Oct 28, 2009

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf: "Evolutionary Judaism"

Evolutionary Judaism
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC

I love Conservative Judaism. It is a great blessing to the Jewish world. I believe in its message and its wisdom. I know it has real limitations, yet it is poised to address the needs of the Jewish people in the 21stcentury. For decades, our movement has wisely embraced tradition while acknowledging the importance of change as generations go by. Most significantly, I appreciate Conservative Judaism's embrace of honesty, truth, and intellectual integrity. When we study texts of Torah, we don't suspend disbelief. We don't ask our adherents to check their critical thinking at the door. We invite our communities to apply their intellectual vigor and the breadth of their learning from many disciplines—Jewish and non-Jewish-- to discern the meaning and the context of our teachings. We are Halakhic: we uphold the binding quality of a Jewish law that has brilliantly grown up over our 3,000 year heritage. We respect that tradition, and seek to change those laws and practices judiciously, only when careful investigation of modern circumstances clearly warrants a response in our practices. The clearest example of this process of tradition and change is the advancing role of women in Conservative Judaism over the past 30 years. Our tradition, of course, had been non-egalitarian. With the progress of our modern society, our movement endeavored not to dismiss the ancient laws and traditions outright, but to look carefully into the underlying principles, values, and teachings of mitzvot and obligation. With love and respect for the traditions themselves, we found new ways to uphold established notions of obligation and yet find new places for women alongside men in congregational life. This is a brilliant and precious approach to Judaism! Our values aren't just about intellectual integrity, but also about pluralism, a spirit of welcoming, open-mindedness, and most importantly, of wisdom. We seek the wise middle ground between progressive values and conservative respect for the traditions of our ancestors. Our modern-day society is so often overwhelmed by messages that promote self-absorption, of "pick and choose" religious practices and spirituality. This makes our approach to Judaism all the more important.

And yet, with all of this praise, and all of its importance, Conservative Judaism itself faces many challenges. Our society is advancing at a blinding pace—new technologies, new ideas, new ways of thinking about connection and the world arise every day. A new generation of Jews is coming into the mainstream, and those Jews speak a completely different religious and spiritual language than their parents and grandparents. By and large, today's younger Jews are not engaged by an exploration of Jewish history and through critical scholarly readings of biblical texts. The Jews of the 21st century are not interested in conceptually-based "movements" in Judaism at all! They are looking for something more immediate and compelling from Judaism.

I believe that if any expression of modern Judaism can respond wisely to this new generation of Jews, it's the Conservative approach. Our thoughtful, historical, contextual view of Judaism is the perfect foundation for evolving with the new generation of Jews in our society. Our unofficial motto is "Tradition and Change," and this essential approach is what we're hungering for today—it's just that we have to embrace tradition and change in new ways.

For most Jews today, Judaism is a collection of religious "folkways." At key life-cycle moments and on major Jewish holidays like the New Year and Passover, we come to synagogue to find connection with family traditions. The Judaism that Jews today encounter in synagogue cannot just be an intellectualized endeavor. It's not enough for me, as your rabbi, to explain the rational underpinnings of Kashrut. Most Jews today feel perfectly Jewish without keeping kosher at all, so a rational justification for it is interesting at best, but not personally compelling.

Conservative Judaism today is poised to heed its own message: "tradition and change" really means "Evolution." When anything evolves—animals or ideas—it both transcends and includes what has come before it. Conservative Judaism is "Evolutionary" Judaism! The beauty of the Conservative Movement in the 20th century was that it was a great academic journey into the meaning of Judaism as an evolving civilization over thousands of years. It's time to take it to the next level. We're ready to teach that Judaism is vastly more than "folkways" or even just a type of "identity." What Jewish people need these days is not just Jewish distinctiveness, but a Jewish experience that can help us engage more with life, with society, with our families. Jewish people today are not anxious so much about Jewish survival in America; they're seeking a traditional wisdom that can teach them how to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a better boss. We're looking for a spiritual tradition that shows us how to take better care of ourselves and each other in a very complex and confusing world.

Conservative Judaism now must show our people how traditional mitzvot and rituals and observances can deepen our character, enrich our spirit, provide meaning, and relieve stress in a world of such uncertainty. We want to know how Judaism's wisdom can give us insight into our human nature, to guide us in our difficult life decisions, and to provide relief from some of our deepest sufferings. Our people today are genuinely open to the possibility of keeping Kosher, but not because it was once a healthy diet choice in ancient times. We want to know how Kashrut can deepen our character as human beings. How can it relieve stress? How can keeping kosher make us a better citizen of the world? How can Kashrut make us engage better with life, with society, with our family, our non-Jewish business associates? How can it make us live with deeper wisdom in all aspects of our life?

The role of a Conservative congregation today is to promote the idea that our traditions and rituals are NOT just folkways, they're meaningful and transformational! Our job as a Conservative synagogue is not to force observance on our members, but to create the conditions where our members can discover the power of observance to touch their lives, their souls—not just their intellects. We need to get the message out there that we don't want our members just to come and pay homage to an ancient ritual, but rather to find deep personal significance in the words, the melodies, the rhythms of these rituals and practices.

The measure of our success is not how many bodies we can get in the doors on any given Shabbat or holiday or religious school program. Rather, success must be determined by how our members are when theyleave the building! Are we more ALIVE than when we came in? Are we more engaged with life, with our souls, are we kinder and more compassionate? Are we inspired to act for justice? Are we wiser and more sensitive as a human being, and not just as a Jew? The great challenge, the wonderful journey ahead of us is: can we create a synagogue community where we transform people's lives THROUGH tradition, and not in spite of tradition? Can we provide access to meaning without watering Judaism down, or simplifying it? Can we trust our members enough to know that they are more than willing to rise to the ways that our tradition challenges us to grow morally, personally, and spiritually? These are the great questions that we have yet to address fully in this new century, and in our amazing congregation. I am more than eager to join with you all and to begin to address these questions. And may these questions lead to more questions. In seeking the answers, may we grow and evolve joyfully for generations to come.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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