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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Origins of the non-Orthodox Movements

Beitzah 30

Today's Life Yomi has been dedicated by Dave Marcus in memory of his father Allen Marcus z"l, grandmother Mina Marcus z"l, and uncle Aaron Furman z"l.

In the nineteenth century, assimilation in Germany was rife.  In an effort to climb the social ladder, the Jewish nobility was abandoning their faith and intermarriage was on the rise.  A number of well-intentioned rabbis gathered together with the purpose of reforming Judaism to make it more appealing to these Jews.

One reform led to another until it reached its peak at the celebratory banquet for the Reform seminary’s graduation ceremony in 1883 where shrimp was served.  Appalled by this complete break with tradition, a number of rabbis stormed out and thus began the Conservative movement.

Although carrying food and other necessities is permitted on Yom Tov, the Mishnah states that one should not schlep in the usual weekday manner.

Rabbi Chanan bar Rava inquires about certain women who would fill their buckets from the river and schlep them home in the regular manner.  Rav Ashi responds that in their case there is no other way they could do it without running into further holy day complications.

If those who normally use large buckets were to instead use smaller buckets, it would necessitate a greater number of carrying trips back and forth.  And so in their effort to honour the holy day by altering their approach, they would ironically end up increasing their workload!   Similarly, if those who normally used small buckets were to utilize larger buckets, it would mean that their load would be heavier and they might drop it and have to make even more trips due to the spilled water. 

And placing a lid on the buckets also wouldn’t work since they might come to tie a knot on the holy day.  Likewise placing a towel on top might lead to the forbidden activity of squeezing.

Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg (Bratislava), known as the Chasam Sofer, was wont to play on the Talmudic dictum “Chadash assur min haTorah” (The Torah prohibits the new).  Literally the phrase means that one may not eat the new season’s grains until the Omer offering was brought.  But in an effort to combat the religious innovations of the nineteenth century, he punned that novel practices are biblically forbidden.

Are all novel practices utterly rejected?  Of course not.  On Friday night, Rabbi Sofer certainly sang Lecha Dodi, a hymn that was only composed in the sixteenth century.  On the final day of Sukkot, Rabbi Sofer undoubtedly danced with the Torah, a practice that originated in mediaeval times.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Sofer warns that we must be cautious about wanton innovation, because it might ultimately lead to greater pitfalls.  As the Gemara demonstrates, we could suggest that the women use different kinds of buckets, but if that leads to other potential complications, then better to leave well enough alone.

The word for Jewish law and practice – Halacha – comes from the word meaning ‘to go.’  Halacha is constantly moving forward and responding to the times in which we live.  But it is an organic process, not one that requires human stimulation and assistance.

A sound commitment to tradition is the first and foremost basis for halachic innovation.  And when the rabbis sense that an innovative practice might lead, G-d forbid, to a diminished fealty to tradition, they wisely close the door to such innovation, despite its creativity and prima facie ingenuity. 

We want Jews who are committed to Judaism.  Sans commitment to tradition, sadly it only takes a couple of generations before we lose our brothers and sisters altogether from our Jewish community.  

Let’s strive to find ways to engage every Jewish person and be creative!  But we must do so with a deep reverence of tradition.   And let us inspire all with the warmth and wonder of a Judaism that need not be watered-down and a Torah that is eternally unadulterated!  

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