November 8, 2007
Briefs: Interfaith call to action from Reform organization, Conservatives reflect on future
The prophet Amos said, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream." Why the word "justice" and not "charity?" Because justice addresses the root of a problem, Rabbi Suzanne Singer said, paraphrasing Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America's Union for Reform Judaism and the man who started the Reform movement's lobbying arm, the Religious Action Center.
"Congregations tend to be good at doing a mitzvah day -- feed the hungry, clothing the poor -- and that's very important, but we also need to spend time addressing the root of the problem, so there are fewer hungry people, fewer poor people," said Rabbi Singer, the chair of Interfaith Call to Justice: LA 2007. The Nov. 11-12 conference will be a two-day interfaith social justice training and community strategy planning conference.
Singer organized her first advocacy conference in 2005 at Temple Sinai of Oakland, and the upcoming southern conference follows the same model. An interfaith effort with some 60 sponsors, "the point of the conference is to help congregants get involved in [local] legislative and public policy advocacy," she said. While her first conference focused on the problems -- housing costs, hunger, poverty, etc. -- this one will focus on how to solve those problems, by teaching participants effective advocacy, community organizing, and working with existing organizations in those fields.
But why interfaith?
"Each one of our faiths mandates that we must take care of strangers, widows, orphans," Singer said. "We really need to join forces and come together. We can set our differences aside and work for common goals."
Organizers request that participants sign up online by Friday, at http://www.call-to-justice.org.
On The Future of Judaism
Being Jewish in the next generation is largely a matter of choice, Rabbi Arnold M. Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) said last Friday night at Temple Sinai. The seventh JTS chancellor was the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Scholar-in-Residence, and in the course of the weekend delivered three lectures on the future of American Judaism, including "Modernity, Mitzvah and the Future of American Judaism," "The Meanings of Mitzvah" and "Rethinking Conservative Judaism."
"Moses Mendelssohn already recognized that volunteerism, choice, autonomy, individual responsibility -- while wonderful, wonderful things -- complicate the job of [building] Jewish community," Eisen said. Unlike Rashi and Rambam, Mendelssohn was the first Jewish thinker "who had to worry that the Jews who read his book might decide not to be Jewish because they didn't like what he said in his book," he said.
In other words, Jews today must confront the fact that -- unlike in the past -- being Jewish is largely voluntary. "Therefore, since we must persuade every Jew to step into a Jewish time and space ... you can't anymore presume that they should be here, or you have the right to demand they be here, because they'll just run the other way if you do that -- and you have to fill these spaces with contents that are so full of joy and excitement that they need to be here," Eisen said. "This is not an easy thing."
The way to do it is by building community -- particularly Jewish camps and day schools that imbue the values of the community. "We are in the business of building communities. If we do not do this, nothing else will be successful in 2007 in the United States of America."
Eisen spoke about denominationalism and the future of Conservative Judaism in greater depth on Sunday, but on Friday night he said the current trend toward post-denominationalism, or groups who may be Conservative in practice but don't identify as such, are not a problem for the movement. "Conservative Jews don't see it as a loss if they participate in a group that's not labeled Conservative, but just Jewish," Eisen said. He himself is a product of this trend, since years ago he belonged to the non-denominational Minyan Ma'at in New York, which later produced many of the faculty at JTS.
"What is best for the Jewish [community] is best. We're not here to build up a particular movement; we're here to build up the Jewish people," Eisen said.
Nevertheless, he did say that where denominations fit in is that one can't be a Jew in general, but eventually must make decisions such as where to send kids to school, what type of prayers one wants, what is one's outlook on the world. "You'll have to answer questions like this," he said. "You'll very likely band together with people who see things like you do."
"I think that we have to get our minds around a different notion of what denominations are. They're not ends in themselves. They're not ultimate. They're adjectives. There are things that are far more important," he said. "It is not truly important whether there are Conservative Jews 100 years from now; it is important whether Torah exists, that God is talked about and believed in and acted upon. That is ultimately important...."