Who me, Korach?

June 4, 2006

Why is it that some people who seem to be very frum (Jewishly observant), who no doubt take the mitzvot very seriously, ignore the commandment “v’ahavta l’ra’acha k’mocha,” love your neighbor as yourself?  Why do some people take very seriously the rabbinic fences around separation of meat and dairy, yet they ignore the rabbinic dictate to “dan l’chaf zchut,” to give people the benefit of the doubt?

Back in March I was in the center of a controversy the Conservative movement is engaged in relating to the ordination of gays and lesbians.  I put forward a motion relating to the procedures the Conservative movement uses in making such decisions.  This was reported widely (click here to read the article in the Forward) and the Jewish Press picked up on it in an article they called “Warm and Fuzzy Halacha” (click to read it).  I responded with some clarifications to what they wrote, in the hope of fostering better understanding between the Orthodox and Conservative communities (which can be read by clicking here).  My effort at trying to further understanding resulted in me being excoriated…a few excerpts are included below, (click to read the full letters).

“Rabbi Barry Leff’s description of a committee that votes on which Torah laws to overturn is a sad commentary on Conservative Judaism (Letters, April 21). How do they interpret the Torah’s declaration that anyone who claims that even one law of the Torah has been abrogated or a new one added is a false prophet – a declaration that makes it very clear that every law in the Torah is timeless and immutable? Or have they already overturned this one?”

And this one…”Here, Rabbi Leff has a committee to try to do what some of our worst enemies could not – relieve us of the yoke of Hashem’s commandments. And he writes with such smugness.

If he wants to compare his committee with prominent historical personalities, I suggest that instead of Hillel and Shammai he try Korach.”

Why is it that these people can’t disagree in a respectful tone?  They demonstrate their ignorance of the development of halacha and the dedication of Conservative Jews to Torah and mitzvot.  They have no clue what they are talking about.  I quit a high paying job in Silicon Valley to go back to school and become a rabbi, where I spend much of my time and energy on trying to figure out ways to get people to follow the commandments.  I even talked about the significance of observing the laws of shaatnez (forbidden mixtures of wool and linen) in a sermon on Shavuot.

The Law Committee does not exist for the purpose of overturning the Torah.  It exists for the purpose of clarifying God’s will.  The takanah, rabbinic legislation, is a historically accepted part of the halachic process–it’s not something the Conservative movement invented.  The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has used the takanah to change the laws of inheritance, to make them egalitarian, contrary to what it explicitly says in the Torah.  Yesterday (the second day of Shavuot) we read in the Torah how loans are to be forgiven every seven years.  Despite that explicit commandment in the Torah, Hillel instituted the prozbul, a way around what it says in the Torah, because the values of the Torah — help poor people — were not being served by an explicit rule of the Torah.  The Law Committee of the Conservative Movement works the same way.  I have no problem if someone from an Orthodox background wants to say we are applying the concept of takanah inappropriately, or they think we are wrong in our understanding of Revelation.  But do they have to couch their disagreement in terms that smack of sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred)?

I suppose I can forgive these frum critics for their bombastic attacks–after all, they sadly learn this technique from their rabbis, who really should know better.  As pointed out on a blog called “There are no feminists on a sinking ship” two leading Orthodox rabbis of not so long ago resorted to calling each other names: “In a move not seen since the early days of the Hasidic movement, the leader of the Yeshivah Orthodox, Rabbi Shach, made negative assertions about the Hasidic Rabbi. He claimed that not only is Rabbi Schneerson not the “Gadol Hador”, he is in fact an “Apikoras” or heretic. Rabbi Shach said that the Lubabitcher Rebbe should not be followed under any circumstances.”

I wish these people would ask themselves: “What does the Holy One, Blessed be He, really want us to be more makpid (particular) about–ta’arovet (laws of mixtures of meat and dairy) or v’ahavta l’ra’acha k’mocha (love your neighbor as yourself)?”

What ever happened to “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim,” these and those are the words of the living God?

Reb Barry

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9 Responses to Who me, Korach?

  1. Dag on June 4, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    I guess in a way, there is no point trying to clarify your position at a newspaper that is never open to new ideas. I happen to disagree with you theologically, especially re: gayes and lesbians, etc….BUT I would always agree with, what Richrad Joel has often said, is your right to be wrong…..

  2. Larry Lennhoff on June 13, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    Barry asks “Whatever happened to “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim”?

    Eilu v’Eilu ranks right up there with ‘Let my people go’ as among the most repurposed sentence fragments of all time. The full quote is ‘These and these are the ways of the living G-d… but the halacha is according to Hillel’. That is, even when both side of a disagreement are legitimate, ultimately there must be a single solution implemented.

    There is another aggadah about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. It says that although they disagreed about mamzerut, kashrut of kelim (cooking utensils), and arayot (forbidden sexual relationships) they nevertheless ate in each others houses and married one another. How? Because when someone from Beit Hillel visited someone from Beit Shammai, the latter would say ‘this kli is not kosher for you’ and vice versa. Similarly, when a Shidduch was proposed that one side would hold was illegitimate, the other side would warn them of the fact. The lesson I draw from this is that during a transition period while these disputes are sorted out, respect for one another’s positions is mandatory.

    I think the C is ending such a transition period with respect to egalitarianism. Where once a specific C shul could be either egalitarian or not – or even have one minyan of each type – the calls to expell non-egalitarian congregations are becoming increasingly strident.

    My wife joined the C movement at the tail end of this period. The shul we attended most frequently did not behave according to the parable above. My wife held by the Roth teshuvah, and did not wish to be counted towards the minyan. Nevertheless she was more than once faced with the alternative of either walking out or being counted against her will as the 10th.
    In the short term she stayed there but did not respond to anything requiring a minyan. In the longer term she left for another shul.

    The arguments between beit Hillel and beit Shammai were in many regards over details – such things as in what order the blessings are said during havdalah. Eilu v’Eilu was never applied to the Saducees or the Kararites.

    Whether the split between C and O is closer to Hillel and Shammai, the Pharisees and Saducees, or the Rabbanite and the Kararites is an interesting question. Contemporary O seems to have largely decided on the last of these options, which I don’t think is justifiable.

  3. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on June 13, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    Larry raises some interesting points.

    Even though I come down firmly on the side of egalitarianism, I also am distressed by calls to enforce egalitarianism in the Conservative movement. We have always prided ourselves on being pluralistic–where’s the pluralism if you insist that everyone be just like you?

    A traditional view of halacha does not MANDATE egalitarianism; at the same time, it does not forbid it.

    It’s an interesting questions as to when do we consider a situation analogous to Hillel and Shammai and when to Pharisees/Saducees, or Rabbinic Judaism vs. Karaites. I suggest the answer is when we view someone as working within the same system, we would apply Hillel/Shammai. So how do we draw the line on whether or not we are working in the same system?

    I believe Larry correctly surmises that contemporary O seems to have ruled CJ as out of the system — ostensibly because they see us as kofrim, deniers, because allow that the Torah is possibly a maculate document. On the other hand, I would consider CJ in the same system as OJ, but would consider Reform Judaism “outside.” Because I would define who is inside the system as being based on accepting halacha as binding, and agreeing to act within the traditional system when making halachic decisions. You can make some very radical decisions within the halachic framework — but for me it is working within that framework and accepting “mitzvah means commandment” as what should define someone as “within the system,” and therefore an argument that is akin to Hillel/Shammai.

    The message of Hillel and Shammai is that people of good will, people who have yirat shamayim (fear/awe of God) can disagree. The very different views often taken by Rabbis Roth and Dorff prove the point for me within the Conservative movement. Both are true gedolim, yet they often come down on things as differently as Hillel and Shammai.

  4. Lary Lennhoff on June 14, 2006 at 10:51 am

    Rabbi Barry said:
    Even though I come down firmly on the side of egalitarianism, I also am distressed by calls to enforce egalitarianism in the Conservative movement. We have always prided ourselves on being pluralistic–where’s the pluralism if you insist that everyone be just like you?

    This is a good question to raise on the Shefa group. The question is whether egalitarianism is one of the core values of C. For example, the idea that contemporary rabbis have at least as much legislative power as the rishonim seems to me a core value of C. Remove it and you’ve gone a long way to turning C into O. The idea that halacha is binding might be another core value (although one which IMVHO suffered death through silence some time ago). Remove that idea and you’ve gone a long way to turning C into R.
    I spoke above of the pluralistic period of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamma as ‘transitional’. Eventually all the machlokets were resolved, and the overwhelming majority were resolved in favor of Beit Hillel. This transitional period can last a long time – Ashkenanazi and Sephardic differences have lasted centuries. But I believe the ideal is to eventually have one law.

    In the case of C Judaism I think that eventually C will require egalitarianism of its adherents. But I’d rather see that happen naturally rather than by decree. Recently the last shul without a mechitza that was affiliated with the OU left the organization. While the OU has prohibitted shuls without a mechitza for decades it never expelled this old shul – it just waited it out. That is the model I would like to see C follow wrt egalitarianism.

  5. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on June 15, 2006 at 9:37 pm

    Egalitarianism is not currently defined as a “core value” of Conservative Judaism. I agree that I think that non-egal will fade away in the movement without needing to be pushed. Our support for pluralism I believe is more important.

    I disagree with the ideal being to have one law. The ideal is every rabbi has yirat shamayim and rules for his/her community in an appropriate fashion. For example, the Conservative movement has a teshuva (which I disagree with, but that’s another topic) which says it’s OK to drive to shul on Shabbat. There is another teshuva which says it is not. I can entirely see how one rabbi in a suburban congregation might decide to follow the teshuva that says it’s OK, while the same rabbi if he had a congregation on the Upper West Side of New York might say it is NOT permissible. The Jewish world would be far more boring if everyone had to be the same.

  6. Lary Lennhoff on June 20, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Rabbi Barry said:
    Egalitarianism is not currently defined as a “core value” of Conservative Judaism.

    Larry comments:

    Respectfully, I believe egalitarinaism now has been adopted as a core value by both the laity and the poskim of the movement. I agree there has been no explicit pronouncement as such, but we have gone from egalitarianism being a nice thing to adopt as long as the halacha permitted (women’s aliyot) to one of several competing values (women’s ordainment) to now being able to trump major halachot in much the same fashion pikuach nefesh does (homosexuality responsa).

    I’d be interested in Rabbi Creditor’s opinion on this question – any idea if he reads your blog?

  7. Lary Lennhoff on June 20, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Rabbi Barry says:
    I disagree with the ideal being to have one law. The ideal is every rabbi has yirat shamayim and rules for his/her community in an appropriate fashion.

    Larry replies:

    I guess the question is whose ideal for what community. In a messianic age with a re-established Sanhedrin and a geographically compact cohesive Jewish community I believe a single law is the ideal. This is cheating of course – effectively I’ve said if we have only one community there need be only one law.

    I believe that while there should be one answer for every halachic question, there can be more than one question. Thus while we are in galut answers to such questions as ‘Should we eat on pesach food such as rice in an area where it is a rare crop, not a staple, and in which imported rice is often mixed with wheat’ can be different from the answer to the question ‘Should eating rice on pesach be forbidden in lands where it is one of the chief sources of carbohydrates for the poor, and where the culinary tradition emphasises the role of rice in many of the ‘fancy’ dishes we would otherwise serve to celebrate the chag?’

    The natural question about defaulting the authority for making to psaks to the mara d’atra is ‘Why stop there?’. The rabbi may decide whether to lock the gate to the shul parking lot on Friday night, but should he also tell the congregants not to drive a block away and park? Should the mara d’atra’s decision vary by congregant? My late aunt had severe arthritis – her choice was to be driven to shul or not to go. Her shul’s rabbi refused to act as a clearinghouse to provide volunteer drivers – he did not hold by the driving teshuvah and would not support those who did. Was this action correct in your opinion?

    While communal standards for kashrut are useful to enable congregants to eat in one another’s homes, should the decision whether to wear tephillin on chol hamoed be left to the individual? How about the question of using electricity in their homes on Shabbat?

  8. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on June 21, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I don’t like second-guessing other rabbis, as I have respect for pluralism, which at least once upon a time was a hallmark of our movement.

    You may not like the answer, but since the rabbi in question does not hold with the driving teshuva, he acted appropriately. If he considers it a d’oraita (Biblical) sin to drive on Shabbat, to act as a clearinghouse would be to transgress “lo titen michshol lifnei ivrim,” not to put a stumbling block before the blind.

    I also personally don’t hold with the driving teshuva. My attitude, however, is that I’m not the mitzvah police. I agree with the goal of the driving teshuva, even if I disagree with the conclusion. I would not lock the parking lot, and I would not have chastised your aunt for choosing to be driven to shul.

    Wearing tefillin on chol hamoed is the sort of mitzvah that one follows “minhag hamakom,” the custom of the place. There is no compelling case one way or the other. When at home you can follow the custom you grew up in, when in shul you follow the custom of the shul you are in.

    As to questions like using electricity at home on Shabbat, I do believe people should rely on their rabbi for answers to questions like this. It’s why we are trained in these issues. The truth, however, of course is that everyone does decide for themselves. Without any form of communal enforcement of the rabbi’s judgments, any of his or her rulings, are in truth only advisory.

    The Talmud specifically cautions us against opinion shopping among different rabbis.

    Reb Barry

  9. Rabbi Menachem Creditor on June 21, 2006 at 7:01 pm

    So interesting to read this thread. I believe that the coalescing of values from within the Conservative Movement is different than the political reality we sustain.

    Egalitarianism must become an “inescapable horizon” not because it stands alone in the halacha we call our own – but because it embodies an expression of our highest value: ‘Yirat Shamayim.’ Typically translated as ‘Fear of Heaven’ in the context of confronting a situation with seriousness and integrity, I see Yirat Shamayim as a charge to the human community that wishes to stand in awe of God – not to sit down and wait for a Divine voice, but to actively seek the Awe of God. This is a rejection of the “lo bashamayim hi” approach to halachah that ultimately creates a human legal system which excludes God’s voice – I feel that the Conservative Movement is called to exercise a holy perogative with prudence and integrity. God’s will is, as Mordecai Kaplan (and Kevin Smith in “Dogma”) put it, “what we say it is.” But that needs to be reversed as well – WE need to make sure we are thinking about God when we put words in Her mouth.

    Egalitarianism is a core value – but the Conservative Movement is going to have to move from an open pluralism of tolerating diversity to a qualified pluralism of proud positions.

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