Lionel Moses Rabbi
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I became a Conservative rabbi because of my commitment to Halakhah. Derived from the Hebrew verb “Holekh”, which means “to walk,” Halakhah is the path of life on which God enjoins us to walk as Jews. Simple enough. What is it that God expects of me? To be a mentsch, that’s all. Right? Well yes, but not quite. The path on which God enjoins us to walk is more defined, more constricted than that loosy-goosy enjoinder “to be a mentsch.” Halakhah is Jewish law and the path that is encompassed by Jewish law covers every aspect of life, from morning till night, seven days a week, 365 days a year, from the moment we are born until after we die.
Most Jews, except the ultra-orthodox, do not subscribe to Halakhah as the path that defines, punctuates, and articulates every moment and every aspect of their lives. Most contemporary Jews, including many modern Orthodox Jews, see themselves as autonomous human beings with the freedom to choose among a vast array of rules prescribed by a heteronomous being to whom we refer as God. We make our own decisions about what we study in school, where we live, what we do to earn a living, what we eat, and an extensive catalogue of activities that compete to fill the other dimensions of our lives.
We bristle at restrictions in what we might eat, how we might dress, how we should spend out time, let alone our money. Yet Halakhah prescribes the food we may and may not eat through the laws of Kashrut, prescribes that we dress with modesty and not flamboyantly, prescribes that we spend some of our time in prayer, some of our time studying Torah, some of our time resting and recharging our spiritual batteries on Shabbat, prescribes that no matter our economic circumstances, that we give some of our financial resources to Tzedakah.
Despite being a baby-boomer who came of age during the tumultuous sixties when my generation began to throw off what many believed were the restrictive coercive values of their parents and grandparents, I gravitated then and remain committed, even today, to Halakhah, which at once grounds me and at the same time gives me a sense of comfort and security. At the same time, my relationship with Halakhah is not always as black and white, as clear cut, as it might appear to be in the Orthodox world. The Conservative approach to Halakhah has always been more openly nuanced and contextualized. History and sociology, life’s variegated circumstances, have always played a role in how we Conservative rabbis have approached the practice of Halakhah. Jewish law is not static. It has never been static. Even contemporary ultra-Orthodox rabbis create new precedents in Jewish jurisprudence, even if they never articulate the thought process that underlies their approach to making legal decisions. Conservative rabbis are ever conscious of the process they undertake in making a decision. Even when a decision does not change the status quo, Conservative rabbis are conscious of the historical and sociological contexts in which they are making their decisions.
Central to the process of halakhic decision-making are two factors that stand in dynamic tension with each other. On the one hand, there is the near sacrosanct independent authority of each individual rabbi to make halakhic decisions for his or her own community (the principle that the rabbi is the Mara d’Atra, the master of the place) and hence that he and he alone has the right to set the halakhic agenda for his congregation. On the other hand, there is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS for short) composed of twenty-five rabbis from across North America, that issues Teshuvot, responsa that appear to have almost legislative status, that would impinge on the halakhic independence of the individual Mara d’Atra, if indeed some heteronomous source, somewhat like the Catholic Pope, could impose its will on all the individual Mare d’Atra.
The inherent tension between the nearly autonomous status of the local Mara d’Atra and the nearly legislative status of the responsa approved by the CJLS gives the appearance and impression of a movement in chaos and disarray. Why is there such a diversity in religious practices among synagogues that call themselves Conservative? Why is instrumental music allowed in one congregation and not permitted in another? Why do some Conservative congregations count women to the Minyan and others do not? Why are the standards for conversion more stringent in one community than in another? Why do the very same members of the CJLS vote to approve two contradictory responsa on a single question? How should the local Mara d’Atra rule for his or her congregation when presented with two such contradictory responses?
When I began my rabbinic studies over 35 years ago such questions bothered me. I had grown up in Toronto, in a community of traditional Conservative congregations. I was largely unaware of the diversity in acceptable religious practices in American Conservative congregations and I bristled at every liberal response issued by the CJLS that seemed to drive a deeper wedge between my traditional Conservative upbringing and the new reality of contemporary Conservative Halakhah. By now, I have grown accustomed to the diversity and sometimes shrug my shoulders at the blatant contradictions between two responsa to the same halakhic question, but I equally realize the frustration of a Conservative laity that now dismisses our halakhic equivocation as irrelevant in a world that seeks clear-cut answers and consistent practices and policies in order to stake out the position of the Conservative branch of Judaism. Still more pressing for me is the need to re-engage contemporary Jews to see the centrality and importance of Halakhah as the dominant voice in creating the path along which we walk throughout our lives.
Over the past half century, the Conservative approach to Halakhah and halakhic decision-making has contributed positively to creating the “big tent” that was large enough and inclusive enough to have made the Conservative approach to Judaism the largest and most dominant branch of contemporary Judaism is North America. The winds of change are blowing and the “big tent” approach is splintering Reform Judaism that has replaced Conservatism as the most prominent branch of Judaism, while Orthodoxy, despite its almost endless varieties, continues to grow, not only because of its prolific birthrate, but also because of its willingness to provide answers that unabashedly set limits and restrictions that are certain to turn away liberal-thinking Jews.
The tent in the center, however, need not collapse, even if it needs to shrink to ensure its successful endurance. Conservative synagogues, including our own, need once again to restore Halakhah, Jewish law, to its place of primacy and privilege in the synagogue, in the community, and in the home. The CJLS, which is now in the process of reviewing and reforming its procedures, will need to speak with a more consistent, unequivocal voice. Conservative rabbis may very well need to limit their own independent authority as Marei d’Atra so that the Conservative branch of Judaism can once again speak for, and speak to a contemporary Jewry that still seeks religious guidance from an authoritative voice. Such an agenda will certainly not please everyone, laity and clergy alike, but the renewal of the Conservative branch of Judaism will require renewed commitment of laity and clergy alike to Halakhah and the traditional halakhic process, greater consistency in decision-making from the CJLS and increased self-imposed halakhic restraint by individual rabbis acting as Marei d’Atra.