There is a standard rabbinic story about three rabbis, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, who, in a spirited attempt at pluralistic cooperation, decide to meet to discuss issues of halakhah / Jewish law. At their first meeting, they find that they all agree that smoking cigarettes is clearly assur / forbidden. It is damaging to your health, and since we are forbidden from causing deliberate damage to our bodies, God has therefore prohibited smoking.
The following week, they arrive at their meeting, and each of them is smoking. They regard each other with curiosity.
The Reform rabbi says, “Halakhah is a system that was intended for an ancient audience, and this particular aspect holds no meaning for me today.”
The Conservative rabbi says, “Halakhah has continued to develop and change throughout our history, and although we are bound by it, that was last week, and this is this week. Times have changed.”
The Orthodox rabbi shrugs nonchalantly, and offers, “I sold my lungs.”
A few years ago, when we asked members of Beth Shalom to answer a survey question about potential adult learning topics, the topic that was most frequently suggested was effectively, “What are the principles of Conservative Judaism?” That is something that I do try to include in many of my sermons and classes.
So it seemed to me like a natural opportunity to come up with a Conservative response to a recent back-and-forth on a halakhic issue that appeared in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. A few weeks back, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who is originally from Pittsburgh but now serves a congregation in Italy, wrote an opinion piece that suggested that the ancient Jewish calendar, set up during Talmudic times, is an “obstacle” to greater Jewish observance of holidays, and we should therefore set up a “Diaspora calendar” which would fix holiday dates to the Gregorian calendar. For example, Rosh Hashanah would always begin on the third Friday evening of September, and Hanukkah would always be December 21-28.
Not surprisingly, a more traditional, presumably Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident, Reuven Hoch, wrote a response for the Chronicle, in which he calls her suggestion “odd” and “upsetting,” and declares that making changes to suit contemporary patterns of observance is detrimental to Judaism and Jewish life.
The forces of current Western culture — social, political and ideological — that operate against authentic Jewish values and beliefs, can be alluring and overwhelming. These forces must be confronted and met head-on, with a confidence and determination that can only exist in concert with a commitment to a life permeated with traditional Jewish values and allegiance to the Jewish people.
I agree with Mr. Hoch about maintaining the Jewish calendar. To change up the Jewish year according to Rabbi Aiello’s suggestion seems to me such a dramatic break with Jewish tradition that it would sever us from our past in an irreparable way. We have been doing it this way for thousands of years. The Jewish calendar depends on the cycles of the moon; it would make no sense for Rosh Hashanah to be separated from the new moon, and for the Pesaḥ seder not to take place when the moon is full.
Where I disagree with Mr. Hoch, however, is in his reasoning. His argument is that trying to accommodate contemporary secular values by forcing Judaism to adapt has failed repeatedly throughout our history.
So, as you might expect from a Conservative rabbi, I am going to propose that the answers to the future of Judaism lie somewhere in between. We are, in fact, called “Conservative” because the original intent of this movement was to conserve Jewish practice, to be conservative in the slight changes that we make as we adapt. That is the intent of the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the last century: “Tradition and Change.”
Because, of course, Judaism and halakhah / Jewish law have always changed and will continue to change. One does not have to dig too deeply into the subjects of kashrut / dietary laws or Shabbat observance to find a rich history of development and disagreement among our sages over centuries and continents. What it says in the Torah (e.g. “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” – Shemot / Exodus 23:19) is interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud, and then further in medieval codes, and to the point today where we debate whether a pareve dessert cooked in a pan used in the past for dairy may be served following a meat meal. And God forbid you should use the wrong spoon!
Jews have, by necessity, always grappled with how to treat new technologies, new ideas, and new environments. The Jewish calendar itself is an example of an innovation due to changed circumstances. Prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world, the date of Pesaḥ was determined by specially-trained witnesses who could tell, at the beginning of the month of Adar, whether the wheat would be ready to harvest in time for Pesaḥ and bake matzah, six weeks later. If it would not be ready in time, they would add in an extra month of Adar. When the Jews were no longer living in the land of Israel, there had to be another way to determine that extra Adar. Hence the system of adding seven such extra months over a fixed 19-year cycle, which we continue to this day. This system keeps the lunar year more or less aligned with the solar year, and Pesah therefore always falls in the spring.*
So the issue with change is not that it detaches us from our roots; some change is necessary. But change should come slowly and thoughtfully and even somewhat reluctantly. You are probably aware of the liturgical changes in our siddur to reflect our egalitarian outlook; thank God, no Conservative siddur opens the morning service with “Praised are You, God, who did not make me a woman.” We say instead, “Praised are You, God, who created me in Your image,” acknowledging that every person is created with a spark of the Divine. It’s a subtle change that you have to know to look for, and you would have to be here at 7:30 AM Monday through Friday, or 9:30 on Shabbat to hear it, but it’s quite meaningful nonetheless.
We in the Conservative movement have a body of rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which meets regularly to discuss issues in halakhah / Jewish law, using principles that date back to Talmudic times. We live within the halakhic system, and it is up to this body to think about change very carefully, not only to ensure that such change is permitted according to traditional sources, but also that its consequences are considered.
In Parashat Bo, from which we read today, there is a passage that resonates through this process. The Exodus narrative takes a brief break for an aside about how to celebrate Pesaḥ, including instructions on preparing and eating the Paschal lamb, along with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. And then the Torah says the following (Shemot / Exodus 12:24-27):
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחׇק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ …וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל
You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants… And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’
Ad olam, for all time. We have carried this story, this ritual, this Torah / instruction with us for millennia, and we have retold it in many languages and contexts. And whether we are reading from a manuscript, a printed book, or sharing it over the Internet, the Torah still inspires us to be better people. It is because of these verses that we ask the questions at the Pesaḥ seder, and all the other questions we ask and answer throughout the Jewish year, as we go about teaching our children.
We cannot live in a sealed Jewish bubble; we have to be in multiple worlds. While some quarters of the Jewish world believe that they have shut out secular influences, they are kidding themselves. The Hasidic movement and the other right-wing quarters of Orthodoxy are as much a response to modernity as Reform. The Jewish world continues to reshape itself again and again.
And those of us in the middle, who clearly embrace and live in the contemporary world while upholding Torah and mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life, the challenge is upon us to prevent Judaism from becoming a secondary pursuit, squeezed in between school, work, soccer practice and bingeing TV series, but rather a constant force in our lives and our world for good.
It might seem like a good idea to lower certain temporal barriers to Jewish life. But the fact that you have to take time off to observe Yom Tov days is a testament to your commitment to our tradition, and doing so only strengthens our tradition for future generations. Contrary to Rabbi Aiello’s assertions, there is research that shows that the higher the expectations of a religious group, the stronger the adherence of its members.
Ad olam, for all time.
And when your children ask you, why do you cling to this ancient lunar calendar, or this or that quaint custom that my non-Jewish friends do not do, you should tell them that it is because these rituals not only saved us from slavery in Egypt, but they continue to keep us healthy and safe and strong today, even as we live as citizens of the contemporary world.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/8/2022.)
* The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but does not correct for the approximately 11-day difference between 12 lunar months (354 days) and the solar cycle of 365 days. So Ramadan, for example, the month during which Muslims fast every day, precesses, each year falling 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s much less burdensome when it falls in the winter, when fasting ends at about 5 in the afternoon, than when it falls in the summer.