Everything Goes – Including Halakha

Quoted from the NY Times of Mon, 3/6/06, on the issue now roiling the Conservative movement concerning homosexuality:

Many students at the [Conservative Jewish Theological] seminary say they find the gay ban offensive and would welcome a change, said Daniel Klein, a rabbinical student who helps lead Keshet, a gay rights group on campus. “It’s part of the tradition to change, so we’re entirely within tradition,” he said. Mr. Klein said that even if the law committee did not lift the ban this week, change would come eventually.

This loose thinking, from a future rabbi, boggles the thinking mind, and offers a fascinating insight into the thought processes of Conservative Judaism. 1) It is part of the tradition to change; 2) Thus, no change can ever be outside the tradition. Which raises an interesting question: Since it is part of the tradition to change, why not permit bestialiy, or pedophilia, or theft, or adultery? These should all be permissible, since they are changes, and “it is part of the tradition to change.” (And since they are huge changes, they should be very much within the tradition…) The fact that these are expressly forbidden in the Torah should not be an impediment. As Prof. Dorff will show in his paper – to be presented to the Conservative meeting this week – even clear prohibitions like those against homosexuality can be dealt with by sophistry, intellectual gymnastics and halakhic sleight of hand. So pedophilia or adultery should pose no problem.

Prof. Neil Gilman of the Seminary shocked everyone several months ago when he declared that once and for all the Conservative movement should stop claiming it is bound to halakha. He was right . The Conservative movement has finally severed all connections with Jewish tradition and all pretense of being bound by halakha. Everything goes.

Although it is a great sadness for American Jewry, I am not entirely unhappy that the Conservative movement is finally unmasking itself completely. Ever since they officially permitted driving [only to synagogue!] on Shabbat in the fifties, they have step by step cut ties with halakha, and have tried to keep up with whatever is de riguer in contemporary intellectual fashion. Having had no halakhic anchor, its Rav Hamachshir has been the NY Times. Whatever the Times says is kosher is kosher. The Shulchan Arukh; the great decisors; the Respona literature; the age-old practices of Am Yisroel – these are irrelevant. Only the zeitgeist counts.

As I write this, no one knows what the Conservative meeting this week will decide to do. While I hope that the gay marriage resolution will be defeated, I will not be terribly upset if they vote in favor of it. It is similar to my lack of upset when Hamas swept the Palestinian elections. (Before anyone begins commenting on the analogy, let me say that I am not comparing the huge number of good people in the Conservative movement to the enemies of Israel. I am referring to the ideology – or lack of it – of the movement as movement. I cannot help thinking that both the Conservative movement and Hamas are bent on destroying things sacred to Jews: the Conservative ideology is destroying Jewish law. and Hamas is bent on destroying the Jewish state.) Just as it is important for Israel to know with whom it is dealing among the Palestinians, so is it important now for the Conservative mask to come off, so that all Jews know with whom they are dealing. The Conservative movement has always been Reform with a yarmulke; let the yarmulke now be removed. It has become a movement where everything goes – including Jewish law.

All this is a morality play about what happens when one begins cutting halakhic corners. Many Orthodox leaders – and some prescient Conservative leaders – have claimed for a generation that it would come to this: that constant compromises would lead to a complete rejection of Jewish tradition. That is now happening before our very eyes. What began with the removal of the synagogue mechitza has finally reached its apex: In the Conservative movement, sooner or later, it will be “halakhically permissible” for a man to marry a man, and for that marriage to be solemnized by a Conservative rabbi.

The Conservative movement has led – and often mis-led – millions of Jews in what it claimed was traditional Judaism. As we witness its demise, one hopes that those who finally have seen the unmasking of its ideology will come back home to the classical Torah.

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32 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    This vote should finally satisfy prove that CJ cannot be considered a “halachic movement.” Anyone who yearns for the good
    old days when Roshei Yeshiva in many yeshivos wrote to certain scholarly members of the JTS faculty who were trained in
    yeshivos in Europe with the fullest respect( as was implied in a recent lecture on
    one of JTS’s leading faculty members)just doesn’t understand that the facts on the ground have changed since the “good old
    days” of the early 20th Century when CJ was a powerful movement and threatened Orthodoxy. That changed when Orthodoxy began
    to assert itself and resisted CJ’s pretensions of halachic decision-making. Today, CJ’s left and right wings
    have split, with the left wing following the lead of Reform on all issues. Om the other hand, many C Jews who were Ramah and USY
    members are now fully Torah observant.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “one hopes that those who finally have seen the unmasking of its ideology will come back home to the classical Torah”

    Thee Rabbi is obviously right. I grew up in a Conservative synogogue and their “doctrine” never made any sense to me either, even as a child.

    I am curious, however, how big of a threat Conservative is these days? Is there a reason we need to keep fighting this fight? As far as I know it is not luring our young frum away (plenty else is) and as far as kiruvability my meager experience is that those sincerely involved with Conservative are at least as likely to want to explore frumkeit. So I guess my (contraversial) question is where is the harm, and is the cost of militating against Conservative (ill will etc.) worth the benefit?

  3. Edvallace says:

    Rabbi Feldman,

    you write:
    “The Conservative movement has finally severed all connections with Jewish tradition and all pretense of being bound by halakha.”

    I have great respect for you and your writings [Tales out of Shul] was and is one of my all-time favorites, yet I must respectfully disagree with you on this point.

    They took the broad step of severing all connections with Halachah when they abandoned the first mitzvah that they decided no longer applied. It is clear in the Gemara and Rambam etc. that willful abandonment of even one mitzvah confers a title of Mumar upon a person and places that person outside the bounds of Halachah. After that, it’s pretty much all semantics.

    By permitting consumption of non-kosher food, driving on Shabbos, false conversions [all of these happened long ago] they excluded themselves from Halachah. This new attempt to confer legitimacy upon gay clergy and marriage is a logical and irreversible continuation of that process. It’s similar to a person who falls off a cliff. If he happens to bump the side of the mountain on the way down or bounce off a rock jutting out, it is not a new fall. It’s just a continuation of the original misstep.

    Playing the game of pretending that each new breach in Halachah is an act worthy of surprise condemnation is a charade and a grave mistake. It allows the readers to believe that until now there was “some” element of Halachic adherence, when in reality there never has been. Frankly, it’s only a mattter of time until all similarities to Halachah are lost from the Conservative movement and it won’t be a surprise.

  4. DMZ says:

    Edvallace has the right of it. This is nothing new from the Conservative movement. When they were having their “debate” about whether women should be allowed as edim (witnesses), you had this exact same sort of idiocy coming from their “rabbinical” students. “I’m torn between my womanhood and Judaism.” What sort of question is that? If you don’t think your Jewishness takes first priority, you shouldn’t be a rabbinical student.

    I’m not a habitual Conservative-basher, but they threw themselves off this bridge long ago, and it’s only going to get worse. The voices trying to stop this are being drowned out by the new clergy who mostly grew up without caring about halacha, and certainly don’t think much of it now. You sow what you reap…


  5. Larry says:

    Is it really fair to characterize one rabbinical student’s quoted comment as typifying the “though processes of Conservative Judaism?” Would we want Orthodoxy to be tarred by the sentiments of a single yeshivah bochur? Wouldn’t it be fairer to await the results of this week’s rabbinical deliberations?

  6. shmuel says:

    I find it more than a curiosity that Rabbi David Feldman’s on, Rabbi Daniel Z Feldman is a RY in RIETS

  7. Bob Miller says:

    I once heard a conservative rabbi say disapprovingly of a reform rabbi who specialized in intermarriages, “he’d marry a pig and a dog if there was any money in it”. That was about 30 years ago. One might think that the conservative movement has deteriorated since then. Perhaps its actions have deteriorated, but its philosophy or lack of one has always lent itself to following the crowd; the only issue has been the rate of travel. All the warnings of R’ SR Hirsch in the 1800’s against Frankel, Graetz, and the “historical school” spearheaded by the Breslau seminary (and later by JTS in New York) have been borne out in spades.

  8. Michael Kopinsky says:

    “Is there a reason we need to keep fighting this fight?”

    Fighting? No.

    But making statements letting the world know what we believe? Yes.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “I find it more than a curiosity that Rabbi David Feldman’s on, Rabbi Daniel Z Feldman is a RY in RIETS”

    I don’t. Rabbi David Feldman is a very frum and ehrliche man, and brought up kids kids that way. This is no more unusual than the fact that Rabbi Parnes (formerly of YU) has a son teaching in Lakewood.

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    “But making statements letting the world know what we believe? Yes.”

    yeah but the tone of the essay implied that we are hoping to win back people we are losing to this movement …

  11. Ahron says:

    While there is nothing to celebrate in JTS’s upcoming vote–whichever way it goes it has the elements of tragicomedy–it is, as has been said elsewhere, a clarifying moment. I grew up in a Reform and Conservative house, and have many Conservative friends and family members. Out of these many, only one is halachically serious and he freely admits that his ideology is closer to Orthodoxy than to his own movement.

    In many respects Conservatism can be viewed as the ultimate suburban Americana Judaism: comfortable, non-demanding, flexible and endlessly convenient. You could hardly sell a better product: Maintain your connection to the people Israel while updating religious obligations to fit today’s fast-paced lifestyle! Keep Shabbat while driving! Infinity and spiritual significance in just 3-easy-installments…. No choices required: You can have it all.

    I’m sorry that to some non-Orthodox Jews the above sounds blithe and dismissive. It is not meant to be, and I know that there are intelligent and fine-hearted people in Conservative synagogues–I know beacuse I am close to some of them. But the movement as a movement is no longer a place of coherent religious or intellectual thought or even acknowledgment of the realities of life, and the gradual crumbling of its committment to Halacha is a strong indicator of an ideology that is incapable of dealing with choices or challenges–an entire movement which believes that you really can “have it all” without sacrificing anything: Homosexuality within Halacha? Why not!

    Forget about the rabbinical students: It is sadder, and less graceful, to watch JTS’s intelligentsia attempt to virtue-ize and intellectualize what is really a desperate effort to appear relevant, sophisticated, and conveniently compatible with contemporary academic and suburban mores. And yet….the movement still cannot bring itself to admit the visible truth: The Torah sits in the second tier of considerations that determine Conservative Judaism’s direction.

  12. Jack says:

    This loose thinking, from a future rabbi, boggles the thinking mind, and offers a fascinating insight into the thought processes of Conservative Judaism. 1) It is part of the tradition to change; 2) Thus, no change can ever be outside the tradition. Which raises an interesting question: Since it is part of the tradition to change, why not permit bestialiy, or pedophilia, or theft, or adultery? These should all be permissible, since they are changes, and “it is part of the tradition to change.”

    There are so many ways to respond to this but let’s focus on a couple of things. A common tactic that is used to marginalize a position is to try and paint it within the most extreme colors. But that doesn’t mean that the attempt to do so is successful.

    I could easily refer to traditional medicine, such as going to a barber to be bled or drilling holes in your skull. There once was a tradition that dictated that the Earth was flat. Based upon the dictates you suggest here it is wrong to have changed that line of thought.

    We know that chazal was not always in agreement on many issues and that there is room and reason for interpretation of many things. We would all be better served by trying to work together instead of making foolish comments lambasting the other.

    The really sad thing to me is that I know many Torah Observant Jews who have privately expressed similar thoughts and sentiments but are afraid to speak out loud for fear of the political repurcussions.

    But the fearmongers will likely see that this never happens because they cannot take the chance that they just might lose the ground that they stand on.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    This is an undercurrent in Conservative Judaism that all halachic issues and the ways they are decided are at rock-bottom political. This has been adopted by others, ostensibly Orthodox, who say things like “where there is a will, there is a halachic way”.

    As for how far the Conservative movement will go, that depends only on how far the non-Jewish environment will go.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    I also heard the following story from Dr Luchins on a related issue. After the CCAR passed its resolution on this issue, an R clergyman asked Dr Luchins what he thought of the vote. His response was that it was great for R laypersons.

  15. Adam Kligfeld says:

    For the amount of lamdut/learning exhibited by Rabbi Feldman, it is odd for him not to acknowledge that change has always been a part of the evolving halakhic system. For example, were it not for Chazal’s alertness in Mishnah Sanhedrin to ethically abhorrent applications of the verses on the rebellious child, our tradition would have not been gifted with the creative “sophistry” that led to the practical elimination of that law. (I’d call it exigesis or drash, but someone else on this posting chose “sophistry” to describe how Conservative Jews/Rabbis read Torah. I suppose only Orthodox Jews are entitled to interpret text, at times counter-intuitively, at times iconoclastically, and still be admired as darshanim?). Living halakhically without keen ethical alertness (which sometimes does indeed lead to change in the status quo) is, in my humble opinion, a myopic application of Torah, and ultimately an undue narrowing of God’s manifest goodness on this earth. Whichever way this decision of the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee goes, I myself am proud to be represented by, and led by, rabbis who, in the words of my hevruta Rabbi Aaron Brusso, “appreciate how brilliantly our midrashic tradition infused Judaism with creative change so that we would not come to worship a previous generations’s truth…Change is not only about sociological compromise; it is also about moral imperative.”

    In observing how modern, “Torah-true” Orthodox communities are awakening to the need to address issues of women’s participation in all aspects of shul life, in that way (perhaps silently) honoring the moral courage exhibited by the Conservative rabbinate over twenty years before, I am heartened. I cannot say whether Orthodox minyanim in Riverdale, the Upper West Side or Jerusalem will revisit, in twenty years, their stances on honoring the monogamous homosexual relationships of its members (because those members certainly do exist). But I do know that even as they deride and scorn today, those Orthodox leaders of conscience will, as they did with the women’s issue, one day face the issue of gay and lesbian members in their community. Let us see what this blog will have to say about the wisdom and creative openness that they bring to bear, in the name of Torah and halakha, when it is their turn.

  16. Anonymous in LA says:

    Today’s Los Angeles Times headline: Jewish Law Experts Postpone Gay-Issue Vote. (link requires registration)

    Experts? Experts?!? While single-A minor league professional baseball players are better than anyone we’ve likely ever met on a baseball diamond, they are ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE LESS TALENTED than their Major League counterparts.

    Those of us who follow the pros know the vast difference between the major and minor leagues.

    The LA Times reporter wouldn’t have the courage to inquire what constitutes expertise, let alone competence.

  17. aj says:

    According to Haaretz, the Conservative Movement decided to postpone the decision until December


  18. Bob Miller says:

    Is that how long it takes to flip a coin?

  19. Anonymous says:

    I do have to say that I disagree with #17. I know people connected with the decision, and they are taking this very seriously. Whether or not we agree with their criterion or relative weight placed on Halakhah, it is a mistake to say that they are “flipping a coin” i.e. acting randomly/ They are trying to make a decision that will offend the fewest amount of people possible within their movement. I may disagree with this tactic but they certainly are not flipping a coin

  20. Edvallace says:

    C’mon Bob. Aren’t you being a bit harsh? This a very big decision that will factor in many variables reflecting the progressive nature of Halachah and modern society. There’s a long history of this active process of deciding Halachah in the annals of Jewish history and they’re proud participants in the ongoing process of reforming Halachah.

    Of course, I don’t believe a word of what I just wrote but it’s amazing how with the addition of a few fancy words you can actually pretend it makes sense to someone who knows nothing at all about what Halachah really is.

    I can’t wait for the bestiality vote. That’ll be a fun one to watch. After all, the torah says all kinds of things about being kind and loving toward animals. That should be a slam dunk.

  21. Bob Miller says:

    I was being dan lechaf zechut, since flipping a coin here would have a 50% chance of causing the objectively correct decision. The real probability of such a decision is much lower.

    In college, one class I took in the 60’s used a text on presidential elections by Polsby and Wildavsky. They gave this tongue-in-cheek advice to politicians, (inexact quote) “When in doubt as to which course of action is the most expedient, do the right thing.” The tragedy here is that the Conservative experts are not knowledgeable enough in Torah to even recognize the right thing. They are spinning their wheels until they identify the most expedient decision.

    In any case, they can’t push bestiality down the road, because of animal rights groups.

  22. Steve Brizel says:

    I suspect that once the new chancellor of JTS is installed, that this vote will take place sooner rather than later. Today, JTA reported that a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother would be allowed to attend Ramah camps. Obviously, CJ is a movement that is in headlong flight from amy pretenses of being a “halachically based” movement.

  23. charedilite says:

    A friend of mine related a story that occured at a USY (Conservative youth group) convention in Atlantic City, many years ago. The theme of the convention was the Sanctity of Shabbos. There were many lectures, with wonderful resource sheets, and many sources referenced, dealing with the Sanctity of Shabbos- oneg shabbos, kavod shabbos, melachos of shabbos, etc. The program was running late, so they cancelled one session in order not to miss the scheduled ‘free time.’ At the end of the free period, everyone came back to the sessions carrying boxes of salt water taffy they had purchased on the boardwalk, talking about the games they played at the various boardwalk booths, and the rides they had gone on. Did I mention that this all took place on Shabbos?

    The Conservative Movement can talk a good talk. Their philosophy, on paper, may be filled with right-sounding things. When it comes to action, to actually putting the ideas into effect, however, all the theory goes out the window.

    The bottom line is- Whatever they may say, they’ll never ask their constituents to give up their salt water taffy.

  24. Jewish Observer says:

    “Whatever they may say, they’ll never ask their constituents to give up their salt water taffy”

    All this sarcasm about sincere yiden who don’t know better. Do we somewhow feel frumer through this? This rhetoric should be no more acceptable to a blog of this caliber than pointing out all the hypocrisy that is tolerated in the frum world. You mention USY. Would it ne OK to recount he nonsense that was allowed to go in in NCSY? At what point does it become politically incorrect to bash?

  25. David says:

    “…All this sarcasm about sincere yiden who don’t know better…”
    I don’t believe the poster was trying to attack the youth’s who clearly don’t know better, but point out the problem of the extreme disconect between the theoritical halacha of the ivory tower at JTS, and what is being internalized by Conservative laypeople. Since they are taught that the Bible is a bunch of stories, and halacha can be changed by vote, in their mind there is really no difference between a Torah Commandmant, a Rabbinical ordinance, or mere custom. On a subconcious level, I doubt that most C Jews believe in the concept of reward and punishment, since how can G-d punish you for breaking a man-made command or folkway?
    Yes there is often hypocrisy within the Ortho world, but most people who are O, when they violate a commandment, they are at least aware of it, and sometimes ashamed of it.
    Most C Jews break Shabbos even by the standards of the movement and are unaware of it, or if they are aware, they don’t care. This is not bashing, this is constructive criticism.

  26. Yaakov Menken says:

    In response to Adam Kligfeld, I would quibble with his interpretation of Chazal, whom of course stated that they were merely recording what had always been the law of the rebellious child, never making a change that “led to the practical elimination of that law.”

    But I cannot question the general thrust of that paragraph. Given that today’s Orthodox Jews don’t “interpret text, at times counter-intuitively,” or in other words engage in “exigesis or drash” — on the contrary, that’s why the Orthodox are accused of having made Halacha “rigid” or even “fossilized” — it is clear that the “Orthodox Jews” to whom he referred were none other than Chazal themselves.

    And with that I must agree — despite protests aplenty from Conservative leaders, without question all of Chazal would define themselves as Orthodox were they to find themselves living in our times.

  27. Bob Miller says:

    This discussion is basically about the Conservative leadership. While the rank and file can be seen as innocent victims of that leadership (or of other factors), and I have even heard the leaders themselves described similarly, at what point does the leadership become responsible for its own actions? Such leaders are a public embarrassment to Judaism, since their pronouncements are taken by most media outlets at face value. Somebody needs to call things by their right names in public.

  28. Aaron Brusso says:

    In response to Yaakov Menken- #26:

    I’m not sure it is such a good thing if chazal would consider themselves Orthodox. That may simply mean that it is a place they recognize and are comfortable in i.e. it hasn’t changed much. Chazal themselves envisioned a future in which they would feel like foreigners when they taught the midrash of Moshe in R. Akiva’s classroom. Moshe had no idea what was going on and the only thing that mollified him was when R. Akiva traced a teaching back to him. That’s what Conservative Jews do- its the sharsheret (chain) of the tradition that matters, not the importation of an ancient paradigm into a new reality.

  29. David says:

    “That’s what Conservative Jews do- its the sharsheret (chain) of the tradition that matters, not the importation of an ancient paradigm into a new reality.”

    But the Conservative movement has broken that chain by divoricing themselves from the supremacy of the Torah; the first link in the chain (after G-d.) There is no precident in Jewish history for thinking that people can vote away a Torah prohibition. At least not within what was ever considered mainstream Judaism. The only major advocates of this idea that I can think of before Reform and Conservative are Shabbtai Zvi and Saul of Tsarsas.
    Conservative started down this road when they decided that a Kohen can marry a divorcee or a convert, even though the Torah forbids it. If a Torah prohibition can be voted away, why then can’t they vote to make oysters kosher?.

  30. Elliot Fein says:

    Research has proven that it is nature not nurture that determines one’s sexual orientation. To look at homosexuality as an abomination may be the Halachic way, but it is immoral. The only thing most of the comments on the blog prove is how homophobic Orthodox Judaism is. It is easy to be anti-gay and Orthodox until you sons or daughters become part of the 10% that come out of the closet and reveal themsolves for who they reaally are. If your child does turn out to be gay or a lesbian and has the courage to admit it, I hope you have the courage to accept your child for who they are. At that point, I bet you change your tune on what you say on this issue. A little humility and compassion would go a long way.

  31. Ben-David says:

    Elliot Fein wrote:
    Research has proven that it is nature not nurture that determines one’s sexual orientation.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    This is propaganda, with no scientific basis.

    No genetic pattern has been found, and studies of identical twins show no pattern of heredity indicating that gays are “born that way”.

    The gay lobby promotes this falsehood in order to duck the moral judgement of homosexual behavior, and to allow them to play victimology politics.

    In fact, large-scale studies conducted by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other pro-gay organizations indicate that that most homosexuals share clear patterns of dysfunction in their childhood home or in their peer interactions, or are victims of sexual abuse. These results confirm the theories of Freud and other major thinkers of pre-PC psychology.

    for more information:
    and from a Jewish perspective:

  32. Bob Miller says:

    Let’s suppose that Elliot Fein had a relative with a serious personal problem with smoking or overeating. And suppose there was a family history of this, suggesting that some genetic factor was at work. If he was compassionate, would he try to help the relative to shake these habits, or, to the contrary, to accept and justify them? Would he complain about public initiatives against smoking or overeating, maybe calling doctors and health officials “smokophobic”, etc.?

    It seems to me that modern “enlightened” society has a favored class and an unfavored class of addictions, according to its social/political outlook. Opposition to favored forms of immorality is now immoral!

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