“Wisdom in this hour would dictate the recognition that there are virtues and weaknesses in both positions [conservative and liberal]… The truth is that we need both views for a healthy moral experience.”
In order to appreciate Rabbi Olan’s thinking in this sermon (delivered on December 14, 1969), we need to clarify what he meant by “conservative” and “liberal”. Rabbi Olan based his distinction on the image of Isaac at the well: Isaac cleared off the old well that his ancestors had dug, which enabled him to draw the clean water that the well still held. Isaac knew that “The wells of our fathers are still rich with living waters.”
For Rabbi Olan, the well is tradition, the domain of the conservative. Yet all traditions are not equally valuable: we no longer practice animal sacrifice, even though that was central to ritual in Temple times. Instead, “God’s demands are moral: justice, righteousness, mercy, and love.”
One function of the liberal, for Rabbi Olan, is to sweep away the accumulated detritus of automatic adherence to tradition so that we can taste the clean waters again, just as Isaac did. However, as an heir to the Prophets, Rabbi Olan cannot let us rest in that image: what a vital religion needs, he teaches, is a perpetual tension between the conservative’s appeal to the authority of tradition and the liberal’s appeal to a different authority: “authority from within man himself”. Although Rabbi Olan does not cite this passage here, that is the “still small voice” in all of us which spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12).
For Rabbi Olan it is finally both-and, not either/or: we can all drink from the well, both by looking to Jewish tradition and by looking into ourselves.
*Written by Lionel S. Joseph and Frances M. Olan*