The Sweet Spot: Chanukkah/Miketz 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 12/02/2013 - 10:41am -- AJ Blog

Sometimes we get so caught up in Joseph’s dreams and his interpretations that we forget an important trajectory it represents from his ancestors. God talks directly to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even when they get a message during sleep, it’s clear that God is talking to them. All of a sudden, Joseph only receives messages via dreams, his and others, and they are not even designated as such, they are implicitly messages from the divine.

Since the death of Alexander the Great, the classic Jewish position has been that we don’t experience prophecy any longer. We now divine God’s will through study, prayer, and meditation. And, if we’re honest, we don’t assume that we have the message completely accurately. 

I’ve been fascinated by the Jewish world’s response to the recent Pew study. One might think it had the imprimatur of a direct communication from the Almighty.  I must admit it is an important snapshot of the Jewish world in 2013 and has significant implications for the Conservative movement in particular. Rabbi Slosberg has talked about this at length so I’d like to add a little to his analysis specifically as it affects those of us in the middle of the Jewish Theological Spectrum. 

The study emphasizes not absolute numbers but ‘market share’ as it were. The Conservative movement has lost quite a bit in the last 50 years and the Reform and Orthodox movements have gained. I’d like to talk about why, suggest some ways forward and apply a teaching I heard this past week about Chanukkah.

In short, I believe there are issues of terminology, demography and triangulation that have led to this state of affairs. I think the solution is a greater attention to authenticity, creativity and passionate engagement. 


For those of us who are baby boomers and older, the term Reform could either mean active engagement in the Reform world or disengaged from any affiliation whatsoever. Generally people who say they are Conservative mean they are associated with or affiliated with a Conservative organization. That might not mean a synagogue but could include Ramah, Mercaz, Masorti, Mens Club, Women’s League or a host of other organizations. 

Demographic Sweet Spot

Fifty years ago, the Conservative movement lived in the middle ground that most American Jews found themselves: proud to be Jewish but not interested in rigid rules of observance. Because they were not so interested in being Shomer Shabbes, being Orthodox was often not a feasible option. Because they felt that the feeling of being in a Reform shul reminded them of Church, they didn’t belong there either. We were the demographic sweet spot, as it were.


So what happened? To their credit, and there is nothing sinister in this, the Reform movement learned that it had thrown the baby out with the bath water and moved to claim some of our demographic.

1. They created a camp system for their kids after Ramah to help inculcate a strong sense of youth loyalty.

2. There was a time when Reform congregations disdained B’nei Mitzvah -- an adult at 13!?  Hogwash! Confirmation made sense as at 16 they are able to begin to make adult decisions. Slowly but surely, they realized what an opportunity cost there was in ignoring this important life cycle event.

3. They have slowly but surely included more Hebrew in their services. There was a time in classic Reform when the only Hebrew would be the Sh’ma, with or without the v’Ahavta, and the Kaddish

4. Years ago tallit and kippah were absent or frowned upon in Reform Temples. Now most Reform congregations offer these as options for their congregants and guests.

5. The feeling of church was perhaps most pronounced in the use of organ to accompany the music of the service. More common today is guitar and piano and a less formal feeling.

6. Perhaps the most significant change, on both the left and right of Jewish life, has been the almost universally accepted reality of the State of Israel as a positive thing in the lives of most American Jews. It was not always thus.  

One Hundred Years ago, Conservative Judaism was the only movement that was consistently Zionist. The Orthodox, in general, said that there should be no state until the Messiah shows up. The Reform, in general, said there would be issues of dual loyalty and American Judaism was enough to sustain the Jewish people. After 1948 and, especially, 1967, we won that argument. Although there is a wide divergence of opinion in the Jewish world about Israeli policies, the basic right and goodness of its existence is only questioned on the far left and far right of the Jewish world.  

So what do we do? 

I’d like to thank Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the leading Conservative Rabbis of our time, for articulating these ideas which I’ve adapted for the purposes of this talk.

In short, I think we need to reclaim the middle ground of American Judaism with an emphasis on Authenticity, Creativity and Passion. 


One of the ways in which we are different from many of those on our left and right is that we don’t claim a lock on the truth. I find Triumphalism far more common in Orthodoxy and Reform than in Conservative Judaism. In Orthodoxy it has to do with accepting the Authoritative interpretation of the text. In Reform it has to do with accepting whatever the current Relevant Interpretation of the Text is in fashion as though it were the true intent of the Writer or the most authentic place for us to inhabit in the present.

At our best, the Conservative movement finds itself grappling with the Rigidity of Tradition and the Relevance of the Present and finding the most authentic balancing point in the middle, a process we find practiced in the Talmud by the greatest minds that ever grappled with these issues in their own time. We don’t claim to have the final truth and we don’t hesitate to learn from those on our right or left and to give credit where credit is due. We, unlike many on our right or left, say forthrightly that Judaism would be far poorer without those voices on either side of us. I sometimes hear implied or explicitly stated from those quarters that there is no real need for any but their own points of view. 


Living on the cusp of tradition and change we need to be willing to experiment, to fail, to learn, to synthesize, to discard and to move on. For every successful endeavor in business or government or science or religion there are hundreds of ideas, plans and attempts scattered by the wayside. Tinkering and improving is the only way we move forward and upward. 


We need to enjoy the ride. We need to do things that are relevant with passion. Passion is perhaps the most important and elusive element to the mix of what we do, something we didn’t need so much when we were in the demographic sweet spot but desperately need to reclaim if we are to be sustainable for the long haul. Perhaps rather than the Conservative movement, we need to be on the Cusp or Cutting Edge.


There is a teaching about Chanukkah I learned on line recently that helped put our task in perspective. There are two basic narratives that explain the celebration of Chanukkah and its 8 days.  The miracle of the oil that was supposed to last one day but lasted 8, enough time for more oil to be processed and keep the light going in the ner tamid, the eternal flame of the ancient Temple. This is the story from the Talmud we learned growing up.The historical record from the book of Maccabees which states that the first Chanukkah was a makeup celebration of Sukkot with lulavs and etrogs and sacrifices and no emphasis on light at all. Only subsequently was it transformed into a festival of light.

There is an interpretive text to the Talmudic Tractate of Taanit which brings another interpretation worthy of our attention.  Taanit includes a list of military victorious dates on which we are not allowed to fast. Chanukkah is just about the only one we still observe. According to the Scholion Chanukkah became associated with fire not because of the miracle of the oil but because the Greeks stole the Menorah and it had to be rebuilt -- they had to fashion a makeshift one in place of the original so it could be lit. Rather than ‘There was no oil with which to light the Menorah’ the phrase went as follows: ‘There was nothing in which to light the oil’. According to this source, it took 8 days to fix the altar and prepare the Temple for rededication for re-initiation.


The Pew report is a Snapshot, not proof of Stasis; Data, not Destiny.  We don’t rely on miracles, we can’t allow ourselves to live in the past, instead we are dedicated to the future and we have work to do. Authentic, Creative, Passionate Work. We lived for half a century in the Dream of the Demographic Sweet Spot. It’s time, as the name of our Torah portion prescribes, to wake up.


Shabbat Shalom. 

David Lipp