I’m writing this post in Boston, where I’m attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), but its roots are in Austin, Texas.
Though you’d never guess it from our name, the CCAR is the rabbinical arm of the Reform Movement. Our name is a reminder of Isaac Mayer Wise‘s dream to create set of institutions to serve American Judaism that would transcend denominational labels: they would be, simply, “American.”
That’s not how it turned out, of course. American Judaism organized around denominations, and they defined the religious landscape for most of the twentieth century. Jews who belonged to synagogues often chose those synagogues based on their denomination. Reform Jews sought out Reform temples; Orthodox Jews congregated in Orthodox shuls; and Conservative Jews found their way to Conservative synagogues. Reconstructionism was a later addition, founded to transcend the labels but “denominationalized” in due time. Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanism, Open Orthodoxy…. the list goes on.
What follows is a personal observation, and not any grand statement about the need for movements: these denominational lines feel less important to me now than they did when I began my own rabbinate. In recent years, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to cross them, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and of course in my fellowship at Rabbis Without Borders. My rabbinate has been enriched by these experiences, and by the relationships I’ve forged with rabbis who didn’t attend my seminary or who don’t serve in my movement.
Which brings me to Austin, and to Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote address. Last Thursday, the Boss referenced “denominationalism” in the world of popular music, running through a list of dozens of sub-genres of rock music, to comedic effect, and ending with “then just add ‘neo’ or ‘post’ to everything I said.”
Later in the talk, he offered a loving critique of musicians’ tendencies to get hung up on labels:
We live in a post-authentic world. Today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history, and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.
As I hear it, in light of that earlier riff on genre, Springsteen means by “authenticity” the tendency among musicians and their fans to hang only with people in their own “denomination.” He is commenting on the way people sneer at “sell-outs” or “crossover” artists. Forget the labels, he’s saying; just listen to the music. When the lights go down, does it have power and purpose?
Back to Boston, and to this gathering of Reform rabbis. For me, the highlights of the conference so far have involved studying with Nehemiah Polen and Arthur Green. Later today I’ll be forced to make an excruciating choice between learning with Or Rose or Ebn Leader, who are up against each other in the same time slot (as is Harold Kushner!). None of these teachers would be labeled “Reform;” all of them are drawing good crowds of my Reform colleagues.
These are my teachers, and I’m not so concerned with how they label themselves, which seminary bestowed the title “Rabbi” upon them, or where they currently teach. When the lights go down, they’re bringing some pretty great Torah…and that’s what matters.
The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.
Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.
Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.
The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?
It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.
Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.
Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”
Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.
Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.