Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles recently spurred controversy by suggesting that the Conservative movement should change its name to something more exciting. While Rabbi Wolpe's remarks created the most interest among Conservative Jews, underlying his comments is an issue that should be of concern to all Jews. As a Jewish people, we need to recover the sense that we have a dynamic global mission.
The sense of 'Conservative' was coined to create movement bent on saving a Judaism under attack from the modern world. Conservative Jewish leaders were moderate reformers who believed that by making significant but judicious changes in the way Judaism was understood they could preserve our tradition. This was a philosophy that made sense at the time. But it is not a strategy for today ' not only for Conservative Jews, but for any Jews.
It is not only Conservative Jews who have pursued a defensive approach to Jewish life. When the United Jewish Appeal's 1990 population study was released, it generated deep anxiety about the advancing assimilation rate of American Jewry.
In response, the American Jewish community rallied behind the call for 'Jewish Continuity.' This slogan accurately reflected the desire of so many Jews that Judaism continue. It did not, however, say anything about why we should continue.
For much of the past two centuries, our response to the challenges of modernity has been reactive rather than proactive. We've thought of ourselves as an endangered community and our response has been framed accordingly.
We have asked: 'How can we compete with the attractions of modern culture?' Instead, we should be asking: 'How can we respond to a world that is in such great need of moral direction?'
Judaism is not a defensive religion. God did not say to Abraham and Sarah, 'Leave your birthplace and go to new land, and when you get there ' survive!'
God called Abraham and Sarah to spiritual adventure. They were iconoclasts, idol smashers. The great Jewish leaders of our history from Moses to Theodor Herzl had a vision of a reality dramatically different from the one they inhabited. Their object was to transform the world. They were radical optimists, revolutionaries. Words like 'survival' and 'continuity' hardly capture their passion and their energy.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote recently that if were Jews living in the Middle Ages, our mission would be to hunker down, create an ethical life within our own communities, and hope that the outside world would not hurt us.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote similarly in his latest book that until fairly recently in history, it was inconceivable that the Jewish community would reach out beyond its own borders because such overtures would hardly be welcome. But both agree that times have changed.
We are strong enough to look beyond our own survival and return to the spirit of Abraham and Sarah. Israel is vibrant. American Jewry is confident. We can do better than survive. We have something to offer.
A Judaism that wants to capture hearts and minds must inspire a belief in a better world. The time has come to reconsider how we think about ourselves and our mission. Are we simply in the business of staying afloat, holding our own against the forces of modernity? Or do we have a message to offer the world?
If the latter, what is the message and how do we get it across?