Va’etchanan

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. Last Shabbat I asked our congregation to join with Conservative Jews all over the world to protest the Rotem Conversion bill. Thanks to all of you who sent the Prime Minister an e-mail. By Sunday Netanyahu had received 25,000 emails protesting the vote from Masorti and another 25,000 from the Federation website. By the end of the day, the Prime Minister had spoken up to kill the conversion bill and pledged to work to find a better solution for Russian Jews and for American Jews. There still is much that must be done, and we cannot let our guard down, but for now, the crisis is past.

3. It continues to amaze me that the members of Israel’s K’nesset still don’t understand Conservative Judaism and what we stand for. Our movement is constantly in the Israeli news and we lobby the K’nesset regularly. Other than the fact that the Orthodox factions run political parties, we don’t seem to be able to get very far in letting lawmakers know who we are and what our issues in Israel are.

4. But maybe the problem is less about Israel and more about Conservative Judaism in America. How many of us here today could speak up about what our movement is and what we believe? What would we say, that we are “not Orthodox but not Reform”? That we are “in the middle” of the denominations? How many of us really understand the philosophy and significance of Conservative Judaism?

5. In this week’s Parsha, Moses tells the People of Israel that he has given them a good law, that they should not add to it nor subtract from it, but they should follow all of its teachings. We can easily see why Moses would say this. These words, after all, were given to us by God. Who are we to change the law? What right do we have to amend the Torah? The Torah is filled with examples of disaster when God’s words were not followed. Why should we add or subtract from them to suit our needs?

6. And yet, from the very moment that the Torah became the foundation of law for Judaism, Rabbis have been adding and subtracting to the laws of the Torah. Have you ever been married by a Rabbi? If so, all of the laws of marriage were additions to the Torah. There is no place in the Torah where it tells us how we are supposed to get married. Do you light candles on Shabbat? Shabbat and Festival candles are also not found in the Torah, They too were added later by the Rabbis. There is no place in the Torah that teaches us to pray three times a day, or that the morning service is required. Rosh Hashana is not found in the Torah. Neither is Purim or Hanukah. The format for a Blessing is not from the Torah. There is nothing about funeral services in the Torah. The Torah does not know from second day Yom Tov either. For that matter, the Torah tells us that we must not work on Shabbat, but it never says what its definition of work should be. The laws of working on Shabbat were all added to the law.

7. If you were a trained lawyer, you understand that as soon as a law code is written down, there will need to be changes. Laws have to be interpreted, so people can understand them. As situations change, the law has to change to fit new situations and new circumstances. Sometimes laws have to be amended. Sometimes there needs to be new laws. Sometimes laws must be removed from the books. A law code that does not change will quickly become useless, irrelevant and dead. A living law must be able to change.

8. Everyone knows that the Torah has 613 Mitzvot; 613 laws that make up the core of all that Judaism stands for. There are 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments. Or are there? Many of the Mitzvot deal with sacrifices. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore so we don’t pay any attention to these Mitzvot. Some of the Mitzvot have to do with the way Kohanim serve in the Temple. We don’t have a Temple with Kohanim anymore so these Mitzvot no longer are valid. According the Hafetz Hayim, who died in 1933, there are only 77 positive Mitzvot that we follow and 194 negative Mitzvot. In addition there are 26 Mitzvot that only apply to Jews who live in Israel. That leaves us with only 297 Mitzvot. The rest have been removed from the law.

9. Given this understanding of the law, we can better understand what Conservative Judaism is all about. We do not believe that Jewish Law was fixed at any point in time. We do not believe that the Talmud, the Mishna Torah, The Shulchan Aruch nor the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch have fixed Jewish law for all time. The same forces that have always shaped Jewish Law still shape it. Torah and Halacha are like a growing tree. Sometimes there are limbs that die out and fall off, sometimes there are new branches and leaves that grow. It does not change all at once, like the Reform movement tries to do, but it grows organically, building on the roots and branches that have come before.

10. Conservative Judaism also says that there may not be uniformity about how or when the law changes. Different Jews have different opinions (imagine that!) and different Rabbis also do not agree (what a surprise!). Sometimes only time will tell which Rabbi or group of Rabbis were correct. So we rarely make definitive changes in the law. More often, we record the opinion of the Majority and the opinion of the Minority so future generations will see what we have done and can best decide what they should do for their time and circumstances. When a decision is needed, the Rabbi of that place, the Mara D’Atra, is given the duty to examine the laws as they exist and decide what would be the best course for the Jews in that community.

11. The participation of women in Jewish life is one area of change that we understand very well. An examination of the laws relating to the role of women in ritual life shows clearly that it does not reflect the words of Torah; nowhere in the Torah does it limit the role of women in Jewish rituals. Just read about Deborah, Miriam, Hannah and the matriarchs and you can see that they would not recognize the laws of Mechitza, Kol Isha and the prohibition of counting women in the Minyan. We know from our study that the laws relating to women were developed in relation to the realities of ancient societies. When those realities changed, when women started taking a more active role in secular society, there needed to be similar changes in religious law as well. A modern woman who fights discrimination in American society should not have to be told that she should accept discrimination in the religious world.

12. It is important to note that just because some laws have needed to change, it does not mean we have abandoned Halacha altogether. The laws of Kashrut still apply. We still can’t eat lobster or ham. The laws of Shabbat still apply, we still must not write, pay bills or wash the car on Shabbat. We still have to eat Matzah on Pesach, build a Sukkah on Sukkot and fast on Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur. We still have to be kind to strangers, heal the sick, feed the hungry and clothe those in need. We are still not permitted to murder, commit adultery, lie, steal or covet. We may need to change some laws, but we also have to uphold the rest of the tradition that does not change. Or as one Conservative Rabbi put it. “We can argue if sturgeon or swordfish have scales or not and if they are kosher or not, but that still does not make oysters and clams permitted.”

13. Every change is not a sign of Reform Judaism. Standing by the tradition does not make one Orthodox. There is Tradition and there is Change, and Conservative Jews believe in both. We believe that changes must support the other requirements of the Tradition.

14. Our flexibility allowed us to be Zionists long before Orthodox and Reform Jews accepted Zionism. Our commitment to tradition has enabled us to prevent a major break with world wide Judaism. Our insistence on scholarship has made our Rabbis and universities known all over the world. We strongly oppose religious fundamentalism and we are strong supporters of religious pluralism. We don’t believe that we have the only path to God. We think that religion should not become political, neither in Israel nor in the United States.

15. Conservative Judaism believes that we are the descendants of the Rabbis in every age that molded the laws of the Torah to fit the needs of their generation. There is nothing to be ashamed of in Conservative Judaism. We should bear the title proudly. Those who speak loudest against us are the ones most frightened by the positions we take. We call ourselves Conservative Jews because we are committed to conserving our heritage, and that takes both Tradition and Change.

16. May our Torah always be our Tree of Life, as well as a Living Tree. May God bless us with the wisdom and courage to keep our faith growing and changing as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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