Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Driving teshuva III: USY

A bit of Conservative movement policy that I neglected to mention in either of my first two posts on the subject of the driving teshuva is the CJLS statement on students driving during United Synagogue Youth (USY) Kinnusim (Shabbatonim). I had thought it was more or less an irrelevant postscript, but, given the discussions in the comments to my last post about the movement's unenforced paper policy about driving by rabbinical students, I thought I'd throw this in to the mix too. Unfortunately, the photocopy sheets I have are completely out of context, so, I have no idea in what year these “suggestions” were proposed. They are attributed to Rabbi Seymour Siegel. It begins with an introduction that reaffirms that all agree that driving on Shabbat is forbidden, but that the prohibition can be set aside under “pressing circumstances.” It then continues with a list of guidelines, that I will reprint in full, with commentary. All emphasis has been added. I think that this set of guidelines, while stricter than the vast majority of congregants' practice, are not in keeping with the original 1950 teshuva or its 1961 addendum. They demonstrate the elasticity of later interpretation of the original heter.

a. The scheduling of USY kinsim which necessitate travel on Shabbat should be avoided wherever possible

You would think that the rabbinate would have reserved the driving heter for sociological “emergency” situations. You would especially think that if the author had written the following earlier:

However, the Rabbis decided that under unusual and pressing circumstances the prohibition could be set aside . . . It might be wise to eschew the term heter in speaking of the question of travel on Shabbat. This word implies abrogation.

that the emphasized words may not have been there. Can a voluntary gathering be “unusual and pressing?”

b. Full recognition should be given to those members whose rabbis do not approve of travel on Shabbat. These youngsters should be accomodated properly so that they will not be forced to use an automobile or other conveyance on Shabbat.

c. No kinnus should be scheduled which requires travel on Shabbat if the host rabbi objects.

These two guidelines bring up a point that I hadn't commented on from the original driving teshuva: It was instituted as an option, and it was expected that certain communities (read: certain community's rabbis) would adopt it and others wouldn't. So, even within the context of the 1950's teshuva, there is no contradiction in a contemporary Conservative rabbi answering that all driving on Shabbat is forbidden.

d. Travel should be limited to and from the synagogue. There should not be any other travel such as arriving after sundown, sightseeing, going to house parties, etc.

At first glance, this would seem to be in keeping with the 1950's teshuva. I don't believe that it is. The Adler-Agus-Friedman teshuva allowed travel to and from one's regular synagogue that is beyond walking distance only, and the 1961 addendum specifically rejected travel to other synagogues for social purposes. While it might be argued that the USY-ers are tagging along to the regular synagogue of the host families, the fact of going on the kinnus is a voluntary activity. While traveling temporarily, there is no indication that the driving heter applies. For that matter, I don't see how USY-ers committed enough to go on a Shabbaton would even be part of the emergency situation for which the heter was intended.

e. Every effort should be made to educate youngsters to recognize the fact that under ordinary circumstances it is a violation of Shabbat law ans spirit to travel on the holy day. An exception is made only for the sake of a mitzvah gedolah.

Perhaps this point just suffered from bad phrasing. There are only two “mitzvot” for which the prohibition against travel on Shabbat has been set aside. One is universally agreed upon, and that is, saving a life. The second is driving to synagogue and back, for the purpose of public prayer and maintaining a connection to Judaism that would otherwise be lost. Driving for the purposes of performing other mitzvot, even those that are arguably greater than public prayer, was rejected by the 1961 addendum.

f. The educative program should be coupled with an explanation of the possibility of divergence of interpretation within Jewish law. Just as those who do travel should not be looked upon as sinners because of the liberality of their understanding, those who insist on avoiding travel on Shabbat should not be labelled as reactionary of illiberal because of their interpretation.

Yay, pluralism!

And, I found this part moderately interesting, and wonder if it was ever done:

Though it is recognized as practically unfeasible, it was pointed out that from the strictly halakhic point of view, a bus driven by a non-Jew is less of a Shabbat violation that the use of private automobiles. If the proper safeguards and explanations can be forthcoming, in some instances this kind of arrangement might be perferable to privately operated vehicles.

It might make an interesting case of analysis for ma'arit ayin (the law that one should not do something that appears to be counter to halacha, even if it is really permitted; These issues are sometimes handled with by performing the particular action in some way that's different than it is normally done, such that an outside observer will notice that a Jew is not doing the prohibited action).

I was never a member of USY, so, I have no idea how these paper policies are handled in the real-world, or if USY took them as “suggestions,” “guidelines” or policy.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Driving teshuva II: On double standards

In my last post on the subject, an anonymous commenter referred me to an article, from the ever-popular Conservative Judaism magazine, written by Avram Hein entitled “Reflections on the Driving teshuva”, and the responses, written by David J. Fine, Monique Susskind Goldberg, Kassel Abelson, and Ismar Schorsch (Conservative Judaism 56(3):21-50 Spring 2004). In 2004, Hein was a student at the Conservative Yeshiva and at Pardes, Fine was a congregational rabbi and former member of the CJLS, Goldberg, an academic, Abelson, the chairman of the CJLS, and Schorsch, a professor and the chancellor of the JTS. Given the diversity of opinion, there is a lot more to the argumentation than I can cover in a single post.

Hein takes a position advocating a reconsideration of the teshuva, intent on its revocation. He spends much paper criticizing the halachic details of the argumentation. He uses the prohibitive Israeli equivalent of the driving teshuva (English summary available; see "Volume 4") to aid his case. Of course, the social backdrop for the Israeli question was different from that of 1950's (or contemporary) America. The question that is asked is of a different nature. It is asked by a congregant, not a rabbi. It is explicit that there is another synagogue (Orthodox) within walking distance of his home. And, it is clear that his identification with Judaism is in no danger. This is true all the moreso in Israel, where the dominant culture identifies as “Jewish,” even if not religious. The respondents have varying degrees of respect for Adler, Agus and Friedman's halachic scholarship. Fine is respectful of it, disagrees with its logic, but is willing to accept it as law. Abelson is “very impressed” with it. Schorsch sides against it on the grounds that the sociology didn't work, and Goldberg sides with Golinkin. I have mostly avoided that topic so far.

Even if the teshuva was more reaction, and didn't actually change the habits of Conservative Jews, its implementation muddled the movement's message and certainly didn't help increase Shabbat observance. I think that some of the responses to Hein's article help demonstrate my case:
From David J. Fine:

Finally, Mr. Hein remarks that “there are even Conservative clergy who drive on Shabbat and justify themselves by the Law Committee paper.” I response, why would we consider making one law for everyone and another for rabbis? That would be an abuse of the halakhic system . . .

From Monique Susskind Goldberg:

As far as I know, most Conservative rabbis do not drive to synagogue on Shabbat, and as Rabbi Fine rightly states, there should not be a double standard for the rabbi and for the congregants.

From Kassel Abelson:

Mr. Hein's repeated criticism of “Conservative clergy who drive on Shabbat and justify themselves by the Law Committee paper,” is inappropriate. Does he believe that there should be “one law for the layman and another for the rabbi?” The CJLS interprets Judaism in the light of modern circumstances for all Jews equally. If rabbis opt to ride to the synagogue on Shabbat, they do so because they believe that it is permissible.

It is true that the original teshuva did not make a distinction between clergy and laypeople. It did make two distinctions, one explicit, and the other implicit. The explicit distinction was between those who live within reasonable walking distance of a synagogue and those who don't, forbidding driving to the former, and permitting it to the latter. The implicit distinction is arrived at from the logic used to enact the heter. Namely, that it is an emergency measure intended to maintain a connection of Jewish people to Jewish religion through attendance at the synagogue service. If an individual would maintain such connection without driving to synagogue, then, the heter does not apply. If Conservative clergy are included in this category, then the movement is in more serious trouble than brought about by confusion over a single matter of halacha.

The mixed message is not the fault of the teshuva itself, but of its halfway implementation. The original teshuva institutes an emergency heter to drive to synagogue, and calls on the Rabbinical Assembly to mount a continuing program advocating increased Shabbat observance. The former happened, the latter seems to have died out. Kassel Abelson referred to the “program for the revitalization of the Shabbat” in past tense. He states that

It must be admitted, however, that it is celebrating the Sabbath, as outlined in the program, that has taken root, not the observance of the full historical Sabbath.

The degree of observance outlined in the program is quite minimal (I summarized it in my previous post). Again, it is intended as an emergency measure to maintain some remembrance of the Shabbat and bring Jews closer to a more full observance. Fine appeals to a 2000 survey complied by Jack Wertheimer, pointing out that 42% of the “core members” (not sure what that means) of Conservative synagogues regularly attend services, and 56% regularly observe Shabbat at home. Without a copy of the original data, particularly the questions that were asked by which Fine arrived at his conclusion, it is hard to evaluate the statistics. Is this observance full or is it minimal? If, fifty years after its start, there is little hint of a remaining program, and only its most minimal recommendations have taken hold among half the population, can the program truly be considered a success? Have Conservative Jews and the Conservative leadership become comfortable as “children taken captive among the Gentiles, who have forgotten the observance of the Shabbat”? For the vast majority of Conservative Jews, immediate revocation of the driving teshuva would have little or no effect. They simply don't feel bound by (and, for the most part, are ill-informed of) halacha as decided by academics at the CJLS. Some might even see it as a direct rejection of their lifestyle, making it a sociological bomb that would further erode the membership of suburban Conservative synagogues. Conservative Judaism has managed to dig itself into a deep hole, indeed.

A correction: On closer reading of the original Adler-Agus-Friedman teshuva and provoked by the response from Fine, I have to correct a statement made in my previous post. The original teshuva permits driving to and from a synagogue that is not within walking distance, but never specifies that it has to be the closest synagogue, only the one “regularly attended.” However, if there is one synagogue within walking distance (such that attendance at synagogue is not “unreasonably difficult without the use of the automobile”), it still appears to me that the teshuva prohibits driving altogether, although it may be read that it would still permit driving to one's regular synagogue, with the distinction hinging on the meaning of an ambiguous pronoun.

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