Limmud NY: Reform halakhah panel

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu)
Hi from the Catskills (or should I say, the Catskill)!
On Shabbat afternoon I was on a panel on “The Role of Halakhah in Reform Judaism”, moderated by Rabbi Leon Morris of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. The other panelists were Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue. (So yes, I was the token non-rabbi on the panel.)
By request, here is some of the discussion from the panel as best I can recall. I’m mostly just going to post what I said (because I’m not worried about misrepresenting myself, but might misrepresent others), but if other panelists or attendees want to post their recollections, please do so in the comments.

There was no one on the panel representing a “Classical Reform” perspective or a “Reform Judaism isn’t halachic” perspective, but the views expressed were far from homogeneous.
Some personal information, since people are wondering whether I belong on the panel: I consider myself a Reform expatriate. I practice what I consider to be Reform Judaism (as an ideology), though I am not currently affiliated with the Reform movement (as a set of institutions). So I focused my remarks on the former, not the latter.
We started by sharing our thoughts on the relationship between Reform Judaism and halakhah. Here’s what I said: Often when we get into discussions about identifying one’s own movement or other movements as “halakhic” or “not halakhic”, these distinctions are about identity and politics and semantics, and not necessarily about substance, since there is not a single agreed-upon definition of what halakhah is, and it’s just a question of how you define it. If we define “halakhah” by the Orthodox definition, then Reform Judaism is obviously not halakhic by that definition; if we line the denominations up on a scale from 1 to Orthodox, then of course Reform will come up short. If, on the contrary, we define “halakhah” as binding religious obligations, then all Reform views would agree that there is halakhah in Reform Judaism — even if you hold like the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which held that the ritual commandments in the Torah do not apply in our time, then you still would hold that the Torah’s ethical commandments are obligatory.
So we can start from the assumption that there exists Reform halakhah, and that it is different in nature from Orthodox halakhah. I want to point out two significant ways in which the Reform understanding of halakhah is different from halakhah as understood by other movements:
1) There is a concept called yeridat hadorot (descent of the generations) that informs Orthodox halakhah. The idea is that the Written and Oral Torah were revealed at some time in the past, and each successive generation is farther and farther from the original revelation. This impacts halakhah because there is a mishnah in Masechet Eduyot that says that a beit din (Jewish court) cannot overturn a decision of a previous beit din unless the later one is greater than the earlier one in both wisdom and number. Since our generation is farther from revelation than previous generations, we are presumed to have less wisdom, and therefore we cannot supplant earlier halakhic decisions, but can only work within them. In Orthodox halakhah, the transmission of tradition can be compared to a game of Telephone, where the signal gets weaker each time it is passed on. Reform Judaism, in contrast, would compare this transmission to that game where you go around telling a story, and each person adds a word or a sentence. Instead of yeridat hadorot, the operative principle is, in Isaac Newton’s words, “standing on the shoulders of giants”. By this understanding, we are greater in wisdom than previous generations, because our generation knows everything that they knew, plus everything that we have learned since then. Therefore, the tradition continues to grow and develop. This is a small-p progressive rather than a small-c conservative understanding of halakhah.
2) Authority. All Jewish religious movements would agree that God is the ultimate authority, and would also agree that we cannot communicate directly with God. We have texts that were written (or Written) in the past, but all would agree that there are decisions to be made in the present time about our practice, and the question is about who has the authority to make those decisions. This is a case that challenges the way people typically line the movements up on a spectrum: the Conservative movement is at one extreme and the Reform movement on another, with Orthodox in the middle. (This is about the movement ideologies on paper, not necessarily about how people actually practice.) In the Conservative movement, there is a law committee that makes halakhic decisions for the movement. Even if they come up with multiple answers, they still define the range of options, and the local rabbi selects an option from this range, and the individual is supposed to follow halakhah as determined by this hierarchy. In the Orthodox world, there is no centralized committee, so this authority is more diffuse, but there are rabbis who render halakhic decisions, and individuals follow various rabbis’ rulings. In Reform Judaism, the responsibility of interpreting Torah to determine the halakhah that is to be observed is on each individual.
Following up on this, Leon Morris asked a question about autonomy. He said he was talking about autonomy the way it should ideally work, since we all know how it works out in reality. I responded to this throwaway comment, saying that I’m not sure we do know how it works in reality. I don’t think that informed autonomy has really been implemented in the Reform movement. One might look at Reform-affiliated Jews and say that they’re acting autonomously, perhaps too autonomously, but I say we shouldn’t confuse apathy with autonomy. Sure, people are choosing not to do Jewish things much of the time, but when they are doing Jewish things, they are entirely dependent on someone else to tell them what to do and to do things for them. Informed autonomy hasn’t been implemented, because most Jews in the Reform movement are neither informed nor autonomous. Before we knock autonomy, first we should try it.
LM said that his view of how autonomy should work in Reform Judaism (and please correct me if I’m misrepresenting this) is that an HUC professor might say to a student “I noticed this morning at davening that you weren’t wearing tefillin. Why is that?”, and the student would respond with reasons why s/he doesn’t wear tefillin. Thus, people should be familiar with the tradition, and autonomously define their relationship to it, and if someone wants to reject an element of it, s/he should have a reason. I disagree with this view of tradition. I said that to treat “The Tradition” as something static and monolithic is to commit an act of Artscrollization. Jewish tradition is something that has always evolved over time, and this tradition includes the last 200 years of Reform Jewish history, which have created their own facts on the ground for us to take into account, and the tradition will continue to evolve and develop into the future, and autonomy means that each of us is an active participant in that development.
We shouldn’t assume that in the state of nature everyone is Orthodox, and that any difference from Orthodoxy requires justification. In the state of nature we’re wherever we started, and we might change from that point. So for the first n years of my life I didn’t wear tefillin, but I didn’t have a specific justification for this; it was simply because I grew up not wearing tefillin, so that was the default.
One of the panelists asked me how I would define Kol Zimrah. I said that KZ is not affiliated institutionally with the Reform movement or any other movement, and doesn’t identify itself with a movement label. It is the case empirically that people in the KZ community are exercising informed autonomy about their Jewish practice, but Kol Zimrah as an organization doesn’t take an ideological stance about this. However, I have found that the independent Jewish communities I am involved in, like Kol Zimrah and the National Havurah Committee, are closer to what I would want in a Reform community (in that there is informed autonomy) than the actual Reform movement is.
LM asked about individuals giving up some of their autonomy for the sake of creating community. He gave the example of a community agreeing to adhere to some practice, even something that isn’t when the community is all together, e.g. everyone agrees to daven mincha every day wherever they are, to connect them to the rest of the community.
I said that the Reform model of halakha should be not the Shulchan Aruch (a set of rules), but the Talmud (a conversation, where Rabbi X says this and Rabbi Y says that and they talk about their reasons). I think if the entire community in this example were engaged in a discourse about mincha, that would bring the community together just as effectively as everyone deciding to do it.
One attendee asked what the deal was with Kutz Camp having visiting day on Shabbat. I got to tell my story about visiting my brother at Kutz (both to address this question and illustrate what autonomous Jewish practice could look like), but said that it would have been more convenient if visiting day hadn’t been on Shabbat.
Another attendee asked why this conversation was happening at Limmud NY, and not happening at the URJ Biennial. I said that we weren’t the ones to answer that!
Someone pointed out the need for education for informed autonomy to be feasible, as well as for Reform Jews to operate in a pluralistic setting with other Jews. I agreed wholeheartedly, and said some of the stuff about education and identity from the end of Hilchot Pluralism Part VI.
That’s all for now, since it’s time to jam, but in a later post I’ll say some of the stuff on this topic that I didn’t get to say on the panel.

12 thoughts on “Limmud NY: Reform halakhah panel

  1. BZ, great outline of some important issues. Some clarification. 1) There is a classic halachic concept that we stand on the shoulder’s of giants. That it is not used today has much to do with the lack of a sanhedrin, the perception that there is no legislative body invested with the proper divine authority. This historical reality has led to the current model of reluctant poskim, but this is on the level of the real rather than the idea.
    Please dont take me for supporting orthodoxy. Im just noting that (as you mentioned in part 2) there is lots of diversity within orthodoxy, including on the question of how we relate to precedent.

  2. bz,
    I am not sure Orthodox interpretation is only a game of telephone trying to either ensure the correctness of the previous reading or retrieve a potential missed transmition (i.e. saying telephone to the previous player).
    I cannot post the entire second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s book People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority. He very acurately describes three different ways rabbinic interpretation existed throughout the development of the tradition.

  3. Thanks for the clarifications. When I say “Orthodox”, I mean present-day Orthodox Judaism, not pre-modern Judaism (to which our present denominational labels don’t apply). Does the “standing on the shoulders of giants” concept exist in present-day Orthodox Judaism?

  4. hey CoA
    any idea of the source for said classic halachic concept that we stand on the shoulder’s of giants? I’m trying to think if I’ve ever encountered it (though everyone’s favorite story, Moshe in R’ Akiva’s beit midrash touches on it)
    BZ– I may think of more later, and other’s experience may contradict mine. But I believe that if “standing on the shoulders of giants” has any practical implications in ortho psak today, it’s quite minimal.

  5. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone reference that story about Moshe and R. Akiva during Limmud NY, I would have at least 40 cents. (Though maybe that just says something about the sessions I chose.)
    It’s quite fitting that Newton popularized this phrase (though apparently he didn’t coin it), since so many have stood on his shoulders. The “Newtonian mechanics” that I teach my students (which includes concepts like energy and momentum) was mostly formulated in the 19th century, and would be as unfamiliar to Newton as the “halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai” taught in R. Akiva’s beit midrash was to Moshe.

  6. jiladi
    as I’m not about to track down and read that book, can you give the al-regel-achat- [ short summary] version here? thanks.

  7. Ben contributed a great deal to this panel, and although we don’t agree (or especially because we don’t) it was great to engage in this conversation with you. I wished I had been a panelist instead of the moderator, because there was a lot I wanted to say in response to some of his comments. Thank Gd for Jewschool and MahRabu.
    I totally agree that informed autonomy has not yet been implemented. My “throwaway” comment was really intended as a critique on the way in which this so-called “autonomy” that is being practiced bears little resemblance to what the theologians of Reform Judaism had (and have) in mind. Autonomy is, for better or worse, an inescapable aspect of our (post-)modern lives.
    While I agree with Ben that “the tradition” is neither static nor monolithic, I chose Tefillin in my example because this has been part of the normative Jewish practice for thousands of years (they even found Tefillin in the Dead Sea caves used by sectarian Jews). I think it is highly problematic to call practices such as these “Orthodox.” I was suggesting a “default” position which takes mitzvot seriously. When a Reform Jew encounters normative Jewish practices which have been observed throughout the ages and which pose no contemporary ethical objection, the burden of proof should not be on the tradition to prove itself worthy of continued observance, but rather on the individual who rejects it. This was my point.

  8. Since there has been no discussion on Jewschool about what happened at Limmud 2008 yet, I wanted to comment on what I feel was the lack of presenters who identify with the Reform movement and that as far as I remember there was no minyan service that was categorized as a Reform service. Certainly Jewish renewal and Conservative and even a half Conservative service/half learning service was done. But again I don’t remember any Reform prayer books being used in any service and I wonder if we had a break down of presenters by those who align themselves by a particular movement you would have seen a low representation from the Reform camp.

  9. I wasn’t at Limmud NY 2008, and if there was a lack of presenters who identify with the Reform movement, that’s a real problem, but as for the services, Limmud NY’s policy is not to have any services with any denominational label, not just Reform. And having coordinated this in the past, I can tell you that the choice of siddurim is determined each year by which siddurim we’re able to find a source to borrow lots of copies of, and not by any ideological concerns. So it’s not just Reform who gets the short end of the stick – one year, the mechitza service was given Sim Shaloms!

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