Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"You're All SINNERS!"


I’m writing about yesterday about 24 hours late, but things get hectic here and it’s often hard to keep things on track for the day.  Many things that I wish would be daily routine are much harder to establish with the spontaneous nature of things on this program.  Spontaneous is good, but it makes it hard to fit in things like listen to podcasts regularly, learn the amount of Rambam I want to learn daily, and keep up with the blog, to name some.

Yesterday I had my first voice lesson with a woman named Ashira, who teaches right here at Agron for cantorial students.  A great plus to studying with her will be that not only will she help me develop voice technique, but she will also help me develop skills as a shaliach tzibbur, since she has a cantorial background.  She already pointed some basic things that can make a great difference, so I am looking forward to sounding better as the weeks go by.  We will officially start after Sukkot – this was a sort of introductory session for her to get to know me.

For the first time, because Israel has a moronic standard time policy, classes ended after dark.  We were able to do ma’ariv at the yeshiva at the end of the day.  Sort of depressing how early it gets dark out; I don’t like early darkness.  But I like all of the opportunties I get to daven at the yeshiva, it’s a good davening environment, generally speaking.

Last night, we had the honor and privilege of hearing words of wisdom from a wise Conservative rabbi, Rabbi Joel Roth.  His talk dealt mostly with the failures of the Conservative movement, in the context of the four major underpinnings of the movement.  He did, however, begin by acknowledging many sources of pride for our movement and declared Conservative Judaism the most authentic form of Judaism.  But in short, the failures of the movement include its failure to convey to its constituency why it is the most authentic form of Judaism and to bridge the chasm between the leadership elite and the general constituency.

Here’s a short summary of his points – thanks to Ariella Kristal for the notes:
Conservative Movement Underpinnings:
1.   Mitzvot are commandments, not “traditions,” “customs,” or anything else.  Whether one understands or does not understand why one cannot eat a pig but can eat a cow or can’t mix two fibers in clothing is immaterial to observance of mitzvot – it is obligatory!  He then explained the corollary of mitzvah, which is sin.  At which point he called everyone who violates the Shabbat a sinner, technically speaking!  He did not mean to attack, but rather to explain that the opposite of mitzvah is sin, failure to comply to the Commander’s command.  Conservative Jews often say “I’m Conservative, I don’t have to wear tefillin,” but do not understand that not wearing tefillin is a sin.
2.   Halakha is to be determined by proper authorities – a ritual committee comprised of individuals without sufficient knowledge of the halakhic process and the issues within the details of halakha that makes halakhic decisions has overstepped its boundaries.  Rabbis are the authorities today that can make those decisions.
3.   Jewish law is pluralistic, not monolithic, and is subject to legitimate controversy among its authorities. Heard of Hillel and Shammai? Totally different opinions on the intricacies of halakha, yet they were civil to each other and their sons married their daughters and vice versa.  There are differences of opinion as to whether Kraft cheese is kosher (i.e. whether cheese needs a hekhsher), but nobody argues that one may eat kosher or non-kosher cheese with a cheeseburger.
4.   Jewish law is evolutionary – but not revolutionary.  You can work within the system to overturn and change the look of law.  One cannot impose American law on Jewish law, just like, as in the case of Rabbi Roth’s son when he was 13, one cannot declare that the President of the U.S. need only be 13 years old because he’s a Jewish adult.

Then came an extremely potent analogy.  Rabbi Roth compared the evolution of Jewish law to a chessboard.  One can make any move, so long as it is legal, and this can include knocking pieces off the board – changing parts of Jewish law – as long as it is a legal move.  Yet the writing of the Shulhan Arukh put a dome over the chessboard that froze the game, and one could not make new moves.  New issues in Jewish law were obviously discussed, but no changes to the game.  Conservative Judaism, however, does not view halakha as frozen, and continues to make legal moves.

And finally, he testified that Rabbi Akiva would not be in Me’ah She’arim or B’nei Brak or YU if he were alive today, but rather at JTS.

Question and Answer session: people asked great questions to advance understanding of Rabbi Roth’s shpiel.  I asked a two-fold question: a) does the movement do itself a favor by shifting leftward, and b) what is the future of observant Jews who are right-wing.  I had prefaced my question by explaining that I could easily yet regrettably be one of those Conservative movement products he described before that he would see davening at an Orthodox schul, due to discomfort at Conservative schuls.  Much to my liking, he answered my question very passionately and thoroughly.  Essentially, he suggested that Conservative Jews stop calling people who actually observe halakha “Orthodox” so they are not alienated and that schuls ought to provide minyanim that would include things like the full Torah reading, non-egalitarian setting, etc.

Rabbi Roth’s lecture was very motivational and insightful.  It was also important to know, as Yossi mentioned in his introduction to Rabbi Roth, that we have top scholars that deal with the core of the movement.  His ideas for synagogues in terms of education and recognizing Jewish observance are fantastic.  The test and the future, however, is about whether people will actually heed his words.  I felt the same way, too, after Rabbi Artson spoke at Etz Chaim last year – there is hope for the Conservative movement if people listen to our scholars.  But do they?

Either way, I find myself more and more motivated to stay in the Conservative movement and to be an educator in my future.  I hate to say that Orthdoxy is the answer to my dissatisfaction because I am ideologically Conservative.  We’ll just have to see what my place in the movement will be…

Lots to think about.  I’ll be blogging about Conservative Judaism more in the future.

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