You Really Got A Hold On Me

One of the Masorti Rabbis in Jerusalem, had a group of Rabbis visiting his congregation just before the Rabbinical Assembly convention. He took the opportunity to tell his colleagues that they need to teach more mitzvot to the members of our congregations. He noted that as the Orthodox groups shift farther to the right, we should take up the name and position of “modern orthodox” and leave behind the name “Conservative Judaism”. He said we should be teaching our congregations the real Judaism that can be found when we practice more mitzvot and more rituals.
I was troubled by his comments because I do not think he was seeing the full picture. I do not believe that performing rituals alone will make a more committed, traditional Jew.
A few months ago, I heard a debate between Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joel Roth. Both are professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary but they teach from different sides of the Conservative spectrum. Rabbi Roth represented the traditional camp, explaining that the Jewish Legal system is designed to permit certain kinds of changes and not others. In the beginning there is Halacha, Jewish Law, and then one has to work with the system to resolve whatever issues modern living creates. Rabbi Gillman took a different track. He stated that first there has to be a reason for the Mitzvah. It should be impossible for there to be a Jewish Law that is immoral. If the Halacha we have today becomes identified as immoral or unethical at its core, then that law needs to be changed no matter what the implications inside the legal system may be. Rabbis Gillman and Roth debated that night and it ended in a draw, no minds were changed either way. I thought to myself, they are both right, but are speaking to different audiences. For those outside the Halachic system, Rabbi Gillman offers a way in. For those who come from a Halachic background, Rabbi Roth presents the most effective way to grow Jewishly. I just don’t see how both sides can work together. Yet our movement must make room for both approaches.
We live in an age where the usual Jewish denominations no longer really mean anything to the Jews of North America. Jews in this country change congregations for all kinds of reasons but theology is not usually considered. Modern Jews may leave a congregation if they have a disagreement with the Rabbi, if they move away, if they need a different kind of school, if they are looking for new friends. These are the most common reasons a family will move from one congregation to another. Theological discussions don’t usually come into the picture. Sometimes someone will not feel comfortable with the way one congregation performs one ritual or another but for the most part, North American Jews move pretty freely from one synagogue to another.
It is the Roth/Gillman debate that, in my opinion, is the real division in Judaism here in the United States. Some Jews are looking for a place where there is a great deal of respect for the Halachic system. They want to do more and more Mitzvot and they understand that the meaning for the rituals will come once they are fully into living as Jews. The Halachic system will, when fully engaged, bring structure, meaning and direction into the lives of those so dedicated. Mitzvot and modernity, tradition and change, ritual and being open to new ideas are what this approach is all about. Not everything may be possible, but when one is committed to the system, we do what we can and learn to live with what we cannot do.
But for those outside the system, the Gillman approach makes more sense. What are we doing? Why are we doing that? What does it mean? These are all important questions to be asked before one begins a ritual life. For example, a person would see someone wearing tephillin and be moved to consider wearing tephillin themselves if they thought that the person they are looking at, is in a spiritual place that they, the newcomer, wants to achieve. Only later, the newcomer would realize all the implications that come when one wears tephillin on a regular basis.
But there are also times when the law no longer represents a moral or ethical position, when the gap between what is permitted and prohibited is so great that only something outside the legal system can help us bring the system back to a sensible place. Something needs to be done or there is a danger that Jews will reject the entire system without giving it a second look.
One such issue might be the acceptance/creation of lifecycle rituals for gay and lesbian Jews. To exclude homosexual Jews from Jewish ritual is considered to be wrong by many modern, serious Jews. Such Jews claim that if we understand the Torah to say that homosexual Jews should be excluded, then we must not be understanding the Torah correctly. If these laws can’t be changed to bring gay and lesbian Jews fully into the Jewish people, then what is the use for Jewish Law at all? A Halacha that excludes Jews can’t be a moral law and if Jewish Law can’t be moral, than what use is it to a modern Jew?
We are a wide tent that includes Jews that are all over the ritual spectrum. What unites us is that we are still searching for meaning in our lives, that what we do should not be useless and futile. There is much in Judaism, in the ritual and Halacha that can give purpose and meaning to life. I don’t believe that we can teach this to our fellow Jews without offering meaning and reasons for why we do what we do. And when, issues like gender and sexual orientation threaten to throw the whole system into the realm of irrelevance, bold changes are needed. Even if such changes occasionally take us outside the official framework of the Halachic system.
I don’t think that what our movement needs is “orthodoxy”. I think we should stay with “massorti” (traditional) Judaism or “Conservative” Judaism, where we seek to “conserve” the tradition and live in the modern world. I understand that a legal system is what gives Judaism its continuity with generations in the past, but without the ability to transcend the system from time to time, we will lose our connection with Jews in the future. Halacha is not a perfect system. We need to remember that and not be afraid to act lest Judaism lose all relevance in the modern world.

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