The Obser­vant Life: The Wis­dom of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism for Con­tem­po­rary Jews

Mar­tin Cohen and Michael Katz, eds.; Arnold M. Eisen, fwd.
  • Review
By – November 5, 2012

Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism is often crit­i­cized these days for not hav­ing a dis­tinct voice. Rab­binic lead­ers are described as out of touch with increas­ing­ly less-obser­vant mem­bers. Syn­a­gogue par­tic­i­pants are crit­i­cized as noth­ing more than spir­i­tu­al con­sumers” look­ing for à la carte moments of per­son­al mean­ing. Against this back­drop comes The Obser­vant Life, which is quite sim­ply the most impor­tant work the Con­ser­v­a­tive rab­binate has pro­duced in a gen­er­a­tion.

The Obser­vant Life, pub­lished by the move­men­t’s Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly, is a con­fi­dent, unapolo­getic work that reach­es past Jew­ish rit­u­al into every area of con­tem­po­rary life. The con­trib­u­tors rep­re­sent not only schol­ars from the movement’s sem­i­nar­ies, but the next gen­er­a­tion of inspir­ing rab­bis. The book is divid­ed into three over­ar­ch­ing sec­tions, keyed to the famous words of the prophet Mic­ah: Act­ing Just­ly,” Deeds of Kind­ness,” Walk­ing Humbly with God.” This rubric itself announces the edi­tors’ and authors’ view that a Con­ser­v­a­tive approach speaks uni­ver­sal­ly — to issues of soci­ety and the world — and to Jews who do and do not start with the tra­di­tion­al lan­guage of halacha (Judaism as law).

Strik­ing­ly, the book opens with the sec­tion on walk­ing humbly.” The edi­tors include there not only prayer and rit­u­al, but also per­son­al integri­ty, mod­esty and per­son­al appear­ance, char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, and the syn­a­gogue as a busi­ness. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, so to speak, is not in this book a nar­row cat­e­go­ry. In the oth­er sec­tions, the con­trib­u­tors tack­le the entire range of world­ly con­cerns. There are essays on busi­ness ethics, cit­i­zen­ship, gos­sip, tax­a­tion, mil­i­tary ser­vice, and mar­riage. There is no area of life, even con­tro­ver­sial ones, hid­den from dis­cus­sion. So the rab­bis address sex out­side of mar­riage and same-sex mar­riage, and the place of indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties in Jew­ish com­mu­nal and spir­i­tu­al life.

In his intro­duc­tion, edi­tor Mar­tin Cohen states that Torah comes not only to speak clear­ly, but also to seep into the chaot­ic and messy parts of life, where real­i­ties and answers are not clear. The Obser­vant Life ful­fills his promise. It shows Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism as an approach to life that is root­ed in tra­di­tion­al wis­dom and unafraid to use its voice to teach about all aspects of the good life in the twen­ty-first century.

Jonathan Spi­ra-Savett is a rab­bi and teen edu­ca­tor. He is the rab­bi at Tem­ple Beth Abra­ham in Nashua, NH. His work focus­es on civic edu­ca­tion and youth phil­an­thropy, and he has taught his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies in addi­tion to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish texts.

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