Conservative Judaism Detroit Jewish Law JTS Rabbi

Rabbi Danny Nevins in the Detroit Jewish News

From the Detroit Jewish News
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman

Rabbi Daniel Nevins sees his new job as dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as “both an honor and a challenge.”

The rabbi has served Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills for 13 years. He will begin his new post on July 1, moving to New York with his wife, Lynn, and their three children. The move also will take him nearer to his family in New Jersey.

“As dean, I will recruit and direct hundreds of new rabbis as they begin their journey of serving God and the Jewish people,” wrote Rabbi Nevins, 40, in a Jan. 29 letter to congregants of the 1,050-family synagogue. “Without doubt, it is the great reputation of Adat Shalom that inspired the JTS search committee to ask me to serve as dean of our movement’s oldest and largest rabbinical school.”

Of becoming the dean of the school from which he received rabbinic ordination in 1994, he said, “I am honored and excited by the opportunity to serve as Pearl Resnick dean,” Rabbi Nevins said. “I have had an extraordinary experience as rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue. I have experimented in the ultimate laboratory of Jewish life, learning what works through the prism of countless pastoral, intellectual and spiritual interactions with my congregation. I will miss my community, but I will take what I have learned from them to benefit the next generation of rabbis.” […]

Communal reaction to Rabbi Nevins’ new post is bittersweet.

Rabbi Jason Miller, who grew up at Adat Shalom and now serves Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio, said, “Danny is a rabbi’s rabbi and always seems to just ‘get it.’ When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, my classmates would ask me to call Danny when they had questions.

“He is an academic and a spiritual guide. He is progressive and yet always guarding the tradition. This is a wonderful choice for JTS and for our movement. Together with Chancellor Arnie Eisen, Dean Danny Nevins will help get us to where we need to be.”

Rabbi Nevins succeeds Rabbi William Lebeau, who twice served as dean of the rabbinic school.

In a letter to his congregation, Adat Shalom President David Schostak wrote: “We are very sorry to see him go, but we take pride in the fact that he has excelled to the point that he has been asked to be dean of the rabbinical school, one of the highest and most important positions in our movement.”

In his congregational letter, Rabbi Nevins wrote: “As I reflect upon these years, I am filled with gratitude to God for allowing me to work with such an extraordinary community. These years have been ones of deep satisfaction. I feel truly blessed and cannot imagine being happier as a congregational rabbi.”

Praising his rabbinic colleagues, professional staff and lay leadership, he said, “I am confident that our congregation will continue to flourish.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit JTS Michigan Rabbi

Having to Share My Rebbe

When Rabbi Danny Nevins, my friend, colleague, and personal rabbi, told me a couple months ago that he was being considered for the position of Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Conservative Movement’s central academic institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was immediately torn.

On the one hand, I knew how many people at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan (including my parents) would be devastated to lose their beloved rabbi. On the other hand, I knew how many Jewish people around the world would benefit greatly from having their own rabbis influenced by Danny’s insight, warmth, sincerety, and brilliance.

Rabbi Danny Nevins became the rabbi of my shul just as I was heading off to college, but I quickly found in him everything I was looking for in a personal spiritual advisor — a rebbe. He comforted me when my grandfather passed away. He’s written numerous letters of recommendation on my behalf. He officiated at my wedding and the naming celebrations for two of my children. For the past thirteen years, as I decided to become a rabbi, studied in rabbinical school, and took my own congregation, Rabbi Nevins has been my closest advisor. He’s a rabbi’s rabbi and always seems to just “get it.” He is an academic and a spiritual guide. He is progressive and yet always guarding the Tradition.

It is bittersweet to know that I will now have to share his wise counsel with hundreds of other rabbis — both future and present leaders of the Jewish community. But for the sake of Judaism and the future strength of the Conservative Movement, this is a wonderful choice. Together with Chancellor Arnie Eisen, Dean Danny Nevins will help bring the Conservative Movement to its true potential.

Mazel Tov to Rabbi Nevins… chazak v’amatz!

The Detroit Free Press article is here.

Here is the press release from JTS:

The Jewish Theological Seminary announced today that Rabbi Daniel Nevins has been named the next Dean of The Rabbinical School. The Jewish Theological Seminary is the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism worldwide.

Rabbi Nevins, who will assume his post on July 1, 2007, succeeds Rabbi William Lebeau, who joined JTS as Vice Chancellor for Rabbinic Development in 1988. Since then, he has served twice as Dean of The Rabbinical School, from 1993-1999, and most recently from June 2004 until the present.

Rabbi Nevins is currently the Senior Rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where he previously served as Assistant Rabbi. A 1994 graduate of The Rabbinical School, he received an MA in Hebrew Letters from JTS in 1991 and a BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College in 1989, from where he also received an MA in history. A native of New Jersey, Rabbi Nevins studied at Yeshivat HaMivtar in Jerusalem, and was the recipient of the prestigious Wexner Foundation Graduate Fellowship.

“I am delighted to announce the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the next Dean of The Rabbinical School,” said Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor-elect of JTS. “Rabbi Nevins brings to his new tasks the wealth of experience, wisdom and compassion gained during his thirteen years as a congregational rabbi in a thriving community. He also impressed the Search Committee and me with his energy, his ideas, and his passionate commitment to Torah, the Jewish people, and Conservative Judaism. Danny’s deep appreciation for our movement’s standards, its principles, and its pluralistic nature will serve us well at this time of challenge and transition for the movement. His years of work on the Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee are a testament to his vision, his leadership, and his scholarship. I am excited at the prospect of working with Rabbi Nevins as I assume the leadership of JTS, certain that he will meet our challenges with confidence and seize hold with both hands of the many opportunities before us.”

“I am honored and excited by the opportunity to serve as Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School,” stated Rabbi Nevins. “For the past thirteen years I have had an extraordinary experience as Rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue. I have experimented in the ultimate laboratory of Jewish life, learning what works through the prism of countless pastoral, intellectual, and spiritual interactions with my congregation. I will miss my community, but I will take what I have learned from them to benefit the next generation of rabbis. As Dean of The Rabbinical School, I look forward to working with an extraordinary team of faculty, students, and administrators to create a sacred place of Torah study and observance.”

Rabbi Nevins serves on the Rabbinical Assembly’s International Executive Council and is a member of the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) His halakhic writings include several responsa approved by the CJLS as well as co-authorship of “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah,” a responsum arguing for the normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews that was approved by the CJLS last month. His many general Jewish essays include, among others, “A Place Among the Mourners of Zion,” an exploration of the history and meaning of a familiar expression of comfort, published in Conservative Judaism (Summer 2006), and “Gadol Kvod HaBriot: Placing Human Dignity in the Center of Conservative Judaism,” which appeared in Judaism (Summer 2005), a quarterly journal published by the American Jewish Congress.

Rabbi Nevins is past President of the Michigan region of the Rabbinical Assembly and serves on the Board of the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. Deeply committed to interfaith and interreligious work, he is past President of the Farmington Area Interfaith Association and the ecumenical Michigan Board of Rabbis, and a member of the Board of the Detroit chapter of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. In May 2005, Rabbi Nevins led a group of Protestant and Catholic leaders on a unique trip that included Pope Benedict XVI’s first public audience, Yom Hasho’ah (Holocaust Memorial Day) at Titus’s Arch in Rome, and a week in Israel visiting Jewish and Christian holy places.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Hillel Jewish JTS Synaplex

Arnie Eisen’s Listening Tour Makes News

I was surprised to see one article in the Wall Street Journal incorporate three organizations I’ve been involved with: The Jewish Theological Seminary, Hillel, and the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex.

This is a great article about how Jewish organizations are finally going out and learning what the people want. If I wrote this article (and I’m not sure why I didn’t), I would have included the same institutions that this author does. I commend Prof. Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for following through on what he promised (in meetings I had with him in both Detroit and Columbus) by conducting a listening tour throughout the Conservative movement to determine what matters most to Conservative Jews. I’m glad to see his devotion to the cause is getting this type of exposure.

I was also happy to see Rabbi Hayim Herring interviewed for this article. Rabbi Herring is the executive director of the STAR Foundation, which runs two programs that I am very much involved with — Synaplex and PEER. Like the author of this article recognizes in her subtitle, “consultant speak” has definitely found its way into organized religion (or at least Judaism).

Reviving Judaism

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton got started on a new “listening tour.” Her first one, during the 2000 Senate campaign, was aimed at soliciting the ideas of New York voters on what legislative issues were important to them. This one is aimed at hearing the thoughts of Democratic strategists on the subject of her presidential run. But the idea behind the tours remained the same: Find out what the people want–and, if possible, give it to them.Arnie-Eisen
In politics, such an approach has an irrefutable democratic logic. But is it well suited to religion? Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has spent the past few months on a “listening tour” of his own, holding town-hall meetings around the country to figure out how to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism. Mr. Eisen is looking to find out what Jews want–and, if possible, give it to them.

Trying to make Judaism more popular is not a new idea. Jewish leaders have worried for decades that high rates of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to diminish dramatically. And they are right. Between 1990 and 2000, the American Jewish population declined to 5.2 million from 5.5 million. With Jewish women getting married later in life and having fewer children, this trend is likely only to accelerate.

But the most recent response to this crisis has been less than inspiring. The Jewish Week recently published “17 Seriously Cool Ideas to Remake New York’s Jewish Community.” These included creating a Jewish culinary institute, building a kibbutz in the Big Apple, providing high-quality Jewish toddler care, hosting a hipper Israeli Independence Day parade, and baking better kosher pizza.

Perhaps these ideas were meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but other ideas are not–and probably should be. Take a new project called Synaplex. Sponsored by the Star Foundation, Synaplex is, according to its Web site, “designed to provide people with new reasons to make the synagogue the place to be on Shabbat.” About 125 synagogues are already “enabling people to celebrate Shabbat the way they want to.”

What does that mean? Instead of attending a traditional service, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Star’s executive director, tells me, some people would do “Medi-Torah” or “Torah and Yoga.” Others might attend a lecture or go to a musical service followed by a “latte cart.” And still others might prefer to attend a Friday night wine-and-cheese reception. [Continue Reading]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism

United Synagogue Sells its Headquarters Building

I just received an announcement from the Conservative Movement’s lay organization, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), that they have sold their international headquarters building — Rapaport House.

USCJ has entered into a contract for the sale of 155 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and are working to establish a closing date for the purchase of two floors of office condominium space at 820 Second Avenue in Manhattan. The new headquarters will continue to bear the Rapaport family name.

I’ve found the Rapaport House to be stuck in the 1970s in terms of its internal physical appearance. Some, including me, have criticized United Synagogue of operating as if it were an organization stuck in the 1970s (okay — to be fair, the 1980s). Hopefully, this edifice and location change will result in improved operations for the congregational arm of the Conservative Movement for generations to come for the benefit of Conservative Jews and USCJ-affiliated synagogues.

The rest of the announcement is below:

The decision to sell the property at 155 Fifth Avenue represents the culmination of years of internal discussion, a comprehensive survey of needs and security concerns, and consultation with space planners, architects and realtors. It is our belief that the new facility will provide United Synagogue with operating and management efficiencies. It had become clear that the building offers a less-than-desirable working environment to our employees, who are dispersed over seven floors. We considered renovating the building, but the cost of doing so made a move a more desirable outcome.

The board resolution requires that the balance remaining after payment of the purchase price and relocation expenses be placed into a restricted account, used only for extraordinary expenses beyond the purview of the normal operating budget in the upkeep of this or other new property. The interest from that restricted account will be available only for improvements of the premises and other budgetary items for the premises that were not part of the usual and ordinary expenses at 155 Fifth Avenue.

The resolution also provides for a limited portion of the balance in the net proceeds to be placed into a separate restricted account under the same terms and conditions as the other account, with the interest of that fund to be used for United Synagogue’s programming and/or building expenses. Until we complete the transition, it will be difficult for us to determine how the funds that are available for programming will affect our operating budget. We anticipate that it will be about two fiscal years before we can be certain of that impact.

We look forward to announcing the opening of the new Rapaport House at 820 Second Avenue within the next two years.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish Kosher

Kosher Plus

Kosher than a jar of another brand of salsa even if it bears a heksher (authorized symbol of kashrut certification) as well. With PauRabbi Jason Millerl Newman donating all his Newman’s Own net profits to tzedakah (charity), we have the ethical obligation to support his company’s products. [He’s donated over $200 million to charity thusfar, not to mention his salsa is very good] Now the Conservative Movement is coming along and considering the creation of an additional label that would identify a product as meeting ethical standards as well as the standards of the Jewish dietary laws.

Here’s the article from the Forward about this “Heksher Tzedek


Conservatives might mark food for ethics

The Conservative movement is considering labeling kosher food according to the ethical standards by which it is produced.

A commission appointed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly is debating the creation of a social responsibility certification.

The commission was created in response to recent reports of unsafe working conditions and labor violations at AgriProcessors of Postville, Iowa, one of the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plants.

The new label would be concerned primarily with protecting workers’ rights, in accordance with Jewish law.

It would be an additional label placed onto food already carrying traditional kosher certification.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Homosexuality Keshet Rabbis

The Conservative Movement and Homosexuality

The Michigan Daily published an article in today’s edition on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meeting in which four teshuvot (responsa) were presented regarding Gay commitment ceremonies and the ordination of Gay rabbis and cantors at Conservative seminaries.

I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with the author of the article (Andrew Grossman, a Catholic) but never told him that there were enough votes “to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.” I am not sure how he could have known that information unless it was published elsewhere. I certainly do not know if that is true and I am not sure that anyone knows how the members of the committee will vote in December on any of the teshuvot that have been presented. Some members of CJLS have been public about their viewpoint but most have kept their personal views to themselves.

Jewish group might allow gay rabbis

Conservative Jewish leaders delay vote on gay rabbis, but issue up again in December
By Andrew Grossman (Michigan Daily)

When he was growing up, LSA junior Dan Marcovici struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his Jewish faith. Religious tradition had always pointed him toward a wife and children.

“It was difficult. My Jewish family was always very family-centered. I was going to marry a woman, carry the family line,” said Marcovici, the chair of Ahava, a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews at the University.

Now, he has brought his faith and his sexuality together.

“My religion is a part of my life,” Marcovici said. “My sexual orientation is part of my life. One doesn’t preclude the other.”

Marcovici is part of the Conservative Jewish movement, which has recently experienced tension over the status of gays and lesbians in religious life.

Earlier this week, members of the movement’s Committee on Laws and Standards – a group of 25 rabbis who interpret Jewish law for the movement – had enough votes to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.

But while religious organizations across the nation grapple with the issue of faith and homosexuality, the committee did not make a decision, adjourning Wednesday’s meeting without a vote.

The issue is likely to resurface in December at a meeting of the movement’s international association of rabbis.

Conservative Jews fall in the middle of three major Jewish groups in the United States. The more liberal Reform movement passed a resolution in 2000 supporting rabbis who choose to preside over same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies. The traditional Orthodox movement maintains that the Torah’s prohibitions on homosexuality must be respected.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, 38 percent of Jews affiliated with a temple or synagouge were Reform, 33 percent Conservative and 22 percent Orthodox.

The Conservative movement is “a centrist movement in which there is a tension between Jewish law and modernity,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and the associate director of the University’s chapter of Hillel. “Living within that tension means trying to strike a balance between the two.”

The Torah, the Jewish holy book, mentions homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, stating, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 states that the punishment for such action should be death.

Openly gay applicants are currently prohibited from enrolling in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical and cantorial schools.

“To some extent, it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy,’ ” Miller said.

The debate over the role of gays in Conservative Jewish life has been at the forefront for the movement’s rabbis.

“For rabbis in the Conservative movement, this is the hot issue,” Miller said.

Miller was optimistic about the future of gay and lesbians in Conservative Judaism. He said he is confident the committee will “come to an answer that respects the human dignity of all Jewish people,” including gay rabbis and Jews in a committed homosexual relationship.

He added that he is certain the committee’s decision will reflect a “commitment to Jewish law and tradition.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Homosexuality Jewish JTS Keshet

No Vote from the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee on Gay Rabbis or Commitment Ceremonies

Jewish Theological Seminary Homosexuality Rabbi Jason MillerBelow is the “Breaking news” from that no vote was made on any of the teshuvot (responsa) presented. This was no surprise for me having sat in on several Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meetings while a student at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Teshuvot are presented, studied, debated, and then re-written or just tweaked before being voted on. I would have been shocked had they actually voted on any of these four papers during this meeting at an undisclosed location in Baltimore. It shows they are being mindful of how the halakhic (Jewish legal) process works and that this decision cannot be made based on social pressure or politicking from both sides of the debate.

The authors of the four response are our Conservative rabbis and members of the CJLS:
1) Joel Roth;
2) Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, Avi Reisner;
3) Leonard Levy;
4) Benzi Bergman, David Fine, Robert Fine, Myron Geller, Gordon Tucker.

Here’s the breaking news blurb from (The full article is here and the Forward article is here):

Conservatives delay gay policy decision

The Conservative movement’s policy on homosexuality will remain unchanged until at least December.

During a two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ended Wednesday, authors of four responsa on the status of homosexuality in the movement were asked to make revisions in advance of a vote on the issue in December.

The decision means that the movement’s 1992 decision barring openly gay and lesbian individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages will remain in place for now.

“The pain that so many real people are experiencing because of their love for tradition and their hope for a supportive community clearly hasn’t moved the Rabbinical Assembly as an institution to move more quickly,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, one of the founders of Keshet Rabbis, a group supporting gay and lesbian rights in the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, urged patience. “I am urging my colleagues who promote change to realize that there are an equal number of colleagues who are in favor of welcoming gays and lesbians in the Conservative community but who do not wish to change halachah,” he said.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish Philosophy

Rabbi David Wolpe

A Manifesto for the Future
Drop ‘Conservative’ Label to Tap True Meaning and Reach the Faithful
by Rabbi David Wolpe

In early November, I spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The topic was “The Future of Conservative Judaism.” I prepared for the talk by asking colleagues, friends and congregants to define Conservative Judaism in one sentence. It was a dispiriting experience.

Some had no answer at all. Others found themselves entangled in paragraphs, subclauses and a forest of semicolons. Sensible people began to sound like textbooks.

Many of us have learned that Conservative Judaism is either a complex ideology (at least we never get a straightforward explanation) or simply a movement that stands in the center between Reform and Orthodoxy. An early classic of Conservative Judaism was titled, “Tradition and Change,” but tradition and change is a paradox, not a banner of belief.

Conservative Judaism is crying out for renewal and revitalization. Some of the most spiritually charged, socially sensitive prayer groups and institutions in the country choose to not affiliate themselves with the Conservative movement. Yet they are led by rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement and attended by congregants who grew up in that movement.

In synagogues that do define themselves as Conservative, the congregants often expect halachic observance from their rabbis, yet they are not moved to emulate them. Conservative Jews are increasingly confused and uncertain about their spiritual direction.

As I posed these problems and questions, some turned the question back to me.

“Who are you, and what do you believe?”

When I reflect upon the beliefs with which I was raised and how I have grown in my faith, I realize that the word “Conservative” does not best fit who I am and what I believe.

I am a Covenantal Jew.

Covenantal Judaism is the Judaism of relationship. Three covenants guide my way — our way: The covenant at Sinai brings us to our relationship to God, the covenant with Abraham to our relationship with other Jews and the covenant with Noah to our relationship with all humanity.

First Covenant: Relationship to God

The Jewish relationship to God may be seen as a friendship, a partnership, though of obviously unequal partners. In the Midrash, God swears friendship to Abraham, is called the “friend of the world” (Hag. 16a) and even creates friendships between people (Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer). Friendship is one aspect of the Divine-human connection.

The Torah speaks of God as a parent, a lover, a teacher and an intimate sharer of our hearts. When we speak of friendship or partnership, all of these relationships and more must be understood.

The terms of all friendships are fixed by history — we define our partnerships by our memories. One friend can speak a single word, “Colorado,” and the other knows that the word refers to a trip taken together 15 years before. However, vital friendships do not dwell solely in the past. They are always creating new memories, entering new phases and enriching what has gone before.

Some Jews believe that everything important in the friendship between God and Israel has already been said. The Torah, the Talmud, the classical commentators and codes have said all the vital, foundational words. Our task now is simply to fill in a few blanks, but otherwise the work is done. We are the accountants of a treasure already laid up in the past.

This is not a covenantal understanding. It is a Judaism frozen in time, as though all the clocks stopped in the 18th century.

Conversely, there are those who think the past weightless, because times have so radically changed. This is a friendship that tries to recreate itself each day, dictated by the demands of the moment. While the past is acknowledged, it is seen largely as something to be overcome, not to be cherished and integrated into the present. This creates a relationship with predictably thin and wan results.

Covenantal Judaism believes in the continuous partnership between God and Israel. When we light Shabbat candles, God “knows” what we mean — we have been doing it for thousands of years. It is part of the grammar of relationship. Our past is the platform from which we ascend. The covenant at Sinai is the first, reverberating word.

Yet there is so much more to say. There is no reason why someone as wise and important as the Rambam (who lived in the 12th century) could not be born tomorrow. This person could both incorporate Rambam’s teachings and move beyond them. There is no reason why something as epochal as the Exodus could not happen next year — witness the creation of the modern State of Israel.

Each day, we tremble with the anticipation of something new and powerful on the horizon. Each night, we pray with the awareness that the yearning of the generations sanctifies our words. We create new rituals because today must not only stand upon yesterday but must reach toward tomorrow.

The classical Jewish view teaches “the decline of the generations” — since Sinai we have grown further from revelation and stand, as a result, on a lower level of holiness. This is not a true covenantal understanding. The covenant does not fade or weaken with time. Our future is as promising as our past is powerful.

For the Covenantal Jew, dialogue between the Jewish people and God began in the Bible and continues today. The Bible is, as Rabbi A.J. Heschel put it, the record of the search of human beings for God and of God for human beings.

Second Covenant: Relationship Between Jews

All Jews are involved in the Abrahamic covenant — not only those Jews whom we like or those of whom we approve but all Jews.

Jews have always fought within our own community, and undoubtedly, we always will. Devotion to Torah does not free us from the constraints of human nature.

Still, a Covenantal Jew seeks active dialogue with Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist, as well as secular Jews. The covenant does not depend upon movements or ideologies; it is a covenant of shared history and shared destiny.

The emphasis on the responsibility of Jews to other Jews is uncomfortable for some. It seems parochial and ungenerous.

However, we are built to care in concentric circles: first one’s own family, then one’s community and then larger groups — rippling out to the world, always modified by the degree of need. Aniyei ircha kodmim teaches the Talmud: Care first for the poor of one’s own city.

Pallid universalism is not an ideal but a disaster. Too many Jews remind me of Charles Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby in “Bleak House,” who is always charging off to do good works, while neglecting her own wretched children at home.

I remember when I was teaching at Hunter College in New York, a student approached me and asked: “Today there is an anti-apartheid rally and a rally for Soviet Jewry. I’m planning to attend the anti-apartheid rally. Can you give me a good reason to go to the Soviet Jewry rally?”

“Yes,” I answered. “If you attend the anti-apartheid rally, who will go to the Soviet Jewry rally?”

There are Jews who simply shun large parts of the Jewish world that do not meet their expectations. On both the right and the left, many simply ignore or discount the other side of the religious or political spectrum. But Republican or Democrat, Satmar or secular, affiliations invalidate neither God’s covenant nor our ties to one another.

This sense of Jewish responsibility explains why Solomon Schechter, the first major figure of American Conservative Judaism, was an outspoken Zionist. Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, is not an emotional impulse but a covenantal responsibility. That is why Covenantal Judaism is passionate about the land of Israel and the people Israel.

Covenantal Jews give priority in caring to our own, but we do not care exclusively for our own.

Third Covenant: Relationship With the Non-Jewish World

The first covenant was not made with the Jewish people. God sent a rainbow in the time of Noah as a sign to the world, to all of humanity. Noah lived 10 generations before the first Jew.

The meaning is clear: We have a responsibility toward others of whatever faith; we have a covenantal relationship to the non-Jewish world.

The very first question in the Bible is a question God asks of Adam — “Ayecha” — Where are you? This is not a literal question but a spiritual one, a question God asks us at each moment in our lives.

The second question in the Bible is in a way an answer to the first. The second question is one that human beings ask of God. Cain turns to God and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

If you answer that question, you will know where you are. Do you care for those who are in need, those who are anguished and alone?

Jewish World Watch has organized our response to the calamity of Darfur. Jewish leaders have shouted to the world, bringing attention to genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, and championed the recognition of the Armenian genocide. These and countless similar causes and efforts are not strategic or to reflect credit on ourselves. They are sacred Jewish obligations. Jews who care for the Jewish community alone are neglecting the first, most comprehensive covenant.

Sadly, many traditional Jewish communities seem to have little concern for the non-Jewish world.

The rabbis of the Talmud insist that compassion is a characteristic of the people of Israel. The first statement about human beings is that each is made in God’s image. Invidious comparisons between the worth of Jews and others are not only malignant but fundamentally at odds with the Covenantal tradition.

Jews receive as well as give to those outside the Jewish community. Covenantal Judaism is eager to learn wisdom — not only practical but spiritual — from the non-Jewish world.

Judaism has many precedents for religious learning from non-Jews, beginning in the Bible. The world begins with Adam, not with Abraham. Noah, the first man called righteous, is not a Jew.

The chapter of Torah containing the Ten Commandments is named “Yitro” (Jethro) — this central chapter containing the revelation from Sinai is named after a non-Jew. The traditional response when someone asks after our welfare, “baruch Hashem” (praise God) is mentioned three times in the Bible. All three times it is said by a non-Jew: Noah (Genesis 9:26), Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) and Jethro (Exodus 18:10). Thus, even when we praise God, we do it in words that were first spoken by those in our community who were not raised as Jews.

The list could be easily multiplied throughout Jewish history: Maimonides learned from the Islamic scholar Averroes, Kabbalah learned from Sufi mysticism, Heschel learned from Reinhold Neibuhr. Covenantal Jews glory in this interchange, which is not threatened by the insights of others but enriched by them.

The Covenant and Jewish Law

The overriding commandment of Covenantal Judaism is to be in relationship with each other and with God. The more halacha (Jewish law) we “speak,” the more full and rich the relationship. Our faith is neither a checklist nor a simple formula. It is a proclamation and a path.

Changes in Jewish law to include women, from bat mitzvah celebrations to rituals for miscarriage, as well as changes that enable people to drive to synagogue or use instruments in the service as our ancestors did, are elements in a covenantal understanding of the tradition. This is a tradition not rigid but responsive and alive, not repetitious but committed to dialogue with the past, each other and God.

Dialogue with God is not an act of chutzpa, not a conviction of equality. Rather God ennobles us by choosing us as partners for dialogue.

Abraham argues with God; Moses opposes God’s decree, and throughout Jewish history, in medieval poetry and modern literature, Jews insist that God wants not puppets nor robots but human beings who bring their passion, confusion and love to the task of Israel, which in Hebrew means wrestling with God.

Jewish authenticity is not measured by the number of specific actions one performs but the quality of the relationships expressed through those actions. Recall what the Torah says of Moses: In praising our greatest leader, The Torah does not recount that he performed the most mitzvot of anyone who ever lived, or even that his ethics exceeded all others. We are told that Moses saw God “panim el panim” face to face. The merit of Moses is in the unparalleled relationship he had with Israel and with God.

The Covenant and the Future

When the covenant is first presented to Noah, God promises not to destroy the world. In that promise is a chilling omission: God does not promise that we will not destroy the world.

As Rabbi Joshua of Kutna points out, the rainbow is a half circle. That is God’s promise to us. God’s half must be completed by our own intertwining colors.

The relationships we build through sanctity, compassion and love are our reciprocal rainbow. Involving all colors, embracing our community and beyond, it teaches us that in covenant is the secret of salvation.

Covenant is the spine of Judaism. No idea is more important to the development of the tradition. Conservative Judaism, as it has grown, has taken the covenantal idea seriously, sometimes without even realizing it. The time has come to claim it, to develop it in powerful and new ways and to fashion a movement of Judaism that can change Jewish life in America and beyond.

Conservative Judaism remains a large and important international Jewish organization of synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups, adult organizations and centers of training for scholars and clergy. By placing covenant at the center of this worldwide Jewish initiative, we will be reframing the enterprise of creating a Judaism that closes the door neither to the past nor to the future. Such openness and conviction are vital for the future of the Jewish people, a covenanted nation born of passion for improving this world under the sovereignty of God.

This is the time for Covenantal Judaism.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Conservative Judaism – The Muddle in the Middle (Article by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman)

My colleague Rabbi Joshua Hammerman published this article in The NY Jewish Week. He is spot on with his analysis of the Conservative Movement.

Lately the Conservative movement has seemed less than concerned about conserving itself. The bad news has come in droves: budget woes at the Jewish Theological Seminary; the flap over gay marriage and ordination, highlighted by the unnecessary confrontation with Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; all this topped off by declining demographics in the National Jewish Population Survey suggesting that nearly half of all those who grew up as Conservative Jews no longer identify as such.

These storm clouds have hidden from view significant events that could help return the movement to its historical centrality among American Jews. Over the past several weeks, the Rabbinical Assembly has for the first time made public on-line many of the key rulings of the fabled Law Committee. (You can find these responsa at

This landmark move coincides with the publication of a new book, “A Place in the Tent,” by a small group of rabbis and educators on the West Coast who call themselves “The Tiferet Project.” The book posits a bold, more inclusive approach toward intermarried families, bypassing the normal channels of rabbinic debate and placing the subject squarely on the table to stimulate grassroots discussion.

The strength of Conservative Judaism lies in the creative tension that is at the core of its ideology. Given the choice, some people might prefer the “moral clarity” so in vogue, but like most of us, Conservative Judaism lives in a real world of tough questions. It thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront imperfection: Judaism’s, society’s and our own.

This muddle in the middle is an uncomfortable place to reside, but it is equally a dynamic one. So while other movements offer easy responses (which for Reform often is “Why not?” and for Orthodoxy, “No way!”), Conservatives look for the kind of dialectic that has been central to rabbinic Judaism since Talmudic times.

Synthesis doesn’t always mean compromise, but it always forces us to hear all views. There is no such thing as a knee-jerk Conservative response to anything. For those up to the intellectual challenge, it can be spiritually invigorating to wrestle with our traditions and texts rather than simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.

Amazingly, until very recently this enriching journey was not made easily available to most Conservative Jews. Clergy and educators had it, naturally, as did many attending Camp Ramah. But the text in the pews was the Hertz Chumash, which is about as reflective of the movement’s ideology as “Das Capital” is to the GOP. When the new Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, appeared in 2001, for the first time the laity began to “get it” and to engage en masse in that liberating grappling with Torah.

People suddenly felt free to ask when and how Exodus really happened. That produced oodles of bad press because the religious right was poised to attack and Conservative leaders weren’t prepared to fend it off. After all, grappling with the Exodus was nothing new to the movement’s elite; it’s something that had been done at the seminary for generations. But someone forgot to tell those outside the ivory tower who were busy swallowing Hertz’s spoon-fed apologetic in the pews.

And now, the next steps: the responsa Web site, public conversations about inclusivity and the demystification of the halachic process. At this site people will be fascinated to read about everything from the permissibility of stem cell research to the inclusion of the matriarchs in the Amidah prayer. They will become less intimidated by their rabbis, who no longer will be the sole possessors of these secrets — and rabbis will have less need to give dummied-down sermons. The focus will be less on ritual correctness and more on intense philosophical debate.

Readers might be surprised to discover that even minority opinions can be valid. There is a built-in elasticity to Conservative halacha, taking into account factors unique to each community and to every generation. This will be especially important as the Law Committee revisits the issues of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination. When that passionate dialogue becomes public, the media again will miss the point and harp on whether the center will hold. The center will hold precisely because it will shift, as it always does — most notably 20 years ago with the ordination of women. But with the leadership so concerned about unity and PR, the movement will miss yet another opportunity to revel in the creative tension that has spun off dynamic offspring for generations — everything from Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, Heschel’s activism and the Chavurah movement of the past century to the neo-Chasidic revivalism of today.

It is not surprising that Conservative Jews are the first to shun institutional labels, including their own. Labels are often prime indicators of stagnation, and there is nothing stagnant about those who routinely struggle with life’s most gripping questions. But the movement’s leadership too often finds itself preoccupied with putting out the fires rather than fanning these passionate flames that are its very soul.

Americans are craving an authentic spiritual alternative to “moral clarity.” It’s not just blue-staters who desire a few questions to go with all the pat answers.

Natan Sharansky, whom I deeply admire, has become the administration’s standard-bearer for clarity. What we now need is a poster child for nuance. We need someone like the sage Hillel, a leader humble enough to give credence to opposing views, one who can seek truth somewhere in the give-and-take, in the muddle of the middle. If and when Conservative Judaism realizes that there is passion in that delicious ambiguity and that most Jews want to live there, it will regain its institutional mojo. It may or may not be called Conservative when it does, but it will most certainly be Judaism. n

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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RA May Expel Member

From the NY Times

A rabbi who has officiated at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples has been threatened with expulsion from the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association, though movement officials say it is not her activism that is at issue but her repeated defiance of the movement’s rules.

Ayelet S. Cohen, the junior rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a largely gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village, says she is being punished for her openness in performing the ceremonies. Officials of the association say it has nothing to do with the gay marriages. Rather, they say, she faces expulsion because she has repeatedly defied long-established rules for taking a job at a synagogue.

The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, with 1,600 rabbis, voted in 1992 not to ordain gays as rabbis and said that rabbis should not perform same-sex marriages. But the assembly stopped short of declaring the ban on marriage or commitment ceremonies a binding standard, tacitly allowing individual rabbis some discretion. Various rabbis within the movement have estimated that 20 to 40 rabbis have performed these ceremonies. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordain people who are gay and allow rabbis to marry gay people. Orthodox Jews neither ordain nor marry gays.

Rabbi Cohen said the assembly’s Joint Commission on Rabbinic Placement told her in recent days that it would recommend her expulsion from the assembly for taking a job at an unaffiliated synagogue without obtaining a waiver and, after getting a waiver, letting it expire. Officials confirmed that part of her account, and said her case would be heard on Jan. 25 by the assembly’s administrative committee and on Jan. 26 by the executive council, whose decision would be final.

Expulsion would make it virtually impossible for Rabbi Cohen to get jobs at 760 North American synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement, or to use the movement’s pension and insurance plans. She could continue serving at Beth Simchat Torah, which was discouraged from joining the Conservative movement and has not affiliated itself elsewhere.

In an interview before leaving for a vacation in Spain, Rabbi Cohen, who is 30 years old and heterosexual, said she was being punished for her vocal advocacy on gay rights.

“It’s because I have performed same-sex wedding ceremonies,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I made it clear from the outset that I plan to do it, and I have done it.”

Rabbi Cohen, whose father is Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, has performed four wedding ceremonies for people of the same sex, having them exchange vows under a chupah, or canopy, and having them sign a ketubah, or marriage contract. Last March, she was interviewed by The New York Times after charges were brought against two Unitarian ministers for performing same-sex ceremonies in New Paltz for couples who did not have marriage licenses. She said at the time that she would “continue to conduct ceremonies, even if illegal.”

Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, denied that Rabbi Cohen’s activism on gay issues had anything to do with the charges against her, and added, “She’s no more public about it than other rabbis.”

Rather, he said, she is facing sanctions because of her repeated defiance of bedrock rules on how rabbis get placed, rules that prevent synagogues from poaching one another’s rabbis with lucrative offers.

Rabbi Cohen was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s fountainhead, in May 2002 and took a job at the unaffiliated Greenwich Village synagogue before being formally granted a waiver to do so. Rabbi Meyers eventually gave her a waiver for two years, but Rabbi Cohen let it be known that the time was insufficient. By July 31, 2004, she should have applied for an extension but did not, waiting two months beyond the waiver’s expiration.

“It’s painful and unfortunate,” Rabbi Meyers said. “Ayelet Cohen is a very good rabbi. She gets people to talk about her positively in terms of her work, and it’s a shame she’s raising this – trying to push this off on the movement and its gay and lesbian stance – rather than looking at her own actions.”

Rabbi Cohen has received a letter of support from eight colleagues, including Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel in White Plains, the former dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school, and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the West Side. Noting that the movement has lost gay members and their families, the eight rabbis wrote: “Surely the opportunity to have Rabbi Cohen serve a community of gay and lesbian Jews who seek a Conservative rabbi is too important to be thrown away in favor of punishing her for such a technical error.”

Whatever happens to Rabbi Cohen, the issue is not going to go away. The assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards is meeting in April and will revisit the issue of gay and lesbian unions.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |