At a time when denominational walls seem to be growing ever higher, the new religious guidebook from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is meant for all “contemporary Jews,” not necessarily just Conservative ones.
As vast and ambitious as a Russian novel — and as long (935 pages) — “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews,” an anthology presented by the Rabbinical Assembly, at times reads like a complicated love triangle involving Conservative rabbis, congregants and the halacha, the practice of Judaism. But who is observant and what is observance?
The problem is openly and honestly reckoned with. “The non-Orthodox synagogue today is supported by membership that often does not appreciate the centrality of halacha to Jewish observance,” writes Orangetown Jewish Center’s (Orangeburg, N.Y.) spiritual leader Rabbi Craig Scheff, who authored the book’s pivotal section on “Synagogue Life.” He also serves as an adjunct lecturer on professional and pastoral skills at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Scheff explains, “Most synagogues value above all other concerns the need and wish to draw all Jews to synagogue life without subjecting [anyone] to harsh or exclusionary standards.”
Rabbi Martin Cohen, editor of “The Observant Life,” said in a telephone interview, “In most congregations you have a range of observance and the rabbi is, by far, at the more observant range. In my synagogue [Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, L.I.] we have a lot of quite observant people and we also have people who are barely observant. They’re welcome, too. We don’t chase people away.”
This book is intended to be every bit as welcoming, noted Rabbi Cohen. He said it is aimed, in addition to Conservative Jews, to those “in a liberal Orthodox environment and a more traditional Reform environment, and people who are outside the denominational world but are interested in the question of observance. This is also for those interested in the big picture [of how observance] functions when you look at it all at once.”
There are chapters not only on Sabbath and kashrut but also on relationships in the family and the workplace; on contracts, global warming, taxation, loans and lending; sex among singles; marriage and intermarriage; questions about everything from animals to intellectual property.
“If you’d read the Shulchan Aruch from beginning to end, or the Mishna Torah from beginning to end,” says Rabbi Cohen, speaking of classical halachic literature, “you’d acquire a broad sense of what the concept of observance means in its fullness. We were trying to approximate that in the hopes that some people really will read this book, even though it will be a reference book for a lot of people. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who’ve told me that they’re actually reading the book, from beginning to end.”
Its appeal beyond the Conservative community is underlined by these Conservative rabbis, at times, citing responsa from such revered Orthodox icons as Rabbis Ovadiah Yosef, Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik.
“The Observant Life” is also respectful of, even charmed by, folkways and traditions that are not specifically Orthodox, halachic or Conservative, but meaningful in any case, such as the post-Shabbat Melave Malka, or the custom of men immersing themselves in the mikveh before Shabbat.
Rabbi Michael Katz, the book’s associate editor, e-mails that readers would be correct in noting that the custom of men going to mikveh on Fridays is not something observed by almost any Conservative Jews (or by most Orthodox Jews, for that matter). However, he writes, such customs are important to include in the book because “what we are trying to do is to show the importance of Hakhanah L’Shabbat — getting ready, physically and spiritually, for Shabbat — and to bring examples of what some observant Jews do, and have done. If Conservative Jews — men and women — had access to a mikveh close by and were so inclined, I think it would be a wonderful practice to adopt. Realistically,” he admitted, “it’s not going to become ‘the next big thing.”
Nevertheless, Rabbi Katz says, “The Observant Life” understands that there’s more ways than mikveh to get ready for Shabbat: “Cleaning the house, bathing, shaving, buying flowers, buying and preparing special foods, picking out special clothes, setting aside study material for Shabbat, giving to tzedakah, shutting down and putting away electronic devices, calling friends and family to wish them a ‘Good Shabbos.’”
The rabbi adds, “The tearing of toilet paper before Shabbat [because tearing paper is not allowed on Shabbat] is another case of a practice not widely followed by Conservative Jews, but serves as an example” in the book to illustrate what “some Jews do to prepare for Shabbat. The book is intended to teach people about Jewish traditions: what is done, and why, to encourage them to live an observant life.”
The book makes it clear that to these more than 30 authors (some writing more than one chapter), halacha is more “than an endless list of rules.” As the book explains, alongside Conservative theology there is always the human dimension, meaning the law doesn’t always have the last word: “The mara d’atra [the synagogue’s rabbi and/or halachic authority], ideally with the support of the lay leadership, will define the halacha of the synagogue by balancing the law with a community’s customs, values and vision.”
Therefore, intermarried Jews or gays, for example, may be called to the Torah and be welcomed to serve as synagogue leaders (in non-religious “role model” positions), despite their halachic status being still subject to debate, because “very few, if any, synagogues within the Conservative movement require strict halachic observance as a condition for honoring people during worship.”
Nevertheless, despite these and other liberal opinions, readers may be intrigued to learn from “The Observant Life” that Conservative Judaism can be more conservative than some might think. For example, “no halachic authorities regard abortion as a Jewish woman’s right to exercise at will. … Absent extreme circumstances, abortion is usually forbidden.” The laws of family purity are taken seriously. And, counting women in a minyan, or permitting women to serve as leaders during all or part of the prayer service, are other issues that are “slightly less [than] universally resolved.” There are rabbis who maintain that a young woman, after breaking up with a longstanding boyfriend, though never married, may, in some cases, be required to obtain a get (Jewish divorce).
The book doesn’t shy away from such complex halachic riddles, even if cases are obscure or esoteric. While many halachic situations are presented as an ideal, there is another ideal, that “rabbinical restrictions are conditioned on the public’s ability to meet their stipulations.”
Even more of an overriding principal, says Rabbi Cohen, is that halacha and observance are not in one realm while ethics and relationships are in another. Loving God and loving other Jews are of a singular piece, he says, as are ritual laws and the ethical ones. “The Observant Life” draws on both these heavenly and earthly considerations to the extent that it becomes clear that there never really was a boundary between the two.
“To be an observant Jew,” he says, “you need to embrace both.”
Editor’s Note: The Rabbinical Assembly and The Jewish Week are sponsoring an evening of interactive discussion about “The Observant Life” this Tuesday, Oct. 16, at Park Avenue Synagogue. See Page 6 for more details.