Defining debate

Defining debate

Conservative rabbis are engaged in an existential discussion about whether their movement will have a reason for being. At specific issue is whether major changes in Torah law should require a more stringent approval process than other rulings that do not make the ground shake. Beyond that, the question they must answer is whether theirs is a pluralistic movement or a halachic one. They are hardly synonymous terms, although some rabbis in the debate have attempted to make them so.

Until last summer, obtaining six votes out of a possible ‘5 on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was sufficient to change a law. Quietly, without fanfare or even public discussion, the RA’s executive committee added a requirement that ‘0 votes out of ‘5 were necessary for a ruling of major consequence to be valid.

It was this change that was the hot topic at this week’s RA convention.

The Conservative movement defines itself as a "halachic movement." The institution of the "acceptable minority opinion," solidly grounded in tradition, allows it, as well, to claim to be a pluralistic movement. Until now, that has meant that different people can look at a question and reach totally opposite but nevertheless halachically sound conclusions (at least from a Conservative standpoint). In other words, there is room for both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, because both are "the words of the living God."

"Pluralistic," however, has taken on a new definition, one that would support substantive changes even if those changes stand explicit Torah law on its head. If that definition is to prevail, then the Conservative status as a "halachic movement" would be in jeopardy.

For example, let us assume that, by six out of ‘5 possible votes, the Conservative movement accepts a decision declaring that leavened bread may be eaten on Pesach. Can the movement accept such a change and still claim to be halachic? After all, the Torah says, in clear, unambiguous language, that chametz is forbidden on Pesach and leavened bread is classical chametz.

To be sure, the expression "the Torah says" is much abused, mainly because the Torah says no such thing most of the time. For example, "the Torah says that legumes are forbidden on Pesach" is a rank falsehood, because "the Torah says" no such thing. The ban on legumes is less than a thousand years old. Only in the broadest definition of Torah can that ban be considered "Torah law." So a decision declaring legumes "kosher for Passover" may upset some people and cause others to point fingers, but it does no violence to the Torah itself.

On the other hand, declaring Levy’s Real Jewish Rye Bread kasher l’Pesach does. The moment such a declaration was made, the Conservative movement would cease to be a halachic movement, bound by the chain of tradition. It would also lose its reason for existing as a movement, because there already are two non-halachic movements in Judaism — Reform and Reconstructionist — and there really is no need for a third.

(Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the Conservative movement has no such plan in mind and not even the non-halachic movements would declare leavened bread to be acceptable fare on Pesach. This is an admittedly absurd example meant to make a point.)

There is a halachic way to make the impermissible permissible. It is called "takkanah," a legislative enactment. Takkanot have been far and few between in Jewish life, for the obvious reason that they are likely to be earth-shattering, in a halachic sense, and very controversial. They are used only in extraordinary circumstances and either are issued by a rabbi of great learning and wide following, or by a synod of rabbis. Decisions to issue takkanot are not lightly taken and often are discontinued when the need for them no longer exists.

Here is an example of a takkanah. The Torah mandates the following: "[A]bide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." (See Exodus 16:’9.) The context makes it clear that "in his place" means do not leave home on Shabbat. Clearly, this was counterproductive (not to mention unenforceable) once Israel was settled in its land. Eventually, "in his place" was replaced by permission to travel as far as 3,000 to 4,000 feet beyond a city’s walls on Shabbat.

Sometimes, a "legal fiction" is created to circumvent Torah law. Here, too, there must be an extraordinary circumstance requiring such a change.

For example, the Torah forbids Jews from denying loans to their fellows in advance of a sabbatical year. "[E]very creditor who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it," meaning the loans are forgiven and need not be repaid.

"Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing…. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land." (See Deuteronomy 15:’.)

It does not get any clearer than that. And yet, as the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin 36a testifies, the great sage Hillel created a legal device called a prosbul to permit the impermissible — to allow the collection of debts despite the sabbatical year.

Hillel created the prosbul not because he wanted to overturn Torah law, but because the haves of his generation were refusing to loan money to the have-nots in advance of the sabbatical year. The prosbul was his way of reversing that practice.

The point of all this, of course, is simple: Overturning a Torah law is not simple. Do it the right way (there are methods other than the two cited here) and you can still call yourself halachic (even if others do not). Do it any other way and you lose not only a label, but a reason for being.