Some years back, at the Jewish Learning Fest in the Dallas area, my Conservative rabbi joined with a Reform and Orthodox rabbi in a discussion about halakhah - our fluid guide for religious practices. I'll never forget the Reform rabbi's assessment of Conservative Judaism: "We come to the same conclusions about virtually everything," he said, "but you spend months or years trying to figure out a way for the Hebrew to catch up to your beliefs, while we in Reform just say, 'here's what we believe and we're going for it' ".
I sat there wondering why I was Conservative. Long before the Reform rabbi made this statement, his words had occurred to me, also. Responses given to me by Conservative Jews weren't satisfying. I had been a part of fundamentalist Christianity where it seemed someone was always twisting scripture to make it say what they already believed. Now here I was a part of a Jewish denomination that seemingly did the same thing.
Enter a much more in-depth discussion at OHALAH - the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal which I recently attended. During one important session, one of our most esteemed scholars and rabbis, Daniel Siegel, asked - and then answered - the question I posed years ago: "Why bother with halakhic conversation? Why not just say this is what we're going to do and then do it?"
Because conversation is crucial to our identity as a People, he said. If we don't look back at what our ancestors concluded about our sacred texts, then we have cut ourselves off from them. Regardless of whether we come to a different conclusion, despite our discomfort over the norms of their time period - sexism, isolation from the broader spectrum of humanity, a myriad of beliefs that our culture can no longer accept - we can and must be in dialogue with those who have committed their lives to study of our sacred texts. It is the process , and not the conclusion that binds us together as Jews, says Reb Daniel.
"What would Moses think?" asked one Orthodox friend of mine, responding to a "liberal" comment I made. Well, I don't know - maybe if he lived in our modern time, he might have applauded our efforts to take past halakhic decisions seriously, while struggling with new ways to interpret sacred texts. Our goal, says Reb Daniel, is to be "backwards compatible and forward looking".
In our classes, study groups, conferences and even in informal gatherings related to our rabbinical program, we're constantly instructed to truly listen when another person speaks - without any kind of comment. The person speaks without interruption and when they're finished speaking, they say, debarti (I have spoken). The rest of us respond with the word shamati (I have listened). Note: listened. Not just "heard".
As a future rabbi, this is my commitment. To listen. To try and understand another's point of view. To be in dialogue with those who have gone before me, who are on the path alongside me, and who are coming up behind me.