Archive | November, 2011

Who We Are and What We Believe

10 Nov

Last night I attended an excellent event sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Jewish Renaissance Project and the Committee for Religious Life.  The event was a panel of speakers representing the Orthodox, Conservative , and Reform viewpoints on whatever questions the audience decided to present.  It was a fun spirited Q&A session that, I think, led a lot of people to a greater understanding of their fellow Jews, and a lot more introspection on their own beliefs and the way they practice, but a lot of the things said by the speaker representing the Conservative Movement made me, as a Conservative Jew, very uncomfortable.  The speaker did, at times, say that he was giving his viewpoint as well, which was different than the Conservative viewpoint, but, based on my 13 years of schooling in a Conservative day school, I feel that the speaker did a poor job of either representing the viewpoint of the Conservative Movement, or of differentiating between when he was giving his own viewpoint and when he was giving the Movement’s (and many of the questions that were asked of him seemed to back this up).

The speaker said that, according to Conservative Judaism, being a good Jew and serving Hashem is about struggling with things, and through that, trying to bring yourself to a closer understanding of them.  I disagree with this statement, and I think that the Conservative Movement does, too.  We struggle with events in our lives and wonder why bad things sometimes happen, and we also struggle to interpret and understand the Torah and struggle to perform mitzvot either due to our human weaknesses or to our not really understanding or connecting to the mitzvah… but I think that saying that we serve Hashem by having this struggle, rather than by actually doing the mitzvot, is  ridiculous.  Just because the answer to the question of “should I go to shul this Shabbos?” is an easy, loud, and obvious “YES!” for me means that I am not serving Hashem by going to shul?

More disturbing were this speaker’s comments about the Conservative view on the way that this concept of struggle interacted with doing mitzvot.  He said that if you struggle with a mitzvah and think about it really hard and consider a bunch of factors, and it all brings you to the conclusion that this mitzvah isn’t meaningful to you, you shouldn’t do the mitzvah.  This statement is entirely 100% un-Conservative.  The Conservative Movement was created because we wanted to keep the mitzvot… even the ones we didn’t understand or feel a special connection to.  If you don’t, for example, feel a connection to hearing Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the Conservative Movement will tell you that you still have to hear Shofar.  The same applies for every mitzvah, whether it is as complex as Kashrut or as straightforward as pru u’rvu (be fruitful and multiply); as obvious as Lo Tirtzach (don’t murder) or as baffling as shaatnez; as easy to explain to someone matzah, or as goofy and awkward looking as shaking lulav and etrog.

Even when the Conservative Movement makes what many (myself included) might call “kulahs” (“leniencies”), the logic behind them is not “we thought about it very hard and decided that this wasn’t important anymore.”  The allowances for eating cold dairy out were not made because it was decided that eating Kosher food was no longer important where cold dairy was concerned, but rather because the Rabbis in question examined the Halachah on Kashrut, examined the factors involved with modern food production and cleanliness standards, and came to the conclusion that cold dairy food was kosher (for much the same reasons that Rav Moshe Feinstein decided that Chalav Stam was kosher, then combined with the Conservative Movement’s position on renet being a Davar Chadash), and therefore, it was permissible for Jews to eat it (and if, like me, you disagree with this conclusion, you are perfectly free to be more machmir and not eat it, and are still just as much of a Jew as someone who does).  The Conservative Movement views Halachah as being binding, so “I don’t find this mizvah/piece of Halachah meaningful to me” does not excuse you from doing/following it.

So if this speaker got it all wrong, then what does Conservative Judaism believe?  Conservative Judaism believes that Halachah does not stop with the Shulchan Aruch or the RaM”A.  Just as the Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim, and everyone else were inspired and given insight by Hashem, so too are we today, and our Halachic conclusions and derivations (provided that the proper research is done, of course, and that they are, in fact derived from the Torah or later Halachic sources) are no less valid than theirs.  We can struggle with Halachah and come up with new teshuvot… but they must derive from Halachah, and can never just ignore it.