah should be the very opposite of “irrelevant, oppressive, dull, insipid” (Heschel’s words), lest it convey the message that Judaism is these things.

Communities of learners. Every Conservative institution—and synagogues first of all—can and should be alive with high-quality Jewish learning of the sort described above, involving members (and non-members) of every age group and knowledge level in the conversation of the generations. Texts should be read in the original Hebrew wherever possible, to foster direct encounter with our tradition and our people. But the vast library of Jewish books, history, and reflection available in English—and online!—makes it possible for every camp, youth group, school, organization, and congregation to bring the resources of our tradition to bear in an honest, passionate, and sophisticated fashion to every learner. No Conservative Jew should be denied the joy and excitement of face-to-face encounter with the wisdom of Torah or the insights of our ancestors. We should aim high, and take advantage of communal resources and consortia wherever possible, to provide learning to every Conservative Jew of a caliber worthy of our past and necessary to our future.

Communities of practice. Judaism has always stressed the need for learning that leads to action: both because action is required to follow the Torah’s guidance toward a more just and compassionate world, and because learning itself is enhanced by the practice in which it results. Heschel put the matter well when he called on Jews to take a “leap of action,” to do more than we understand so that we come to understand more than we do.

There is a kind of knowledge—of love, for example, or of parenting—that cannot be had from the outside. There are things we learn—and learn to love—only through disciplined practice. Love of God and the commandments develops in this fashion. Communities of practice read Torah—and follow its precepts. They ponder the nature of commandment and commandedness—as they walk the path defined by mitzvah, submit to the curtailment of complete autonomy, enjoy the higher freedom and responsibility that it makes possible./p>

The fact that Conservative Jews move comfortably in the larger world and know its attractions heightens our need to move to Jewish rhythms and norms, and experience thoseattractions powerfully. Our learning is greatly enhanced by communities of practice that surround the words of Torah we study with facts of Torah “on the ground.”

The important thing is that our learning be a matter of urgency. We want to be the best parents, partners, friends, and citizens that we can be; we need to think about God and the purpose of life as best we can; we need to figure out how best to serve God and leave God’s world a better place than we found it. To that end, we mine our texts for wisdom and turn to ancestors and contemporaries for insights.

There is so much we can learn from one another and from the wider world. Open a page of Torah, study it in depth, and possibilities suddenly appear of which one had not dreamed.   Print This Essay

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Featured Responses

Amy Wallk Katz

Amy Wallk Katz
Bio


"I very much loved the way Chancellor Eisen framed the importance of learning for Conservative Jews. He bases his writing on important historical texts of our movement. As an experienced educator and congregational rabbi, I took this opportunity to complement Chancellor’s Eisen’s text by offering a template for thinking about education in our congregations."
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Amy Kalmanofsky

Amy Kalmanofsky
Bio

"I came relatively late to the Torah conversation. I was in college. As I result, I struggle with issues of authenticity and often feel jealous of those who were born into Jewish life and learning. Yet in recent years, I have come to appreciate being a late-comer. Not growing up with a mythic understanding of God, Israel, and Torah, I happily embrace a Torah that was constructed, compiled, explained, and sanctified by human beings over time and that remains fundamentally adaptable. My Torah has always been open to the outside world, and I am convinced that the Torah’s greatness rests in its openness to interpretation."
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Gary S Katz

Gary S. Katz
Bio

"As a leader of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Chancellor Eisen speaks from a fantastic perspective about the Conservative movement. His essay provides a blueprint for how we as Conservative Jews should be participatory learners, mutually engaged in the study of Torah and Judaic texts and bringing the light of this study to make G-d’s world a better place. My comments on Chancellor Eisen’s posting come from a slightly different, yet resonant perspective. As I write this response, I sit nearly 3000 miles removed from the New York campus of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Like Chancellor Eisen, I serve proudly in the hallowed halls of academia—I have been a professor of psychology at a large Los Angeles area university for the past thirteen years. Like Chancellor Eisen, I am surrounded by brilliant women and men—leaders in their fields of study and excellent instructors and scholars. I also teach a richly diverse student body who have incredible talents and skills. While a significant portion of my faculty colleagues are Jewish, very few in my department identify with the Conservative movement. I count many “cultural” Jews among my friends and colleagues in academia; however, unlike Chancellor Eisen, I am not surrounded by Torah and Judaic scholars in my department. To be sure, my university has an active Judaic Studies Program, a bustling and engaged Hillel program, and a very active Chabad group. In addition, I should note that my university also has very active student groups and programs of study that are decidedly not Judaic in scope or origin." Read More »