A few days ago, I returned from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ)’s centennial celebration, entitled the “Conversation of the Century.”
I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the USCJ leadership and for the convention’s organizers, many of whom are dear personal friends and professional mentors. In the shadow of the bleak news the Pew study recently delivered the Conservative Movement, they managed to put together a gathering whose atmosphere was lively and upbeat, a boisterous celebration and an optimistic envisioning.
Over one thousand enthusiastic delegates from around the country attended, making the conclave three times the size of recent USCJ conventions. Raucous singing reverberated through the hotel as dancing spilled into the hallways, reminding many of USY and Ramah gatherings. Electrifying conversations, both in and outside of the convention sessions, grappled with systemic challenges, fostered the sharing of best practices, showcased innovative trendsetters, and facilitated big dreams. Most agreed that the USCJ has never shown more openness to learning from and sharing the ingenuity happening within its ranks.
Yet, at the risk of being too much of a Monday-morning quarterback, I do not think the conclave met the organizer’s desired ends of being a “big RESET [sic] button for United Synagogue, and by extension, Conservative Judaism.” In one important respect, the convention was a missed opportunity: “The Conversation” was mainly about policies, programs, and plans, when it should have been first and foremost about purpose.
There was a great deal of talk about revitalizing services, adjusting institutional structures, reconsidering aspects of rabbinic training, reaching out to disaffected and unaffiliated Jews, creating spaces of welcome and inclusion for demographics historically shut out of Conservative Jewish life (interfaith families, gays and lesbians, young adults), and rethinking our marketing strategies. Those are useful and appropriate conversations. But every last one of them is irrelevant if we cannot answer the simple question, “Why do we exist?”
As Pastor Rick Warren of the mega-successful Saddleback Church outlines in his landmark work, The Purpose-Driven Church:
Nothing precedes purpose…Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation, and no direction for ministry…[G]rowing, healthy churches have a clear-cut identity. They understand their reason for being; they are precise in their purpose. They know exactly what God has called them to do.
Seen in the light of Warren’s insight and expertise, the Conservative Movement’s decline reflects, ultimately, its inability to identify, articulate, and commit to its purpose.
I am, of course, not the first person to make this sort of point. Rabbi David Wolpe has famously argued that we need a slogan short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. More recently, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jesse Olitzky wrote that to survive, the Conservative Movement needs to decide what it stands for. Rabbi Harold Kushner also alluded to this necessity in a keynote address to the USCJ convention.
But a slogan, even a credo, is not a purpose. A purpose, according to Warren, addresses why an institution exists, what it wants to be, what it wants to do, and how it will do it. It needs to be specific, memorable, and measurable.
Orthodox and Reform Judaism know their purposes. In large part, that is why they are relatively healthy and successful .
Orthodoxy’s purpose is “Torah u’Mitzvot (Torah and Commandments).” Orthodoxy is about wholesale obedience to a Divinely-ordained received Jewish tradition.
The Reform Movement’s purpose is “Tikkun Olam,” fashioning a more just, equitable, and peaceful world. It is about effecting the social vision of the Hebrew prophets.
Both the Orthodox and Reform approaches are borne of convictions about what God wants them to do in the world. The Orthodox believe God has called on them (indeed, all Jews) to strictly obey the Torah’s dictates. The Reform believe God has called on them (and, again, us all) to repair the world.
The Conservative Movement, and Conservative Jews, have no comparably clear sense of purpose. We don’t really know, or at least we don’t roundly agree on, what we believe God is calling us to do.
In the hopes that this might become the crucial conversation within the Conservative Movement at the moment, allow me to present an opening offering, my suggestion for the Conservative Movement’s renewed purpose: “La’asot Tzedakah u’Mishpat (Doing Righteousness and Justice).”
This phrase is taken from Genesis 18:19. There, God reflects on alerting Abraham to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God tells the patriarch “Because I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep God’s path by doing what is righteous and just, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” God says Abraham’s purpose is to keep God’s path through righteousness and justice. As children of Abraham, that is our purpose, too.
So what exactly does it mean to keep God’s path through righteousness and justice? According to Rabbi Aaron Isaac Halevi Epstein:
God’s true and complete path is to do both righteousness and also justice. That is to say, performing those deeds that are between a person and the Omnipresent – righteousness – and also deeds that are between a person and his fellow – justice. One must not divide the Jewish mission into separate parts, righteousness alone and justice alone. God’s Torah is perfect, each part and each commandment are considered part of the body of Torah. One must not distinguish between the injunction “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” and the injunction “Do not take usury or interest from him.”
The Jewish mission is to care for one’s own spiritual and physical well being, and, at the same time, to passionately pursue justice.
Why is this a uniquely Conservative mission? In a religious landscape where one movement emphasizes God, while the other emphasizes people, the Conservative Movement’s unique purpose can and should be advancing a Judaism that finds that dichotomy unsatisfactory. To be a Conservative Jew means to be equally dedicated to spiritual striving and world repair. Additionally, it means to model synthesis between the sometimes conflicting imperatives of personal flourishing and broader social welfare. Conservative Judaism can show humanity that a better life, and a better world, requires a conversation between both.
Moreover, Conservative Jews do not always agree on which constellation of Jewish beliefs and practices are essential. This passage is useful, then, because it uses the ambiguous term “righteousness.” For some, righteousness involves a formalistic understanding of traditional Jewish law. For others, it reflects a more amorphous, less prescribed, inner spiritual striving. We can and should allow for a range of interpretations of, and a spirited conversation about, what righteousness entails.
Of course, the term “righteousness” is not hollow or directionless. It is infused with Jewish meaning. At the same time, it is not dogmatic or essentialist. By becoming a movement committed to “righteousness,” the Conservative Movement can leave behind its insistence on being “halakhic,” an idiom that does not fully reflect its leaders’ dynamic approach to the tradition, accurately describe its laity, or attract new adherents wary of jettisoning their modernity and autonomy. Instead, we can be a movement committed to a more expansive “righteousness,” which includes, but is not limited to, traditional Jewish law.
Lastly, the Conservative Movement has always believed that religious and ritual life has to be informed by a sense of justice, and our pursuit of justice has to be connected to our relationship with God. A tradition that calls for a strict and unyielding submission to God’s will, with no criteria for challenging the morality of those directives, can produce monstrous results. Similarly, a tradition that calls for justice but is not grounded by or held accountable to God can become immoral.
To be a Conservative Jew means, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Sharon Brous, to “fuse piety and hutzpah,” to stand at the nexus of steadfast Divine service and a passion for social justice, to navigate the complex and challenging path of integrating a received tradition with the lives of real people and contemporary insights.
Beyond the Jewish world, the Conservative Movement can show humanity that the choice between unyielding and dangerous religious fundamentalism and secular ethicalism is false. A better life, and a better world, requires inner spirituality and outer goodness.
So, under this framework, let us circle back to our initial questions. Why does Conservative Judaism exist? What is God calling Conservative Jews to do? Conservative Judaism’s unique mission is to integrate the demands of righteousness and justice, to live committed to furthering those two causes, and to inspire others to do the same. That is, ultimately, why I am a Conservative Jew. Our institutions must be charged with supporting, encouraging, and empowering the pursuit of righteousness and justice.
“Mi L’Adonai Elai!” (Exodus 32:26). By rediscovering our purpose, we can rally all who share a passion for serving God and people, “Come with us!”