JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review June 8, 2000 / 5 Sivan, 5760

Question and Answer


By Rabbi Avi Shafran


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SHORTLY BEFORE PASSOVER, Leonard Fein, in a column published in a number of Jewish papers, suggested several new questions for the Seder. One of them was inspired by an Agudath Israel advertisement on The New York Times' op-ed page criticizing the Central Conference of American Rabbis' decision to support Reform rabbis who perform same-sex ceremonies. The ad asserted that the Torah "does not tolerate homosexual acts" and that, by ignoring that fact, the CCAR decision "doesn't reflect Judaism as it has been historically defined."

Mr. Fein suggested that on Passover Jews ask themselves "Does the Torah always get the last word?" and "Must contemporary Judaism be constricted by the ways in which Judaism has been historically defined?" And, perhaps most clearly and succinctly of all: "If the Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people, can the constitution be amended?"

Though Mr. Fein and I disagree often, especially on things Jewish, I hope that his readers took his suggestion seriously. Because the question he raises lies at the very roots of our people's history and of what it means to live as a Jew.

And because its answer will be celebrated tonight by hundreds of thousands of Jews --- who could be joined by millions more, if only they ponder his question, and Jewish history, well.

It may well be the least noticed of the Biblical holidays today, but Shavuos is in a very real sense the one that speaks most directly to contemporary Jews. That's because the event it commemorates, according to the Jewish religious oral tradition, is the Jews' acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai --- the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity. Shavuos , the Talmud, Midrash and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."

What unified our people at that time, the sources all make clear, was our ancestors' stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah --- a stance manifest in our forebears' immortal and poignant words: "Na'aseh v'nishma", "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase embodies the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of G-d's commandments even amid a lack of "hearing", of understanding. "We will do Your will," the Jews at Sinai pledged, "even if it is not our will, even before we are able to 'hear' it in our own minds."

Does that concept not lie at the very heart of the conflict inherent in the contemporary Jewish experience? Nothing, it could well be argued, could more succinctly capture the crux of the "Jewish religious pluralism" debate, the essential difference between Jewish Orthodoxy and the modern-day alternatives to it than their respective approaches to "We will do and we will hear."

Orthodoxy, of course, is by definition predicated on fealty to Jewish religious law, or halacha, even when that law does not confirm what human beings might deem right, proper or enlightened.

The Reform movement is equally straightforward, if in a different direction, about the matter. Accurately reflecting more than a century of Reform theology, Rabbi Eric Yoffie has written: "Ultimately I must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: 'Do I feel commanded in this instance...?'"

"We will hear," in other words, "and then decide whether we wish to do."

And though the theological claims of the Conservative movement would seem to preclude so subjective an approach, in fact that movement has followed much the same path as the Reform, albeit moving more slowly. Over a decade ago, a group of Conservative scholars had already resigned themselves to the conclusion that their movement had effectively abandoned halacha, and opted to secede from the movement that had trained them. And more recently, despite Conservative leaders' insistence that their movement remains committed to Jewish religious law, one also hears many things like what Rabbi Elliot Dorf, rector of the University of Judaism, said about halacha's attitude (as it happens, toward homosexual acts): "On the basis of... new medical information, we can adjust the law accordingly."

"We will hear," presumably, "and then do otherwise."

Thus, Shavuos , which this year falls on June 9 and 10, really holds the answer - at least the historically Jewish answer - to Mr. Fein's Pesach questions. For its central theme speaks directly to whether the Torah is the "last word" even when we see things differently, and whether it is subject to our emendation. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us that Judaism is not about what we'd prefer G-d do for us.

But rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for G-d.

May all Jews -- all of us everywhere -- be blessed with a healthy, joyous and meaningful Shavuos .


Rabbi Avi Shafran is American Director of Am Echad, an international organization promoting Jewish unity. He may be reached by clicking here.

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© 2000, Rabbi Avi Shafran