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CJ Reviews: The Observant Life

The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, Martin S. Cohen, Senior Editor, Michael Katz, Associate Editor, with a Foreword by Arnold M. Eisen and a Prolegomenon by Julie Schonfeld. The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, 2012.

by Rabbi Neil Gillman

Over the past 30-some years, whenever a Conservative rabbi or layperson sought to resolve a particularly obscure or controversial matter of Jewish ritual observance, the conventional first step would be to “Check it out in Klein.” “Klein,” of course, was the late Rabbi Isaac Klein, an accomplished scholar, congregational rabbi and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, whose A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979) was the first comprehensive survey of Jewish ritual law incorporating traditional halakhah with interpretations by the rabbinic authorities of Conservative Judaism.

Originally designed as a curriculum for the education of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “Klein” quickly became omnipresent in the libraries of Conservative rabbis and in the homes of concerned Conservative laypeople. Klein was published by the seminary, soon followed by a remarkably productive publishing enterprise on the part of the Rabbinical Assembly (frequently together with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), which included the various editions of Siddur Sim Shalom (beginning in 1985), the Etz Hayim Humash (2001), and more recently, Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010).

And now, continuing this extraordinary enterprise, we are gifted with The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, a compendium of over 900 pages, over ten years in the making, with introductory material by the editors, Rabbis Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, by JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, and by Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice President Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, with contributions by 34 Conservative rabbis, men and women of all halakhic orientations and generations, and, gratefully, with a comprehensive index. In testimony to its contemporaneity, The Observant Life is available on various electronic readers.

A simple glance will demonstrate that this is far from an updating of Rabbi Klein’s work. Klein hardly needed updating; it was a monumental achievement for its day. It was the first, after many failed attempts, to provide guidance to our lay community on the entire body of Jewish ritual behavior from a Conservative standpoint including decisions of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. It will remain close at hand for its many loyalists.

The differences, however, are real. First, on matters of style, whereas Klein is published as a code of law, with sections and sub-sections, The Observant Life espouses a narrative style with the legal material embedded in sentences and paragraphs. On matters of substance, whereas Klein concentrated almost exclusively on ritual matters, The Observant Life devotes an entire third of its contents to matters of moral and ethical behavior, to what our ancestors dubbed issues that define relationships between people (mitzvot she-bein adam le-havero) as opposed to those that define our relationship with God. Issues such as Between Grandparents and Grandchildren, The Environment, Individuals with Disabilities, and Animals occupy as much space as The Dietary Laws, Shabbat, and The Jewish Life Cycle. Finally, contemporary perspectives on technology, medical ethics and human sexuality demand new consideration. References to decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards remain omnipresent.

But possibly the most important accomplishment of this book is less in its detailed behavioral prescriptions and more in its subtle understanding of precisely what role halakhah should play in our social structures when we define ourselves as Conservative Jews. Rabbi Cohen suggestively analyzes, in his preface, the two realms in which halakhah lives: the idealized realm of ritual behavior – the realm of kashrut and Shabbat, of marriage and divorce, and of mourning and burial – and what he calls “the arena of human society” – the banal aspects of human life, how we eat and how we dress, of lawyers and of advertising executives, of how we treat employees, of journalists and of doctors trying to infuse their practices with matters of faith. “It is the realm of real people living in the real world.” Ideally, the two realms must complement each other, which is Rabbi Cohen’s vision of what it means to be a Conservative Jew, and ultimately it is his vision that inspires this entire volume.

Rabbi Cohen is a touch apologetic about not including theological matters in his listing of halakhic obligations. The apology is not necessary. First, Maimonides was unique among Jewish thinkers in insisting that doing theology is also a mitzvah; most codifiers disagreed. But in fact, this volume is suffused with theology. Very much in the spirit of contemporary legal theoreticians such as Robert Cover, the style of The Observant Life understands that law is always embedded in narrative. It is the very evolution of our contemporary narrative that makes a volume of this kind mandatory at this time. The ultimate opponents of this approach are Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn who distinguish sharply between law and belief in matters of religion. Cohen voices the hope that some future volume might address what contemporary Jews can believe. I and many others avidly pray that that volume be next on the movement’s publishing agenda.

Rabbi Cohen’s volume may then serve as our long-awaited attempt to construct a Conservative theology of halakhah. I was overwhelmed in opening to the section identified as Deeds of Lovingkindness. This is where the unique accomplishments of The Observant Life come to the fore. To include in the realm of halakhah issues such as how we treat animals and individuals with disabilities, interfaith relations, the environment, relations between siblings, marriage, and sexuality is to confirm Rabbi Cohen’s judgment that halakhah must deal with the interface between the world of ritual behavior and that of real people living real lives in our real world. A student with whom I shared a few pages of the book suggested that while other halakhic anthologies seem to speak down to the reader, this one seeks to initiate a conversation, as all successful narrative does.

A word about sexuality – more precisely the three sections on sexuality: Marriage; Sex, Relationships and Single Jews, and Same-Sex Relations, by Rabbis David Fine, Jeremy Kalmanofsky and Elliot Dorff respectively. The tone of the chapters is captured by Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s comment that his aims are more “...ethical and social than narrowly legal.” One can only admire the courage with which Rabbi Kalmanofsky attacks the complex of issues regarding sexuality and single Jews, most specifically, the five pages titled Nevertheless, Sex Outside Marriage.

Beyond courage, four additional characteristics of Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s discussion are significant. First, he is exhaustive in quoting all of the traditional material on these issues, medieval and modern responsa including past rulings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, all carefully annotated, and all the relevant Talmudic sources and controversies, which are manifold. Second, he is up-to-date on all the contemporary research studies of human sexual behavior. Third, he is never apologetic about the distance that separates the traditional positions and modern practices. Fourth, he provides options for those who seek to embody at least the spirit of traditional halakhah with their personal impulses.

My sense is that for those who will dip into The Observant Life for the first time, just to test the waters, this is the chapter that they will read. The material is controversial, intrinsically intriguing, and a significant piece of the life experience for many contemporary adult Jews. Second, if any part of the traditional halakhah can be dismissed as anachronistic, this is the one. Third, if the case can be made for at least beginning to live a halakhic life as a Conservative Jew, this material will provide the acid test. If this stands up, so will the rest of the body of halakhah.

Finally, The Observant Life is a tribute to the Conservative rabbinate. The scholarly richness of the discussion, the flow of the writing, and the comprehensiveness of the material should be a source of pride for the entire Rabbinical Assembly, and by extension to our lay community. To the contributors and their editors, to Gershon Kekst and the other donors who funded the enterprise, and to all who devoted themselves to the multitude of thankless tasks associated with seeing a work of this kind into print, a hearty thank you. Yishar kochachem!

Rabbi Neil Gillman is Simon H. Rifkind and Aaron Rabinowitz Emeritus Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Observant Life: Two New Rabbis React

by Rabbi Catherine Clark

Study is greater [than action], for it brings one to action.” In his section on Torah study in The Observant Life, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond quotes Kiddushin 40b as one explanation of Torah li-sh'mah, studying Torah for its own sake. In this understanding of Torah li-sh'mah, we study to increase observance of mitzvot. As I embark on my journey as rabbi in a new community, regular Torah study will add to my life as an observant Jew and spiritual leader. The more I know about the mitzvot, the more empowered I am to fulfill them and lead my congregation in observing them.

But, as Rabbi Diamond points out, greater observance is not the only value to Torah li-sh'mah. Study also connects us to God and is a source of joy. Since ordination, I've been studying VaYikra Rabbah, the fifth century midrash on Leviticus, with my study partner. Each time we learn together is a delight. Each chapter of VaYikra Rabbah contains precious insight into the nature of God and the divine-human relationship. Each chapter also says something – whether about the matriarchs or how to ask a favor – that brings a smile to my face.

Of course I want to continue the divine inspiration, intellectual stimulation and human connection that Torah study brings to my life. As a new rabbi, however, I know my schedule will be full. Two inquiries also addressed by Rabbi Diamond suggest a solution. He asks, “How much Torah study?” The answer – make Torah study keva, at a fixed time. My weekly calendar will block off time for study. He also asks, “What is Torah?” For me, Torah includes what I'll learn from my congregants. Their lived experiences – as Jews, Canadians, parents, children, business owners, nurses, teachers, and learners – are Torah, Torah I can't wait to learn.

Rabbi Catharine Clark was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary where she received the Cyrus Adler Prize. She is the rabbi at Or Shalom in London, Ontario.

by Rabbi Jeremy Fine

Rabbi Craig Scheff, in his chapter, Synagogue Life, writes, “The synagogue is expected in theory to be guided by the values and laws of the Torah both in planning its day-to-day affairs and in seeking to attain its long-term goals.” I believe Rabbi Scheff 's comment is not just true of a synagogue but also of its members. Our job as rabbis is to become guides who enable those Torah values and laws to become practical. This is conducted in two ways. The first is through our teaching and preaching. It is our words of Torah taught in classes, spoken from the bimah, and given during hospital visits, that will guide the day-to-day life of our constituents. But it is our public adherence to these laws and values that ideally will result in a renewed long-term commitment to observance from our communities.

The observance of a rabbi is not only to live a life for oneself but to live as an example for others. If we, as rabbis, do not live Torah-driven lives then we can never expect our communities to do the same. Our observance needs to be something that we confidently feel is the correct way a Jew should be living. Our actions in public spheres are supposed to provide, even on a small scale, a realistic path for others to walk.

I think one of the beauties of Rabbi Scheff's chapter is that there is no one correct way of accomplishing observance. Each city, community and individual brings about different challenges and obstacles. By witnessing the example set by the rabbi each individual understands that through optimal observance he or she has a greater potential to reach God.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the assistant rabbi at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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