On occasion there are events that are game changing for the Jewish people. For the Conservative movement this happens every couple of decades. Those following Jewish tabloids and media outlets are no doubt aware of the debates that are currently raging within the Conservative movement over the performance of intermarriage. The official policy of the movement is currently not to allow its clergy to officiate at such marriages. Long ago the Reform movement began officiating at such marriages, and now there is strong pressure from the Conservative constituency as well as many of its clergy to follow suit. A cousin of Israel’s Chief Rabbi Lau leads a large Conservative congregation in New York, and he recently announced that he will begin performing marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The discourse is happening very publicly, with Conservative clergy writing opinion pieces in Jewish media outlets, expressing opinions about the great advantages this will bring to the Jewish nation.
Many have pointed out that a clergy member’s willingness or unwillingness to officiate at such a marriage will not alter the couple’s decision to marry. I agree with this assertion. I don’t believe the rabbi of a typical modern day Jew holds any sway on his or her major life decisions, be it a career choice or decision about a marriage partner. A rabbi has even less influence than a parent has, and parents today wield very little influence over their children’s choices once they hit teenage years. So what is the argument? Rather than push them away altogether, and risk losing a precious Jew from affiliation, clergy should embrace their choice and work with them, encouraging both to learn more about the Jewish heritage and raise their future children as Jews.
It is a compelling argument, and it is as old as the Conservative movement itself. Every compromise made by the Conservative movement over the years invoked the same rationale. The Conservative movement was born to try and stem the tide of Jews defecting from affiliation, or turning to Reform Judaism as a step before defecting entirely. In its infancy the Conservative movement looked very similar to traditional Judaism. But one after the next, layers of tradition and halacha were removed “for the sake of conserving Jewish tradition.” Every single deviation from tradition adopted by the Reform movement was eventually copied by the Conservative movement. They just went about it more slowly. What remains is a much diluted form of Jewish heritage, one that continues to be watered down every few years. The founders of the Conservative movement are turning in their graves today.
I feel for such clergy who are members of lite progressive movements. At least the radicals drop any and all adherence to halacha and they can consistently allow what they please. But how do Conservative clergy justify the inconsistencies? How do they explain to a couple that they cannot perform their marriage because it is outside of halachic bounds, when those same clergy performed a marriage last week that was also outside halachic bounds? In the one case the movement agreed to “change” their stance, effectively erasing the halacha, while the other case remains a halachic obstacle. How do they look the couple in the eye and tell them that this halacha prevents them from obtaining a Jewish marriage, whereas other non-halachic marriages are not similarly blocked?
A child grew up affiliated with a Reform Temple. He once happened to attend an Orthodox Synagogue for a few weeks. He remarked that the Orthodox rabbi has it easy. He reads the same prayers every week, going through the same routine as he did last week and as he will do next week. His Reform rabbi, on the other hand, must create something new and exciting each week to keep the attention of his congregation!
The child is right. In some respects it is far easier to have clear parameters for what is done and what is avoided. We recite the same liturgy each week because this is what has been adopted as the tradition. Some of the prayers were composed as early as the times of the Second Temple, written with deep forethought in terms of phraseology and choice of structure. Other portions were added over the ages by great Jewish leaders and scholars, and that is what we recite each day. When it comes to performing rites or officiating at events, the lines are also very clear for an Orthodox rabbi. The code of Jewish law is decisive, and as an authoritative baseline it gives unequivocal parameters of halachic bounds. Sure, there remain sandy areas where some grey lines are drawn. Will the rabbi require a prenup before officiating at a marriage? What type of pre-marital instruction must the couple have? But those are lines specific groups and movements within halachic bounds can draw for themselves on the basis of other considerations. The bedrock of halacha, however, remains unchanged.
The objective of this is not to bash other movements. Far be it. Although as Orthodox Jews we believe other streams are misguided, we love and respect them as fellow Jews all the same. But what would our great teacher Moses say if he read the tabloids expressing this debate? Which side would he take? Would he be sympathetic or would he be hardline? Would he see the benefits of compromise or would he risk alienating a Jew for the sake of principles?
Moses was challenged by Korach, in a dispute we are all familiar with. Korach was a populist, contending that all people were entitled to serve in the leadership. He specifically challenged the position of high priesthood, claiming that he was the more worthy candidate. He rallied for supporters for his opposition party and succeeded in gaining quite a few followers. In today’s political unpredictability Korach would likely have swept the elections.
There is always an appeal to following our own rationale. We see things our way and we believe we are correct. It is not so easy to accept that there are certain principles that cannot be bent, certain truths that we must bear allegiance to even when they don’t further our personal cause. Moses had nothing to gain from debating with Korach. He never had wanted to lead the people in the first place. He was forced into taking up his role and thereafter he never once questioned God’s choice of placing him in a position so undesirable to him. Personally he would have been very happy to step down and let Korach, or someone else, take his job. Moses did not in fact take a hardline, but he also didn’t compromise. In this instance, as he did so many other times, Moses stood aside and tried to mediate. His role and the role of High Priest were mandated by God, and there was no question about the worthiness of any other candidate – there were no “candidates.” Moses thus had no choice but to allow God to make that known. He tried his best to delay so that some of Korach’s followers would have the opportunity to withdraw their support, but ultimately each individual was accountable for his choice.
Moses had the luxury of deflecting the fight to God. He lived in a time when the Torah was still attached to heaven. We live in a time when the Torah “is not in heaven.” This puts the responsibility on us to ensure its interpretation is true to our tradition and that it is not bastardized. The letter of the law is binding no less than its spirit. As Jews we are bound by the words of the Torah as they are interpreted by an unbroken chain of tradition going back thousands of years. It is not our task to “save” the Torah. We have a tradition that the Torah will never be lost. There will always be Jews who remain loyal to the Torah in the most trying of circumstances, and we can only hope and pray that we will have the strength to be counted among them. During the most difficult times in our history Torah was the warm beacon that gave us both a purpose and the courage to pursue that purpose. Now, when our times are less difficult, it is easy to forget the value of our heritage. We embark on all sorts of missions to save Jews and to save Judaism. We can probably save a few Jews but Judaism doesn’t need our salvation. We only hurt the face of Judaism by cutting off its nose. For what it’s worth, diluting Judaism will only make Judaism weaker.