Beliefnet
In early November, I spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The topic was "The Future of Conservative Judaism." I prepared for the talk by asking colleagues, friends and congregants to define Conservative Judaism in one sentence. It was a dispiriting experience.

Some had no answer at all. Others found themselves entangled in paragraphs, subclauses and a forest of semicolons. Sensible people began to sound like textbooks.

Many of us have learned that Conservative Judaism is either a complex ideology (at least we never get a straightforward explanation) or simply a movement that stands in the center between Reform and Orthodoxy. An early classic of Conservative Judaism was titled, "Tradition and Change," but tradition and change is a paradox, not a banner of belief.

Conservative Judaism is crying out for renewal and revitalization. Some of the most spiritually charged, socially sensitive prayer groups and institutions in the country choose to not affiliate themselves with the Conservative movement. Yet they are led by rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement and attended by congregants who grew up in that movement.

In synagogues that do define themselves as Conservative, the congregants often expect halachic observance from their rabbis, yet they are not moved to emulate them. Conservative Jews are increasingly confused and uncertain about their spiritual direction.

As I posed these problems and questions, some turned the question back to me.

"Who are you, and what do you believe?"

When I reflect upon the beliefs with which I was raised and how I have grown in my faith, I realize that the word "Conservative" does not best fit who I am and what I believe.

I am a Covenantal Jew.

Covenantal Judaism is the Judaism of relationship. Three covenants guide my way-our way: The covenant at Sinai brings us to our relationship to God, the covenant with Abraham to our relationship with other Jews and the covenant with Noah to our relationship with all humanity.

What's covenantal Judaism?
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  • First Covenant: Relationship to God

    The Jewish relationship to God may be seen as a friendship, a partnership, though of obviously unequal partners. In the Midrash, God swears friendship to Abraham, is called the "friend of the world" (Hag. 16a) and even creates friendships between people (Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer). Friendship is one aspect of the Divine-human connection.

    The Torah speaks of God as a parent, a lover, a teacher and an intimate sharer of our hearts. When we speak of friendship or partnership, all of these relationships and more must be understood.

    The terms of all friendships are fixed by history-we define our partnerships by our memories. One friend can speak a single word, "Colorado," and the other knows that the word refers to a trip taken together 15 years before. However, vital friendships do not dwell solely in the past. They are always creating new memories, entering new phases and enriching what has gone before.

    Some Jews believe that everything important in the friendship between God and Israel has already been said. The Torah, the Talmud, the classical commentators and codes have said all the vital, foundational words. Our task now is simply to fill in a few blanks, but otherwise the work is done. We are the accountants of a treasure already laid up in the past.

    This is not a covenantal understanding. It is a Judaism frozen in time, as though all the clocks stopped in the 18th century.

    Conversely, there are those who think the past weightless, because times have so radically changed. This is a friendship that tries to recreate itself each day, dictated by the demands of the moment. While the past is acknowledged, it is seen largely as something to be overcome, not to be cherished and integrated into the present. This creates a relationship with predictably thin and wan results.

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