May 30, 2010

Rabbi Diane Cohen: "The Change Conservative Judaism Needs"

The Change Conservative Judaism Needs

Rabbi Diane Cohen

What a joy to be back in New Jersey, where I spent eight wonderful years with my community in Colonia. As I look out at the faces in this room, I can truly say that I am home. And I'm delighted to share some reflections on this week's Rabbinical Assembly international convention, held this year at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

The last morning of the convention, I sat in a session on mystical aspects of prayer and found myself actually "getting" the connection between kabalah (which I've never pretended to understand) and normative Jewish prayer – and there's a lot to be learned there. More important, though, was the very fact of a session on kabalah and prayer at the Rabbinical Assembly. Thirty years ago, this would never have been so. Neither would alternative minyanim that featured meditation.

I met with colleagues who, like me, are on the road again, and in this bleak economy we commiserated and worried about our future. Synagogues are merging, associate positions are disappearing, and colleagues with kids in college are scared. New rabbis are being minted – will they have a place to go? New cantors are being invested – are they being prepared for a movement that no longer expects a Presence on the bima, performing for them, but rather a song leader?

History was made this year, as Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was installed as our organization's first female executive vice president, and Rabbi Gilah Dror was installed as our first female international president – first woman, first Israeli-born as well.

But I suspect that the issue that most attendees will take away with them – us – is the challenge by Rabbi David Wolpe, the first night of the convention. We need to re-understand, re-invent our movement. We need to be less hazy. We need to be able to put what we believe on a bumper sticker.

I must tell you that most of the speakers that followed him this week expressed discomfort with that notion. And in truth, you can't summarize anything as complicated as Conservative Judaism in 5 words. That's not fair to our product. But frankly, I think one of the issues we had with Rabbi Wolpe's mandate is that in order to sell a product, you need to understand the product. Until we figure out what we stand for, we can't sell it to the world. We may love it, but until we can define it (and perhaps by defining, limit it), we shouldn't be worried about a bumper sticker.

Because we really do have a lot of work to do, and it's not about defining Conservative Judaism. Defining is about what is. Conservative Judaism is about fluidity, adjustment to modernity while remaining true to our Torah roots, and as modernity changes, so must we. What was true about our movement 50 years ago is no longer true. Our synagogues look different. Our leadership looks different. And clearly even our professional conventions look different. Our task is to figure out not what defines us but how we are propelled, how we develop, how we think about change. And for that we need to look to one of our movement's greats, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

Kaplan, whose thinking informed generations of Conservative rabbis, is credited with founding the Reconstructionist movement. He saw all of Jewish practice not as commanded by God but as having arisen from the people, and what the people have sanctified remains. Women have lit candles for centuries, so women continue to light candles. Musical instruments were used in the Temple but not in synagogues, but the people have dictated that musical instruments would be nice to have in our services, and so in some congregations, guitars and drums are making appearances. If you look around the movement today, some Conservative congregations still do not include the ritual participation of women. Others are served by women rabbis. Some have instrumental music. Others do not. Some permit pot luck Friday night dinners. Others do not. So indeed, how can we define Conservative Judaism, given the fact that I, as an ordained rabbi and member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly, would be refused an aliyah at congregations served by some of my colleagues, similarly educated and similarly affiliated? We used to talk about tradition and change. I don't think anyone knows what that means any more.

I think worrying about our movement's definition is less important than imagining how our synagogues will look in 5 years. What will the services look like? And that's not the job of the rabbi and cantor. That's the job, in good Reconstructionist practice, of the people. There's an old bumper sticker that proclaims, "When the people lead, the leaders will follow." So where are the people leading?

We need only look around at the upsurge in independent minyanim that have sprouted up over the last 40 years, beginning with Havurat Shalom in Massachusetts and spreading across the country. The havurah/indie movement began when our kids graduated from Camp Ramah and USY and Pilgrimage and Solomon Schechter schools and wanted more than our cathedral synagogues were offering, so they started their own sacred spaces. That continues to happen today. I ran into a former student on Thursday, now married, living on the Upper West Side, and attending Hadar, one of the most exciting indie minyanim in the country. But she acknowledges that she and her husband will no doubt leave when they have children and want a more diverse community. I was delighted to see that she was aware that kids deserve to see older people in their minyan, people saying kaddish, the elderly…kids need to be able to look around and see people not like Abba and Ima. Indie minyanim seem to be the undergraduate world for today's twenty- and thirty-somethings. The question is, where will they choose to go for graduate school? To mix metaphors, where will they go when they're ready to take off their training wheels? That's the challenge of the Conservative synagogue in the 21st century.

What might these young people want? Certainly, more participation, more empowerment, more ownership of the community. But what else they might want will take us back to convention and the opening night concert. The headliner was Neshama Carlebach, but the real hit of the night was her backup group, the Green Pastures Black Baptist Choir. Holy moly, did they rock the room! If you have ever attended a service at a Black Baptist church, or any Pentecostal church, or invited a choir to your community for an interfaith service, I don't have to say another word. The music they sang was Carlebach music, but they made it their own, and did they ever do it well.

But here's what happened. By the end of the second number, there were two people standing and clapping along. One was a Black woman who'd come with the choir. You're looking at the other one. Not only did I stand because I simply couldn't stay in my seat, I thought that maybe if one person stood, others would follow. Not so much. Now, by the end of the evening, most of us were standing, clapping, some even dancing around the room. They got us going, but it wasn't easy. We seemed determined to be an audience. No one bothered mentioning that we were supposed to be part of the performance. Because after all, as someone once observed, when it comes to praising God, it's not about performer/audience. We're all performers. God is the audience.

I've spent a good deal of time reflecting on my experience at convention, on the resistance of my colleagues to get off their chairs and get into the music, and it's occurred to me that we Jews just don't feel comfortable doing this stuff. Back in Temple times, we brought our sacrifices to the priests, the Levites did the music, and we watched. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the hasidim danced while the misnagdim sat in their yeshivas in Vilna and scowled. For the most part, we are not happy moving and clapping and, as our Christian friends would say, letting the Spirit flow through us.

That is a problem. I have a Presbyterian friend who regularly observes that his people are the frozen chosen. I am very fearful that our Conservative community will end up that way as well. The midrash tells us that God created six other worlds before creating this one, and what made this one special is that it includes people – us. Why? Because before this world, God had only the angels, and they praised God daily, but that was their job, and since angels have no free will, of course that's what they did. And God was bored. So God created people, and I suspect God hasn't been bored since.

But maybe not. When was the last time you noticed something God did? Like blooming flowers, or a sunset, or your baby? When was the last time you experienced what Heschel called radical amazement? What did you do about it? Say, "That's so nice"? Feel really good inside?

I think what our communities lack today is real excitement. On Friday nights we sing a psalm that ends yis'm'hu hashamayim v'tageyl ha'aretz. Think about those words. The heavens and the earth will rejoice. What does rejoicing look like? Then think about the melody Conservative congregations use all over the country. Yes, there's a hand-clap. But sorry, it wouldn't even wake up the heavens and the earth, much less lead them to rejoice.

We have been raised by generation upon generation of Jewish tradition to be observers, audiences, people who sit back and let others do for us. Our young people will not accept that any more, and when they walk into a room where the music is nice – but only nice – they may sit for the morning, but they won't be back.

The future of our movement rests more in the change than in the tradition. Those who come from the youth-oriented arms of our movement already take tradition seriously. Those who speak about the mind and those who speak about the soul must come together at the same table. It's time we stopped accepting what is, as "good enough" and allowed the finger of God to touch our souls, to become truly alive, to be not afraid to stand up and put our hands together when music moves us. It's not just about the music. It's about our response to it. Vanessa Ochs, writing in Inventing Jewish Ritual, observes:

When an innovation felt especially uncomfortable to me, the feeling was visceral, almost like disgust, something I couldn't always think away... But I discovered that I could modulate my response to innovations. I could remind myself that my unfamiliarity was not sufficient to disqualify the potential blessings of a new practice. We have all learned to overcome multiple gut responses to unfamiliarity. Who isn't terrified on the first day of school? But still we press forward and walk into the classroom. I noticed that ritual practices clearly borrowed from other cultures made me feel especially uncomfortable. I realized I could either choose to resist the practices or I could give them a chance. I could consider the plausibility of their fit and evaluate their spiritual power in light of any ruptures they might impose. I could train myself to notice my hesitancy in the face of a new ritual and contemplate it. Then I could let go: I could watch, wait, and perhaps, eventually, accept.

What Ochs says about new ritual we can say as well about the music of excitement. We deserve to be excited about being Jewish and about coming together on Shabbat to thank God for our many gifts. We deserve it and God deserves it. Let me close with a poem by Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin.

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Praise me or curse Me,
And I will know that you love Me.
Sing out My graces, says God.
Raise your fist against Me, and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise, says God.
But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,
If you sit entrenched in I don't give a hang, says God.
If you look at the stars and yawn;
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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