Halakhic Standards

SHOULD CONSERVATIVE SYNAGOGUE LAY LEADERS
 BE HELD TO SOME MINIMAL HALAKHIC STANDARD?

 

A recurrent debate within Conservative Judaism is the tension between a desire to maintain minimal standards of halakhic behavior and a desire to fashion a spiritual home for the broad majority of our people. In fashioning policies for our Movement and our synagogues, we would be prudent to adhere to a central Biblical/Rabbinic approach: Jewish law doesn’t emerge from abstract principles. Wisely, Jewish law is case law, recognizing that the proper purpose of policy is to benefit real communities and living individuals. In rabbinic thought, principles are secondary, generalized from what real people need and do.

Those of our leaders who call for prior standards have a commendable concern: Judaism without observance is hardly worth the effort, and has shown little ability to survive in the world. By requiring high standards, we would expect to stimulate greater observance and spiritual stretching, initially for the sake of the leadership position, but eventually for the sake of the mitzvot themselves (as the talmud notes, “you may initial observance for the wrong reasons, but will end observing for the right ones.”) The imposition of standards is an attempt to enrich the lives of Conservative Jews, and to close the gap between the observant minority and the less-observant majority. The question here is not whether that is a laudable goal. It clearly is. What ought to concern us is whether or not the policy of a priori standards advances or precludes greater and more widespread observance.

Let’s follow the Talmud’s insight and address this issue of policy by first considering some real people:

During the Bat Mitzvah year of their daughter, two congregants decided that it would be great to do some Jewish learning too. They were both spiritual searchers, and had engaged in meditation, retreats, women’s gatherings and men’s weekends as spiritual disciplines. The only area they had not explored in their spiritual quest was Judaism. In part a rebellion against what they felt was a stultifying childhood Hebrew School, in part reflecting unresolved struggles with their parents, Judaism had never appeared to be spiritual to them.

In my Introduction to Judaism course, Natalie and Fred discovered a Judaism of passion and rigor, of intellect and soul. Still finding their way, they agreed to start attending services on Shabbat mornings. At the same time, Fred joined the congregation’s Board of Trustees. Natalie joined the Sisterhood for the first time. As that first semester progressed, I watched their excitement ignite. Natalie decided to join our Hevra Mikra, the weekly Torah discussion group preceding Shabbat services. They both decided to kasher their kitchen. After a successful term on the Board, Fred became chair of an important committee. Acutely aware of his lack of training for the position, he consulted with me frequently. They both signed up for another adult education course.

Natalie, a physician, seemed a natural for the Seminary’s Brit Kodesh program, which trains observant physicians to serve as mohalim. The problem was that Natalie was still not fully observant. I presented her with the need of our community for a local Mohel, and urged her and her husband to take the next logical step in their lives (eating only kosher food and increasing their Shabbat observance). After talking together, they both agreed to start Shabbat by candle lighting time, and to give up non-kosher food. By now, Fred was a synagogue officer.

Fred and Natalie are but one example of the kind of giving, soul-filled, gentle seekers who require a nuanced approach if they are to even walk through the door of Jewish living. If the first words they had been told were “You must meet minimal halakhic standards prior to assuming a leadership role” they would have heard the synagogue as speaking in the rigid, rule-based mode of their parents and their childhood Hebrew schools, and they would have bolted for the exit. Instead, offered the goal of full observance, coupled with the technique of gradual growth, they were able to advance at their own pace, retaining their integrity and that of Judaism as well. By the time I did speak to them about minimal halakhic standards, they were already well embedded in communal life and leadership.

There are countless “Fred and Natalie” stories out there. Many of our people are willing to shoulder responsibility for shul and brit if we are willing to meet them with a bountiful spirit, trusting in the “pintele Yid” (the Jewish spark within each and every Jewish heart), rather than first seeking recourse in coercion and rules.

Compulsion is a timid substitute for the far-more-challenging work of education, mentoring, and partnership. Indeed, at stake is our fundamental approach to Jewish living: We could circle the wagons, admitting only the already observant into our charmed and exclusive company. But then, in self-fulfilling pessimism, we would have effectively written off the great majority of Am Yisrael. We could draw a line in the sand, and our people would perceive an implication that they would have to demonstrate their worth before living their ancient, sacred bond with God. Correctly sensing the infantilization of such an imposition, they would respond to our stiffness with stiff-necks of their own.

The tzelem Elohim, the divine image, can only be nurtured in freedom. The Holy One offered the covenant freely to a free people. Our ancestors responded to that recognition of their liberty by consenting prior to knowing the details of their commitment (“we will do and we will hear”). So, too, we can demonstrate faith in that remarkable combination of savlanut (forbearance) and ahavah (love) that has always inspired the Jewish people to its very best.  Coercion might compel temporary conformity (how many synagogue presidents attend services regularly until their term of office ends and then disappear forever?). Conformity should not be mistaken for observance. As the Talmud notes, mitzvah observance requires intentionality.

At issue here is not the goal: the richness of halakhic living, grounded in aggadic thinking and a knowledge of the rich streams of Jewish and general thought, implemented in deeds of piety, kindness, and justice is the worthy heritage of every modern Jew. The Conservative Movement is celebrated for its refusal to dilute or stultify that magnificent dynamic. The question for debate is how best to bring our people back to their heritage, how best to implement that aim successfully.

A remarkable Midrash provides an answer at once traditional and embracing: a pagan shared a meal with our father, Abraham. When the Patriarch asked the guest to lead birkat ha-Mazon, the man refused because he was an idolater. In righteous indignation, Abraham kicked the man out of his home. Then a voice from Heaven proclaimed, “I have been putting up with that man for seventy years, and you could not tolerate him for even an hour!?!”

Through the rabbinic combination of patience and encouragement, education and inspiration, we have the best hope of creating a real commitment to observance, learning and growth. As the disciples of Hillel, we know full well that prior conditions and stern judgment only drive away those who would gather under the wings of Shekhinah. Let it not be said of us that we erected excessive fences to the detriment of God’s people or of our covenant.

 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the author of It’s A Mitzvah! Jewish Living Step-By-Step (Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly).