How does a liberal Jew behave? This is heterodox Judaism’s greatest challenge: Does our religion demand any particular way of living?
If we do not eat differently than our non-Jewish neighbors, do not marry differently, do not work and rest, nor buy and sell differently, then maybe our Judaism amounts to nothing more than vestigial, aesthetic and sentimental ethnic rituals.
Modern Jews spill lakes of ink over what we should believe about God, the Torah, good and evil, ethics and the rest. All of which is important. But how do ideas impress themselves upon life’s raw details? If our non-Jewish neighbors think very similar things to what liberal Jews believe, then what is Jewish about our Judaism?
Give credit to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They know how to live Jewishly. From my perspective, they are wrong about important theoretical and practical questions. But they clearly are Jews, from clothes to kitchens to bedrooms, on Tuesday and Saturday alike.
Liberal Jews are well-aware of our shortcomings. So it is particularly interesting that in the last half-year, both my own Conservative stream and the Reconstructionist movement have published major works on Jewish practice.
We Conservatives produced The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, a collection of 40 Halakhic essays [two of which I wrote], edited by my good friend Martin Cohen. The Reconstructionists published David Teutsch’s A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume 1 – Everyday Living, which won last year’s Koret National Jewish Book Award. [A forthcoming volume will treat Shabbat and holidays, and then another will take up the life cycle and personal status.] Teutsch notes the problem I named: “Often described as a way of life, Judaism must shape the everyday conduct of Jews to deserve that description. But in our time, Jewish approaches to moral thought and action do not usually shape the lives of American Jews” [p. 579]. His book, like ours, addresses this need.
Earlier this year I published an essay “Good Neighbors,” (available here) comparing liberal Orthodox discourse with that of Conservative Judaism, believing that we understand ourselves better by looking at our neighbors, seeing differences and similarities. I’ll follow a similar path here, pointing up some patterns about the way these books show how these two movements practice liberal Judaism. [Reform Judaism, to my knowledge, has not produced a similar work. But some of my comments about the Reconstructionist Guide might also apply to the style of that other, very large, liberal movement.] I offer these in the spirit of a modest apologia, a respectful argument for my own faith.
While The Observant Life is a book about classical Jewish law applied in modern times, Teutsch’s Reconstructionist Guide is proudly not beholden to Halakha. It is a post-legal guide, not a code [p. xxiii], replacing law with “values-based decision-making,” a process of analyzing Jewish tradition to identify the values behind the rules as well as examining modern thought and its mores, and attempting to build a practice upon both those two sources. The Reconstructionist Guide only rarely identifies specific practices to follow. Its point is to help Jews and their communities ask [p. 21]: “How do I weave behavior that reflects my highest moral and spiritual commitments into my daily life?” And “What spiritual activities and disciplines would improve my life, character, family, community, people and the world?”
Those are indubitably the crucial questions, and I admire Teutsch for posing them. But in my view, this Guide falls short, by the yardsticks of Jewish tradition, in leaving the values and virtues too general, too abstract, and insufficiently concrete in specific norms. In this religion, we have always applied rules, specific deeds, by which abstractions become realized in deeds. I think we should continue to walk the path of Halakha [plausibly translated “walking the walk”]. The Reconstructionist guidance often remains too general and indeterminate [“some do this,” “some find that meaningful”], that neither tackles hard questions of what actually to do, nor really opens its ears to the demands of Jewish norms. The book is at its best in chapters on Tzedaka and social activism, which locate value commitments in more precise behaviors. More commonly, its guidance resembles its position on prayer: it’s a good skill to develop, but there is “no one right answer” about how to acquire it; so worshippers should pick “what feels most accessible” to begin with, such as birkot hashachar or pesukei d’zimra, or even “summarizing thoughts” that help one focus [p. 42]. What kind of guidance is that? Myself, I find this bizarrely vague for describing Jewish worship, which classically enshrined the Shema as a twice daily biblical obligation, and the Amida as a shared text for standard worship. It is thanks to those requirements that Jews know these prayers, and share them as foundational texts for mind and heart.
I admire the Reconstructionist book’s distinctive format. It presents Teutsch’s core text, with marginal commentaries by 68 different writers, most of whom are Reconstructionist rabbis, but including bankers, physicians, activists, etc. I admire the participation both of professional teachers and engaged amateurs. This approximates a classical Jewish style, in which other writers’ expansions and criticisms are printed right there on the page in conversation with the central text. Here, it also matches the modern liberal preference for plural voices over unanimity.
Our book has a different style: it consists of 40 stand-alone essays, each written by a Conservative rabbi who labored in research on a given topic. These read more like distinct lectures, without respondents. Different writers may clash in this book, but not because they explicitly comment on each other. Each chapter has a single author, but the various writers’ voices were melded into something like homogeneity. There is less personality on the pages of our work than in Teutsch’s. These are our individual words and our own views, but we’re speaking for more or less authoritatively for a movement, not necessarily for ourselves.
But the limited back-and-forth format of the Reconstructionist book prompts me to ask: who is participating here? Teutsch’s book is a conversation among North American Reconstructionist Jews about living out their values in the early 21st century, in a specific context. Their community aspires, spiritually and ethically. In style, they are vaguely counter-cultural, very liberal with a small l and un-orthodox with a small o. They like yoga and mindfulness meditation [pp. 65-67, 73-75]. They praise “communities of conscience” that oppose the Israeli occupation [p. 252] and critique American tax policy [p. 391]. They urge American consumers to have post-colonial consciousness regarding the exploitation of third-world producers [p. 520]. I share each of these positions, and see their general connections to Jewish values. But I would observe that these constitute Jewish living only in attenuated ways and overly tightly identify Jewish values with specific policy stances.
The Guide’s “values-based decisions” emerge from a conversation among contemporary Jews. But the practices these writers favor generally do not emerge from a conversation with the dozens of layers of Jewish scholars through the ages – not in the tight way that a page of Talmud is a multi-century conversation quoting Moses, Isaiah, Akiva, Abbaye, Rashi, and R. Akiva Eiger all talking about the same thing. These Reconstructionist reflections fit the moment. Certainly these writers bring Bible references and citations from rabbinic tradition. But these are usually the obvious ones, usually homiletical rather than practical, and rarely enter deeply an ongoing transhistorical discussion with historic Sages over how to live.
I mean this observation not as a condemnation – although I certainly prefer my own approach – but as a comparison between our styles. I am sure it is a source of pride to the authors that they place any and all practices on the table for evaluation and re-evaluation as they try to pursue their value commitments. I am sure they think of themselves as free from slavish, unreflective adherence to the old, and more attentive to the demands of the moment than are we hidebound Conservatives.
But I would observe that these two works present very different approaches to the concept of behavioral norms. The Reconstructionist approach is highly selective, sifting the tradition to select those kernels they believe should be replanted. But for me and my colleagues, the Reconstructionist approach is inadequate. To quote a friend of mine, Prof. Don Seeman of Emory University, a deep thinker and Orthodox rabbi: “Selectivity is too simple a language for my relationship to religious authority and the weight of the past.” I know Don would level against me the very criticism I apply to the Teutsch Guide. But I think this phrase is right on: It is not merely a matter of sifting through tradition for ideas you like. It involves really living the holy path, to the greatest extent possible, following the teachings of our Sages, to realize our values in normative deeds, shared by Jews across the world and contiguous through time.
That is what The Observant Life demonstrates, I think: the richness that emerges when one makes the covenant not only with those who are here today, but woven with words of those who are not here today. Our conversation is rich with biblical, rabbinic and medieval authorities. I think this makes our approach deeper, more subtle, less faddish, more learned and wiser. Ultimately, I think it makes it more faithful. It certainly makes it more recognizably Jewish, as an indexical marker of how we live.
Reconstructionist Judaism trumpets Mordecai Kaplan’s phrase that we should give tradition “a vote, not a veto.” But that means only that traditional norms are invited to vote yes to confirm what liberal Jews already want, but are not permitted to vote no. But it is all too easy and lazy to reject uncongenial norms as outmoded, and hastily sprinkle ourselves with self-congratulatory fairy dust for “wrestling” with the tradition.
Admittedly, I am vulnerable to the same objection from traditionalists. Isn’t that just what I’ve done in espousing gender egalitarianism and celebrating gay relationships – refuse to let the tradition vote no? Fair enough, I guess. But I regard those as principled critiques of tradition, even in the service of sustaining it. As the Talmud itself [Menachot 99b] says: “Sometimes violating the Torah turns out to be its fulfillment.” Meanwhile, I keep the mitzvot, and try to learn their wisdom by doing them. Absent a compelling moral claim, I think traditional norms should stand with their yesses and nos. I give the halakha the benefit of the doubt, and strive to fulfill it as an act of worship and virtue.
But Teutsch and the other writers, it seems to me, don’t avoid the trap, or even try very hard to. In most cases when modern and traditional mores clash, the tradition is silenced. Reconstructionists are true modernists: I think they think the modern ways are better, and the old ones should fade. It’s like that old Minnesota Jew said: “Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one.”
This work – and I suppose by extension Reconstructionist Judaism in general and maybe all non-Halakhic Judaism – seems unable to say that anything is assur, just plain forbidden. Its alternative ethos is that if good values can be attained through a given practice, if individuals or communities can make something work, then classical Jewish norms have no business stopping them. But for me, this is no prescription for Jewish integrity or keeping faith with the Torah and Sages, and risks a kind of self-indulgent narcissism. Here are two comparatively smaller examples, and one very big one.
Tattoos come in for positive evaluation in the Reconstructionist Guide, with no discussion at all of the biblical prohibition, because they can “evoke spiritual meaning or use Hebrew words that connect to the act of prayer as a form of walking meditation” [pp. 87-88]. When Teutsch proposes [p. 27] mixing-and-matching different forms of address and different divine names when composing blessings (e.g. Nevarekh et haShekhina, ruach ha’olam instead of Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheinu melekh haOlam) he is motivated by today’s theological concerns and feels no need even to discuss classical norms of Jewish liturgy.
And very dismayingly, this work of Jewish practice cannot even bring itself to affirm monogamy and sexual fidelity within marriage, gay or straight, as absolute Jewish norms. While Jews have generally favored monogamy, Teutsch writes, “it is not obvious that monogamy is automatically a morally higher form of relationship than polygamy.” If “polyamory” – multiple romantic and sex partners – were practiced with honesty, flexibility, egalitarian rules for men and women, with trust and without jealousy, it could help couples “avoid some possible forms of exploitation” and avoids “the violation of vows and the need for secrecy” as found in most affairs. “Perhaps some people can manage it successfully and live enriched lives as a result” [pp. 217-227].
Wait … what?! What did I just read? To his credit, one of the Guide’s commentators, Lewis J. Eron, seems as scandalized as I on this point. Forgive me, but this disgraces a Jewish work that speaks in the name of Torah. Is this Marin County, 1975? Are we supposed to self-actualize, not be so possessive and just be free, man? Sorry, no. No. No. No. Ten thousand times, no.
Also no, there is not a “complex history” to Jewish norms of monogamy and polygamy, as Teutsch claims [p. 222], as if this has been a contested question over our history, with multiple nuances and ample precedents for divergent views. [See p. 261 in our Observant Life book, or Avraham Grossman’s book Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe.] In point of fact, the Bible itself consistently portrays polygamy as the source of family strife. And to the extent there was polygyny in the Middle Ages, it was unpopular with women, their parents and their rabbis [e.g. Rambam], and happened usually when merchant husbands left home for years at a time, when the first wife was infertile or in the case of yibum, the childless widow. None of which has anything whatsoever to do with modern people who choose to have sex with partners other than their spouses.
Despite Teutsch’s disclaim, it is indeed obvious that fidelity to a single sexual partner in a permanent union is the ideal relationship, promoting maximal loyalty, mutuality, trust and care, and minimizing the narcissistic tendency to please one’s self at the expense of the degradation and heart break of others. I sincerely hope my Reconstructionist colleagues know they are playing with fire. God forbid – God forbid! – that Jews should learn from their religious teachers that some couples are mature and trusting and unselfish enough to enhance their marriages by sleeping with other partners. That sounds, frankly, like a sexual abuse accusation waiting to happen. If I were a parent and heard such nonsense from a rabbi, I would find another synagogue. Hakhamim, hizharu bidivreikhem. Sages, take care with your words, and retract when you’ve made a foolish mistake.
Well, long as this is, it is only a blog post. So I will bring this to an end, now, by posing a question: What can it mean for non-halakhic Judaism to speak of guides to behavior? Values and virtues are critical elements in a Jewish ethos. But I believe they require binding norms to hook onto the pragmatic world, and to keep faith with Jewish tradition. That is the most crucial question before us liberals. I hope our Conservative book The Observant Life helps people figure out not only what to value, but how to act. For me, the Teutsch Guide has many merits, but its non-normative commitments prevent it from giving enough real guidance to the perplexed.
A century ago the great poet Bialik summed up what modern Jews need in a new, heterodox religion. Not the Shulhan Arukh, but Halakha nonetheless. He concludes his classic essay Halakha ve’Aggada, or “Law and Lore” this way: “We stretch forth our necks. Where is the yoke?”