Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Sabbath Observance Enough?

Egalitarian service at Cong. Kol Ami in Tampa, Florida - photo credit: Kol Ami
The David Brooks article in the New York Times about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn has stirred up a lot of controversy. I first noted it on Sunday.  And once again I note it here.

This time it is a complaint in the Forward from an unlikely source – Jordana Horn, an observant Conservative Jew. I say unlikely - not because it is unlikely that she would complain, but because of her identification as an observant Conservative Jew. And by observant, I mean Shomer Shabbos. It is that particular Mitzvah that has in the past always been definitive of observance. At least in America  I suppose that’s because it was so difficult to keep Shabbos during the great influx of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There were plenty of Jews that immigrated to this country then who were observant in Europe and wished to stay observant. But because of the work ethic of the times, many of them succumbed to the pressure of working on Shabbos – even while keeping the other Miztvos (like Kashrus)to the best of their abilities. Many Jews felt that it was either working on Shabbos or starving.

That concession cost them greatly in their children. In many if not most cases their children abandoned the ritual observances of their parents in part because of the melting pot spirit of the times… but perhaps equally as important, because they saw their fathers working on Shabbos. They considered it hypocritical of their fathers to insist on their children keeping Shabbos when their fathers worked on that day.

I am not judging that generation. Times were tough. These are just the sad facts of reality. We lost a lot of Jews of the subsequent generation to assimilation back then.  Of course this is not the only reason we lost them. The utter lack of any meaningful Jewish education in those days had something to do with it too.

On the other hand there were a lot of Jews who toughed it out and did not work on Shabbos. They kept getting fired from their jobs when they didn’t show up for work. Or they somehow found jobs that did not require working on Shabbos even when it meant lesser pay. They were in the minority. But their kids for the most art stayed Shomer Shabbos too – as well observant of other Mitzvos.

Others may differ but this is why I think Shabbos is the defining characteristic of observant Judaism. Which brings me back to Ms. Horn. She is observant. She is Shomeres Shabbos. She admits that this is a relative rarity in the Conservative movement and although there are more than a few like her - I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of Jews in the Conservative movement are not Shomer Shabbos.

She complains that Mr. Brooks ‘waxed rhapsodic’ only about Orthodox Jews. …that her observance of Judaism is just as legitimate as in that of Orthodox Jewry.

The obvious question is, what makes her Conservative if she observes Shabbos? That is a very good question. In fact, if there were no labels like Orthodox and Conservative… we would all just be Jews with different levels of observance. (This is the way Sephardim live. This is one of the things I am envious of about them.)

Alas, there are labels. Labels that identify ideologies.  In some cases those ideologies contradict Halacha and Mesorah.  The problem I have with Ms. Horn is that she sees egalitarianism as an essential feature of her life. So much so apparently that she cannot imagine Judaism without it. She believes that equality of the sexes in all areas of life including religion is so important that Halacha can be changed to accommodate it. And she has found a movement that agrees with her and even encourages that kind of thinking.

The Conservative movement has done away with all Halacha that does not bow to egalitarianism. They have changed the entire nature of the Halachic process from one of adhering to Halacha as laid down before us by the sages as recorded in the Talmud and finalized in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries…  to one of changing it to fit with the spirit of the times. Egalitarianism drives Halacha in the Conservative Movement - instead of Halacha driving egalitarianism.

The claim by Conservative thinkers is that if Chazal were alive today, they would see what we see and respond along the same lines they do. Thus they do away with Halachos they see as being influenced by the ‘incorrect’ spirit of Chazal’s times.  Wouldn’t Chazal do that too if they lived today?

Well intentioned though they were - even the walls of Shmiras Shabbos were breached by the Conservative movement. By their own admission that has led to disastrous results. The permit they gave to driving only to Shul (if they were already driving) has morphed into driving anywhere they want.  Their intention of keeping their flock observant by guiding them into shuls has by their own admission been a massive failure. Which they say is the primary cause of their attrition problem. 

They believe that the breakdown of cohesive religious neighborhoods that are characteristic of Orthodox Jews are the result of the driving permit. Conservative Jews no longer had to live together in order to be close to a Shul. They could live wherever they wanted and drive there.

These problems do not even address the difficulties with some of their theology that allows for a denial of the events at Sinai. Or the exodus from Egypt.  Or even the divinity of the Torah!

It is one thing if an individual thinks this way. But when a movement does, it gives cover to anyone who does so bolstering their ranks with believers in heresy.

As an individual Ms. Horn’s her egalitarian ideas would probably not have stood in the way of full acceptance as an observant Jew. In any case she would not have any way to put her theories into practice. But when an entire movement justifies it and offers ways to facilitate those beliefs that is a horse of an entirely different color.  Furthermore belonging to Conservative movement means not only accepting the ritual changes, it means accepting the movement’s theology as well.  

This is very sad and troubles me greatly.  Ms. Horn is a sincere Jew who truly believes that her observance is in concert with authentic Judaism. Most of her observances probably are. I would love to consider all people who observe Shabbos as observant. That was once the case. It truly grieves me to say this but through no fault of her own she is mistaken in her belief that buying into the doctrines and practices of the Conservative Movement are in concert with authentic Judaism. They are not. 

This does not mean that I do not fully accept her as a Jew or respect her any less. I do. Especially her commitment to Shabbos. But as a believer in Emes, this is the way I see her state of observance.