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What is Masorti Judaism?

The most frequently asked question of any Masorti rabbi is: What is Masorti Judaism?

By Rabbi Chaim Weiner

The most frequently asked question of any Masorti rabbi is: What is Masorti Judaism? This is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, Masorti Judaism is no more than a shade within Judaism itself. Given the many shades and differences to be found within Orthodoxy, within Conservative Judaism and even within Reform, it is hard to draw clear lines or borders between the movements.

The basic beliefs of a Masorti Jew are no different than those of traditional Judaism. We believe in a God who created the world. We believe in a covenant between God and the people of Israel. We believe that we are comrnanded, as a part of that covenant, to live a special lifestyle, spelled out in the Torah and articulated in “halacha – Jewish law”. We accept that this law is defined by the classical books of the rabbis: the Mishnah, the Talmud, and thereafter refined through the codes and responsa.

The main principle that defines conservative Judaism is our relationship to modern science and scholarship. What role do the results of modern studies, particularly in the fields of history, archaeology, bible scholarship and literature play in the understanding of our tradition? The Masorti/Conservative approach to this question is unequivocal: The results of these sciences cannot be ignored. They must be used to inform our religious beliefs, to help us understand our tradition better. They cannot be rejected outright, without careful consideration of their claims.

There are many areas where the results of scholarship and tradition seem to contradict. In these instances it is our position that we must interpret the tradition in a way that it doesn’t contradict our knowledge from other sources. This is not a matter of convenience. The only reason to follow a tradition is because it is true. If we accept our tradition as truth, then it must agree with the facts as we know them. This means that, although we believe in the same things as traditional Judaism, how we understand those things is influenced by the findings of modern science and modern thought. These are some of the main questions people ask about our position:

Do Masorti Jews believe that the Torah comes from heaven?
Bible scholarship has shown that the Torah has a history. It is difficult to accept the claim that the Torah was handed down from heaven at a certain point in history in the literal sense. We therefore understand this term as a metaphor to mean that the Torah is divine and that it reflects God’s will. Research can help us understand the process of how the Torah came about, but will probably never give us a full picture. From our point of view, the idea that a concept as complex as “how God communicates to people” could be reduced to a literal description is unacceptable.

How can you consider the findings of scholarship to be true?
There are always different schools of thought, and the positions of the scholars constantly change as new information becomes available. True. Science is not infallible and the more we know, the better we understand things. We do not accept modern notions as “Torah from Sinai” as truths to be defended no matter what. Every finding must be accepted for what it is: a guess, a fact, an interpretation or a most probable explanation. We must always be open to learning more. However, the more information we have, the more that evidence from different fields of study agrees, the closer we get to the truth. The fact that one is not absolutely sure doesn’t mean that we should just deny facts or accept things which are simply impossible. Our beliefs must always be reviewed by our critical understanding. Not because we are perfect, but because our faculty of reason is what God has given us, and we have no better tool to use to search for the truth. Our reason is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

If you do not believe that the Torah was given by God literally, does this not undermine your commitment to observe the tradition?
No. If one believes that the commandments are God’s will, it does not matter how you understand how they were given. You would still feel bound to observe them.

What role does halacha play?
When we looked at ideology, we saw that there were many similarities between the ideology of Masorti and that of traditional Judaism. This similarity cuts through to halacha.

What is halacha?
The Torah tells us of a special covenant between the Jewish people and God. As part of this covenant Jews have been given many commandments. The commandments of the Torah are of a general nature. We do not observe the commandments as they are in the Torah. There is a whole literature – the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Midrash, the responsa literature and the codes -which explains and develops the commandments and translates them into rules for everyday living.

These rules, the way of life of the observant Jew, are the halacha. The halacha is far from being a closed book; everything being clear-cut and sealed in stone. There is not a page in the Talmud which is free from debate, not an issue over which there is not some difference of opinion. The halacha is dynamic. It has within it the ability to grow and to respond to changes. However, despite differences of opinion and the freedom that exist within the halacha, there have emerged guidelines which help define the system. Over time the Babylonian Talmud has become the final authority in Jewish law. Precedents have been set and practice has been established. Even when confronting new realities, the precedents of the past and the underlying principles which have been established are to be taken into consideration when deciding how the halacha applies today.

All that has been said so far is true for both Masorti and Orthodox Judaism. Where does Masorti differ?
The differences are not in how halacha is understood, but in how it is applied. Whenever a rabbi is called upon to give a ruling, in addition to determining the halacha, he must also judge the situation he is ruling upon. As Masorti rabbis understand the world differently than Orthodox rabbis, the way they apply the halacha differs.

This difference in the way we look at the world manifests itself in many ways. Masorti Jews respect academic research as a means to understand the world better and therefore the results of this research are brought to bear in our halachic decisions. Masorti Jews accept many of the values of modern society. We are integrated in the modern world and our halachic decisions reflect this integration. Rather than trying to set Jews apart from general society, we seek ways to make it possible to be an observant Jew within it. Our constituency includes many Jews who have not made a full commitment to observance. As a result of this, the importance of enabling “somewhat” observant Jews to play a fuller role in the community is an important consideration in our decisions.

The biggest difference in our approach centres on our attitude to change. Our society is characterized by rapid social change. Is this change good? Should we welcome it? Do you resist it? It is in those areas of our lives where the greatest social changes have occurred where the differences between the movements in Judaism are most apparent. The most prominent example of the need to take a position regarding change is when we come to define the role of women in the synagogue. In our secular society the role of women has radically been changed. Women today are fully integrated in society, are educated, hold positions of power and share equal rights. The halacha grew in an age where none of this was true. The main challenge facing all traditional groups today is how to respond to this change. It is the Masorti position that it is the ability to address itself to change that has kept the halacha alive through the centuries. We maintain that failure to apply the tools of change that exist within the halacha to the changes in our world today will leave the halacha as irrelevant to most Jews.

Although these attitudes are wide reaching, it should be stressed that in most cases, there is no difference between the interpretations of Masorti and of Orthodox rabbis.

What are the Parameters of Change?
When we presented the Masorti view of halacha, we saw that the idea of “change” is central to the thinking of the Masorti movement. Many of those who are opposed to Masorti challenge us over our willingness to adopt changes. They claim that any change, no matter how small, undermines the framework of halacha. They view an openness to change as a kind of slippery slope, where changes start small but become ever greater and more radical as time passes. How does Masorti answer this challenge? This challenge must be considered carefully. One of the main attractions of tradition is the sense it gives that we are part of something greater than ourselves. It is tremendously satisfying to know that we are observing a tradition in much the same way that our parents, grandparents and ancestors have. There is a comfort that comes from the familiarity of tunes and practices, of words and rituals that a great religion such as ours can give. Any tradition which is too open to change risks losing one of the most important things that it has to offer.

However, ignoring change is also a dangerous route to follow. A society that does not adapt to the changes around it becomes irrelevant, and is doomed to disappear. The Masorti position is that there is a need to balance these two demands. Change is not a goal in and of itself. Changes are only adopted when necessary. But when it is necessary, the halacha must adapt itself. The halacha does have the ability to adopt change and has changed in the past. It is the ability to address itself to change that has kept the Jewish tradition alive through the centuries.

How can these two needs, the need to maintain a tradition and the need to adapt to change, be balanced?
There is no clear answer to this dilemma. Different thinkers within the movement have answered the challenge in different ways. It is my opinion that the answer lies in the way we determine both when a change is necessary and what the limits of that change can be.

Changing Jewish practice is not a whim, and does not happen at the spur of the moment. Change can be introduced only as the result of a serious, deep rooted and compelling change in society. Only when society has changed significantly from what it was in the past is there a reason for Jewish practice to take the change into consideration. The classic example of this is the change in the status and role of women in our society. The role of women has changed so much as to call into question many of the assumptions regarding women that underpin the thinking regarding their roles that defined the halacha. This is a case where change is an imperative.

Even where change is mandated it does not mean that every change is allowed or even desirable. Here there must also be guidelines. We are guided in the direction we choose in our change by the sources of Jewish law. Once we have decided that our practice will be different from what it has been until now, we must go back to the sources, find legal precedents, understand the principles that have been established and be guided by them. This is the way that we guarantee that we remain faithful to our covenant even when we have adapted our practice to changing circumstances.

Finally, in deciding how to reflect the changing society around us, we must be biased in the direction of tradition. If there is no reason to introduce change, one must leave things as they are. Rapid change undermines tradition. Time must be the test. Only those issues that have been on the communal agenda for a long time, reflecting basic changes in society, are worthy of being considered. Halacha does not adapt to every passing fad.

In short, Masorti tries to be open to change when it is necessary, but equally opposed to change when it is not. When we change, we move within the precedents of our tradition. It is our belief that this approach, rather than being a slippery slope, is a ladder to an ever greater commitment to Jewish tradition and observance by ever greater numbers of Jews.

Posted on 1 January 2012

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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