Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Conservative Nature of Halachah

“One who breaks through a fence will be bitten by a snake.” (Kohelet 10:8)

In many of the most passionate debates in today's Jewish world, issues are framed by the media in stark, black-hat vs. white-hat terms: The bad guys are insensitive sticklers for ideological purity, the good guys are compassionate scholars whose priority is kvod habriyyot and the welfare of Man.

You can pick pretty much any issue you like, but here are a few:

-Women's rights

-Interfaith dialogue

-Conversion standards

-Community standards of tzniut

These debates are framed in the Forward, the Jewish Week, the New York Times and beyond as matters of Compassion vs. Law, human leniency vs. divine absolutism, or worse, humane rationalism vs. nouveau fundamentalism.

I am not taking sides on any of these actual issues, at least not in this post. In practice, I've been on both sides of all four debates mentioned above! But this black/white characterization is unfair. Halachah, as it is traditionally understood and as was expressed in the Kohelet citation above, has long demanded conservatism, specifically in the name of compassion – compassion for the individual, and compassion for the community.

When Kohelet declares that the trespasser will be snakebit, he employs a lucid analogy for the practice of pioneering leniency. The very real fear is that removing the fence may endanger the individual practitioner, as well as the community. We know not why the fence was first built, but someone saw fit to build it; dare we think ourselves wiser and remove the fence without knowing what lurks on the other side?

To take one of the recent causes celebre: Dare I be lax in a conversion requirement, knowing that I risk declaring someone Jewish who actually is not?

Is it truly more compassionate to say, “We will label you 'Jew' even though you are not committed, yet, to kashrut, or Shabbat?” Certainly, that will satisfy an immediate demand, but what about if we are wrong – what about the possibility that the other side of the debate is correct, and he/she is not actually Jewish? What will be the ramifications for the eventual offspring?

And even if I am right in my leniency, and she/he is a Jew – What favor am I doing for the Jewish community, by introducing someone who will weaken the communal observance? And what favor am I doing for the convert personally, and the convert's children, by ushering them into a covenant they will not observe?

To these questions, in matters ranging far beyond conversion (The Shulchan Aruch sees fit to quote the snakebite principle in cases as varied as sitting down for והוא רחום (Orach Chaim 134:1) to eating meat in communities where people customarily avoid it in mourning for the Beit haMikdash (Orach Chaim 551:11) to eating meat without checking the animal's lungs for certain problems (Yoreh Deah 39:1)), Halachah has traditionally been conservative, urging caution, advising שב ואל תעשה עדיף, better to sin by inaction than by action.

Witness the example of Moshe Rabbeinu. Two of the most frequently cited biblical, halachic, compassionate 'liberalisms' are the Pesach Sheni decision (allowing people to observe a second Korban Pesach if they could not observe the first) and the Bnot Tzelafchad decision (giving the daughters of Tzelafchad land, because they had no brothers). But note that in each case, when the issue was brought to Moshe, he did not offer the leniency - rather, he explicitly relied on prophecy. Moshe did not feel comfortable offering a leniency based on his own compassion.

I admit that I am not satisfied by the conservative solution. As I noted above, I have been on both sides, and I am not taking a stand on the issue here.

My point is only that I would prefer to see the conservative view treated with the respect it deserves, as a compassionate position with firm grounding in Halachic tradition.


  1. The conversion issue (IMHO) seems like offering a quickie "compassionate" solution at the expense of potential agonizing heartbreak situations for the offspring.

    Actually, the compassion in the conversion is pure selfishness and refuses to take into account offspring issues.

  2. Please be assured that there are devoted geirim who are/have been willing to fulfill every halachic and rabbinic (and I mean both the sages AND bet din rabbanim) requirement placed in front of them to become a Torah Jew.

    I admit I'm not sure what the definition of "compassion" is here, but someone who takes 10 years from Reform to halachic conversion probably isn't looking for that kind of "compassion"...

  3. My friends, I advise my friends and family not to let others define them. The conversion issue is foolish and shortsighted.

    Amalek will not distinguish who performed the conversion. The bullet will murder each of us with the same efficiency.

    My waffle eating friend must remember that the offspring may not choose to follow the derech. It might not mean anything to them.

    In any case, you are all welcome in my home regardless of your stance.

  4. Jameel,lurker, Jack-
    I actually agree with all of you, except the Amalek point.

    I have taught people for a dozen or so conversions, as well as a number of people who have dropped out (on their own) along the way. I have been awed by the commitment I've seen. At the same time, I must admit that some who "went the distance" dropped some of their observance after the conversion. This isn't a one-size-fits-all story.

    On the Amalek point, though, I cannot agree. Why should Amalek get to define conversion?

  5. I am not saying that Amalek should get to define anything. We know from experience that those who hate us don't pay any attention to who is Torah observant and who is not.

    To them the Jew who eats treif is the same as the Jew who keeps Kosher.

  6. Jack-
    True - but the issue here is not the Jewish identity of an observant or non-observant Jew.

    The issue is whether or not someone who re-creates Sinai, but without saying "נעשה ונשמע We will do and we will hear," has actually accepted the Torah.

  7. The issue is whether or not someone who re-creates Sinai, but without saying "נעשה ונשמע We will do and we will hear," has actually accepted the Torah.

    Do we have to do as you do to prove that we have accepted Torah.

  8. Jack-
    The gemara (Yevamos 46a-b) does seem to view conversion as a recreation of Sinai, deducing the various steps of conversion from the steps the Jews took at Sinai.

  9. It seems to say that, but is that the real meaning.

  10. But note that in each case, when the issue was brought to Moshe, he did not offer the leniency - rather, he explicitly relied on prophecy. Moshe did not feel comfortable offering a leniency based on his own compassion.

    I'm not sure this is the right comparison. Moshe, after all, knew that he could rely on prophecy/direct connection to Hashem as his "lifeline" for tough questions. He also seems, personally, extremely insecure about his own capabilities - the initial denial of Hashem's request, his attempts to avoid it, his unwillingness to delegate.

    Sometimes, Moshe got the best ideas from outside advisors (such as Yitro). When there were other ways of doing things, such as appointing judges, that were both appropriate and permitted, Moshe used those ways to the benefit of his people.

    Similarly, we have seen models from outside (democratic decision making, gender equality) that offer significant benefits to our communities. And yes, you won't know what's on the other side of the fence until you peek over, or take a slat down.

    But if the fence is keeping your children from finding room for their own natural growth, or is, itself, rotting and falling down, then sometimes you have to have faith and start on the best repair or re-location you can, with the materials you have to hand.

    OK, enough of beating a dead metaphor. :)

  11. Jack-
    I think I misunderstood your original comment. Did you mean "Do we have to keep an Orthodox version of mitzvot in order to fulfill the mandate of accepting the mitzvot?"

    All true... the challenge is knowing when/how to make the choice.

  12. Jack-
    If conversion really means "accepting the mitzvot", then yes, I'd think each group would expect the convert to accept the mitzvot per their understanding. Which is exactly what happens.

  13. I understand. I don't really consider myself to be a part of any denomination. I grew up as part of the Conservative movement, but have a ton of friends who are both FFB and BT.

    There are certainly things about Orthodoxy that I find to be attractive.

    I live in a neighborhood in which there are multiple minyanim each day. You can learn as often or as infrequently as you like.

    All that being said, I find it troubling to see all the finger pointing among us.

    I have neighbors who want to know how I fell off the derech and what they can do to bring me back and neighbors who want to know why I associate with fanatics.

    Where is the middle ground. It seems to be missing.