The questions facing every Jew and every generation of Jews are these: What role will we play in fulfilling the age-old covenant linking Jews to one another, to God, and to the world? What word will we say in the conversation begun at Sinai? What chapter will we write in the story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah?
One cannot answer these questions responsibly without serious Jewish learning. Our knowledge of how Jews have lived and taught Torah until now must be broad and deep enough to be adequate to the challenge of teaching and living Torah now and in the future. That challenge includes the momentous questions posed by every serious human being: How shall I use my time on earth well? How can I be a good person? How can I make sure I leave the world better than I found it? How should I think about and serve God? Jewish human beings want answers to these questions as well as the others I have named. We need the answers. That is what drives Jewish learning.
Conservative Judaism at its best offers distinctive formulations of both the questions and the answers:
All of these elements shape Conservative Jewish learning. We believe that all are needed to make the world better by means of Torah.
Louis Finkelstein, the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1940 to 1972, summed up what he considered the “fundamental premises” of Conservative Judaism in the twin affirmations that Judaism “is a developing religion” that has always undergone change; and that “this change was not one of deterioration and ossification but of growth, self-expression and foliation.” Our task and privilege, now as ever, is both to study the sages of old and to emulate them: to render Judaism compelling for our revolutionary age, as our learned ancestors did for theirs.
Finkelstein’s statement explains why, for Conservative Jews even more than others, the rabbinic principle holds. “Talmud Torah ke-neged kulam: the study of Torah is weighed against the importance of all the other commandments combined.” The task of following the Torah’s precepts is difficult. Relating Torah to the finest insights of the larger culture and responsibly adapting Judaism to changed conditions, when necessary, is still more so. Both tasks require thorough, complex, and nuanced knowledge of the Jewish past, including understanding of the manifold ways in which Jews over the centuries have interacted with the larger cultures of which they were a part.
Indeed, the Conservative vision of Judaism as evolving religious civilization only makes sense if one has studied enough Jewish history to know that our tradition has always been evolving in this fashion—sometimes radically and sometimes gradually, at times explicitly and at other moments unaware.
Learning Torah, for Conservative Jews as for all others, remains one of Judaism’s major commandments—a discipline of study and practice that I shall describe in detail in my next posting.
But it is crucial to stress, as Finkelstein did, that Jews often come to love the learning of Torah. That passion is nurtured for Conservative Jews, I think, by the distinctive ways in which our learning combines study of text with study of the history that shaped the text and was shaped by the text; this wider lens takes in both the history of Jewish communities throughout the centuries and the interactions between those communities and Gentile societies and cultures. Conservative Jews, like others—if fortunate in their teachers and study-partners—experience moments of excitement, joy, and gratitude from active participation in the age-old conversation with Torah.
I will never forget the man in his 50s who, in tears, told our prayer group of the day he had first understood the Shema’—word by word—when it was read from the Torah.
Or the times when study of the dilemmas facing a Jewish community hundreds of years ago informed and inspired members of synagogue and Federation boards.
Or the heated conversation about drawing boundaries between Judaism and the larger culture in relation to the Mishnaic passage about “Rabban Gamliel in the bath of Aphrodite.”
Or my own formative realization, as a teenager, that serious study of medieval commentators on the Torah held out the promise that I could join them. My thoughts mattered. Their disagreements opened space for new voices.
It is deeply meaningful to come closer to tradition in this way, and that connection is intensified when no question is ruled out of limits, no body of knowledge considered irrelevant. Every experience of personal and professional life assists our understanding of what Torah means and what it wants of us.
Learning of this sort partakes of both obligation and passion. As Finkelstein put it, “We are drawn to the Torah with the bonds of love for it and for its norms. We love its ceremonies, its commandments, its rules and its spirit. We delight in its study . . . And it is this response to it that we want to hand down to our children.” This does not happen every day—but it happens enough of the time, touching us deeply enough, that the learning we do matters greatly and clearly stands as one of life’s great pleasures. We bring everything we have to the learning—all we are—and we are more than repaid for the investment.
I think it is Conservative Judaism’s approach to learning that, more than anything, makes our Movement unique. We seek—and, in my experience, often attain—a distinctive balance between text and history, tradition and contemporary dilemmas, halakhah and Aggadah, continuity and change, focus on distinctive Jewish wisdom and attention to the interaction between Judaism and other civilizations. We want women as well as men at every table of learning, and value the diversity of voices heard at every table of learning, even as we strive for common practice worthy of our shared devotion. In doing so, we carry on the conversation begun at Sinai in word and deed, and in a way that no other path in Judaism can attempt or achieve. Print This Essay
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"As a rabbi, I am committed to using my training to illuminate a variety of paths that one can travel, sometimes simultaneously, to gain access to our Jewish tradition that I find so compelling and that, as Chancellor Eisen says, “offers wisdom to guide us through present-day complexities.” These paths often come in the form of Shimon HaTzadik’s statement in pirke avot, that the world rests on three things: on Torah (history, law, and peoplehood), on Avodah (ritual and worship), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness and social justice).The question is, where does Jewish learning fit into this paradigm? While most obviously in the connection to Torah, I would argue that Jewish learning helps connect this three-legged stool which keeps the world standing." Read More »
"Chancellor Eisen expressed beautifully how our diverse, evolving learning is central to being a modern, yet rooted, Conservative Jew. By understanding how Jewish society changed in the past, we can help it flourish in the future. I agree with all that." Read More »
"If we look to the Babylonian Talmud, what we find is a particular pedagogical style that has become integral to the way learning happens at The Jewish Theological Seminary and in the institutions associated with the Conservative Movement. In the Babylonian Talmud, positions are presented and challenged on a consistent basis. Interestingly, the string of attacks and counterattacks, which function as the building blocks of each Talmudic passage, lend a great deal of volatility to the ideas presented. To some degree, this is surprising for a seminal religious text. After all, don’t we look to our sacred canons hoping to find well-defined religious truths? Can the “truth” be located amidst all of this debate? But, it was the framework of debate modeled in our Talmud that defined a religious commitment to the development of critical thought by constructing thought-provoking arguments in the name of exploring, constructing, and reconstructing, even testing, religious values and norms. Using Talmudic argumentation as a template, Conservative Judaism defined itself by striking a careful balance between authority and an examined, respectful critique of that authority, between tradition and change." Read More »