Emerging leaders often have to learn that it is far more impressive to communicate complex ideas in easy to understand language than it is to communicate simple ideas in complex jargon. “Jargonization” is so deeply ingrained in some fields and people that it is virtually impossible to make any sense of their written or spoken strings of buzzwords and catchphrases, all connected by confusing sentence structures. We need a return to simplicity.
The power of simplicity lies in its ability to unmask complexities, to reveal meaning that might otherwise be missed in a sea of difficult words, long passages and obfuscation. At the same time, “Simplicities are enormously complex. Consider the sentence "I love you," as Richard O. Moore reminds us in, Writing the Silences. Just as simplicity can unmask complexities, it can just as easily hide them. Nowhere is this more evident in The Torah than in Parashat Yitro, which contains the עשרת הדברות, The Ten Commandments. In this singular passage, we experience the power and challenge of both simplicity and complexity.
We encounter the challenge of complexity at the start of Exodus Chapter 20. What does עשרת הדברות actually mean? In most places, these ten things are translated as “The Ten Commandments.” The word dibrot , however, comes from the root daber or “say.” Are these ten “commandments,” or “sayings,” or “core beliefs”? From here, meaning gets more complicated as the first five “sayings” are longer, contain more information and are more complex. The last five “commandments,” however, are models of simplicity. Don’t do x. Don’t do y. Yet, these models of simplicity are also incredibly complex. Simply stated? Yes. Simplistic? Definitely not. Why? Because the Torah understands that we need to start somewhere. We need an easy to understand beginning before we dive into the complexities of law and belief.
All the way to today, the עשרת הדברות, these ten utterances, serve as a model for belief statements. Look at most lists of core values and you will see just a few words in bold, followed by paragraphs explicating the meaning of those values. The phrases are the starting point. The paragraphs are the “next conversation.” If they are truly core and practiced, any member of the staff in an organization is able to recite the short, bolded, value phrases. They are recited so easily because they are embodied in the lives and rhythms of the individual and the community, the volunteer and the organization, the employee and the company.
For decades, we, Conservative Jews and institutions, have found it hard to articulate a definition of our unique approach of Judaism in short, easy to understand phrases. On the one hand, we gave people the catchphrase “Tradition and Change.” It fit on a bumper sticker but was not enough to convey meaning. On the other hand, we gave them books: from the brief Emet Ve’Emunah to the recent volume, The Observant Life. A motivated person can devote a few hours to a few weeks to read about Conservative Judaism. For many if not most, however, these works are too overwhelming a starting point for conversation or exploration. We can’t put a book in someone’s hands and say, “Read this and we can talk next week” and expect to see them again just as we cannot we give a person a one or two word answer and expect it to mean much of anything to them. We still lack a brief, simple response to the person who wants to know what we are all about.
To insure the future of our stream of Judaism, we need an answer to the question “What is Conservative Judaism?” that is as beautiful in its simplicity as it is brief. Because I believe this to be crucial, and because I want to initiate a public conversation on the topic, I propose the following:
Conservative Judaism is
Soulfully engaged in repairing the world;
Passionately egalitarian; and
all deeply anchored in The Covenant and expressed through living and learning Torah and Mitzvot.
This is not an exhaustive list. It is not meant to be; rather, I hope many others will suggest additions and subtractions. Most of all, I hope people, colleagues and friends and as of yet unknown voices, will join this conversation leading to a recognized and accepted communal answer.
We stand for important, dynamic Jewish living and Jewish values. If we start the conversation with an answer that is memorable, beautiful, powerful and simple, people will be interested in hearing more, in learning more and in doing more. If every organization in the Movement articulates the same brief answer, we build a far more powerful voice than when we have we have too simple an answer, too long an answer or, most dangerous, no answer at all. Finally, if we can communicate this in a unified, passionate voice, we will succeed in starting deeper, more transformational conversations with individual Jews who, interest now piqued, will make the next appointment, join the conversation, take the next step on their personal Jewish journey. That next step leads to stronger communities and a stronger Jewish People.
This Shabbat, we will imitate our ancestors as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. We will reenact the moment of Divine Revelation. We will try to feel the power of the Heavenly voice dictating to Moses the foundational principles of The Covenant. We will experience the dynamic power and challenge of simplicity and complexity. I hope we will consider our own Ani Ma’amin’s, “I Believe...” statements.
Finally, I hope that in the near future, we will arrive at a collective, jargon-free, simple, powerful answer to the question, “What is Conservative Judaism?” Without a collective answer to that question, I fear for our long-term future. With a collective answer, we can all look forward to a bright destiny full of international impact on people, communities and countries.