Friday, October 28, 2011

Searching for Core Values

At the end of Parashat Bereisheet, having heard two versions of the Creation story, we learn that even the second Creation attempt was flawed (Genesis 6:5-8), at least where human beings were concerned.  At this point, early on in the Torah, all of the pursuits of the human heart are evil, or at least bad, all day long.  I find myself wondering what ingredient was missing in the recipe in order for humanity to find a balance, to pursue doing good in the world, to look out for the other, to behave in an ethical way.  In the formative moments of humanity, what was missing?

At the outset of Bereisheet, the only clear rule given to people is that they are not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life.  We also get the clear message that murder is unacceptable, hence the Mark of Cain.  Beyond these two explicit and implicit laws, however, there is not much else in the form of limit setting, no agreed upon list of rules, ethics or laws that serve as the foundation for the first society.  Parashat Noah leads us through the third Divine attempt at re-creation and it is in this parashah that the Rabbis find the basic rules of society known as Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noah, the seven laws of the children of Noah.  These rules, inferred from a midrashic reading of certain verses, include prohibitions against:

Sexual Immorality;
Blasphemy; and
Eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.

Finally, based on the rabbinic interpretation, humanity must establish courts of law.

These seven laws, in the eyes of The Rabbis, are obligatory on all of humanity. They form the first set of core values in history.  If the first two creation stories end in failure, the third story, that of Noah, teaches that success in Creation requires an agreed upon set of basic rules.  As you might expect, what the seven rules are, or if the exact number of rules is, in fact, seven, is the subject of debate between the rabbis.  The above list, however, is the one that is generally agreed upon.

The Sheva Mitzot B’nai Noah got me thinking a lot about core values this week and, in a roundabout way led me to ask the following question: if these seven mitzvoth are the foundation of humanity, are what is required to have a just, sustainable world then what might be the agreed upon core values for the Jewish People today?  Overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to define the core values of Jewish Peoplehood, I narrowed my focus to concentrate on the core values of Conservative Judaism.   In my brief search for a clear statement of our core values, I recalled an essay written by Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch who was, at the time, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, titled The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism. Success!

The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism is elegantly written, and equally deep and soulful.  Dr. Schorsch explicates seven core values for Conservative Judaism:

In the essay, Dr. Schorsch proceeds to address each of the core values in great depth and concludes with a statement that Ramahniks know intuitively:

It is surely in order to ask in closing whether this unique constellation of core values has ever coalesced into a vivifying ideal. I would submit that in its Ramah summer camps the Seminary created an extension of itself: a controlled environment for the formation of a model religious community. Over the past half-century Ramah has compiled an extraordinary record of touching and transforming young Jews to become the most effective educational setting ever generated by the movement. All the core values of Conservative Judaism are present in spades, defining and pervading the culture.

At Ramah, we live the embodiment of the core values the founders of Conservative Judaism intended. 

Noah provides us with the foundations of the earliest attempt to identify the basic rules of civil society.  If humanity in general requires a set of core values, each subset of society must develop, wrestle with, and embody an additional set of core values that defines it.  Conservative Judaism is no different.  We may not agree on all of the core values listed by Dr. Schorsch.  Just as Hazzal, Our Sages, argued about what the seven laws of the children of Noah were, so too should we passionately argue and debate the core values of our Movement for today, and more important, for tomorrow.  When the debates are over, when there is a consensus list, we must work harder than ever to bring our core values to life in every setting in which we find ourselves

Shabbat Shalom.

To read more of Dr. Ismar Schorsch’s, The SacredCluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism direct your browser to:

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