Monday, August 7, 2023

Why aren't we Orthodox or OrthoPrax?

 Why aren't we Orthodox or OrthoPrax? What is the nature of Hollywood Temple Beth El?

For a video on the discussion, go to

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 politicians do.


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," kosher."


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 terms.


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 Hamelech”.

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 rules?

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 heaven.(Menahot 29b)


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 their point.


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 them.

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 Day.


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 should be."


That is why, for example, the status of women in our synagogue is a crucial issue.

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 not Orthodox.


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 irascible character.


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 cantors.


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 community.


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 other issues.


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.

No comments:

Post a Comment