Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Ki hamitzvah hazot asher Anokhi m’tzav’cha hayom lo niflei’t hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi.
For this commandment that I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Dvarim 30:11)
V’atah kitvu lakhem et hashirah hazot v’lamdah et b’nei Yisrael simah b’fihem…
And now, you all write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel; put it in their mouths… (D’varim 31:19)
A few weeks ago, I performed a wedding. At the reception following a guest, for whom this was his first Jewish wedding, asked me how the Conservative service was different from the Orthodox service he was attending in a few weeks. It is not, but the reality is, it doesn’t matter. Too often Conservative Judaism is evaluated according to what the Orthodox do. We seem to believe that in order to be traditional Conservative Jews we must appear closer to Orthodoxy rather than be Conservative. Too often we hear, “The Orthodox do everything; the Reform nothing, and the Conservative are somewhere in the middle.” This description does a disservice to all involved. Our ideology is not about whether we do all or nothing, but how we act upon the mitzvot that God has commanded us. For each movement, there is an ideology and theology that informs how we make our decisions.
Conservative/Masorti Judaism is not merely the one in the middle. Conservative ideology believes the Torah shebichtav was given at Sinai. The Torah she’b’al peh are the words of the Hachamim and Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud, taught by those in whose name we learn, with an additional eye beyond towards history. The mitzvot given in the Torah are divine and required. Mitzvah means commandment. How we interpret them changes due to culture and history. Where we fall on the spectrum of traditional to liberal is informed by the weight we give to mitzvah, culture, and history in our discussions.
Torah tells us that the mitzvot are meant to be easy for us to observe. They should not be a hardship. They are like an earworm, a song that stays in our minds, repeating on our lips. The words of Torah, the Shema, the melodies of the upcoming holidays, the words of the Hagaddah, and more are placed in our minds, sealed in our hearts, and forever on our lips, needing just a little nudge, maybe a few notes or a word, to have us singing them together.
They should not be so far from our life in this world that we have to separate ourselves from the world to observe them. They should a natural part of our lives as we live them today with an unwavering connection to our history. That is the ideology and theology of Conservative Judaism. The mitzvot are binding, but in every generation, how we interpret and observe them changes, from the Talmud until today. Conservative Judaism is informed Judaism. It is not hard, nor far off because it expects Jews to do what we always have. It expects that these words will be in our mouths and our hearts daily through questioning and discussion. It expects that we will consistently be examining how Judaism and the mitzvot speak to us every day. And, it expects that we will not simply observe because ‘this is the way we’ve always done things.’ Rather, we will work continuously to make Judaism, traditional, halakhic Judaism new and relevant every day through vibrant, joyous, personal close relationships to the mitzvot and Jewish life.
Whether kashrut, Shabbat observance, or t’fillah, whether Torah reading, tallit or t’fillin, whether study or simple daily mitzvot, we must strive to bring these into our lives and close to our hearts. If we have not been observing them in the past, we should strive to do so in the future. Franz Rosenzweig was once asked if he wore tefillin. Rosenzweig answered, “Not yet.” We may not yet observe all 613 mitzvot, but let us remember they are not too hard, nor far off. They are a song that will soon repeat in our hearts, minds, and in the words of our mouths. Let’s hope 5775 will be the year each of us brings the mitzvot into our lives, drawing them ever closer.