I had an interesting weekend with my son Hank Jr., and two of his friends, Caleb and Mike when we went to Temple Israel in Charlotte, NC. We went to a Conservative Judaism service which lasted for about two hours. My son and his friends were doing a report for school on Judaism and he wanted to understand how it works, so we went to a particular congregation and spent two hours there. I thought it would be interesting to write to you about Judaism because a lot of people think Judaism is a monolith. In reality, it’s multifaceted. Judaism finds its genesis in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but its modern day expression is largely a function of the destruction of the temple in AD 70. As such, Judaism finds expression in Torah study rather than temple sacrifice.
There are three main branches today, the Orthodox branch, the Reform branch and the Conservative branch. We were at a Conservative service. The Orthodox Judaism branch or Torah Judaism branch is best known for a strict dedication to the eternal and unalterable Mosaic law as reinterpreted by rabbis subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem. They believe that only through devotion to a complex code of Jewish law can you experience nearness to God. Orthodox Jews are awaiting a rebuilt temple much like many fundamentalist Christians are. They believe a Jewish Messiah will restore the kingdom to Israel and they believe in the physical resurrection of the dead.
Unlike Orthodox Judaism, you have Reform Judaism. It’s a liberal movement within Judaism and it begins with the freedom to decide what law you’re going to observe. In other words, human autonomy trumps the authority of Jewish law. This is a movement that arose in the 18th century and it’s trying to adapt itself to modern world pressures because they want to preserve Jewish identity. So the Reform Judaism movement is always reforming itself and it’s always trying to say “Here is a way of making the postmodern experience important to the modern Jew.”
And then you have the Conservative Judaism that I wrote about earlier. It’s a late 19th century reaction to the liberal tendencies that were inherent in Reform Judaism, and as such Conservative Judaism tries to find a middle way between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. On the one hand the adherents embrace modern culture. On the other hand they observe Jewish laws and customs without the fundamentalist fervor of the Orthodox movement.
We had the most incredible experience in being in the service because during the service there was a man who gave a talk on how they are trying to reconcile the lesbianism and homosexuality which has come into the Conservative movement in terms of rabbis and sanctioning same-sex relationships. They were saying that “on the one hand Levitical law or Torah law seems to speak out against this. On the other hand, modernity is accepting this, so what do we do? Well, we recognize that the law has all kinds of interpretations – where you have four lawyers you’re going to have ten opinions – so maybe we’ve misunderstood the Levitical law or Mosaic law with respect to homosexuality, and so we have to rethink this.”
That speaks to the middle ground that they’re trying to forge at this time. So I thought this was very indicative and instructive to my kids as they were listening in on this service to try to understand what’s happening within this movement as they seek to adapt to modern culture.
Then we also had the experience of sitting right next to a professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a wonderful lady who engaged us in conversation afterwards and we were able to find out a lot about what their views were, on a geopolitical level, for example. Do they hold to a two-state solution in the Middle East or do they want a one-state solution? It was very instructive to me to hear her as well as the rabbi talk about how they were very committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East and they were even trying to bring together Jews and Palestinians so that they could form some basis of commonality and express their feelings for wanting to exist in harmony, one with another.
So it was a very entertaining, educational experience for us, and I think what we want to do is understand where modern-day Jews are coming from so that we can use their deviations from the historic Christian faith as springboards or opportunities for reaching them with the good news of the Gospel. We need to continue learning and developing and growing so that we can be evermore effective witnesses. At the end of the day people are people. Mary Margaret pointed that out to me. She said “I’m not a Jew in the sense of my DNA. Obviously, my name should tell you that. But I am a Jew because I accept the traditions of Conservative Judaism and embrace them and believe in them.” So this had nothing whatsoever to do with some kind of heritage or her saying she could link her history back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She was very open to discussion and we talked about a lot of things including their beliefs on what eternal life is all about, who the Messiah is, what heaven will be like, and so forth. When you engage in these interactions they don’t have to be antagonistic, but they can be done with gentleness and respect and we can use the opportunities to learn ourselves so that we can become more effective witnesses.