Why do we choose to be Masortim?
In our Temple affiliation, we rarely find ourselves faced with the situation of choosing which Movement within Judaism we identify with. Normally, we go to the synagogue where our parents attended or we pick the one we feel our children will be most comfortable in because more children or school friends already belong to it.
The ongoing Jewish life then either shows us some identification with our selection or confronts us with the inequalities of our feelings, as we live each tefilah or community event that we take part of.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former Rector of the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary of America), the rabbinical training school in New York City, described in 7 points what he considered a summary of the core values of the Conservative or Masorti Movement. I will now share an interpretive summary about those 7 points.
1. The Centrality of Modern Israel
For Conservative Jews as well as for their ancestors, Israel is not only the cradle of the Jewish people, but also its final destination. Sacred texts, historical experience, and liturgical memory have come together to make it for the Jews, in Prophet Ezekiel's words, "the fairest of all lands (20:6)."
Thus, it is understood that there must be a constant commitment for the support of the State of Israel and a pledge to disseminate and educate practical Zionism without a political agenda and to also educate and promote the bond of our children, youth and adults with Eretz Israel.
2. Hebrew: The Irreplaceable Language of Jewish Expression
Hebrew is the irreplaceable language of Jewish expression and is the second core value of Conservative Judaism. It is coexistent with the Jewish people and the many layers of language are a mirror of the cultures in which the Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never just a vehicle of communication. It is part of the fabric and texture of Judaism. Hebrew words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values and literary associations.
Keeping Hebrew alive within the tefilah and in our daily expressions maintains the roots between the People, wherever they are, and their origins, as well as access to sources in their original language, avoiding tendentious interpretations in certain translations.
3. Devotion to the Ideal of Klal Israel
It is the seamless totality of Jewish existence and the fundamental importance of each individual Jew. In the consciousness of Conservative Judaism, the statement of chaverim kol Israel (all Israel is united in brotherhood) still resonates—despite all the dispersion, dichotomies and politicization that history has jostled upon us, the Jews remain united in a tenacious pilgrimage of universal significance.
This admirable commitment to the well-being of the whole does not come from any special ethnic origin, but from the awareness of belonging to the People of Israel beyond any of those origins, struggling for equal conditions, rights and privileges.
We respect the verdict of the rabbinical courts in all decisions and regarding conversions (giurim), we commit ourselves to respect and include as Yehudi lechol Davar, a Full Jew, those who approach Judaism from the heart, with responsibility to the mitzvot and with the acceptance of Ol Malchut Shamaim (the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven).
4. The Defining Role of the Torah in the Restructuring of Judaism
After the loss of political sovereignty in 63 B.C.E. and of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. at the hands of the Romans, the Rabbis turned the Torah into a portable homeland, the synagogue into a national theater for religious drama and study into a form of worship. The Torah is the foundation of Judaism, the apex of an inverted pyramid of infinite commentary, not only because it is divine, but because it is sacred, meaning that the Torah was adopted by the Jewish people as a spiritual source. The feeling of individual obligation, of being commanded does not derive only from divine authority, but for those who are more questioning or rebellious, communal consent is added. The Written Torah, no less than the Oral Torah, resonates with the divine-human encounter; we take a pasuk (verse) that has inspired us for more than two thousand years—"lo bashamayim hi”—, which means that the Torah is no longer in heaven and we understand that it was given to us for a respectful interpretation aware of traditions, halachah and deep study.
5. Torah Study
The non-dogmatic pre-eminence of the Torah has spawned a text-based culture that highly values individual creativity and legitimate conflict. What Conservative Judaism brings to this ancient and unfinished dialectic are the tools and perspectives of modern scholarship combined with traditional Jewish learning and empathy. Modern Jews deserve the right to study Torah according to their mental world and not just through the eyes of their ancestors. Judaism does not seek to limit our thinking, only our actions. We pursue this study in the conviction that critical scholarship will bring a new religious understanding to the inner life of contemporary Jews.
Perhaps the most important thing, as it has been for more than two millennia, is the acceptance of differences in opinions in each interpretation—always formulated with respect and reverence. Dissent is part of the Masorti ideology. The study, always recommended by at least two people together, lends towards it.
6. The Government of Jewish Life by Halachah
The sixth core value expresses the fundamental thrust of Judaism to concretize ethics and theology in daily practice. The natural language of Judaism has always been facts. Conservative Jews are Rabbinic and not Biblical Jews. Imbued with a devotion to klal Israel and a great respect for tradition, they are inclined to sacrifice personal autonomy for a reasonable degree of consensus and uniformity in community life.
Together the commandments and precepts of Jewish law express a society's deep-seated sense of covenant with the divine to finish the task of creation.
However, Conservative Judaism does not consider halachah to be immutable. Its historical sense is too acute to affirm this. Historically considered, the halachic system shows a pattern of constant receptivity, change and variety, long before the foundation of liberal movements. Therefore, Conservative Judaism regards it a justification for valid adjustments when absolutely necessary. The result is a body of conservative law sensitive to human needs, halachic integrity and the global character of the Jewish community. Due deliberation generally avoided the adoption of positions that turned out to be unwise and unacceptable, always considering the minority votes in the Rabbinical Assembly, generating an opening in the Rabbinical decisions within each Community.
Far from being a movement with a “light” Halacha, this commitment for inclusion and discussion generates the enormous effort to confront and accept dissent. It is a necessary and fundamental term in our historical halachah and particularly within the Masorti Movement.
7. Belief in God
Finally, we come to the seventh, most basic and founding core value of Conservative Judaism: the belief in God. It is the value that plants religious nationalism and the national religion that are inseparable from Judaism on the universal soil of monotheism. If we remove God, the object of the Jewish people's millennial quest, the rest will soon disintegrate.
For Judaism, therefore, God is a felt presence rather than a visible form, a voice rather than a vision. The Revelation tends to be an auditory experience and not a visual experience. The greatness of God is rarely compromised by the urge to see or the need to capture Him in human language. Yet God's closeness and compassion are affirmed by the senses. The austerity of the one and the intimacy of the other are the difference between what we know and what we feel. God is remote and close, transcendent and immanent. To do justice to our heads and hearts, to the whole person, Judaism has never downplayed the polarity that lies in the midst of its monotheistic faith.
God is who was, is and will be. It is that partner who entrusted us with the enormous task of Tikkun Olam, the betterment of this world. It is with whom we fight in respectful dissent and from whom we accept everything, even in our ignorant misunderstanding. It is from whom we expect all things and to whom we owe the individual, the collective and the global every day of our lives.
As Conservative or Masortim Jews, we recognize the Rabbinical Authority and the entity of the different Rabbinical Assemblies that represent the movement in what concerns Halachic decisions.
Being a Masorti Jew involves you, compels you to make decisions and take action in a daily commitment with your congregation, with your society and with the world. This commitment requires you to be present. Online when necessary, but preferably in person.
I look forward to working together to build a Temple Beth El where we can all enjoy our Judaism.
Be well and happy July 4th,