The tools of Halacha are there to use
By Andrew Sacks
The Masorti/Conservative movement is committed to deep respect for Halacha. Those that pay heed to the writings of the movement in matters of Jewish law know that the level of scholarship is high and the respect for sources runs deep.
Far too often those to the right, in particular those in the fervently Orthodox world, confuse minhag (custom) with law. We find custom, which has a central place in our tradition, becomes frozen and somehow sanctified.
This applies to the black garb that many Orthodox wear, and it applies too much in the realm of the (in)active participation of women in public Jewish ritual life. Jewish law did not prohibit a woman wearing tallit and tefillin. It does not prohibit ordination. Yet those who read the sources as allowing for this are marginalized.
The current haredi world (and much of the centrist Orthodox world) finds itself afraid of the kind of innovation that has been the hallmark of our rabbinic tradition. Serious rabbinic debate, talmudic style, has been stifled.
As Blu Greenberg once said, "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way." How true this is. But so often in the Orthodox world the authority of certain rabbis takes precedence over a true reading of the sources.
THOSE WHO are bold in their views are quickly accused of being "not really Orthodox." Even worse, they may be accused of being Conservative. A prime example of this would be the manner in which so many Orthodox rabbis relate to Shira Hadasha-style minyanim, where women read from the Torah in a minyan where men and women sit separately. Sometimes it takes decades for some in the Orthodox world to arrive at positions long accepted in the Conservative world.
Now the Conservative movement has been accused of abandoning all pretense of being a halachic movement owing to the latest discussions surrounding greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in Jewish life. Let us not forget that "there are 70 faces" to the Torah (i.e., unlimited ways to understand it).
THE DECISIONS of the Conservative movement’s law committee with regard to the issues of gay ordination, commitment ceremonies, permitted and prohibited sexual acts, whatever they may be, will be the product of years of serious study and an effort to boldly wrestle with Jewish texts. This process is carried out with the greatest integrity.
In much of the Orthodox world, there is no room for discussion on this subject. The view is that there is a black-and-white prohibition. In the Reform world, the autonomy of the individual is key - so Jewish law need not be the central consideration. But even in these denominations there is some respectful study taking place.
Those that decide Jewish law have always been on the cutting edge. The rabbis, long before anyone thought up the term Orthodox, all but eliminated the laws of the "rebellious son." They found ways to allow Jews to loan money to other Jews with interest. They found a device that avoided the cancellation of loans in the seventh year.
In more modern times rabbis created a solution to allow our lands to be sold to non-Jews in the Shmitta year so that we could go on farming. Yes, indeed, Jewish rabbinic tradition has proven that "where there is a rabbinic will, there may be a halachic way."
IS THE decision of the Conservative movement to deal with the issues connected to gays a departure from tradition? I think not. Will a decision for greater inclusiveness, should that occur, mean that the movement has made a break with Halacha? Some may think so, but I think not.
What it will mean is that the Conservative/Masorti movement has applied the tools of Jewish law that have always been available to the rabbis. They will have wrestled with tradition and modernity. They will have realized that Judaism is made up of both Halacha and Aggada. At times they find that the traditional halachic decisions must stand, and at times not.
I have not yet read much of the material the law committee is studying. The authors of the responsa have not yet finished their work.
For this reason the material is not yet available to the public. So I would urge that fair-minded observers would be wise to wait until the responsa are published. Only then can they be studied and judged on their merits. Masorti/Conservative rabbis are open to struggling with the difficult issues that living in a modern society present. We try to synthesize modernity and tradition within halachic parameters.
Whatever the outcome, the process is an attempt to seek answers honestly by reading and rereading the sources. These sources are intended to bring us closer to God.
The mitzvot (commandments) are intended to bring us closer to God as we live an ethical life that respects all people. For we were all created in the image of God.
So whatever is decided, let us respect the idea that while rabbis may differ in both methodology and conclusions, their work remains sincere and sacred. The writer is a Masorti rabbi living in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed are his own.
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