For three days this week, I am in Chicago to participate in the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is boldly titled, “Shape the Center.” Dave Horvitz (our president) is already there, and Ed Frim will be there as well. I have heard that the attendance will exceed that of the centennial convention two years ago, with over 1200 attendees from all over North America.
This is, of course, a time of great anxiety for the Conservative movement: declining numbers, an aging population, financial and spiritual challenges.
And yet, in my mind, this is also a time of great optimism. The core of the movement is excited to act, to re-envision what we do, to create new modes of engagement and learning. Maybe we’re a wee bit late – why were we not re-thinking and re-envisioning two decades ago? Nonetheless, the great renovation project of the Conservative movement is underway, and the USCJ convention is ground zero for this groundswell of activity.
Why the optimism? Because there will always be a need for the center in contemporary Jewish life. Because although we have lost numbers, those whom we have retained are more committed. Because there will always be a demand for a Jewish environment which is at once traditional and and yet sensitive to contemporary sensibilities. Because, as my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, put it in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Forward,
The fact that the Pew Study showed that Conservatives Jews are by far the most engaged non-Orthodox population in every measurable category, including Israel activism, ritual practice, synagogue attendance and investment in Jewish education, is proof that Conservative Judaism is not only a critical Jewish voice, but an effective one, too.
But among the greatest challenges that we face as a movement, and all the more so in our 140-character world, is that it is difficult to describe who we are. What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? I am a lifelong Conservative Jew, and I could not really adequately articulate that until I was a student at JTS.
We have no effective soundbite. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – an ancient religious tradition, after all, cannot be reduced to a few glossy phrases.
But here is the irony: What I think really makes us the Conservative movement is history. History is on our side, and the future is shaped by the past.
We understand that Judaism and Jewish practice has always been influenced by the culture and time in which it existed. We understand that the Oral Law, the rabbinic interpretation documented in the Talmud and later literature, is more malleable than principles enshrined in the Torah, that it actually encourages argument and multiple acceptable positions. We understand the motivations of the human hand in our sacred scriptures, revealed through academic study. We understand that halakhah / Jewish law and Jewish rituals have changed continuously over the last two millennia.
History is our friend, and the future depends on our understanding of history.
Our understanding of the Torah is also intimately tied to our history. I am something of a grammar buff, and I have always been drawn to Torah commentaries that address the eccentricities of our historical language, Hebrew.
Several years back, around this time of year, the Philologos column in the Forward took up the question of foreign words adopted into Modern Hebrew. There are many such words, since the corpus of Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew from which Modern Hebrew draws is lacking in many terms required by modern life. Some of these adopted words are more “Hebraized” than others:
“Lesabsed,” for example, means “to subsidize.”
“Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”
“Pluralizm” means (I know this is hard to believe) “pluralism.”
Philologos points to, among others, the Hebrew word “historiya,” which means, of course, history. “Historiya” is a Greek word which arrived in English via Latin as “history,” and is derived from the Greek term for learning.
Now, if I were you, I would be wondering, “Given that Rabbi Adelson just told us about the importance of history in Jewish tradition, why did Hebrew need to borrow a Greek term for history? Is there no original Hebrew word?”
I’m so glad you asked! It does seem surprising that the language of the Torah, and for that matter, all of rabbinic literature does not include such a word.
And yet, as Philologos points out, the correct form of “historiya” when used in construct with another noun (construct: like birkat ha-mazon, the blessing of food, or qeri’at ha-Torah, the reading of the Torah) is not “historiyat ha-yehudim” for example. Rather, the first word of the construct changes entirely, replaced with “toledot.” As in, Ve-elleh toledot yitzhaq (Gen. 25:19), which were the opening words of our parashah this morning. The JPS translation renders this as, “This is the story of Isaac.” To modern Israeli ears, these words sound more like, “This is the history of Isaac.”
The word “toledot” seems to be a form of the shoresh (root) “yod-lamed-daled,” child, and from which all forms of begetting and begotten are derived (e.g. yeled, laledet, velad, holid, moledet, molad). It seems to mean history, but literally, it means, these are the generations of Isaac. When used, however, it is not merely about who begat whom – it is also used to introduce important details of the lives of Biblical characters. The same word, by the way, introduces the second Creation story in Genesis as well (Gen. 2:4 – Elleh toledot hashamayim veha-aretz), the one that includes the intrigue of Adam and Eve in Gan Eden – not generations, but history.
As Jews, we constantly, actively relive our history. From week to week, as we observe the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays that tell the story of one ancient happening after another, we are invoking our history.
We are here today because God rested on Shabbat, and our ancestors have always done so. We built our Sukkot seven weeks ago because our ancestors wandered through the desert. In a few weeks, we will kindle the Hanukkah lights to commemorate the Hasmonean military victory over the Hellenized Syrians in middle of the 2nd century, BCE. And so on.
So while you can make the case (as some scholars do) that “historiya” is a modern idea, you cannot deny that the Jews have always been committed to retelling the past – celebrating the victories, and recalling the low points to avoid them in the future.
History is central to who we are. And all the more so as Conservative Jews. The Conservative movement was originally called “the positive-historical school,” referring to a group of Central European Jewish scholars of the mid-19th century who were positive toward Jewish tradition and law, but also historically-inclined. That is, they saw Judaism as a developing tradition and studied it in the historical and cultural context of the wider cultures in which it has existed, and were likewise committed to halakhah, Jewish law, in its own historical arc.
We like to think historically. Whenever I teach rabbinic literature, and many of you know this already, I have a timeline nearby to put everything in context.
It is only through the historical lens that we can truly understand who we are and where we are going – from the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and a whole range of dates and places and kings and rabbis and interpreters and wars and exiles and migrations. And so forth.
And here we are today, still trying to find our paths through Judaism. Here is where our long view becomes even more important. We are living in a time in which historical memory is painfully short. Who has to remember anything anymore, when everything you could ever possibly need to know is a few swift keystrokes away?
We as Jews know and understand history, and as the wider world drifts into an ahistorical stew of digital present, we must continue to take the long view, to continue to seek our future in the context of the past.
I spoke last week about the mandate to teach our teens the history of the State of Israel. But really, the task is much greater than that. Isaac’s story, toledot yitzhaq, is our history, and so is everything that follows, right up to the events of last week. We have to keep referring back to that timeline, and all of the characters and places and events on it, to maintain a vital Jewish center here in North America. We have to continue to teach the value of Shabbat, to live the value of hesed, acts of lovingkindness, to resonate with the traditional words of the siddur, even as we find ways to balance these practices with contemporary society and where our people are today. And we can do this without compromising our essential ideals.
And that’s why I am in Chicago for a few days. David and Ed and I will bring back material to share with everybody, so that we can continue to re-fashion the Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement that will ignite the passions of our grandchildren.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2015.)