Conservative Judaism Seeks its True Name

I grew up as a Conservative Jew, my father a Conservative Rabbi. The appellation "conservative" was not a perfect fit for the Judaism I learned as a child. Conserving ancient traditions was essential, to be sure, but the Judaism I practiced was also dynamic, innovative, unafraid.

In Jewish tradition, your name is part of your essence. Recently I led a session of colleagues, professionals and lay leaders at United Synagogue convention to seek a name and description of the Judaism we love. "Conservative" is not really it.

Conservative Judaism is quintessentially the Judaism of relationship. Balancing relationships with other Jewish denominations, reaching out to the non-Jewish world, and most important, understanding our tradition as one in continuing dialogue with God. Every relationship is both a legacy and a promise; it depends upon what has gone before, but if it does not grow and change, it cannot live.

So the assembled leaders suggested many different ways of not merely naming, but describing the tradition: "Dynamic Judaism." "Honoring our past and embracing our future." "Where heritage meets what's happening." "Ancient texts, modern Jews." There were also plays on words, such as, "Ladder day Jews."

All of these efforts were an attempt to articulate what Conservative Jews find so compelling about our texts, traditions and interpretations. Listening carefully to those who spoke, I can distill it into three categories: Faith, Fidelity and Community.

Faith begins with faith in God. That faith spreads its wings to a faith in the journey that God has given us. Through all the storms of Jewish history, we discern a genuine Jewish mission. Perhaps that is why the most important early figure of Conservative Judaism in the United States, Solomon Schechter, was a passionate Zionist. Part of our biblical mission was to recreate the Jewish homeland. He believed as well that through the storms and anguish, Jews would endure and carry the banner of Abraham and Sarah to the new world.

Fidelity means that we carry the past proudly. Our texts and traditions and forebears are part of the way we live each day. I open the day with a prayer and close the night with a prayer. The prayer is one of gratitude to God. But equally I am mindful of the chain of Jews, stretching back millennia, whose whispers, morning and night, form a chorus with my own that echoes through the ages. That is fidelity.

Community, or Klal Yisrael, acknowledges that we are a people linked arm in arm throughout history. Conservative Judaism has been the most community oriented of all streams of Jewish life. Repeatedly in Jewish organizations and federations Conservative Jews have taken positions of leadership. Judaism is not an individual spiritual discipline but a communal religious enterprise. How we help one another, comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, support our sisters and brothers in Israel and throughout the world, is at the center of our mission.

We did not end the convention with a conclusion, not yet. But we have laughed and cried and prayed and struggled and rejoiced with each other for thousands of years, and deeply believe that Conservative Judaism, whatever it is called, is the most authentic modern expression of that journey. So let us continue to seek to express what we believe we are -- the beating heart of the Jewish world. From flourishing commitment will grow a name worthy of our passion.