Why does British Jewry need the Masorti Movement?
Like ten years ago, a leader from the Reform Movement predicted that in 20 years from then Masorti would disappear, leaving only Orthodox and Reform. Well, there are still 10 years to see if he was right… but it doesn’t look like.
More or less at the same time, an important Orthodox rabbi, Avi Shafran, called our movement a “lie”. He is not Haredi, not fanatic, but said that even if we claim that we keep Halakha¸ Jewish Law, a very small number of our membership really keep Kashrut or Shabbat in any meaningful way. Even more, that our rabbis interpret Jewish Law in a forced way in order to adapt it to our modern needs. Friends, today is Yom Kippur, day of reflection and honesty, and we must recognize that there is some truth on these accusations, only that of course the truth is always more complex.
So we are attacked from the left by the Reform Movement, from the right by the Orthodox; but we attack ourselves as well, we are critical of the institutions of the movement and their decisions and sometimes pessimistic about our future. Oy! It’s depressing, what can a Masorti Rabbi do with all these tzures, these problems, with all these fears? And it’s clear, to seek the advice of a wizard… and not just any wizard, but the Wizard of Oz!
You see, the truth is that we can understand these problems as the same problems of the scarecrow, the tin-man and the cowardly lion. As the scarecrow, we are afraid we don’t have a brain, that we lack an intellectual base for our interpretation of Judaism. As the tin-man, we are afraid that we don’t have a heart, that we have a super-rational Judaism without developing kindness and love for other Jews, for other people, or even worst, that we lost our faith and deep love for G-d. And as the cowardly lion, we are afraid that we don’t have enough courage to stand and be proud of our Judaism, of our community, of the achievements and contributions of the Masorti and Conservative Movement to the Jewish People.
Let’s start with the scarecrow. Do we have a brain? Are there any real reasons to be Masorti Jews instead of Orthodox? Is there a real difference between Masorti and Reform Judaism? There is a funny sentence that says: Reform are lazy, Conservative are hazy and Orthodox are crazy. Not really a complement for any of the streams and I don’t think this sentence is fair, even if there is some truth to it. To call the Masorti Movement hazy it’s a contemptuous and disrespectful way to say that we struggle with certain subjects a lot and we don’t always get to an answer of yes or no. It makes us sound as confused and confusing.
The truth is, however, that this is the essence of Judaism itself. No, not to be confused, but to struggle all the time with certain subjects and situations, not always to being able to get clear answers. Take every page in the Talmud and you will see that it’s about 80% discussions between the rabbis about every single possible subject in the World. What about conclusions? Well, they are not always clear and easy to get.
This struggle even appears in the name of our People. What is the name that Yaakov our father receives after he struggles with the angel that night in Bet El? The angel gave him the name Israel. And why? “Because you struggled with G-d and men and succeeded”. Since then we see ourselves as those that struggle with G-d. People that make an effort, discuss and invest a lot of time and energy to try to understand G-d and what He wants from us as a People. As G-d is very challenging for any single person to understand, it is not surprising that we don’t get to clear and easy conclusions. Actually, I am very suspicious of people that seem to know EXACTLY what G-d wants.
Therefore, we the Jews often arrive to various answers for the same problem. We used to see this as a good thing. Shivim Panim la Torah, 70 faces to the Torah we were told by the Sages. And Torah, by the way, comes from the same root of teacher and education. The Torah is what the teacher teaches, our source of wisdom, our guide for life, the foundation of our covenant with G-d Almighty.
Judaism was never a fundamentalist religion, we never understood the text as it is, without interpretation. Actually, if you open a Torah with commentary, especially the classic ones like Mikraot Gdolot, you will see in every page a few verses from the Torah and maybe 20 different interpretations about it, and these are only the most popular ones! Our Sages knew very well that the Torah needs different interpretations, because if not it will become a fossil, unable to live in our changing World.
There is a Midrash that asks why all the time says in the Torah Vayomer Hashem el Moshe leemor”, “and G-d said to Moshe”, G-d could have given the Torah or the different laws already in writing, black ink on white parchment. The Midrash answers that G-d didn’t want the Torah to be already in writing, He wanted to give it flexibility of interpretation in the action of communication with Moses through speech and not in writing. In this way, the rabbis of future generations would be able to interpret the verses in 49 ways to permit something and in 49 ways to forbid the same thing. The only way to decide what are we supposed to do in practice is for the rabbis to vote and go after the majority. The Masorti Movement didn’t write this Midrash, this is what the Talmudic Sages said 2000 years ago in the Jerusalem Talmud.
Therefore, if we go back to the scarecrow, I think that the Wizard would have told him something like this: My friend, of course you have a brain and don’t listen to those who say otherwise. The fact that you can study Jewish texts using modern tools of interpretation, or comparing them to other ancient texts, making the Jewish tradition relevant for our times, this is a real symbol of wisdom, of curiosity, of creativity and critical thinking. The fact that sometimes you get to different conclusions on the same issues is not a sign of schizophrenia. You always had a brain. Actually you had a few giants, great and wise teachers, that helped in giving vision and form for all the People of Israel. People like Solomon Schechter, Henrietta Szold, Louis Finkelstein, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, Robert Gordis, Louis Jacobs, Judith Hauptmann, Gershon Cohen and many others that even today continue to discover new secrets in the Torah. What you don’t have enough is books that spread your ideas. Specially electronic books that enable easy access to all these wise teachers. Therefore, here you have an account in Amazon Kindle, now go and study!
Let’s hear now the problem of the tin-man: Do we have a heart? Maybe we developed a hyper-rationalistic Judaism, Ultra-intellectual, and we ignored the human contact, the kindness, the love to other Jews and people. Maybe we lost our real faith in G-d.
The vision of Solomon Schechter, one of our founding fathers, was to give a space to all Israel, what he called the Catholic Israel, the union of all the Jews. He wanted to bring under the same roof Orthodox, Mystics until the most radical of the Reform. Simply, it was not a practical idea, one Judaism is not suitable for all Jews. There are Jews that don’t want to even think about the possibility that Moshe didn’t write the Torah, even in front of all the research of the last 200 years in Archeology, Language Analysis, Comparison between Cultures and Literary Sources… to be honest, today it is almost a fact that Moshe could not have written even most of the Torah. That the Torah is the result of hundreds of years of oral stories, rituals, laws and study, that it was edited in a later period. But there are Jews who prefer not to accept the modern research as legitimate and that’s ok.
There are Jews who feel the need for separate seating for men and women in the Synagogue, there are Jews who don’t want women on the Bimah at all. There are Jews who prefer short services of half an hour, an hour maximum; and others who will be very disappointed with such a superficial prayer. There are Jews who want non-kosher food on the Bar Mitzvah party of their son and others who would just leave if that food is served. Therefore, it is logical to think that there will be always at least 3 movements in Judaism that will offer their members elements that they can agree upon, but Schechter was right, however, in a different way. Maybe we do need separate movements, but ours always felt that it is not the only voice of Judaism. We feel that there is much to be learnt from our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox movements, as from our brothers and sisters from the Reform movement. We believe that there is an important role for all of them to play in the People of Israel, we just feel that we also have such a role. The vision of the Masorti Movement was always pluralistic.
So of course that the Masorti Movement has a heart! We accept everyone and we have a big heart. Nice, so we love other Jews, but what about G-d?
It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the one that taught us about the importance to see the World with eyes similar to those of a child, with the ability to be marvelled and impressed. He would arrive to teach and say that in the morning he saw a miracle, the Sun appeared over the mountains. Every moment is an opportunity to celebrate life and the Giver of Life, the Creator of the World.
So the wizard would tell us: Of course you have a heart! You must use it more, go now and say Hatimah Tovah to the other people in the Shul, also to those that you don’t know, especially to those you don’t know. Try to make everyone feel at home, invite each other to Shabbat meals. Don’t speak bad about other people, or other movements, they also have their place in the Jewish World. Come more to Shul to express your love for G-d, and if you don’t like the service come and tell us how to improve it. See the miracles surrounding you every day, open your hearts to G-d, He would want you to be closer to Him. Maybe what you are missing is a symbol of this love, like a wedding ring, therefore I am giving you a set of Tefillin, when you use them you will say the words: “I will betroth you forever, in justice, in law, in kindness, in mercy, in faith and knowledge of G-d. This will be the symbol of the love between you and the Creator.
Finally we speak to the cowardly lion. Do we have the courage to stand and be proud of our Movement? Our Movement is important for the Jewish World, we symbolize the Golden Path, the living centre that bridges between the very different Worlds of the Reform and the Orthodox. The motto in the Reform Movement is “personal choice”, leaving little space for the need to take the tradition seriously, to dive into the wisdom of our sources, the emphasis is put in change, how to change Judaism in order to adapt it to modern culture.
On the other side, the Orthodox for 200 years and especially in the last decade became more and more strict on their interpretation of Jewish Law. They look for ways to be more extreme, more connected to rules and customs of a culture that doesn’t exist anymore, outside of the self imposed ghettos that they chose to live in. The emphasis is on the tradition.
As a people we need both of them, Reform and Orthodox, who play an important role in the creative energy of our People. But we need also the Masorti Movement, because we declare proudly that both ideas have a value in Judaism today: Tradition and change. We are a movement that struggles a lot to keep both sides of the range and find creative ways to bridge between them.
But, do we have the courage to stand behind our unique approach? Will we do our part in adding our voice to the choir of the Jewish People, singing clearly and loudly why we are Masorti Jews?
The wizard would tell us: Of course you have courage! Why, if not, did you come today to this place and spend hours in prayer, and listening to the rabbi’s sermon? You could have stayed home… go for a walk… You came because you have courage and faith to be part of this holy congregation! And in a culture that encourages secularism and sometimes attack religion, you need courage to choose to come to Shul, more to come to this specific Shul. I will give you free wifi so you can connect to the Internet and learn from the voices of the Masorti Movement all over the World, through its Rabbinical seminaries in South America, the US and Israel. Through the Rabbinical Assembly, the sites of communities and individuals that form one huge international discussion about the principles and content of the Masorti Movement. Go with your membership in the Movement as a medal that speaks about your faith, courage and commitment!
Does British Jewry need the Masorti Movement? Does the Jewish World need it? Of course it does. We have a brain, we have a heart, we have courage and as Dorothy herself learnt: There is no place like home!
Gmar Hatimah Tovah!