D’var Torah: Principled Evolution & Meaningful Traditions

“If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Numbers 27:8) In other societies in Biblical times, men inherited but women did not. The Torah’s statement was revolutionary in its time. To us, however, the statement seems hopelessly outdated and sexist because we understand that even women with brothers should be able to inherit.

Things have evolved, and properly so. Judaism, in my opinion, was founded on the extraordinary notion that every individual is important and the powerless must be defended. The guiding philosophy of Conservative Judaism holds that there is value in both making changes to remain true to this spirit underlying Jewish laws and in conserving traditional practices that tie us to our history and peoplehood.

The idea that women could inherit was novel in Biblical times, and began a long march to women being counted for a minyan and being ordained as rabbis in the late twentieth century. This idea that everyone counts equally before God and should be fully included in our communities continues to expand. For us to remain true to our Conservative Jewish heritage, we must remain true to our roots by continually expanding our circle of equality and rights.

Sometimes expansion can upend long-held traditional practices. For example, should women be able to receive a Kohen aliyah? Shouldn’t the daughters of Kohanim be as worthy inheritors of the honor as the sons? The traditional practice of a male priestly class is ancient. The original role of the priest was ended dramatically with the destruction of the second Temple. In fact, the rabbis had to reinvent Jewish practice after the fall of ancient Israel state and the end of sacrificial service. The rabbis created prayer services and other meaningful rituals to satisfy spiritual needs. The idea that Judaism adapts and evolves runs deep while at the same time the modern world has prompted some movements to advocate for freezing change and others to abandon the authority of Jewish Law.

I believe that as we try to make Judaism compelling to our chanichim (campers) and our young tzevet (staff), we need to emphasize adhering to our founding philosophy of principled evolution. At the same time, we need to teach meaningful traditional practice that is fulfilling and connects us to our rich heritage. We can both sing the same songs at Seudat Shelishit (Saturday dinner) that have been sung for thousands of years while applying the ideals of championing the rights of the powerless in our daily lives.  A worthy and challenging goal for us all. Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah