Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More on the Evolution of the Conservative Movement

Apparently, this was a conversation that needed opening. My last post bemoaned the lack of energy in the mainstream Conservative synagogue. A number of friends and colleagues have kindly shared this post with a number of discussion lists, and I've read the responses with a great deal of interest. Rather than email each commentator personally, I think it would be more efficient to post here and let the cybersharing begin.

Not surprisingly (we're Jews, after all), there was a plethora of issues raised. Some were upset that I focused on music, that there's more to religion than music (true). Others focused on spirituality, and still others were upset I had invoked Mordecai Kaplan and wondered where Heschel was in all this. I guess the first thing I need to say, then, is that the post was a sermon, not a thesis. It was never my intention to give a multi-session course in the history of the movement, its greatest thinkers, and its theological roots. Further, I don’t pretend to have the wisdom to declare thus and such are the ills to be fixed and like magic, our movement will be revitalized. What is wrong with Conservative Judaism is far too broad a topic to be addressed in one blog, or one thread on a discussion list. Are most of our membership not practicing Conservative Jews? Undoubtedly. Is music the answer? Of course not. Those are simple questions and easy answers.

Since my original remarks came out of a rabbinical convention, and since we Conservative rabbis like to pretend that we are the leaders of our communities, it might be thought that if rabbis design the right kind of service (whatever that may be), people will respond. I did say that we need to be ready to respond to what the people are saying they want, that it’s not a rabbi thing, it’s a Jew in the pew thing. But it’s far more complicated than that.

The responses I received that expressed discomfort with music, clapping, dancing…all that new stuff in the service were not from people who just wanted their grandfather’s synagogue. They were serious people who wanted the spirituality that comes from losing oneself in the tefilah, and music for them gets in the way. Guess what: it often does for me as well. We don’t always necessarily need a niggun. We don’t always necessarily need to sing something. If I have learned anything from my study of spirituality in Jewish worship, it’s that there are many paths to immersion in prayer, and music is only one.

I think it was Carl Jung who posited several opposing personalities – the feeling versus the thinking; the intuitive versus the sensory. There are those who come to God by intellectual pursuits – study, the regular recitation of prayer. There are those who come to God by ecstatic prayer – music and dance. And if we want to go outside the sanctuary, there are those who find God in soup kitchens or in building a sukkah. My frustration isn’t with those whose path is different from mine. Frankly, even when I am leading the tefilot in my synagogue, there are times I would like to stand still and just be, but the exigencies of time push me on to finish the page on behalf of my community. The spirituality of silence is a powerful thing and demands to be sought.

No, my frustration isn’t with those who would prefer to avoid the intrusion of music. My frustration is with those who are not ready to work at all, who come in, put on a tallit, open the book, look to see what page we’re on, and simply pick up where the community is, with no warm up and often no understanding of what they are reading. They are the ones, in the language of the classic joke, who came not to speak to God but to speak to Goldstein. They demand nothing of the synagogue service but complain the service is too long. They are the ones who have directed our communities for a generation by and large, and they are the ones from whom the indie minyanaires are fleeing. I think that independent minyan is less about music and more about experimentation. Leaving the comfort zone of the institutional synagogue and trying on new things, tossing things against a wall and seeing what sticks.

What do I want for our movement? I want our members to want more, to demand more. I want them to line up for adult education – serious text study, Hebrew, the opportunity to confront contemporary issues. I want them to demand to learn how to enter the siddur. There seems to be the misperception that if rabbis only spoke about what Conservative Judaism is, the people will get excited and respond positively. We have. It hasn’t worked. We need more than the ability to articulate a message. We need open ears and willing hearts.

A few weeks ago, we read in Torah that Moses and seventy elders met at the Tent of Meeting, and God came down in a cloud to speak to them. Eldad and Meydad, who had remained in the camp, spoke ecstatically just as Moses and the elders were doing. A boy ran to Moses to alert him, and Joshua urged Moses to restrain them. Moses, however, said, “Would that all the people were prophets!”

Would that all the people wanted a meaningful role in synagogue leadership, to join with their rabbi and cantor to create the kind of community that would facilitate individual growth, and that they then took advantage of the opportunities they had created.. Would that the membership dreamed about a synagogue that was a reflection of the best in the tradition and the best of the future, and then worked to make that dream a reality. Rabbis can’t do it alone. Someone once made the distinction between rabbis and “real Jews” – meaning Jewish professionals versus the Jew in the pew. My dream for the Conservative synagogue of the 21st century is the evolution of the synagogue into a vibrant, exciting place, where the line between rabbis and real Jews is blurred, where membership means more than a seat for Kol Nidre – it’s identification with a living, growing, changing organism.


Michele Rosenfield said...

ישר כוח

As someone who actually heard your original sermon, and was a little put off by the emphasis on music, I am glad you took to time to write this follow up.

So much of what you said here resonates with me. But what particularly stuck out was your desire for members to want and demand more. What I see around me is a movement that is so afraid of loosing members that it is trying to retain them by enabling them to commit less and less. And I truly believe that this is what leads to the spiritual void that you describe. Given that Judaism is a religion of commandments, and that the Conservative movement claims to be halachichly driven, we should not be afraid to set standards.

This is not the same thing as being exclusive. To my mind setting standards also presumes the we as leaders also provide all of the appropriate scaffolding to enable people to attain these standards; as well as an outstretched arm to anyone who professes a desire to try and achieve them.

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg said...

I read your follow up from your sermon and I just want to remind everyone that there are those who don't want to change anything in the service because then they will have to react to that change. We often offer the "service we love to hate" and as long as we hate that service, we can justify why we don't attend. If it changes into something else, we might like it and our cozy excuse why we don't attend will be gone. I know it sounds cynical but for many of our members, this has been their functional attitude since they grew up and quit attending synagogue