Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Uneaten TV Dinner

In the last few days there has been quite a kerfuffle in the Jewish press and blogs about United Synagogue Youth's International Convention deciding to amend its policy which forbade USY board members from any relationship "which could be construed as interdating." Instead of a blanket prohibition, the new language encourages USY leaders to serve as positive examples of proper Jewish dating behavior, including the importance of dating other Jews but also dealing with how we treat those with whom we are in a relationship. Sadly, this has been portrayed as USY "abandoning its standards." But why is Conservative Judaism so fixated on rules and standards?

The author Zev Chafets served as director of the Israel government press office under the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He accompanied the first delegation of Israeli journalists to visit Egypt, shortly after President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977.

The delegation was travelling under the auspices of the Israeli government, and all Israeli government delegations are required to eat kosher food. So at the request of the Israeli government, the Egyptians provided kosher frozen meals in the hotel where the delegates were staying. (You can imagine that in 1977 this was not an easy thing for them to do.) But the Israeli journalists were all non-observant and preferred to enjoy the hummus, tahina and kebobs from the hotel’s regular buffet, so the pile of TV dinners sat untouched. Finally one of the Egyptian officials said to Chafets that he was starting to understand Judaism. Apparently, he said, Jewish law requires that the kosher food be present but no one actually needs to eat it.

There are times when I think that the Egyptian official was onto something. Certainly he can be forgiven for his assumptions.  Conservative Judaism in particular seems at times to be primarily about enforcing policies that no one really wants to follow. Congregations will be torn apart due to arguments over including or excluding certain prayers, yet how many of the people participating in these arguments pray on a regular basis?

When I lived in Baltimore I sometimes attended an Orthodox synagogue not far from our apartment. This synagogue always had “seu’dah sh’lishit,” the so-called “third meal” between afternoon and evening services on Saturday. But one year on the Shabbat before Passover, the synagogue kitchen had already been cleaned for Passover and thus the synagogue could not provide this required meal. Congregants were instructed simply to bring their own food for “seu’dah sh’lishit.” I was astonished. Every Conservative synagogue with which I am familiar has an elaborate kashrut policy. Some do not allow any outside food at all unless it is prepared under rabbinic supervision and comes into the synagogue sealed. Others allow congregants to prepare food at home but only if they follow certain policies and procedures and if the rabbi has approved their kitchen as sufficiently kosher. No Conservative synagogue would simply tell all of its members to bring their own food to a meal, certainly not to one actually held right there in the shul.

How is it that this Orthodox synagogue could allow something that no Conservative synagogue would consider? Actually, it’s quite simple. The shul in question is not the type of Orthodox synagogue where almost everyone drives to shul on Shabbat but parks a block away. Everyone in that synagogue actually lives an Orthodox lifestyle and therefore the synagogue is able to assume that all its members keep kosher. There is no need for an elaborate policy designed to make sure that the members don’t bring non-kosher food to the synagogue. No one would dream of doing so.

Many of our rules and policies come into place precisely because of the conflict between what the Conservative Movement and its individual bodies stand for institutionally and the lifestyle that its members actually practice individually. At times the Conservative movement has dealt with this dissonance head-on and legitimized in theory what everyone was already doing in practice anyway. The classic example is the Rabbinical Assembly’s 1950 responsum which permitted driving to and from the synagogue on Shabbat. This was clearly a case of yielding to necessity. The post-World War II exodus to the suburbs meant that fewer and fewer congregants lived within walking distance of their synagogues. The synagogues often followed their members out to the suburbs (as for example B’nai Israel which was once in the District but now is in Rockville) but this of course often left a cadre of members who still lived near the old location. In addition, suburbs are often spread out and lack sidewalks, so that almost everyone came to believe that walking to synagogue was not really an option. The 1950 responsum took this reality into account, but specified that it was permissible only to drive to synagogue and back home -- not anywhere else. In 1950, there may well have been Conservative Jews who followed that limitation. Many Conservative rabbis and cantors -- including me -- still do, but I wonder how many Conservative lay people actually do so.

But wasn’t Orthodox Judaism impacted by the rise of suburbia too? To some extent, yes -- and thus the phenomenon I described above of driving to shul and parking a block away. Some Orthodox synagogues with large numbers of non-observant members chain their parking lots shut on Shabbat so their members don’t park there on Shabbat and make it seem as if the synagogue is condoning Shabbat desecration. One Baltimore Orthodox synagogue (not the one I described above!) actually sells its parking lot to a non-Jew every Friday afternoon and buys it back every Saturday night (I swear I am not making this up.) But the kind of Orthodox synagogue I am describing, with few members who actually live an Orthodox lifestyle, is rapidly disappearing. More and more, Orthodox synagogues consist mostly of practicing Orthodox Jews.

Such a person does not buy a house only to then discover that the synagogue is too far to walk. He or she finds out where the synagogue is located and then looks to find a house within walking distance. Houses within walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue sell for more than similar houses that are not within walking distance, because Orthodox families are willing to pay more for them.

The reason for this is really quite simple. Orthodox Jews actually believe that God wants them to walk to shul on Shabbat. They don’t believe that God said it’s “a nice idea” to do so. They don’t believe that it just makes for a nicer, more cohesive community if everyone lives near the shul and walks. They believe that driving to shul is a direct violation of an explicit divine command.

And we don’t. I have spoken and written before about our insistence on translating the word “mitzvah” as “good deed” when in fact it means “commandment.” But to believe in a “commandment” requires us to believe in a God who gives commands and means them to be obeyed.

The reasons why most Jews no longer believe in that type of God are complicated and varied. Some Jews feel that the Holocaust means God no longer has a right to demand anything from the Jewish people. Some people feel that discoveries in the fields of history and archeology debunk the traditional understanding of divine revelation. Some, perhaps many, Jews, don’t really think about their beliefs much at all. They do what feels comfortable because it furthers a way of life they find meaningful.

But “because God said so” doesn’t carry much weight with the overwhelming majority of Jews, because while they may believe in God they don’t really believe that “He said so.” And so, we fall back on rules and policies which we attempt to enforce, even though nobody but perhaps the rabbi and/or cantor actually observes them. There has got to be a better way. We need a theology that makes sense to modern Jews and instills in us a sense of obligation that does not fall back on invocation of an authority no one really accepts. If not, our Judaism may well end up like that pile of uneaten kosher TV dinners in the hotel room in Cairo.