Halakhah in a Conservative Synagogue

Last week, I was counseling a family on the upcoming bar mitzvah celebration of their child.   I specified who could and could not have an aliyah, what food could or could not be brought into the synagogue, and why there would be no photography during the event itself.  The family, as is the norm, was interested in the rules and in their rationale.  In the middle of our discussion, a teenager from our Hebrew high school program popped her head into my study and asked if we could talk.  I told her to return in a half hour, and when she did, she asked me what Judaism had to say about smoking.

I referred her to the teshuvah of Rabbi Seymour Siegel prohibiting smoking as a violation of the mitzvah of rappo yirappei, our obligation to care for our own health and the prohibition against damaging our own bodies.  Then I asked her to sit down and tell me why she was so curious about this point of Jewish law.  She explained that a friend had recently gotten her hooked on smoking, and knowing that Judaism prohibited it would help the girl in her efforts to quit.
After I finished my discussion with this young woman, I attended a meeting of our Bikkur Holim Committee, a group of lay people in our congregation who visit the sick, both in their homes and in the hospital.  Then I went to teach our weekly adult education class, this week exploring the Book of Esther.

I share this recollected evening by way of asserting that an awareness of Jewish law and its norms pervades Conservative synagogues, albeit not in the way envisioned by the architects of talmudic Judaism.  Halakhot of the life cycle, of pikuah nefesh, of bikkur holim and of talmud torah are the concerns of the preponderance of Conservative laypeople.  These and countless other mitzvot, both bein adam la'Makom and bein adam le'havero constitute the precious mine that our congregants still seek to quarry. In their search, we rabbis remain, as ever, their vital guides.

Our congregants care very much about the standards of Jewish tradition, particularly at key moments in their lives—birth, puberty, marriage, and death—and they cherish the major elements of Jewish Holy Day observance.  They want to know about Jewish moral and ethical mandates, a regrettably-slighted area in public halakhic discourse, and they want to apply the wisdom of Jewish practice to their daily lives and their social interactions.

Most Conservative rabbis have experienced answering she’elot during the Oneg following a Shabbat service.  Responding to questions on a variety of Jewish practices, rituals, concerns of the day, upcoming festival and lifecycle events are the regular routine of every congregational rabbi.  We spend hours returning phone calls that deal with these issues, and most of us also invest a great amount of time dealing with converts and their concerns as well.  All of those inquisitive congregants belie the too-frequently published lament that our laity is not interested in halakhah.

Why The Perception of Indifference?

At the same time that I am deluged with questions of halakhic propriety, or of what Judaism teaches about specific moral or personal dilemmas, it is simultaneously obvious that these same congregants don’t live by a pattern of halakhic observance like their rabbis do.  Some keep kosher in their homes, while some only abstain from pork products.  Many don’t observe Shabbat beyond Friday night rituals in the home, and even many regulars observe Shabbat only until services end on Saturday morning.  A perception of indifference emerges from the indisputable fact that most Conservative congregants don’t implement the teachings of halakhah on a consistent basis in their personal lives.

That they don’t apply halakhah regularly also informs the widespread sense of a gap separating Conservative rabbis and laypeople.  It creates terrible loneliness among our colleagues, as well as a draining sense of futility and of failure.  I will argue momentarily that our congregants’ commitment to halakhah is pervasive and real, although quite different from our own, and that we will only succeed in building upon the base they provide if we train ourselves to recognize their halakhic piety as such, and then if we move to demonstrate halakhic seriousness as a movement by applying the halakhic process to questions of ethics, morality, and social justice as well as to questions of technical ritual propriety.

We are, in a way, blinded by our own over-emphasis on a few specific points of halakhah, an exaggeration which has distorted the real community of interest that continues to unite rabbis and congregants in Conservative shuls.  While a recent study of the different movements’ rabbis affirmed that Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis all perceive the largest gap as being between our rabbis and our laity, I believe that perception exists because all rabbinates have accepted a false definition of Judaism as coextensive with halakhic behavioralism. Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillot be'tzibbur constitute an easy—and false—checklist for measuring a Jew’s piety.  There is a form of Jewish blindness that defines religiosity in black-and-white terms, relegating all grays to an invisible and trivial limbo.  But that brittle categorization is false to the perceptions and intentions of our congregants, and leads us, as rabbis, to ignore the real efforts they make on behalf of halakhah and the tremendous impediments—psychological, economic, and social—that still stand in the way of fuller observance for so many of our people.

In my synagogue, there is a young couple—who are also Elana and my dear friends—who attend synagogue almost every Shabbat morning.  They maintain a kosher home and eat no meat outside of their homes.  Yet they will occasionally use a Saturday to drive to their parents house an hour-and-a-half away, drop off their young child, and spend the day enjoying Los Angeles.  Or, periodically, they will register for a Saturday seminar contributing to their own professional development.  And they are far from unique in the contours of their Shabbat.

Are these people Sabbath observant or not?  Do they care about the halakhic categories of mutar and asur?  I would insist that a simple “yes” or ”no” would seem alien and inaccurate to them.  From their perspective, they take Shabbat quite seriously and strive to adhere to its halakhic norms to the best of their abilities.  They recognize that they are not observant in the fullest sense, but they are much more observant than most of their peers.  To write them off as mehallelei Shabbat would miss the real seriousness and effort that they do put into their Shabbat observance and their grappling with traditional halakhic standards.

The black-and-white categories of observant or non-observant, of concerned with halakhah or not simply don’t describe these and countless other congregants in Conservative synagogues around the world.  They do care, passionately, about maintaining traditional standards in their synagogues: after all they could easily have joined the fine Reform synagogue just down the road.  They could easily dispense with Shabbat altogether, save for a perfunctory candle-lighting on Friday nights, le'zekher Shabbat.  Yet they do not, and work to make Shabbat a regular part of their lives.

Evidence of our laity’s singular passion for Judaism is not hard to find. Conservative Jews (congregants and rabbis) tend to demonstrate a high degree of loyalty to traditional forms of communal expression (halakhah as home-base, rather than as home).  In a recent study conducted for the American Jewish Committee, Conservative Jews scored remarkably high on an 11 point measure of Jewish involvement, and Conservative converts were notably more observant than the converts of the Reform or Reconstructionist movements.  That passion for being Jewish, and the desire that the synagogue should retain an optimal level of Jewish observance still unites the rabbis and most congregants within Conservative synagogues.  Conservative Jews are disproportionate in their involvement and leadership in Jewish communal, cultural, and academic activities and organizations, our synagogues contribute a disproportionate amount of the annual Federation and Israel bond totals, and our youth compose the lion’s share of teenagers going to Israel each summer. 

Yet we rabbis just don’t see it.  The inability of many of us to recognize how much we share with our congregants produces unwarranted loneliness on the part of rabbis and imposes an unnecessary and debilitating remorse throughout the movement. Part of the problem is a poverty of language: what we as rabbis mean by commitment to halakhah is not what our congregants mean by that commitment.  When Conservative rabbis speak of halakhah, we speak of a system of obligations that frame our actions and establish a routine.  The mitzvot provide a context for our lives, sanctifying our days and elevating our nights, providing constant companionship and pedagogy, training us to be servants of God and advocates on behalf of God’s Torah.  Because we understand halakhah in this pervasive and organic way, we fail to notice halakhic commitments that don’t attain to the status of an exclusive framework for authority, for mandating priorities and prohibitions.

It is not, I would assert, that our congregants are indifferent to halakhah, or even that they don’t consider the mitzvot of Judaism commanding.  Most would blanch at the assertion that the Ten Commandments or the Torah are not sacred or that God and the Jewish people did not initiate a love relationship, a brit, at Mt. Sinai.  Most would affirm that the Torah and Jewish traditions are the ongoing records of that brit.  But where our congregants do differ from their rabbis is that they understand halakhah as providing a base of commonality for the community as a whole (not necessarily for each individual member), as an objective for individual growth (and therefore binding as a direction and an ideal, but not as an immediate imperative). 

Halakhah, for our congregants, provides a context, but not an agenda; an aspiration but not an obligation.  Or, more accurately, it is obligatory as a goal.  Halakhah provides the direction most Conservative Jews aspire to walk, it gives their lives direction and shape, surfaces at communal events and lifecycle celebrations, and offers the predominant model of Jewish piety.  The teenager who wanted to know that Judaism prohibits smoking (and who hasn’t smoked since I told her that it does!) is not fully shomeret Shabbat.  But her sense of being commanded through halakhah is strong enough to overpower her nicotine addiction.  That is no small commitment, and we must recognize its depth.  Her piety is not uncommon in Conservative congregations.
What To Do With Our Shared Commitment

Recognizing halakhah as pervasive yet not constant provides the necessary lenses to envision how Jewish law does bind our congregants, and willingly at that.  They are committed to governing their most intense Jewish moments by the considerations of halakhah, in birth rituals, marriage, and burial.  They seek access to the profundity and wisdom of Jewish living, and expect their rabbis to regularly remind them of the mitzvot they don’t yet observe, by way of keeping the option of their eventual adoption alive.  Yet because halakhah represents aspiration, because it embodies the retention of identity and of community, our congregants generally look to communal structures to reflect the highest possible standards, regardless of how they currently conduct their private lives.

Last year, a congregant asked me whether or not he could videotape his son’s bar mitzvah celebration.  I felt tremendous pressure to say yes: he clearly wanted those photographs, otherwise he wouldn’t have raised the subject in the first place.  Imagine my surprise when I said “no” and he thanked me for holding firm.  Another example: after publishing an article in my synagogue bulletin explaining that cremation was prohibited by Jewish law, and laying out the reasons for that prohibition, I braced myself for the storm of protest that I expected would follow.  Instead, several congregants phoned to tell me they had changed their wills and would be properly buried when the time came, all because of that one little column.  A rabbi who can say “no” when necessary, like a parent who can set appropriate limits, provides a desired service in the maintenance of cohesion, belonging, and a sense of  tradition and  balance.  The biggest surprise of my synagogue experience is that it is often my congregants who want me to say ”no” to their ritual liberties.

What we share with our congregants, then, is the desire to create a vibrant community, one that retains the contours of traditional Judaism, that is to say, of halakhah.  In that regard, how we as Conservative rabbis act has direct implications for how halakhah is perceived and lived in our communities.  There is considerable agreement between Conservative rabbis and congregants on what our public standards ought to be, on rabbis advocating greater observance, on maintaining maximal practice as the single goal of Jewish piety.

Our task as congregational rabbis, and as those who buttress the work of congregational rabbis, is to build on that foundation. To do so, we must make growth in halakhic learning and observance our own life-long agenda, and we must, as a movement, present a fuller halakhah to the public eye.  Additionally, we must find more effective ways to utilize our own instrument of halakhic vitality, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, as a forum involving far more of our colleagues’ input and as a truly deliberative body.

If we hold ourselves out as role models of halakhic observance and piety, then we must make that piety visible to our congregants.  If we ourselves do not take halakhah seriously, then our congregants can hardly be expected to do so on their own.  One way that we can manifest halakhic passion is through constantly studying and re-studying rabbinic, and specifically halakhic writings, through a determination to continue to grow in the observance of mitzvot, and an eagerness to share that journey with our congregants.  Conservative rabbis must not only be models of halakhic engagement, but must make that engagement public and visible to all.  We cannot afford private piety.

Conservative Poskim and the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards

Part of that course of study and growth must include explicit reference to our contemporary poskim and our structures of halakhic pioneering with the same reverence that we speak of the ancient gedolim.  Conservative rabbis who belittle the Law Committee, who teach halakhah without reference to its decisions, strike against their own legitimacy and against the vibrancy of our own movement.  Whether or not we concur with specific decisions of the Law Committee, its decisions must be presented with respect and with reverence—even if not always with support.

This assertion requires some elaboration.  The Law Committee is the only arena that assures the integrity and unity of our movement.  It is the nature of Conservative Jewry to be particularly diverse in our membership and convictions, reflecting nearly the entire range of religious Judaism within our midst.  We enjoy colleagues who are virtually Orthodox in their theology and practice, some who are Reconstructionist in belief and behavior, some close to Reform in thought and deed, while the majority of us claim to be centrists.  We are not united by one specific theology or by  any single approach to Jewish tradition.  The only way to maintain our fellowship as a meaningful embodiment of klal Yisrael, as an assertion that what unites us is far more significant than what divides us, requires our willingness to channel our halakhic concerns through a universally-respected institution.  The Law Committee is the only such address we have.

And I do not mean by that claim that I concur with every position the Law Committee takes, nor al ahat kama ve'khama, with every teshuvah the Law Committee has ever passed.  But the genius of the structure of the Law Committee is  that one need not accept every decision  of the Committee (or even most) to affirm loyalty to the Law Committee as the parameter-setting body of the Conservative movement.  By its own guidelines, the decisions of the Committee permit a broad range of dissent, both in practice and in theory.  Its structure reflects pluralism in its distinction between a legitimate decision, requiring 6 votes or more, (which has the status of an authorized halakhic option),  a unanimous position of the committee, (which has the status of the sole authorized halakhic option), and a Standard of Rabbinic Practice, which requires 20 votes and the ratification of the plenary of the Rabbinical Assembly in convention assembled.  A rabbi may differ with any practice of the Committee, relying on his or her own authority within a particular congregation as mara d’atra. The only caveat in that case is that a rabbi acting against the consensus of the Committee or without a legitimate decision in support of her or his actions cannot claim the concurrence or support of the Committee. Only a Standard of Rabbinic Practice—ratified by the rabbis in convention—is incumbent upon every Conservative rabbi.

Surely that structure allows sufficient range of expression to encompass legitimate diversity among Conservative rabbis.  And that structure, alone, has the capacity to cultivate a coherence that keeps us connected one to another, that keeps us a movement and not merely a coalition, that retains the centrality of halakhah among us all.
Paradoxically, recognizing the Law Committee as the appropriate forum for establishing parameters and for endorsing halakhic options should serve to increase its scrutiny by our membership.  If its decisions matter so much, then we will follow its debates more closely, perhaps even developing a structure for rabbinical colleagues who are not members of the Committee to submit amicus briefs to educate and inform the poskim on the Committee.  Until now, we have treated the Committee too much as the private preserve of its members, in part because we didn’t consider it the contemporary locus of halakhic authority in a theological sense.

As the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly increases its loyalty to, participation in, and scrutiny of, the decisions of the Law Committee, we will be in a better position to translate those decisions into the living fabric of congregational life.  And it is the living community that represents the halakhic bottom line.  It is a talmudic principal that no decision is binding if the people Israel cannot live by it.  That principal applies within our movement no less—if a teshuvah is never implemented, if our congregants do not practice it, then it is null and void by our own ideology and that of talmudic Judaism (One readily thinks of the universally-ignored teshuvah that authorized abandoning yom tov sheni shel galuyot or another p’sak that requires women to waive their exemption from time-bound mitzvot  in order to serve as sh’lihot tzibbur).    The reality of  Judaism in our age is that the center of gravity is congregational.  It is what our synagogues do that constitutes Conservative Judaism, and what our rabbis actually preach and practice that constitutes our Shulhan Arukh.  In that endeavor, the work of the Law Committee is very much supportive—providing an essential tool to assist the rabbi in elevating halakhic consciousness and practice.

Halakhah as the Authentic Vehicle for Ethical Rigor

I mentioned the need for halakhic seriousness as the indispensable tool for cultivating our congregants’ halakhic growth.  Beyond re-evaluating our own halakhic seriousness as individuals, in addition to making the regular study of halakhic texts a part of our public face, in addition to consulting with the decisions of the Law Committee and integrating its teachings into every presentation we make on Jewish Law and speaking of its authority as the equivalent of the throne of Moses in our own day, we must also give weight to our conviction that the halakhah is, indeed, the preeminent vehicle for integrating new insight, deepened moral sensitivity, and broader knowledge into the structure of traditional Judaism.  Halakhic seriousness requires issuing legal rulings on questions of moral and social import, not only on ritual issues.  Paradoxically, one reason our congregants don’t take halakhah seriously is that they only hear it invoked with regard to matters they consider trivial.  In addition to teaching them that no mitzvah is trivial, we must demonstrate halakhic seriousness by applying our dynamic approach to Jewish law to all matters of human behavior, not just what takes place in a synagogue sanctuary or in its kitchen.

In our legitimate desire to conserve and to retain, by focusing excessively on the halakhah of ritual and not the halakhot of justice, we run the risk of irrelevancy, a fate that has relegated much of Orthodox life beyond the pale of pertinence for most American Jews.  How telling that Rabbi Isaac Klein’s compendium of ritual law calls itself a guide to Jewish religious practice, as if such practice has nothing to say about fair labor practices, about tzedakah, about caring for the environment, or any issues of social justice!  If the halakhah has something to say about videotaping on Shabbat but not about our obligations to the homeless, if kashrut is concerned with the purity of our knives but has nothing to say about the barbarity with which veal and chicken is currently raised, if we have a position about patrilineality but lack the courage to revoke mamzerut, then we betray the remarkable insight that I consider to be the bedrock of our movement.

From its onset, Positive-Historical Judaism insisted that Jewish law had a history, and that halakhah’s most enduring trait was its insistence on fusing ritual with ethical concerns, so that no immoral ritual retained credibility within Jewish law, regardless of its precedent.  Examples of earlier halakhic norms subsequently discarded in the light of developing moral standards have been cited for half a century, by giants such as Rabbi Robert Gordis by Rabbi Theodore Friedman by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, and by many others.  Even within the Torah itself, holding children guilty for the sins of their parents was replaced by a new standard, and the Talmud records  instances of Biblical prohibitions replaced by rabbinic leniency or outright obligation (such as the case of annulling vows or of a kohen burying his deceased wife).

Unique among modern Jewish movements, Conservative Judaism has insisted that halakhah has always been capable of integrating higher moral insight into its normative structure.  When we retreat from that courageous and accurate position, we do so at our own peril.  Far from securing a haven, timidity in integrating moral improvements into the structure of halakhah looks like a vindication of either the Orthodox position that halakhah is incompatible with moral adjustment or the Reform claim that it is incapable of such improvement.  As always, we need the courage of our convictions and sufficient daring to implement those convictions out of our profound loyalty to the Torah and to halakhah.

When our congregants see Jewish law squarely facing the moral issues of our age and contributing real insight toward their resolution, when they see their rabbis willing to share their personal growth in mitzvot and in halakhic consciousness with their congregants, when they hear us citing each other and the Law Committee as religious authorities, when they see us recognizing their piety for what it is and celebrating our common commitments as the still vital basis for a partnership on God’s behalf, then halakhah will continue to provide the nexus for our congregants’ Jewish identity, community, and aspiration.  And as they see that halakhah is the indispensable tool for deepening our moral resolve and courage, the master pedagogy for cultivating our piety and our spirituality, and the supreme path for walking in God’s ways, then—and only then—will the halakhah again speak to each and every Jew in a commanding voice, even as it did at Sinai.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com)  is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).