In Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors, 3:3, Rabbi Hananiah Ben Tradyon teaches that when two persons meet and do not exchange words of Torah, they are regarded as a company of scoffers, but if two people meet and do exchange words of Torah, the Shekhinah, the divine presence, hovers over them.
This teaching is a perfect explanation as to why we begin our executive committee meetings at Sutton Place Synagogue, in New York City, with words of Torah. The content of the teaching, and the meetings themselves, vary from month to month, but the goal remains the same: the work the lay and professional leadership is engaging in is sacred. Starting with words of Torah sets the stage for a meeting that is done l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, even when discussing earthly and some-times difficult matters.
Over the past year we have been studying the recently compiled book of essays, Conservative Judaism: Today and Tomorrow, by Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The goal is to help us understand not only the major issues in the Jewish world of the 21st century but how Judaism’s time-less ideas and wisdom can help direct very specific conversations about what it means to lead a Conservative synagogue.
Three essays in particular had enormous impact on our leadership. In the essay about community, Chancellor Eisen says, “Only strong face-to-face community has the power to persuade Jews to remain Jews and to sustain the conviction that our beliefs and values really matter to the world.” That led to a conversation about what Jewish values our congregation embodies. While not surprising, it was wonderful to have the participants enumerate the values of our community, from hospitality to learning, from prayer to tzedakah, respectful relationship, and more. The chancellor’s comments allowed the leaders to understand not only what the synagogue does, but why.
The essay on covenant was also crucial when thinking about the role of leaders. In quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel, Chancellor Eisen shared, “Judaism provides a life-giving answer to what he called the vital personal question which every human being is called upon to answer, day in, day out. What shall I do with my mind, my wealth, my power?” This kind of question is crucial for leaders of any synagogue. They need to understand that they are there to think not only about themselves but about the people they serve. To start a meeting with this framework elevates the conversation to where it should be.
Finally, during the week of Israel’s Yom HaZikaron (Memo-rial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) we framed our meeting with the “Peoplehood and Israel” essay. “It is also no coincidence that the Conservative Movement, with its stress upon Klal Yisrael, Hebrew, and Jewish history, has placed unique emphasis since its inception (and still does) upon connection to the People, Land, and State of Israel. Conservative Jews’ enthusiasm for Zionism and Israel is bound up in our guiding, fundamental conviction that the Torah is meant to be lived fully by the Jewish people in the radically new circumstances of modernity.” In reading these words, the congregation’s leaders saw themselves as part of a greater whole, a key value of Conservative Judaism. By connecting to Israel – both as a place and a people – we reminded ourselves of the global Jewish community in which we live.
Torah comes in all forms. There is the Torah of Moses, the Torah of the Rabbis, and Torah over the ages, that is, the Torah of people of all backgrounds and experiences who mold it to provide answers, or at least meaningful questions, to those on life’s journey. The ability to study “with” Chancellor Eisen at our meetings has sharpened our conversations and focused our energies, and for this, we are grateful.
From the essay, “Community,” in Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow. by Chancellor Arnold Eisen
But the most important source of community among Jews is the Covenant to which we are summoned. A Conservative Jew has a front-row seat at Sinai, so to speak – and a seat at the tables of Jewish learning and action, where we do our best to figure out how Torah should be lived and taught here and now – in ways that have never before been imagined. Every one of us is needed for that work, not just rabbis or scholars. Physicians and scientists are needed, artists and investors, parents of children and children to aging parents. The experience of under-taking the task as part of a community enables us to understand why Torah has long been a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Held fast by community, we chant those words with special fervor and hope that our dance around the Torah will never end.