Why aren't we Orthodox or OrthoPrax? What is the nature of Hollywood Temple Beth El?
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Did you ever have to ask a Rabbi if a chicken is kosher?
Today, you know, we don't need to do it-- after all, we go to the
kosher butcher, the chicken is already packaged, defeathered, separated, koshered
with salt and water, and it bears the certificate of a Rabbi or rabbinic body
which has already examined it.
But in the good old days, which some of you may remember, where
good or not so good, your mother would go to the butcher, and pick out a live
chicken. The shochet would be there, and cut its neck, and give it an
inspection, and pronounce it kusher or kasher, and your mother would then take
it home to salt and soak it.
But you know, that your mother would still check it out, and if she
found a flaw, let's say a diseased organ in the chicken, she would run with it
to the Rabbi.
Now,-do you know what the Rabbi would say, if he had any doubts
about the chicken?
The Rabbi would look at your mother, and do the opposite of what
The rabbi would look and say,to himself," Mrs. Gold is well to
do, what is another chicken for her--Let her give this chicken away to a
non-Jew, and buy another chicken." And so, he would tell her, Treif.
But if he sees " Mrs. Urme-leut," He would say,"
Poor Mrs Urme-Leut- so many children to feed, and so little money, and how
precious this chicken is for her-If I have any doubts about the chicken, let it
be on my conscience," and he would pronounce the chicken,"
Now, what is my point, since I myself don't inspect chickens-not a
schochet and not a
It is that we make a mistake in assuming that Judaism is as it was
and always will be as it was. It is the mistake that the law, the halakhah, is
clad in iron, and that we follow every detail exactly as it is written. This
really comes to the heart of what it means to be a Conservative synagogue. It
is why we reject Orthodoxy on principal as our approach, just as we reject
Reform, on principal as our approach.
To be correct, all our terms are “ Goyish”- Reform is borrowed from
the Protestant Reformation, “ Orthodox” is borrowed from the Catholic and
Orthodox Eastern Churches,
“ Conservative” is borrowed from the 19th century reaction to the
excess of the French Revolution, just as “ Progressive” is borrowed from the in
the beginning of the political movements of a century ago ( that didn’t always
end up well, like forced sterilization).
“ Reconstructionism” sounds like something from the aftermath of
the Civil War ( although the concept was appropriate). Then, there’s New Age,
but that is so “hippie”, now old hat.
Oxford don and Rabbi Solomon
Schechter, the great founding force of Conservative Judaism, used the term “
Catholic Israel”, which is a good translation of an old term “ Knesset Yisrael”,
but somehow, if I say I’m a Catholic Rabbi, it doesn’t wash.
None of these are Jewish
More properly, we could use, or not, the contemporary usage in
Hebrew, for an observant Jew, as “ Dati”, meaning, one who follows Jewish law,”
dat”( not Faith,as there is no one and
only Jewish faith, as in a catechism). Even “ Dat” is not a Hebrew, but a
Persian term, for “ The King’s Law”, which is why Haman accuses the Jews of
having “ different laws”( dateyhem) but not the law of the king “ datey
For the opposite, we could say “Chiloni”, from the word “Chol” “ secular”, that is used to describe the rest, but that too is not appropriate, as most Israelis, and most Jews elsewhere, are not fully “ secular” in the sense of disconnected from their heritage and religious sensibility, but more properly, in the sense of “masorti”, accepting a chain of tradition, handed down form past generations.
So, we are in the “ Masorti” branch, not the “ Dati”, or we may say
“ Orthoprax, branch.
So, what is our “ Masorah”, our heritage, and is there truly an
OrthoPrax, as much as there is not, truly, an Orthodox.
So, a better term, is a “ halakhic Jew”, a Jew who follows, as best
as possible, the “Halakha”, the way to go, but, slippery slope, even here, it
is a question of whose “halakha”, who is the posek, the decider.
We could go with the term that was used by one of the founders of
early Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Zecharia Frankel, which was “
Positive-Historical”, so to say, “ We have a positive attitude to Jewish
practice and tradition, and we combine it with the recognition that we also
need to understand our historical sources, see how they were applied, and how
interpreted over the centuries, in order to adapt to our needs.
We ,above all, must put to bed the great error, that there has
always been one uniform and universal Orthodox Judaism, which has remained the
same since Moses time. There has not been so and our ancient sages recognized
that to be true.
There is a classic tale, in which Moses is to " Back to the
Future" to see the famous Rabbi Akiba who would explain problems of the
Torah hidden from Moses. He is whisked to the future, and sits in the class of
great Rabbi. And Moses is dumbfounded--he doesn't understand a single issue
that Rabbi Akiba is discussing. He is ready to faint.
Then, a student asks, Rabbi Akiba--where do we know all these
To this, Rabbi Akiba replies--they are halakha lemoshe
missinai--they are the laws that Moses himself taught us at Sinai.
To this Moses finally recovers his composure--and returns to
What is the message of the story--that in Rabbis Akiba’s time--the
sages knew that they had made tremendous innovations in not only Jewish
practice, but also in belief--doctrines and teachings that could not be found
in the Torah. But they honestly believed that the principals for these changes
could be understood from the Torah, even if they turned summersaults to make
They knew that hazman gorem vehamakom gorem--time and place
determine the interpretation and application of the law.
The truth is, that in all times and ages, the Rabbis knew that
their teachings depended upon the needs of the times.
The Rabbis would say עת לעשות לה' הפרו תורתך"" quoting Ps 119:126.
“It is time to act for God; they have broken your Torah”. But they
would intentionally interpret it to its opposite meaning--"When it is
necessary for the cause of God, violate
the Torah.") Talmud Berakhot 54a and others)
We can use a medical
metaphor, that our scholars recognized occasions when it was necessary to cut
out a diseased limb, in order to save a life, and transplant something new and
healthy. The classic example of all times was the concept of “pikuach nefesh”,
saving life, and therefore, one violates the Shabbat to save a life, even if
the chances of surviving are slim, or the danger, slight. Violate one Shabbat
in order to celebrate a lifetime of Shabbat. Tell me where the Torah authorizes
its own violation? It doesn’t. It says that “ You will observe my laws and
judgements that a person shall do them and live by them”( Lev 18:5, also in
Ezekiel). The simple meaning is that you shall do them and live according to
The Rabbis took the license to reinterpret the “ pshat”, the clear
meaning, and introduce something
external—“ you shall not die by them” but “live “ by them, so don’t let
yourself die in the process. .( Talmud Yoma 85b)
If there is any proof that Judaism has changed drastically, just
look at Hasidism. Today, we think of it as the example of Orthodoxy. Nothing
could be further from the truth.
The truth is, that in its early days, the Hasidim, whom we see as “ultra-
Orthodox”, were the great heretics of their day. The Rabbis of those days
condemned Hasidism as a violation of Jewish law, and the founder of Habad was
himself thrown in jail for his innovations.
One of the early Hasidic masters gave voice to the movement. He was
asked why he did not follow in his father's traditions, as he had broken from
his father's teachings. To this he answered, "But I do follow in his
teachings-- My father broke with his father's ways, and I am following his
tradition and I now break with his ways."
The great teachers of Hasidism, in its great days of the Baal Shem
Tov and his followers, knew that to make an omelet, you have to break the egg shell.
It was that readiness to break the eggshell that gave Hasidism its power in its
I am therefore disturbed by an attitude, widely prevalent, that
says,"we conservative Jews, are not really good Jews---they-, the
Orthdodox, or the ultra- Orthodox, they are really preserving Judaism as it
That is why, for example, the status of women in our synagogue is a
A few years ago, a parent of our nursery school, who was also
active in the new Russian Habad synagogue, approached us about the possibility
of the two joining or merging. All that would be needed would be for a mechitzah
to be placed in the middle, and the two congregations could combine forces.
She then made what is the common; we can call it " Put
down" of Conservative Judaism, namely, understandably, we try what we can to bring in the general Jewish
public, but after all,the Habad way, is the authentic Jewish way, and we should
all choose to get to their point of view. If that's true, how important could
mixed seating or aliyoth for women be then." Big deal.
PS For many of my Orthodox friends, Chabad is questionable because
they let themselves get caught up in the
“ Rebbe as Moshiach” movement, often derided as “ Shavtai Zvi” heresy.Or, as
one of the leaders of the Lithuanian
Orthodox quipped,”If I am recincarnated, but can’t come back as a Jew, I will
come back as a Chabadnik. It’s almost a Jew.”
But the position of women in Judaism today is precisely the big
deal, the same big deal for which the Rabbi would pasken a chicken kosher, or
change a law of the Bible to encourage loans to the poor--because it is necessary
for the wellbeing of the Jewish community, which is at least 50% women , as far
as I understand.
The Conservative movement has made the issue of the position of
women in modern Judaism a fighting issue. It has shed emotional blood, one
could say, to make the statement, that what was once may no longer be. It went through a tough battle that ran through my
own years as a rabbinical student, up to the point that the movement finally
endorsed women as Rabbis, about a decade after the Reform, and some 50 or 60
years after the first woman was ordained in Germany, also against the grain of
the Reform of its day.
True, we did have a quasi-Orthodox chapel service, in which women were
not called up to the Torah but it did have mixed seating-- and for years, the effectual
leader of the chapel was a woman, Rebitzin Henrietta Klein, the widow of one of my father’s colleagues and
friends. We had it here out of a
willingness to be able to include, rather than exclude a group of Jews, as much
as is possible, and I made a point of always dropping in to their services and
giving a dvar torah, But it was never a
standard of position of our Temple, which, while traditional, was officially
I will say, in irony, that I had cultivated one of the chapel leaders,
who was somewhat irascible, but we had a good relationship, until, one year, we
ran a joint service on Simchat Tora, and my mother held a Torah scroll. He blew
up and stopped talking to me.
In the meantime, the Orthodox synagogues in town, like Beth Jacob,
did have women carry the scrolls for Simhat Torah. As I said, he was an
In Conservative fashion, we do not take as Torah from Sinai the
words of the Shulkhan Arukh . We are obliged to go to the sources, which the
author of the Shulkhan Arukh himself intended. We have examined the sources, we
have searched the Talmud to find that it permits women in principal to have an
aliyah, and we have found the words of many great ancient Rabbis who
specifically called up women for an aliyah.
We have searched our sources, and we find no basis to prohibit
women from holding the Torah, or from putting on the Talit, or from wearing
tefillin. The laws of ritual purity do not apply.
We have searched our sources, and we have found sufficient basis to
count women for the minyan, although the basic practice was against it. We have
searched our sources, and found the basis to accept women as presidents of the
Temple, as teachers of Jewish law, as rabbis,and as leaders of our prayers, as
Let us be frank about our community . We do not live in an Orthodox
community, and if anyone drives here to get to us, then by definition, that is
not Orthodox. I know that Chabad closes an eye to driving, as do many Orthodox
Rabbis, but Jewish law, from an Orthodox perspective, in principal, forbids
someone from giving it a direct permission. That is why, if you have been to
Beth Jacob or Bnai David Judea, you see no parking lot. Beth Jacob used to have
one, but it is now a garden.
I remember being a Shabbat guest at the home of an Orthodox Rabbi, a lovely
man, who walked out of shule on Shabbat after services from the back door, so
as not to see who was driving and so as not to embarrass those who drove. There
is an old halachic principal which states that you never tell someone something
is prohibited when you know they will keep on doing it, under the concept that
“ ignorance of the law is an excuse.” The Conservative movement
authorized driving, under admittedly technical and perhaps flimsy grounds,
because it is better to do something permitted than forbidden, and not rely on
“ignorance” as an excuse.
Now, some people fall in
love with the Orthodox approach to Judaism because it gives them an iron-clad
approach to life--all is prescribed, all is written out and thought out.
Certainly, one of the strengths of the Orthodox is that they, of necessity, all
live near their synagogue, and that creates for a very warm and supportive
But I know that I am dealing with Jews who no longer live near each
other, who no longer have the same commitment to Jewish observance, and my
obligation is to build a Judaism they will live or can live with.
I will continue next session to look at how halakhah was developed
and then addressed the issue of Shabbat, the issue of what is work, what is
fire and what is electricity. Is flipping the switch the same as lighting a
match? Is moving past a motion detector the same as flipping a switch, and
We need to take up the standard, which our Rabbis said," Et
Laasot ladonay-et toratecha heyferu--Be ready to take action for the sake of
God, even if it means turning his Torah around.