Egalitarianism = halacha l'Moshe miSinai, and electricity = kitniyot; or, the other "Jewish continuity" (continuity of Judaism, not of Jews): toward resolving the contradictions between (ethnic) Reform Jewry and (ideological) Reform JudaismThis post follows on a number of previous posts that have addressed issues of Reform Jewish ideology and identity, including one that started to lay out some of the ideas in this post.
Ultimately the motivation for this post is personal. As I have mentioned here before, I am a fifth-generation Reform Jew (the one whom the "Jewish continuity" hawks claim doesn't exist), and descended from three distinguished Reform rabbis on three different sides of my family (i.e. none of the three are/were related to the others by blood). I say this not to boast about my lineage, but to explain where I'm coming from. Many people in situations similar to mine (who grew up in Reform settings and are now in Jewish communities that are not labeled as Reform), regardless of their ideologies and practices, no longer identify as Reform. For me, again regardless of ideology and practice, Reform is an important component of my ethnic heritage: I am descended from generations of Reform Jews, just as I am descended from American Jews and from German Jews (and of course there is overlap among these). As Rabbi Leon Morris said recently, Reform Jewry is my edah, analogous to Ashkenazi Jewry, Sephardi Jewry, etc.
Furthermore, while some people who went from a Reform background into non-Reform-affiliated communities (whether Orthodox, progressive nondenominational, or anything else) have a "ba'al teshuvah" mentality (some even using that term to describe themselves), signifying a sense of a clean break from their past. I do not share this mentality. There is an unbroken line from where I (and my family) came from to where I am now (even if I've ended up in a different place from some of my ancestors), and if it weren't for the Jewish upbringing I got from my family, I wouldn't be here writing this blog. Therefore, as I try to place my practices into a coherent ideology, one of the constraints (what we in the physics world would call boundary conditions) on this ideology, and therefore on the further evolution of my own practices, is that my ancestors' practices (as biqoret writes, "REAL PARENTS, not imagined eastern-european forebearers") are/were legitimate. (This is in fundamental opposition to the concept of "chazarah bitshuvah".) If this seems questionable, the mishnayot below from Masechet Zevachim will show that the rabbis did the same thing.
This post will not establish a complete and consistent Reform Jewish ideology, but is intended to raise some of the relevant issues and begin a conversation.
When we talk about Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish identity, we're really talking about at least three distinct elements that comprise this identity:
- Halachah. Reform Judaism doesn't see halachah as a uniform fixed body of law (nor, arguably, does any denomination). There is no one "Reform halachah". (CCAR responsa do not have binding authority.) However, there are Reform meta-halachic principles, including informed autonomy (there is no living human authority with the power to establish religious law that is binding on others; rather, individuals are responsible for paskening for themselves), and the progressive reinterpretation of Torah in each generation (we can learn from each previous generation's Torah and add our own layer to Torah).
- Aggadah. The underlying values that drive halachic development. In Reform Judaism these include but are not limited to tikkun olam (which I know has had many meanings over the years; I'm referring in particular to the social justice definition, which has had a prominent place in Reform Judaism), active engagement with the broader world outside the Jewish community, and seeing all humans as created in God's image.
- Minhag. This is Reform "ethnicity", not derivable solely from first principles, but deriving from historical continuity with the set of people who have called themselves Reform Jews. These are the sorts of practices that some have labeled "path-dependent". Examples include the specific liturgical variations found in Reform siddurim, the observance of one day of yom tov (everywhere, not just in Israel), and the various musical genres associated with Reform Jewish prayer. While these minhagim are consistent with Reform halachah and aggadah, other equally consistent minhagim could have arisen if history had gone a different way.
- Institutions. The Reform movement encompasses a number of institutions, including the URJ, CCAR, and HUC-JIR in North America, and their counterparts worldwide. These institutions do important things. But, like all institutions, they are created and run by fallible humans, and have no religious authority in their own right. Judaism does not have a concept of "The Church", established by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a Jewish religious ideology cannot be defined based on the policies of an institution; rather, the institution, if it is devoted to a particular ideology, should set its policies based on that ideology. This means that for any definition of Reform Jewish ideology, it is possible that individuals will pursue this ideology outside of Reform institutions, and it is possible that Reform denoninational institutions will take actions that are not in accordance with this ideology
- "I'm very Reform." The word "Reform" has picked up a colloquial meaning of "not Jewishly active". This is reinforced not only by adherents of other Jewish denominations who use "Reform" to mean the opposite of what their own denomination stands for, but also by Jews who self-identify as "Reform" based on this definition. How many people respond "Reform" to Jewish population surveys not based on adherence to (or even awareness of) the halachah, aggadah, and minhag discussed above, or affiliation with a Reform congregation, but because they consider themselves "less observant"? While individuals may be "less observant" within the framework of observance that they see as normative, there cannot be a religious ideology or a religious movement dedicated to being "less observant" (any more than there can be a political party dedicated to not voting). Rather, each religious ideology sets its own approach to observance. So this definition of "Reform" has no value in any meaningful discourse about Reform Judaism.
- Halachah and Aggadah without Minhag: This includes many of the people I have encountered through the National Havurah Committee and other progressive nondenominational milieux. They engage in informed autonomy about halachah, and are committed to progressive Jewish values, but have not inherited Reform minhag (and generally do not self-identify as Reform). I have written about how old-line havurot and newer Reform communities have evolved convergently in some ways, but remain different due to path-dependence. An interesting case study, if someone wants to take it on, would be a detailed comparison between Siddur Eit Ratzon and Mishkan T'filah.
- Aggadah and Minhag without Halachah: This includes many rank-and-file Reform members, who are committed to progressive Jewish values and uphold Reform minhagim, but are not committed to informed autonomy or evolving halachah. They may in fact be hostile to the exercise of informed autonomy, and may prefer more uniformity of practice in accordance with the way things have been done in their community.
- Halachah without Aggadah: This is mostly a straw-man position, but is important as an intellectual exercise. Sometimes the objection is raised "If you say the mitzvah of tzitzit is open to autonomous interpretation, then can't you say that the mitzvah of 'do not steal' is open to autonomous interpretation?". And I would respond that the answer is yes, if you're only looking at halachah without aggadah. There are obviously problems with saying that someone might legitimately reinterpret "do not steal" in a way that weakens the prohibition, but these problems are substantive, not procedural. Thus this objection does not defeat the idea of informed autonomy, but highlights the point that halachah must be steered by aggadah. Another example might be a Reform congregation deciding to hold non-egalitarian services and defending it as an autonomous choice. Again, potentially compatible with Reform (meta-)halachah, but incompatible with Reform aggadah.
- Minhag without Aggadah: There are some members of Reform congregations who identify as Reform and uphold Reform minhagim, but are not particularly committed to social justice, and may have even supported the Bush administration, or may have rejected the longstanding Reform principle of engagement with the broader society in favor of a narrow Jewish ethnocentrism.
Reform halachah is inherently progressive; Reform minhag (like any other minhag) is inherently (small-c) conservative (and, for once, I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing). Reform halachah emphasizes evolution and creativity, and any minhag that we do because it's minhag is about preservation. If we were governed only by minhag, then our practice would be fixed in place, with no capacity for change from what has been done before; this is presumably the last thing our Reform ancestors would have wanted. (Neo-Classical Reformers are confused when they think that Reform minhagim are progressive by nature.) If we were governed only by Reform halachah, then we would have to derive our practice anew in each generation. This impermanence would have counterintuitively conservative results, because we would fail to leave a lasting legacy, so the next generation would have to rely only on earlier generations (rather than on more recent generations).
So there can be a tension between maintaining established Reform minhag and adopting new practices in accordance with Reform halachic principles. So this is an internal Reform-vs.-Reform tension, which comes down to Reform Jewry as ethnicity vs. Reform Judaism as ideology. And it's not the stereotypical "tradition and change" dialectic; one example of a practice based on minhag might be praying in English, while a practice based on informed autonomy might be praying in Hebrew.
Another source of tension is that engaging in Reform halachah (more so than halachah as defined by other movements) demands knowledge and active participation, while some Reform minhagim assume the opposite (as I have discussed in Hilchot Pluralism Part IV). In such a case, do our inherited minhagim still have a claim on us, or are they to be abandoned in the face of changing circumstances? (Yes, it's the same question asked at the beginning of the Reform movement, but now applied to the subsequent years of Reform Jewish history.)
To begin making sense of these tensions and these questions, we need to establish a myth to put contemporary Reform Judaism into a continuous narrative with the rest of Jewish history. And here (unlike here), I'm not using the word "myth" to mean "not factually accurate", but to mean a narrative, true or false, that has a foundational value for a community.
Plenty of foundational narratives already exist for the Jewish people as a whole, and for each of the modern denominations. The pan-Jewish narratives include the Exodus from Egypt and the exile from the land of Israel (though these have been given different meanings in different times and places). Classical Reform had its founding myth, forming the backbone of the Pittsburgh Platform: "We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine," but now that we're "in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect," we can transcend the particularistic ritual laws and focus on "the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men." Some strains of Orthodoxy have the myth that the Judaism that they observe today is essentially the same Judaism that has been observed since Sinai. The Conservative founding myth includes the colorful episode of the "treyfe banquet", with the message that the Reformers had gone too far and a new movement arose to "conserve" Jewish tradition. Judaism as a Civilization, a founding text of Reconstructionist Judaism, divides the history of Jewish civilization into three stages (henotheistic, theocratic, and other-worldly), and concludes that "Judaism is now on the threshold of a fourth stage in its development."
One of my favorites comes from the Mishnah, from the last chapter of Masechet Zevachim. The existence of Masechet Zevachim is remarkable enough on its own: It deals with the laws of sacrifices, yet the Mishnah was redacted 150 years after the destruction of the Temple (when these laws became inoperative), and includes halachic disagreements among rabbis who lived significantly after the destruction. Not only that, but there is Gemara for the entire tractate, completed another 300 years later. The party line is that this exists because one day the Temple will be rebuilt so we'll need to know these laws again. Fine. Whatever. Either you buy that or you don't. But that explanation doesn't cover the material in the last chapter, which (by its own admission) will never again become operative:
If the rabbis were only talking about what could be relevant in the time of the Temple and later (i.e. their present, their future, and at least as far back into their past as anyone could remember), then they wouldn't need to define the rules for all 7 of these stages of history. The law would be simple: No sacrifices outside the Temple (whether or not the Temple is standing). If you do, here are the mitzvot you're violating, and here's the punishment. But that's not what they do. Instead, they define the rules applying to every period of Jewish/Israelite history all the way back to the first year of wandering in the desert, and retroject their rabbinic halachic categories back into those times. The last mishnah is particularly amazing in this regard: they go beyond generalities to rule on case law which (other than the first clause) last could have applied if one set aside a sacrifice before Solomon completed the Temple -- over 1000 years before the beginning of the rabbinic period! -- and will never apply again. Unlike much of the rest of the Mishnah, there is no possible way that this was an actual case that one of the rabbis ruled on.
יד,ד עד שלא הוקם המשכן--היו הבמות מותרות, ועבודה בבכורות; משהוקם המשכן--נאסרו הבמות, ועבודה בכוהנים. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל מחנה ישראל.
יד,ה באו לגלגל, הותרו הבמות. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל מקום.
יד,ו באו לשילה, נאסרו הבמות. ולא היה שם תקרה, אלא בית של אבנים מלמטן יריעות מלמעלן; והיא הייתה מנוחה. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים ומעשר שני, בכל הרואה.
יד,ז באו לנוב ולגבעון, הותרו הבמות. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל ערי ישראל.
יד,ח באו לירושלים--נאסרו הבמות, ולא היה להן עוד היתר, והיא הייתה נחלה. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים ומעשר שני, לפנים מן החומה.
יד,ט כל הקודשים שהקדישן בשעת איסור הבמות, והקריבן בשעת איסור הבמות בחוץ--הרי אלו בעשה ולא תעשה, וחייבין עליהן כרת. הקדישן בשעת היתר במות, והקריבן בשעת איסור במות--הרי אלו בעשה ולא תעשה, ואין חייבין עליהן כרת. הקדישן בשעת איסור במות, והקריבן בשעת היתר במות--הרי אלו בעשה, ואין בהן בלא תעשה.
14:4 Before the Tabernacle [in the desert] was put up, the bamot ["high places", i.e. private sacrifices outside the central worship location] were permitted, and sacrifice was performed by the first-born. After the Tabernacle was put up, the bamot were forbidden, and sacrifice was performed by the priests. Kodshei kodashim ["holy of holies" - sacrifices with a stricter status] could be eaten within the walls [of the Tabernacle courtyard], kodashim kalim [sacrifices with a less strict status] could be eaten anywhere in the camp of Israel.
14:5 When they came to Gilgal [and entered the land of Israel], the bamot were permitted. Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim could be eaten anywhere.
14:6 When they came to Shiloh [home of the Tabernacle], the bamot were forbidden. ... Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim and ma'aseir sheini could be eaten anywhere in sight of it.
14:7 When they came to Nov and Giv'on [other sites for the Tabernacle after Shiloh was destroyed], the bamot were permitted. Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim could be eaten in all the cities of Israel.
14:8 When they came to Jerusalem [and built the Temple], the bamot were forbidden, and they would not be permitted further [i.e. even after the Temple was destroyed]. ... Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls [of the Temple courtyard], kodashim kalim and ma'aseir sheini could be eaten within the wall [of Jerusalem].
14:9 All sacrifices that one sanctified at a time when bamot were forbidden, and offered outside at a time when bamot were forbidden, are [violations] of a positive commandment [offer sacrifices in the central location] and a negative commandment [don't offer sacrifices elsewhere], and one is subject to kareit because of them. If one sanctified them at a time when bamot were permitted, and offered them at a time when bamot were forbidden, they are [violations] of a positive commandment and a negative commandment, and one is not subject to kareit because of them. If one sanctified them at a time when bamot were forbidden, and offered them at a time when bamot were permitted, they are [violations] of a positive commandment but not of a negative commandment.
So why are they doing this? I think they're trying to place themselves into a historical continuity with their ancestors. They have their halachic categories through which they view the world, but they know that their ancestors were not operating in ways consistent with those categories, yet they understand that their ancestors' practices were legitimate in their ancestors' own time. So they extend their categories into the past, but add conditions so as to get a continuous solution to the boundary value problem that includes both their ancestors and themselves.
Likewise, we need to tell a story that places us in continuity with the past, and includes the possibility of game-changing events, so that even apparent discontinuities are part of this continuity: entering the land of Israel, the destruction of the Temple, the Emancipation, the birth of the State of Israel, etc. (And it's ok if the way we relate to game-changing events in the past depends on 20/20 hindsight and has no predictive power; as you can see, the rabbis did the same thing.) We need to be able to tell a single narrative that encompasses the earlier and the later periods, while recognizing the differences between those periods. We need to be able to use the same terminology to discuss our ancestors (both Reform and pre-denominational) and ourselves, even if it's not the terminology that our ancestors would have used (you can be sure that all of the terminology in that excerpt from Zevachim is completely anachronistic). This continuous story can cover our journeys from the desert to Gilgal to Shiloh to Jerusalem to Yavneh to Tiberias to Sura & Pumbedita to Stuttgart to Youngstown, Ohio, to now.
I'm not going to come up with that narrative myth in this post (that's left to the reader as an exercise), but I want to begin sketching some broad outlines, and a few specific applications.
As Reform Jews (who either have Reform ancestors ourselves, or identify as part of a community with a Reform lineage, or both), we understand that our practices are different from other Jews' practices. But we began to diverge 200 years ago and continued on divergent paths (albeit with continued cross-pollination); we don't rewind and diverge anew at each point in history. So if our ancestors changed something from how it was done previously, we're not necessarily bound by that change forever, but that change has indeed been made and has become a part (one part among many) of our inherited tradition. We can explain why our ancestors changed it, but we aren't necessarily subject to a burden of proof for why we maintain that change. We have historical precedent for either maintaining our immediate ancestors' practices or for reverting to more distant ancestors' practices.
For example, we'll take tefillin, which seems to be a popular example in these discussions. If our parents don't/didn't wear tefillin, then we have a mimetic tradition of not wearing tefillin (from our parents), or a historical tradition of wearing tefillin (going back to earlier ancestors). Or if we'd prefer textual justifications, we can find those supporting either position: we can go with the rabbinic texts that outline hilchot tefillin and take a hyperliteralist reading of Deuteronomy 6:8 (and the other parallel verses), or we can go with the peshat (contextual) reading of these verses and understand it as making "these words" guide our actions and the way we look at the world, or some combination of both. There are two options here, each with solid justification.
Another example is writing on Shabbat. Again, if our parents write/wrote on Shabbat, then we have a mimetic tradition of writing on Shabbat, or an earlier historical tradition of refraining from writing on Shabbat. We can justify refraining from writing on Shabbat because there is an explicit mishnah that lists writing as one of 39 prohibited labors, and subsequent texts and traditions based on this premise. Or we can justify writing on Shabbat by reading this mishnah in its historical context: writing was considered skilled labor at the time; now that everyone can write, and now that nothing professional or permanent is handwritten (other than writing a sefer torah or other calligraphy), jotting something down may not be considered "work" and may not even be considered "writing" as the Mishnah understood it; the contemporary equivalent of the prohibited labor might be printing something on a computer. Whichever way we end up deciding for our own practice, we have to come to terms with the fact that we have inherited a mimetic tradition of writing on Shabbat, and that when we study the Mishnah and Gemara we come across the prohibition on writing on Shabbat. Again, we can go either way.
In contrast to these examples, there are some practices observed by other branches of Judaism that don't appear anywhere in our own history, because these practices arose after the modern denominations diverged. We might choose to adopt these practices, as a cross-cultural borrowing from other Jewish streams, but it is not a "return to tradition" (since it's not a tradition we, or our family tree, or our community's spiritual lineage, ever had before), and those of us who don't adopt these practices need no justification for not adopting them.
One example is refraining from using electricity on Shabbat (or, for that matter, defining "using electricity" as a meaningful category). I would liken electricity to kitniyot. Ashkenazim have a tradition of not eating kitniyot on Pesach. An individual Ashkenazi Jew might decide to maintain these tradition, or might decide to depart from it; there are plenty of justifications in either direction. In contrast, Sephardim eat kitniyot freely during Pesach, and no one would ever ask them to justify this. Sephardim never had a tradition of not eating kitniyot, so they're not departing from any tradition by eating kitniyot. This is because the prohibition on kitniyot in the Ashkenazi world began after the Ashkenazi/Sephardi split. Likewise, the existence of electrical devices (let alone the prohibition on using them on Shabbat) came after the Reform/Orthodox split. So Reform Jews have no lineal historical precedent for refraining from using electricity on Shabbat.
The Reform Jewish narrative myth also has to figure out how to incorporate gender egalitarianism. The facts: Our Judaism is egalitarian, our premodern ancestors' Judaism was not, and the transition between them has been more gradual than we would sometimes like to admit, even within the Reform movement (HUC was around for 97 years before they ordained a woman rabbi).
There are multiple ways to address this, and we can find an approximate analogy by looking at the narratives we impose on American history, which has also had a gradual evolution towards various forms of egalitarianism. Do we read "all men are created equal" (in the Declaration of Independence) the way the Founding Fathers did, referring only to men, and not really to all men? Under this reading, women, non-whites, etc., are not inherently equal in American tradition, and do not achieve equality until it is granted to them by constitutional amendments and such. Or do we read "all men are created equal" as referring to all people (not just men)? Under this reading, all people have been inherently equal all along, but it has taken a long time for our society to realize this and put it into practice.
The approach in much of the Conservative movement, and in the pockets of Orthodoxy that are moving in an egalitarian direction, is more like the first reading. In the state of nature, all historically non-egalitarian practices are non-egalitarian. Making each practice egalitarian requires a separate justification, which applies only to that specific issue and has no broader impact. Depending on which of those justifications are accepted, some practices become egalitarian and others don't. Women can lead pesukei dezimrah and read Torah, but can't lead shacharit or count in the minyan. Women can lead all services and count in the minyan, but can't blow shofar. Women can blow shofar, but can't be witnesses. There is no general principle of egalitarianism.
I think this piecemeal approach is not acceptable in the Reform Jewish narrative. Egalitarianism must be an overarching principle. As in the second reading of "all men are created equal" above, we have been moving more and more toward achieving this fundamental ideal. The aggadic basis for this is easy to establish (for example, the Torah says that man and woman were created in God's image), but how do we express this idea in halachic language? One possibility (though not necessarily the only or the best one) is "halachah leMoshe miSinai". This is a category that the rabbis use when they're talking about something that they consider fundamental enough to be at the level of Torah, yet doesn't have a strong textual basis in the Torah. For example, nisuch hamayim (the water libation on Sukkot) isn't found in the Torah, but the rabbis gave it the elevated status of halachah leMoshe miSinai (knowing full well that it wasn't really observed in the time of the Torah, but perhaps it should have been). Likewise, gender egalitarianism isn't found in the classical halachic texts, but we can make the statement that this principle is so fundamental that it is halachah leMoshe miSinai.
Again, this post is just the beginning of a conversation. Please add your own ideas to the discussion.
In memory of Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus (1921-2008), and in honor of Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus's installation as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.