Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Colleagues in Convention Convened

My regular readers know how much I like it when a book I am reading seems somehow magically to mirror something that is actually happening in my life at the same time. I’ve written to you about some such occurrences on several occasions, but I had another one this last week while I was both getting further into Kenzaburo Oe’s newly translated novel, The Changeling, which I am enjoying immensely and also attending the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative and masorti rabbis of which I have been a member for more than thirty years.

Oe’s book, based on the real-life suicide of his brother-in-law and its complicated aftermath, is about a lot of different things but is mostly a kind of meditation on the way the past lives through the present and on into the future, and how this process is somehow both dependent on the individuals involved and also independent of them. I don’t want to write about it here in detail both because I’m still in the middle of the book (and you all know, I think, how much I don’t like to express myself about books I haven’t finished reading yet) and also because I’m not entirely sure I have seized the nuances of Oe’s basic concept more than just vaguely. But the notion that the past, as William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, is not only never dead but also not really even ever truly past has been with me all week as I’ve spent days in the company of about five hundred rabbis, among whom I number many colleagues who have been my friends for well over half my life. But even among those who are not intimate friends are many people that I’ve known for decades and whom I have watched grow and develop over the many years that have passed since they were first ordained and set loose on the world as newly-minted rabbis. And then there are scores of other rabbis that I’ve met here and there along the way and towards whom I harbor collegial feelings even without really knowing them intimately or, in some cases, very well at all.

These conventions are actually peculiar experiences. Because I see so many of my colleagues only once a year, there is something in the experience that is more akin to the way time lapse photography works than to the way we generally observe our friends as they pass through the years of their lives. Indeed, seeing my colleagues a year or so older every time I look makes the aging process seem acute and more than vaguely menacing in a way it almost never does when we see people regularly and barely notice them growing more gaunt or more chubby or more gray or more bald as time passes slowly and mostly non-threateningly. I have also lived through some extreme variations on this theme in the last few days. Tuesday evening, for example, I found myself unexpectedly listening to a lecture given by a woman whom I had last seen in summer camp in 1972 when we were both nineteen. (She looked like she had grown up to be her own mother, which thought you will be pleased to know I had the presence of mind to keep to myself.) And then Wednesday morning I met a JTS professor whom I had last laid eyes on, I believe, in 1978. (He looked somewhere between ancient and spectral, yet his voice was strong and he sounded clearly to be as sharp as ever even if he clearly had no recollection of ever having met me previously.) And layered over all these kinds of Dorian Gray experiences was the parallel one of meeting young, recently-ordained rabbis, some of whom actually are the children of my classmates, and wondering when they started letting people into rabbinical school directly out of junior high school. (And, yes, I know they don’t even have junior high schools anymore, but what can I do about that?) Can you feel old and young at the same time? I’ve been feeling that way all week! But mostly I’ve been feeling invigorated and hopeful about the future of the Conservative movement in a way that I haven’t felt in recent months or perhaps even in recent years.

There were about five hundred rabbis in attendance and since the convention was held in Morningside Heights on the JTS campus there were also some pre-ordained rabbinical-student-types hanging around and taking part in the program as well. As I wandered from classroom to plenary session to lecture hall and back again, I was struck by the degree to which my colleagues have, almost to a rabbi, kept faith with their calling. I am usually much more cynical about things, but here were so many people—young and old, male and female, North American and Israeli and Latin American and European—all still dedicated to the same set of values they began to embrace, some of them at least, as children or teenagers, and which still serve as the ideational pillars of their spiritual worldviews. And it was also moving to observe them all still so intensely interested in learning more, in sharpening and deepening their understanding even of basic ideas that they themselves have taught to others not dozens but hundreds of times, in broadening the basis of their own learning and their own sense of what the Torah exists to teach us all. I felt inspired by the presence of so many people wandering the same path in life that I myself have chosen to wander…and the degree to which they are still keepin’ on keepin’ on, still chipping away at the marble in the expectation that David will eventually emerge. (I am thinking of Michelangelo’s remark that the way to create a statue like his David is simply to buy a huge block of marble and then chip away the parts that don’t look like David.) I felt hopeful at JTS this week, hopeful and optimistic and confident about the worth of our message and our approach to Judaism. It was a great convention!

Much has been written lately about the doldrums in which our movement is said to find itself, about the degree to which we have lost our way. I fret about that myself a fair amount of the time, but I came away from the convention this year energized and reminded that the world is still filled with rabbis who refuse to surrender their spiritual or intellectual integrity, who feel drawn to help create a kind of Judaism and Jewishness that is as suffused with honesty about the past as it is with hope about the future, who say their prayers every day not because they are paid by their congregations to show up at minyan but because they are possessed of the conviction that there really is a God in heaven to listens to all prayers spoken honestly and humbly, and who are convinced that the future to which our people is called will be attained neither by making a fetish out of anti-intellectualism nor by denigrating traditional modes of observance and piety. As I wandered around JTS and looked at the rabbis who had assembled there for a few days of relaxation and rededication, I felt proud to be numbered among them. And I think that you would have felt the same way if you too could have been there this week!

A highlight of the convention was the dedication of Machzor Lev Shalem, the new prayer book for the High Holidays that we will be introducing this year at Shelter Rock and which many other congregations have also purchased. (The book has already gone into a second printing and about 130,000 copies have been sold as of a few days ago. And many more copies are expected to be sold before the holidays.) After more than a decade of work under the leadership of Rabbi Edward Feld, the book is ready. I have a copy in my possession—orders in bulk have yet to be shipped but individual copies were available at the convention—and I am entirely convinced that this book will radically improve the average worshipers ability successfully and movingly to be drawn into the prayer service on the High Holidays. I went to the dedication partially out of allegiance to the committee that produced the book under Rabbi Feld’s leadership, but also because I have been a part of the Rabbinical Assembly’s effort to publish quality books of many different sorts for well over a decade. And so, seeing this effort—this incredibly complicated and creative effort—come to a happy conclusion was truly thrilling for me and it too reminded me why I am feeling so upbeat about the future: the kind of movement that can produce a work of this caliber is not moribund or in decline, but both alive with ideas and with purpose, and also entirely sure of the worth of its message to the world. You’ll love the book! But I think I love even more what the existence of the book says about the future of Conservative Judaism in the world.

I signed on as a Conservative rabbi years ago because I was unconvinced that religion absent candor could amount to much and because I could not imagine that it could ultimately be necessary to purchase my faith with my intellectual probity. I feel even more certain now than I did back then that I was right….and somehow the existence of Machzor Lev Shalem seems to demonstrate to me how just right I was and still am to feel that way.

I’ve been going to these conventions for a very long time. For many years, they were as often at the Concord resort in the Catskills as they were elsewhere. But then the Concord closed down and the RA began to hold its conferences in all sorts of different places. As was probably inevitably going to be the case, some of these worked out less well than others. But, as the years pass, I find myself less focused on the specifics of venue and menu that pertain at any particular convention and far more drawn to consider the pageant of shared purpose and purposeful enterprise that is unfolding all around me as I survey the scene and attempt successfully to take it all in. As I wandered around JTS this week and communed with colleagues from near and far, I felt hopeful and proud. I wish you all could have been there with me!

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