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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The "double standard" is not anathema in halakhic discourse as it is in, say, civil liberties.

The classic paradigm (and a nice story): A wealthy woman brings the local posek a shechted chicken on Friday afternoon that she's worried might not be kosher. The posek examines it and rules that it's not kosher, telling her she ought to buy another bird. A few minutes later a poor woman comes in with a chicken about which she is worried, but this time the rabbi declares it kosher and wishes her a good Shabbos.

After she leaves, the posek's baffled assistant blurts out, "But Rabbi, those chickens looked exactly the same to me! How can one be treif and the other kosher?"

"But they weren't at all the same," says the rabbi. "One was the chicken of a rich woman; the other was the chicken of a poor woman."

The halakhic system can handle multiple standards, and has for a long time. They often follow a common theme: Those with the means to be strict should be, and those who cannot (or will not) be strict should be given a valid lenient option.
Afterthought: Whether or not I consider the driving heter to be a "valid lenient option" is a different discussion altogether, though I suppose one could extrapolate my views from the fact that I'm bothering to write this disclaimer.
You write:

"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."

I just want to clarify my own distinction between clergy and non-clergy, which I think is aided by your comments quoted above. My reading of the heter is that, given the serious sociological problem taking place in the 1950s of suburbanization and weakening Jewish education (which was also, albeit to a slightly lesser extent for SOCIOLOGICAL reasons, taking place in Orthodoxy but they dealt with it differently), in order to keep people connected to Judaism, they can drive to shul if the alternative is that they are lost to Judaism altogether. Only these kinds of people are halakhically permitted to drive, according to my reading, and, these people -- by definition -- are not Conservative rabbis. Hence, Conservative rabbis are not permitted according to the heter to drive. I wish I had clarified that and some other elements of my interpretation better.

I also should add that while I theoretically argue that the teshuva is not halakhically valid today due to the changed sociological premise of which the teshuva is based, I have no reasonable expection for the CJLS to deal with the issue. (Nor, neccessarily should it, but rather a new "Shabbat Revitalization Campaign" should be instituted).

Thanks for a quality discussion on this issue.

1. One of the leaders of the CJLS has called this one of the worst decisions reached by the CJLS because it allowed conservative jews to buy houses beyond walking distance to their schul. If they would not have the option - they would buy houses closer to their schul and be able to walk.
2. The CJLS will not revist this subject because if they were to change it, it would invalidate their process of making jewish law (why would they reach a different conclusion this time unless their decisions where arbitrary?)

1. The heter would not have been granted had Conservative Jews not been buying far-flung houses in the first place. A model in which the laity do whatever the leadership demand doesn't work in Conservative sociology.

2. I agree that the CJLS will not revisit this issue any time in the near future, but I find your reasoning questionable. By moving toward a standard of waiting six hours between meat and milk, has the German Ashkenazi world invalidated its process of halakhic decision making because it once held by three?
A.H. -- what a small J-blogosphere it is.

I'm curious as to how others would envision a new Shabbat revitalization campaign.

(1) I'll have to side with Lawrence on this one. The driving teshuva was entirely reactive.
(2) One of the respondants (I forget which) actually used this argument. I don't buy it. The premise on which the driving teshuva was based was that rabbinic enactments could be made for the circumstances of a specific time and place. Should those circumstances have changed, surely the rabbinic enactments would change as well. Incidentally, Orthodoxy faces issues like this too. The relatively recent craziness of bugs in vegetables can be traced back to the Orthodox rabbinate realizing that spontaneous generation isn't real and that small bugs are not actually part of the vegetables. Of course, they've always found it easier to enact new prohibitions than new leniencies, and I think that is one of the historical-halachic holes in the logic of the driving teshuva. A longer argument that cited more precedent and that cited precedent in detail might have given me more respect for the argumentation.

Compare the style of the driving teshuva (if you can get a copy of it) to any of the teshuvot written by Joel Roth. As much as I may disagree with some of Joel Roth's conclusions, I do have a lot of respect for the way he lays out his arguments, and actually pays attention to detail.
FYI, My letter was also published in Conservative Judaism for what it's worth (not much apparently, I doubt if anyone ever read it)

To the editor:

In response to Avi Hein's “Reflections on the Driving Teshuva” (Conservative Judaism 36 #3) Rabbis Abelson and Fine both argue that the Teshuva ought not be reconsidered out of respect for the Law Committee and the precedents it has set in affirming the teshuva. In contrast, I believe that a careful reading of the Teshuva shows that the composers fully expected, and even hoped that the time would come when the teshuva would be reconsidered and revoked.
1. For example, near the start of the teshuva (reprinted in Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants by Elliot M. Dorff) Rabbis Adler, Agus, and Freedman note: “Emphasis on this immediate program should in no way militate against the ultimate objective---the cessation of all gainful employment on the Sabbath.” Well, this objective has been met by and large.
2. They go on to assert: “Refraining from the use of a motor vehicle is an important aid in the maintenance of the Sabbath spirit of repose. Such restraint aids, moreover, in keeping members of the family together on the Sabbath...” This says to me that they viewed the normative goal as eliminating driving.
3. They add: “we must adjust our strategy to the realities of our time and place…” and since it’s now a new time and place we can certainly re adjust strategies without any insult to the considerations of the Law Committee of 55 years ago.
4. They stress the temporary intent of the ruling when they state: “in crucial periods, our sages did not hesitate to make special enactments for their own time or for a limited period of time, in order to meet the challenges of new circumstances..” Hence their decision was meant to be for a limited time.
5. Finally in recognition of the destructive component of their decision they present a striking comparison: “Even as the physician cuts off a hand or a foot in order that the patient might survive, a rabbinic court may teach a violation of some mitzvoth for a time, in order that the totality of Judaism might be preserved.” Is this the message that Conservative Jews who drive are told-- to envision which of their body parts has been removed so that they can survive?
Based on the above, the question, it seems to me. is not whether to reconsider the teshuva, but when to do so. How long must the movement limp along on one foot? If the teshuva worked and has indeed saved Shabbat, then it’s time to reconsider this emergency decree. On the other hand if it hasn’t worked then it’s also time to reconsider.
Rabbi Fine astutely points out that if indeed the driving decision is to be permanently grafted onto the halachic system, it would be necessary to develop a “halacha” of driving. How much gas would have to be in the car on Friday, and how would one deal with such things as carrying a driving license, an automobile breakdown, and carrying from the car, not to mention being stopped by a police officer, getting into an accident such as backing into a fellow congregant’s car in the soul parking lot, the car alarm going off, and having a battery run down while at shul. Surely the authors of the responsa were aware of these omissions and in 50 years I have not heard of anyone who has attempted to address them. This means to me one or both of two things: that the authors didn’t see this as a permanent decision, and that those who are committed to halacha see the “halacha” of the Shabbat automobile as an oxymoron.
Rabbi Abelson points to some of the successes of the Conservative Movement which have occurred in the time following the teshuvah: “Day schools, Ramah camps, United Synagogue Youth, Israel programs.” In addition the expansion of the roles of women to include Rabbi and Cantor has doubled the number of potential leaders of the Conservative community. I would say that these advances occurred in spite of the driving teshuvah and that it is the most successful products of these programs who are among the most disturbed, and negatively effected by the teshuvah. In contrast to a situation of 25 or 30 years ago, when we recently searched for a new Rabbi, all viable candidates insisted on living within walking distance of the shul. They wanted to live in the kind of community that they experienced in all of the great institutions noted above. Anecdotally, search committees from across the country report that this is true of all candidates under 40 years of age.
Rabbi Abelson suggests that those interested in walking “should establish a havurah of like minded people…” and “pioneer a new project within the Conservative movement…” We are trying to do so, but quite frankly can use some help from the movement. As Chancellor Schorsch points out in his response, “in sanctioning driving to the synagogue on Shabbat, the Conservative rabbinate relinquished its ability to advocate living close to the synagogue.” Hence, the typical response of too many walkers is to indeed seek like minded folks, but they are often in the Orthodox community. How long must we continue to lose some of our best and brightest to Orthodoxy not because they reject the principles of Conservative Judaism, but because they seek a community, which will help them to, more fully live according to those principles?
In conclusion, it seems to me that the driving teshuvah was written in a way that cries out that it be reconsidered, and in the words of the great sage Hillel, “if not now, when?”. I sense that Conservative Judaism is experiencing a potential rebirth but is at a crossroads and may go up or down. Reconsideration of the teshuvah will help ensure and nurture a healthy baby that will grow into a major and serious pathway for North American Jews. Let us grow from strength to strength.
Smitty -- Thanks for the comment here. I don't have actual copies of CJ magazine, so, I would not have seen it otherwise.
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