The Law in Conservative Judaism: Criminals and Social Bonds.
Rabbi Robert Tobin
West Orange NJ, B’nai Shalom
Rosh Hashanah 2 - 5778
Shanah Tovah. This morning we are called to hear the call of the shofar, to examine our deeds and to inaugurate the 10 days of repentance leading to Yom Kippur. The Shofar blast is the sound of Mt. Sinai, the cry to battle, and the aching of the human heart. The Torah does not call today Rosh Hashanah - the New Year. It calls today yom teru’ah - the day of shofar blasts.
The musaf service today will proclaim that God is not only real and involved in your life, but is three very important things for us. First - a king. God is a powerful sovereign, ruling our universe and our lives. Second, God is the ultimate data base. God remembers all that we have ever done as a people and as individual people. Third, God is a social architect. God rallies us to the redemption of all humanity in peace and harmony, asserting that human fulfillment and social justice can be achieved.
These three ideas - malkhuyot kingship, zikhronot memory, and shofarot calls to action - are big promises, and our response to these ideas will define our lives as Jews. But we have a problem, we Conservative Jews. Our ability to hear, internalize and express these ideas has been hampered by a very modern conflict, especially in America. We generally don’t want a king. We have very selective memory. And we only want to do what we want to do. We are in charge.
There is a word for an authority, commanding recording and demanding conformity to its norms. That word is Law. America is one nation, under law. And in Judaism, in classical mode, God is like the author of a constitution, and the rabbis have been the supreme court and the congress, interpreting the meaning of the law and expanding its provisions for the past two thousand years and more. But with law comes criminality. With norms comes deviance. No society is immune from the tensions between citizens and system. If Judaism is indeed a system of law, then we must understand the lessons of modern criminology to support it.
The Torah, the prophets, the writings of our sacred literature and two thousand years of rabbinic Judaism are deeply defined by one simple concept: halakhah - Jewish Law. They declare, cajole and lament about our adherence to Jewish law, and insist that it has sway over our lives. Judaism was founded as a people of laws, and has always defined Jewish life as a complex structure of commanded actions and beliefs. Medieval law codes have been condensed to simple how-to guides for Jewish living, and with the internet you can just ask Rabbi Google what you should do and how you should do it.
The modern world of western enlightenment traditions has undermined that concept of Jewish Law. Personal freedom and autonomy have become the essential nature of human society for many, and freedom of religion is often freedom from religion. So Law, as a religious category, is a real problem for many Conservative Jews. I say Conservative Jews, because we live as a spectrum of Jewish behaviors and beliefs in the middle of the spectrum of American Jewish life. We have Orthodoxy, whose acceptance of Jewish Law defines the essence of their identity. And we have Reform, whose rejection of classical modes of Jewish Law defines the essence of their identity. And we have everyone else in the middle, reflecting broad and contradictory approaches to Jewish Law.
Conservative Rabbis are trained to be lawyers of halakhah. We are firmly committed to observance in all of its standard modes, and we work on the assumption that it is not just rabbis - but the community as a whole - that should live accordingly. The synagogue, which represents us all, is shomer shabbat, shomer kashrut, shomer mitzvot, shomer middot. It is shabbat observant. Kosher observant. Mitzvah observant. And ethically and morally observant. In synagogue life, the public standard is set, knowing that the actual people of our synagogue are a wide variety of observances and beliefs. We embrace that diversity as a strength. We engage different backgrounds as a call to learning and personal growth. So what is the Law, if everyone is equal no matter what they do?
Rabbis, as experts in the law, run a grave risk. And that risk is that by rightfully insisting that Judaism is law, and by setting community standards accordingly, we unavoidably and subtly define most of our people as criminals. Some are minor criminals, breaking laws here and there. Some are career criminals, living contrary to nearly every norm of the legal system that is being presented. And all are present here today. How will people respond to a system that labels them deviants, using negative terms like “unobservant” to describe them? How do you, or I feel when told that we are breaking the law? Can we view Jewish norms with the same ethical seriousness that we have for secular law?
Of course in medieval communities where rabbis had actual legal authority in society, and coercive power to punish, adherence to the law was not a question. And in ghetto or shtetl societies, where social norms meant being accepted in the only community that will have you, adherence to the law was unquestioned. But in our open society, with toothless laws that have no coercive power, how will our traditions survive?
Our strength in Conservative Judaism is also our weakness. Our commitment to unearth the true history of our people underneath the mythology, and to accept the findings of science, archeology, literary criticism and other social sciences makes us the most intellectually honest form of Judaism. We are not shrouded in fundamentalist ideologies that deny the reality of the world. But we are not defined by a blind love of modernity, no matter what it happens to be. We are grounded by history, covenant, and the broad and diverse expressions of Judaism throughout the ages, seeing ourselves as yet another iteration of eternal truths and commitments to God Torah and Israel. But by debunking certain myths of our peoples history, myths which have to strength to set clear and uncompromising legal controls, we are vulnerable to people drifting away, picking and choosing, or rejecting the traditional norms altogether.
Jewish Law, real halakhah as authority in our lives, is a problem for us in this time and place in Jewish history. I believe that how we talk about halakhah is the essential weakness of our movement, and is the main point of disconnect between people who agree with the moderate and reasonable approach of Conservative Judaism but have difficulty with the norms of Jewish behavior that we teach. We basically create a system of criminality, as a sociological condition. We actually undermine the authority of the tradition, create a sense of irrelevance, and doom the system that we are trying to preserve. How can we save the system of Jewish Law, the essence of our history and religion, while being relevant in our modern lives. The answer lies in our social bonds, and our consistent application of halakhik norms in the community setting.
The study of non-conformist behavior in secular law is of course called criminology. What warnings might criminology teach the Conservative movement, given our broad gap between theory and practice?
First, criminal behavior is defined by social context. What is acceptable, and what is deviant, is defined by the culture in which the law lives. This seems contrary to the idea of halakhah, eternal Law from God. But it is not. Social context changes how the law is lived by us, but does not change the essential values and norms underneath. For example, our current social context empowers women to be equal to men. but the commanded norm of regular prayer, tallit, teffillin and torah reading do not change. When we let women ascend the bima and read from the Torah, we are fulfilling the law in a changed social context, not breaking the law. We do not break the halakhah when we empower women to observe the halakhah. Quite the contrary. The secular world is the same: When America allowed women to vote, it did not destroy the essence of democracy.
But social context is a double edged sword. The social context of the haredi world in Monsey is different from ours. Since we are talking about halakhah, and our expression of Judaism contradicts their social norms, we are seen as nonconforming Jews and are basically criminals in their minds. The will not eat our food, recognize our rabbis, or –given the choice – marry our children.
Second, we know that social bonds help to create more stable and law abiding individuals. Social bonds create a form of control and accountability that reinforces legal norms. Criminality is most often accompanied by the breakdown of social controls. Strong social bonds, theory says, creates law abiding citizens.
For Judaism, this is where the law must live today. We don’t have the coercive control of a religious criminal justice system. We don’t have the coercive control of closed communities and the threat of excommunication. Our people seek meaning in relationships, and in a sense of harmony between their synagogue life and their secular life. So the synagogue must teach, represent, and enforce all aspects of halakhah in the communal sphere as we gather and work as a community. But our programs, our actions, our investments must be in things that strengthen and grow those social bonds. The sermon is important. The Kiddush is more important. Adult education is important. Classes and groups of people learning together are more important. Sisterhood. Men’s Club. Hazak. Kadimah. USY. These are the vehicles that must embody the halakhah as lived Judaism in social norms. If there is a trend to the handful of people who have left the shul in the past year, it is this: t
Judaism is a religion. It has cultures. It has sociologies. It has ethics and morals. But it is a religion. And our religion is a religion of laws to observe. When we say, I observe the holidays, that is law. When we say, I treat my neighbor with respect, that is law. When we support the poor, champion the cause of the widow the orphan and the stranger, that is law. When we make a minyan, that is law. When we say kaddish, that is law. When we choose kosher choices, that is law. When we set Shabbat aside from the week, that is law. When our family gathers for Rosh Hashanah, that is law. When we circumcise a child, that is law When we mark to moments of our lives in sacred rituals, that is law. It is all one system. Very little of Jewish law is private to the individual. Almost everything that is commanded is commanded as part of a social relationship with the other members of our community. It is not possible to move to rural Wyoming and live a complete and observant Jewish life. We need each other.
Yes, there is a strong sense of Judgment and criminality that can come fro a system of law. But Judaism is not here to coerce and enforce legal norms on you, threatening punishment and sanctions if you deviate from the norms. Judaism is here to bind you in relationships with others who share common values, traditions and practices. Judaism will flourish when our social context is imbued with those practices in rich and vibrant ways. And that is what the synagogue does for us in this day and age.
The synagogue is answer to the challenge of modernity. Are we adrift, each person establishing their own norms, defining Judaism personally and abandoning centuries of proven effective meaningful practices? Or can our diversity find common identity in celebrating obligations to form minyanim, keep Shabbat, seek social justice, in the context of friendships, family and associations that give our lives control and meaning?
Yes, we are on some level all deviants and criminals in the eyes of the halakhah. But our laws customs norms and celebrations are more than worth pursuing without a sense of guilt or judgment. They are part of an expression of purpose, identity and hope for a world in which God and humanity achieve a just and lasting system.
We have a problem in Conservative Judaism, and it is in part the language of observance - and it is a problem we rabbis have helped to create. We talk about Judaism as a system of traditions, when the fact is that it is a system of laws. The laws - the covenant - are still in effect, but labeling imperfect adherence to the law as only empowers the extremes to the right and left of us. If we are to live and thrive as citizens of Judaism, it is the social bonds that we create in the synagogue community within the law that will give our lives purpose and meaning, and keep Judaism alive for the next generation.
So we do declare, that God is King in Malkuyot. We do assert that knowledge and memory matter more than blind faith or modern rejection in Zikhronot. And we know that the call to action is experienced together in Shofarot. May this year bring you ever closer to the practices of Judaism that will forever sustain us in time.