Feb 15, 2012

Observance, Ethics, and Being a Good Jew

I want very much to thank Stella for passing this along to me. I'm surprised I missed this back when it printed in 2010, but, well, life was in a funny place at the time.

The article -- Joining the Covenant -- was posted on Jewish Ideas Daily more than two years ago, and it was written by Rabbi Irving Greenberg (aka Rabbi Yitz Greenberg), a modern-Orthodox Jew, and details his thoughts about synthesizing "traditional requirements of the law with a principled openness to converts who will not become fully Orthodox."

The article is beautifully written, and I want to highlight a few thing that he says that gives me peace in my perpetual state of flux as an underconstructionist Jew.

Furthermore: I believe with perfect faith that God loves and honors good, serious Jews-whether or not they keep all the mitzvot. I believe that the merit of the mitzvot they do keep, including in the form of good deeds and self-sacrifice, outweighs all the punishments that can be incurred by non-observance, and that God will treat them accordingly.
As a concluding note I add this: when it comes to defining a good Jew, stressing the "particularist" ritual mitzvot over against the "universalist" mitzvot of ethical behavior is itself a gross distortion.
I think Rabbi Greenberg has hit the nail on the head. So often, we forget what it means to be a Jew. We also forget that our actions are our own in the end and only HaShem has a right to say, think, or act on our individual neshamot

It's an old article, but it's worth a read and a consideration, if not more -- action.


Stella said...

De nada!

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Well said! I couldn't agree more.

Jew in the City said...

I completely agree that God loves anyone that's trying to be a good person. Surely none of us are perfect. I think the key to being a halachic Jew, though, is to never rationalize our mistakes. If we fall short it's US who are not living up to the Torah - not the Torah that needs to change for our shortcomings. He doesn't make that point (at least in the snippet you've included) but I think that part is key.

Because if my values never change, then I can keep working towards the goal - even if I've failed a thousand times. If I start to re-write things, I have no chance of getting there. (This - by the way - is one of the biggest things I've stressed as Mayim's spiritual mentor.

Anonymous said...

JITC, Respectfully, I don't totally agree - I believe the values and laws set out in the Torah can evolve, and have, over the thousands of years we have been doing this. The vast wonder that is hundreds of volumes of Jewish opinions and writings do exactly that - extrapolate Torah to apply to what is happening to us today (shabbes settings on modern stoves, for example). I think this is different from re-writing it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Chavi, but IMHO, taken as a whole this piece is very troubling, even if it is peppered with some nice language here and there. There are so many fundamental problems with what he is saying, that I’ll have to limit myself here to only a few major ones.

Let’s start with the fact that R’ Greenberg states explicitly that he actively partakes “in converting non-observant or less observant Jews”. I know he defines himself as (modern) Orthodox, but I am not familiar with any serious Orthodox authority that says you can convert a person who you know will not keep – or attempt to keep – the Mitzvot. If he would like to propose that such a conversion is legit, the burden of proof is on him, and he does not prove it here. Even if only for this reason, and for the simplistic way in which he brushes off the opinion of R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l – one of the greatest Halachik mind of the previous generation - the entire column should be suspect, IMHO.

[Note that there are discussions about the degree importance of accepting Mitzvot in the conversion process, but if he has a clear Halachik position on this, he has not made it clear.]

This lack of Halachik seriousness is prevalent throughout the article, as in the cases where he says a person can be considered accepting the obligation of Kashrut while knowingly eating non-kosher foods: “Thus, a person who gives up pig or shellfish… can, even if not keeping a kosher home, legitimately say: I accept the obligation to keep kosher”. I strongly disagree. R’ Greenberg seems to completely ignore the distinction between a person who tries and tries to keep ALL the Halacha, but fails due to human failings, and a person who declares openly that he/she does not accept upon him/herself all those obligations. If we accept a person who chooses the latter into our midst, we are basically saying – invent your own religion, and we will accept you as a full member of OUR covenant. Sorry – no can do. The most basic tenant of Orthodoxy is that these obligations stem from your commitment to G-d’s word, and you don’t pose conditions for G-d – you accept his. Even if Halacha does change over time within Orthodoxy, it does not accept just any change, or personal choice in what you keep and what not.

I could go on – so many things annoy me in this column – but that is the main point I wanted to make.

Jew in the City said...

Therebbetzinrocks, I'll respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement! :) The Jewish values and mitzvos are meant to be eternal. The Torah says a bunch of times "these laws are forever." Unfortunately, certain circumstances have made certain mitzvos temporarily inapplicable (i.e. sacrifices due to lack of a Temple).

While you're correct that halacha must deal with modernity, with the example of the Shabbos setting on digital stove, it doesn't mean that the halachic principles are changing - they're simply being applied to something that hadn't existed yet when the principles were transmitted to us. The eternal law simply gets applied to the new technology.

I think what ultimately separates Orthodoxy from the non-Orthodox movements is that an Orthodox person looks at the discrepancies between what the Torah tells him to be and what he's actually ending up to be and says, "The Torah is perfect, I'm the one who needs to change." He then spends his life working to make himself as close to the Torah's expectations as possible. He makes strides, he sometimes fall back, but his continuous movement is towards always attempting to get closer to the goal.

In the non-Orthodox movements, the message seems to be more like "The Torah needs to change in order to accommodate whatever part of me I don't want to change."

Anonymous said...

I believe that though Torah doesn't change our understanding greatly changes over time. That may be one person's perspective over time or from generation to generation.

Jew in the City said...

Our understanding for certain things change - for instances, the rabbis used to believe that lice spontaneously generate, therefore, since there's no prohibition to kill things that are not living, it used to be permitted to kill them on Shabbos. But when it was discovered that lice are living creatures, that law changed. If we find out information we had was wrong, then the laws get applied differently. The laws themselves though, and the principles are all meant to be eternal.

David Tzohar said...

In todays parasha we read that Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah by saying " na'aseh venishma". They said that up front, in advance they take upon themselves all of the law including what will be given in the future. This is the commitment that is required from all gerim. Their souls were on Sinai with Bnei Yisrael. Like all of us they may falter, but the goal remains a lifestyle based on all of taryag mitzvot.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

I'm currently reading a very interesting book about the law on conversion and 18th & 19th century. Those who know the law and the responsim know that there is no true agreement on what the convert must know before and after the conversion process and also that if the convert converts and then does not observe, he/she is still a convert of the nation.

Anonymous said...

Chavi - I don't consider myself an expert in 18th-19th century responsim. But even if I just take your statement as the true representation of Halachik positions then and now, that is a far cry from saying anyone then would convert someone who declared they did not intend to follow all the laws, or for whom it was clear that this was the intention based on their actions. Contrast this with some of the statements that R' Greenberg makes, about Lechatchila converting people who have no intent of going the whole way, and I think we have a big problem.

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