Bringing the Soul Back to the Body of Conservative Judaism: A History of Symptoms, and Some Working Prescriptions

The following first appeared in ShefaJournal 5770:1: HaNefesh v’HaGuf: The Relationship Between Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement (edited by Nina S. Kretzmer; 2010), and has been since reprinted in A Manifesto for the Future: The ShefaNetwork Archive: Conservative/Masorti Judaism Dreaming from Within (edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2013), pp. 370-377.

           Among the meditations recited upon waking up, the traditional Siddur (prayer book) includes a passage that begins, Elohai, neshamah shennatatta bi tehorah hi (“My God, the soul which You have given me is pure”). We may be familiar with a melody for these six words since modern Jewish musicians have often set these opening words to appropriately inspirational music, but less well known is the berakhah (blessing) that ends the passage: Barukh Attah Adonai, hammahazir neshamot lifgarim metim (“Blessed are You, LORD, who returns souls to their lifeless corpses”). We are well aware that our Neshamah or Nefesh (soul) is pure, but finding the pure Nefesh within our Guf (body) is a step in the process.  

            The Nefesh that is Conservative Jewish philosophy and the Guf that is, I would add, the population of Conservative Jewry, are inseparable. Conservative Jewish philosophy has, throughout its history, appealed mostly to a select minority of adherents who were taught the values of Conservative Jewish philosophy by its founders, or by those who learned directly from its founders. Conservative Jewish leaders must both believe in Conservative Jewish philosophy and recognize that they, as parts of the Rosh (head), cannot work without the rest of the Guf. Where is the Lev (heart) that pumps the blood of passion into the Guf? Where are the Zero’ot (arms) that embrace our values? And without Raglayim (legs), can we speak of a halichah (movement) within halachah (Jewish law)?

            One of the greatest failures of Orthodox Judaism has been its abundance of insular communities, communities that don’t reach out to the unaffiliated and the unconvinced, but reach in and preach to the converted. Although the essence of this problem is apparent in Conservative Judaism, its caliber is heavier; Conservative synagogues and schools usually contain a preacher who can preach to her or his own “choir,” but—in most cases—that core group of believers makes up fewer than 5% of the synagogue membership.

Although “Not Orthodox and Not Reform” is an insufficient religious dogma, the truth is that most Conservative synagogues historically were founded on that very vague idea; for whatever reason, these Jews had had enough of Orthodoxy and had had enough of Reform. In the majority of these cases, the philosophies and beliefs (or lack of concern thereof) of the founders of Conservative synagogues was very much in line with that of the primary membership of Reform synagogues. With little regard for halacha, theology or philosophy, the early “Conservative Jews” maintained a certain respect for certain elements of traditional Judaism (understood as traditional, rather than obligatory) such asKashrut, Passover, Shabbat, Hebrew prayer, or marriage between fellow Jews. Although these Jews did not practice Orthodoxy, they were uncomfortable in the Reform community where these traditions were seen as simply ignored rather than seriously re-evaluated. At heart, the founders of the Conservative synagogues were not Reform Jews, and they were not Orthodox Jews. But quite frankly, they might not have been Conservative Jews either.

Although the founders of Conservative synagogues may have been lucky enough to find clergy and educators who were trained in those theoretical principles of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative rabbi was faced with a task unlike that of their Reform and Orthodox colleagues. An Orthodox rabbi could step foot inside a synagogue com-posed of Jews who cared to know that their religious principles and actions were in line with the rabbi’s Piskei Halachah (halachic rulings). A Reform rabbi knew that the synagogue’s clientele cared to maintain the moral imperative and spiritual awareness which are inseparable from Judaism and, like the rabbi, these Jews needed something totally un-Orthodox in the realm of rituals. On the other hand, a Conservative rabbi would walk into a synagogue wherein most congregants were sympathetic to Judaism but often not very actively engaged; even if they were more observant in ways than their Reform peers, they were not strict adherents to the principles of Conservative Judaism. A Conservative rabbi entered a synagogue where the congregants had limited knowledge of Hebrew and little interest in fulfilling Mitzvot; however, going to a shul and going through the motions of traditionalism had stayed important to them through the years. Yet making something new and meaningful out of “Conservative” Judaism was never the common goal among the majority of the earliest members of Conservative synagogues.

Three sociological problems seem to have resulted in the Conservative Judaism that will be remembered at the end of 2009: (1) because the majority of early Conservativeshul-goers did not actively seek transformational experiences or rituals, they never demanded a practical definition of Conservative Judaism; (2) because Conservative Judaism was born out of studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary—and not out of a form of Jewish life that was practiced by an actual community per se—Conservative Jewish leaders who had studied with masters and founders of Conservative Judaism never saw a clear model of Conservative Judaism; and (3) the majority of Conservative leadership spoke of but never effectively preached and inspired their communities to accept the principles of their theoretical Conservative Judaism, perhaps out of ineptitude or fear of controversy. The cerebral theory of Conservative Judaism never filtered out of the Rosh and spread properly through the rest of the Guf. Perhaps the Rosh did not speak clearly, or did not think clearly, or just did not chew up enough of Conservative Judaism so that the Guf could digest it.

            Over a good number of decades, the Guf of Conservative Judaism has suffered the vicious cycle of the Rosh becoming enamored with ideas for which the rest of the Gufsimply was not prepared. So—if we’re going to make it, and I sincerely believe we can—what can we do about the uninitiated Jew? Initiate. Teach the uninitiated, and learn from the uninitiated. Inspire the uninitiated and be inspired by the uninitiated. Challenge the uninitiated, and let the uninitiated challenge us.
            For as long as Jews are expected to enter a Conservative shul and to find inspiration solely from the music of prayer and the foreign words on the pages, the uninitiated will remain incapable and illiterate in the written languages of Judaism—uninitiated. For as long as Jews are just expected to enter a Conservative shul on Shabbat and to earn their entire weekly dosage of Torah study from the words of the rabbi, they will not feel encouraged to open a Tanakh (Bible) and to ask the questions that Jews must ask and to seek the answers that Jews must seek; the uninitiated will then remain uninitiated. And as long as Jews are expected to become the community of a Conservative shulwithout ever learning that Conservative Judaism is a new (and improved) Judaism, and that we each have to undergo some transforming in order for us to become honest and coherent Jews, the uninitiated will remain Not Orthodox and Not Reform and nothing more: uninitiated.
            The Orthodox might give the radically right-winged answers, and the Reform might give the radically left-winged answers, but we will never find the middle-grounds if we cannot find the edges. True Conservative Judaism needs, as Pirkei Avot 4:1 prescribes, the Hakham (Wise Person): Hallomed Mikkol Adam (the Student of All Humanity). We must constantly balance the questions of the right with the answers of the left, and vice versa; however, though we might not each become a Hakham, we are all able to be Talmidim (Students) and Talmidei Hakhamim (Students of Wise People). It is insufficient to produce only a Hakham who adjoins the Rosh of the Guf. It is time for the limbs of the Guf of Conservative Judaism to become Talmidei Hakhamim, and they can’t do it without an educated Rosh.
            After the community learns that the Introduction to Judaism class is not where Jewish learning and living end, we must turn the Conservative Beit Tefillah (House of Prayer) into a Conservative Beit Midrash (House of Study). Though the task may sound overwhelming, it is a fine line that separates prayer and study. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein once said, “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” This understanding of prayer and study as the Eternal Jewish dialogue with the Divine is among the oldest principles of Judaism. Classical Rabbinic literature records Jewish prayer in the Beit Midrash and Jewish study in the Beit Tefillah, and Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry have often built a Beit Tefillah called a “Beit Midrash” and vice versa.

Fortunately, Conservative synagogues generally are comfortable finding a proper prayer quorum on a regular basis—even if it is not the traditional 3 times a day. And, though serious study of Jewish texts and principles is more rare in the Conservative synagogue, our communities are finding ways to become engaged in Jewish texts, principles and rituals. Difficulty with reading Hebrew and unfamiliarity traditional melodies or the rhythm of tefillah prevents many Jews from taking an active part in prayer services, so Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill has been teaching classes on “How to Lead and Participate in a Shiva Minyan.” Because the Hebrew of tefillah—even when we can read it—might not mean much, Dena Bodian has been teaching “Hebrew of the Siddur” focusing on “basic grammar and common siddur vocabulary” at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. Since many Jews have never been exposed to the vast sea of rabbinic literature, Rabbi Martin Cohen of Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Long Island has been holding several classes at his shul where congregants can study Talmud, the words of Maimonides, Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, and more. Because study of Torah during the Torah reading services is never enough, the rabbis of Temple Aliya in Los Angeles, California lead a weekly Lunch and Learn to gain further insight into the weekly Torah reading. The ultimate goal of these projects cannot possibly be dependency, that Conservative shul-goers will forever rely on the Rosh. These programs all aim for independence. I am proud that my own shul, Midway Jewish Center, has recently purchased Hebrew-English sets of the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Jewish codes and commentaries and has placed these sefarim (books) in a Chapel so as to annex one Beit Tefillah into a Beit Midrash. Though my shul may be a few years away from a clientele literate in Hebrew, we are not far from a community of Talmidei Hakhamim. All it will take is a Jew who opens a book and is able to ask and answer questions like a Conservative Jew.

Conservative Judaism exists outside of texts though. The social actions we take for Darfur or for Israel, the friendships we build through youth groups or havurot (social gatherings – for study, prayer and ritual life), the folksongs and children’s songs we have and pass on from generation to generation: these are all Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Harold Schulweis has spoken of the “Head Jew” (the intellectual Jew), the “Heart Jew” (the passionate Jew), and the “Hand Jew” (the active Jew). For too long, Conservative Judaism has been Head Jews stuck in the Rosh, and the Rosh has stuck to the Head Jews. The Rosh must now awaken the rest of the Guf.

            When I recite Barukh Attah Adonai, hammahazir neshamot lifgarim metim, I am less concerned with my body than the bodies I see in shul. Everyday, I hope that the Jews—with or without kishkes—will not only remain Jewish, but I hope that the Conservative Jewish community, with God’s grace, will endow itself with the tools, the passions and the commitments of Conservative Jewish thinking: a Nefesh greater than the love of s’tam (simply) Yiddishkeit.
            In Mishnah Yoma 1:5, we read that, when it came time to preparing the Templefor Yom Kippur, the High Priest was entrusted with a secret formula for performing the sacrificial rites through which Israel’s sins would be cleansed from the soul of the people:

The Elders of the Courthouse passed the message along to the Elders of the Priesthood, and they had gone up to receive these words from the House of Avtinas. They swore to the House of Avtinas that they had the message straight, and the Elders left to go their way. The Elders would then say to the High Priest in the Temple, “My Master: the High Priest! We are messengers of the Courthouse, and you are both our messenger and the messenger of the Courthouse. We trust that you—sworn to the One whose Name dwells in this House—will not change a word from all that we have said to you.” The High Priest would depart and weep, and they too would depart and weep.

Conservative Judaism is not a secret formula of the Temple, but sometimes it feels like it. We have Elder-like masters trained by particular Houses (of Study) where the essence of Conservative Judaism is taught. In the days of the Temple, the High Priest was overwhelmed by the burden of the secret intricacies involved in purifying the soul of the people, and today the Rosh of our Guf can feel overwhelmed by the mission of giving our young Guf a Nefesh, for such a task takes an entire community – not just the Rosh.

            Conservative Judaism is a young religion, and infants are subject to infirmities that doctors hope the young will overcome with proper treatment. It should be no surprise that, in a few years, we will outgrow the struggles of the Conservative Judaism of 2009. With proper dosages of education, experience and action, everything that has found a place in our Rosh will gradually digest and flow into the rest of our Guf. And when that happens, we will not need to pray that God returns the Nefesh to the Guf, but we can thank God for having returned the Nefesh to the Guf.
Jonah Rank is a part-time musician and a Senior at the Columbia University School of General Studies and Albert A. List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

About jonahrank

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