Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Limmud NY: Reform halakhah panel: DVD extras

I blogged last fortnight about the panel on "The Role of Halakhah in Reform Judaism" at Limmud NY. Here are some other disconnected (and still somewhat raw and not 100% thought out) thoughts on the topic, which I was either prepared to say on the panel but the discussion never went in that direction, or which were clarified in other conversations over the weekend before and after the panel, particularly with LastTrumpet, ahavatcafe, and Saul.


None of the people who were actually on the panel would have taken this position, but I had been hoping that someone would say that they concur with the Pittsburgh Platform (which I also concur with on a meta-halakhic level, though not on a halakhic level) and that Reform Judaism means that we follow the ethical mitzvot (bein adam la-chavero) and not the ritual mitzvot (bein adam la-makom). To which I would respond, FINE. If your conception of Judaism doesn't include ritual mitzvot, that's up to you, I don't care. (It's between you and God, one might even say.) But then we could all stand to be more serious about the ethical mitzvot, the ones we all agree are important. Not just "doing a mitzvah", but letting these mitzvot pervade our lives. We should be studying and observing these mitzvot in the realm of halakhah (i.e. specific actions to put into practice) and not only in the realm of aggadah (i.e. more general statements about our values -- which are also extremely important, and which steer the ship of halakhah).

If one is going to make the claim that "Reform Jews are more makpid on the ethical mitzvot, since we're not expending all this energy on ritual mitzvot" (and I've heard various formulations of this claim, going back to the "apt rather to obstruct than to further" clause of the Pittsburgh Platform; I even saw an article that tried to use the rabbinic concept of ha-oseik b'mitzvah patur min ha-mitzvah to argue that Reform Jews are exempt from ritual mitzvot because they're so busy repairing the world that they don't have time to not eat shrimp or something like that, but Google is failing me - can anyone find it?), then this claim should be empirically verifiable. Reform Jews should in fact be more careful about ethical mitzvot than other Jews, and not just talk big. And for sure, the organized Reform movement is doing great things in this area (and it's an easy escape to find some self-identified Orthodox Jews who are violating these mitzvot and lowering the bar for everyone). But why did it take an Orthodox Jew to write this detailed article on calculating your tzedakah obligation? This type of halakhic analysis should be Reform Judaism's bread and butter. And are Reform Jewish businesspeople at the forefront of running their businesses according to ethical mitzvot? Why or why not? Reform Jews should be the ones writing the books on applying these mitzvot to contemporary practical situations, not just Orthodox Jews.

As liberal Jews, instead of just talking about how great we are (and I include myself in this tochecha), let's examine our actions and think about how we could be better at applying our big ideas to the real world. We shouldn't just say "tzedek tzedek tirdof", but we should be specific.


If Reform Judaism believes that halakhah is interpreted autonomously by each individual, then does Reform Judaism stand for anything? If you and I have different interpretations of halakhah, then do we have anything in common?

Yes. Not halakhah but aggadah. Despite diversity in Jewish practice, Reform/liberal Judaism has expressed a relatively coherent aggadah, so that liberal Jews can agree on Jewish values. (And if aggadah is going to steer halakhah, then this puts some constraints on how halakhah can develop, avoiding the "anything goes" situation that some fear.)

In contrast, perhaps Orthodox Judaism has (relatively) more uniformity in halakhah and less uniformity in aggadah.


"Patrilineal descent" was in the panel description, but didn't really come up except as a side point in a discussion of CCAR/URJ procedure. But if it had, I was just going to give my stock rant on the topic.

My personal position on the matter is that I (the only person I have any authority over) am Jewish, and if anyone else tells me that s/he is Jewish (and I have no reason to suspect malice), then it's not my place to question him/her -- how do I know his/her definition isn't the right one?


"Interfaith marriage" was also in the panel description, but didn't come up either. This is a complicated one, especially if we look at it through a halakhic lens (the topic of the panel) rather than as armchair sociologists or marriage counselors. I can think of reasons why a Jew might want to marry another Jew (preferentially or exclusively), and why a third party might want Jews to marry other Jews, but that's not the question. There are two related halakhic questions here: "Is a Jew permitted to marry a non-Jew?" and "Is a rabbi (or other officiant in a Jewish capacity) permitted to officiate at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew?", and the fact that the questions are being asked presupposes that these two people want to get married. Let's also suppose for the sake of argument that the Jew in question has no potential Jewish partners (the alternative is staying single), so that we're assessing this marriage itself rather than its opportunity cost.

Of course, a rabbi (like any other clergyperson) is authorized by the state to perform a civil marriage between any two adults (with many states still imposing restrictions based on the genders of the parties, but not based on religious or ethnic identity). This civil marriage has no status in Jewish law, so it's no more or less permitted than living with a non-Jewish partner without any marriage. Many (most?) rabbis won't perform such a marriage unless both parties are Jewish, presumably because they don't see themselves as justices of the peace, and won't perform a civil marriage in the absence of a Jewish marriage, and won't officiate at a Jewish marriage unless both parties are Jewish.

So we're really not asking the question about civil marriage, but about Jewish marriage. Out of rabbis who won't officiate at this marriage, many probably have reasons based on social policy -- they don't think it's a good idea. Again, we're going to skirt the question of whether it's a good idea. If one comes to the conclusion that it is, is this marriage permitted? Is it valid?

Before we begin to answer the question (and I'm not going to answer it in this post), we have to think about what we as liberal Jews mean by "marriage" and by "Jewish".

Jewish marriage consists of two components: kiddushin and nisuin. Addressing them in reverse order: It's not 100% clear when and how nisuin takes place, but it takes place under the chuppah, symbolizing the home that the two partners create together. We already know that it is possible for a Jew and a non-Jew to create a home together; we have empirical evidence since it happens all the time. Nisuin requires a ketubah. Since this is a legal contract by which both parties agree to be bound, its terms are in effect regardless of whether the parties are Jewish. (It may or may not be enforceable, but the same can be said of a ketubah involving two Jews, if they live in a secular society.)

Kiddushin is more complicated, because what is it??? As liberal Jews, we don't understand it as a man acquiring a woman, but have we replaced it with another understanding (as distinct from nisuin)? Is it a mere "ceremony", or does it effect a real change in status? And what is that change? We have to figure out the big picture of what egalitarian Jewish marriage really means (not just weddings, but marriage) before we can address smaller details like whether it exclusively involves Jews.

Independent of figuring out what kiddushin really is, one might say that whatever it is, it can only apply to Jews, since it's "kedat Moshe ve-Yisrael", and only Jews are subject to that law. I would respond: As liberal Jews, do we believe that there are laws that are intrinsically binding on all Jews (regardless of what those Jews have to say about the matter) and not on non-Jews? (I'm not sure I do.) And if not, then if we use this argument to exclude non-Jews from kiddushin, then we should also exclude Jews who do not consider themselves bound by Jewish law (in any sense whatsoever -- as widely as you want to define this). But I have never heard of a rabbi who was not willing to officiate at a wedding of two secular Jews, even though (let us stipulate) their relationship to "dat Moshe ve-Yisrael" is no different from a non-Jew's relationship to it. So that can't be the whole picture.

In conclusion, there are some key unanswered questions (from a liberal Jewish standpoint):
  • What is kiddushin?
  • What is the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew (ceteris paribus)?
Until we answer these questions, any attempts to answer more advanced questions (e.g. "Can there be kiddushin involving a Jew and a non-Jew?") are futile.


  1. last summer i went to the wedding in toronto of my best friend and his boyfriend. since this is now civilly legal in canada, i was struck by their version of the vows (please excuse my transliteration):

    hin'ni mitkadesh l'cha b'taba'at zo k'dat moshe v'yisrael hametukenet v'hameshuvevet.

    his partner's rabbi brought that with her from the liberal movement in the uk

    nb as of yesterday, they are legally registered as a married couple in the state of israel.

  2. if you'd like to see how other people have been thinking about the marriage issue, you can see Danya Ruttenberg's The Kiddushin Variations

  3. The "do a mitzvah" problem unfortunately is an education problem for all branches of Judaism(definitely at least Conservative to the left). We need to be teaching people that a mitzvah is not a good deed, it is a commandment. As long as people view mitzvot through the secular lens of good deeds they are free to pick and chose what they want, once they understand that mitzvot are commandments(binding on whatever level you want to hold them) mitzvot no longer become optional good deeds, but obligations.

  4. Following on Avi BenJakob's comment, can we all agree that "shenatan lanu HIZDAMNUT l'taken et ha'olam" is a bad message?

  5. they translated meshuvevet as 'restored'

  6. I've never understood the basis for why Reform declares bein adam l'makom to be a subject for personal autonomy while bein adam l'chaveiro is binding.

    To clarify, I agree that having treating people well is not only a very good thing, but religiously imperative, and a mandatory system is a better bet for compliance (just like civil law isn't mandatory). So far so good.

    But, lets say Halacha-bein-adam-l'chaveiro-X goes against one's own ethics*. Then might autonomy kick in? And if not, why not?

    *to be fair, I couldn't think of an actual example. perhaps there are none, in which case this may be an unfair questionn. Can anyone think of any?

  7. As I understand it, "binding" and "a subject for personal autonomy" are not mutually exclusive. So I'm not sure that any Reform sub-ideology would make that particular dichotomy. In Classical Reform, the Pittsburgh Platform says that mitzvot bein adam la-chavero are binding ("today we accept as binding only its moral laws") and mitzvot bein adam la-makom that "are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization" are not binding. So there's a dichotomy between binding and not binding, but there's nothing there about autonomy -- there is a presumed consensus about which practices are in and which are out.

    Contemporary Reform does incorporate autonomy, but doesn't apply it differently to mitzvot bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro. The Centenary Perspective says "Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy", in a section on "Religious Practice" that incorporates both types of mitzvot.

    My understanding of this autonomy is not that there is a list of mitzvot that individuals look at and check "yes" or "no" next to each one, but that individuals come to autonomous conclusions about how to understand and observe (l'havin ul'haskil ... lishmor v'la'asot) the mitzvot. So just as people might autonomously arrive at different conclusions about the shi'ur of matzah to eat at the seder or about what the mitzvah of refraining from melachah on Shabbat means in today's economy, they might also arrive at different conclusions about the shi'ur that society must provide to the unemployed or about what the mitzvah against charging interest means in today's economy.

    It's possible that person A will arrive at a conclusion that person B finds unethical, and vice versa. There's nothing in (my understanding of) the Reform halakhic approach that would prevent this. But this is tempered by what I said in part two of this post -- persons A and B are likely to agree on aggadah, which will influence their halakhic conclusions.

    So I suppose it's possible that this Reform halakhic approach could be combined with a completely different aggadah, to arrive at a different product.

    And this might be one example that you're looking for: some rabbinic sources limit the application of certain ethical mitzvot to interactions with Jews, and someone today might find this unethical, and would insist that these mitzvot apply to interactions with all people.

  8. But, lets say Halacha-bein-adam-l'chaveiro-X goes against one's own ethics
    a partial list:
    1. The prohibition against interest.
    2. Tzedaka to those who would abuse the money.
    3. Tzedaka in general (for capitalists, since the person should get a job; for socialists, since society should regulate work and food for all).
    4. The mitzva of appointing a king (definitely BAH - and ignored by all, quite justly)
    5. Honoring your parents (i.e. paying for their upkeep in old age) when they are/were abusive, estranged, or icky in general.
    6. Loshon Hora, when the person in question is possibly a criminal, but allegations have not been proven as yet. (i.e. Katzav)
    7. Lo Tachmod, since it only covers Jews.
    there are many many more