Conservative Judaism Passionately Asks What’s Possible in Light of the Impossible


The Jewish Week’s coverage of how Conservative Judaism has addressed livestreaming Shabbat services has repeated the old chestnut that my movement is “positioned between strictly traditional Orthodoxy and the liberal Reform and Reconstructing Judaism movements.” The center, it is said, bespeaks paucity of passion, and perhaps even a laziness about ideological stances. Yet occupying what looks like a middle — and thus middling — position may more accurately be seen as seeking a point of balance between values that beg not to be ignored.

At hand is not simply a question about technology on Shabbat; it is about how to maintain both a spiritually meaningful prayer life and the sanctity of holy days under Covid-19. What the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has undertaken is not an “accommodation to modernity.” As present conditions cast doubt on whether the usually prescribed norms are sufficient to fulfill the intentions behind them, it embarked on a penetrating analysis of halacha and its precedents in order to seek a resolution that respects both the history and the intent of Jewish law. This is the very opposite of insipid moderation and ideological laziness.

Legal systems are always challenged by the unprecedented and unex-pected. Halachic history includes considerations of how to resolve the tensions that arise when the law’s plain prescription may subvert its underlying intent. A relevant halachic principle — supported by great Talmudic figures — is that we cannot deduce what is acceptable under normal conditions from what is acceptable when normal actions are impossible (“ein danin efshar mi-she-i-efshar”). But notice: This principle assumes that special rulings are called for when normal actions are impossible. That is precisely why those rulings are not extendable to normal circumstances. The reverse must therefore also be true: from the possible, one cannot infer the impossible.

A Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 45b) deals with precisely this matter. It addresses how, or whether, a law is to be carried out when it cannot be carried out according to its literal meaning. That discussion ends by quoting from a tractate of the Mishnah dealing with the metzora (“leper”). The biblical rite of purification requires the daubing of sacrificial blood on the right ear of the healed metzora. But what if this unfortunate — and fully healed — individual has no right ear?

The majority ruling in the Mishnah insists that the rite must be performed exactly or not at all. The wretched subject is condemned to a life sentence of impurity. Only Rabbis Eliezer and Shimon disagree, and pro-pose what we might call a “Plan B,” so as to carry out the intent of the law, if not its exact letter. And as if to challenge our own thinking, the Talmud takes no position on this debate, and leaves it with the conclusion that “it is a matter of dispute among the earliest Talmudic sages.”

So we ask: What would God want of us today? What shall we do when the rule that a minyan have at its core 10 people “present together” founders on the Covid-19 reality that “present” today cannot safely, or even legally, mean “physically present in one space”? Or when Shabbat restrictions — which have reasonably grown over the centuries to in-clude actions (such as closing electric circuits) that were hitherto not contemplated  — today prevent davening Jews from hearing and responding to a musaf kedushah prayer, or hearing a weekly parashah read from a scroll?

I was one of those davening Jews. After nearly three months without communal worship on Shabbat, I felt empty; what I felt was the hunger to respond to a kedushah, and to answer a blessing made over the Torah. When the shul I belong to began to stream Shabbat services, I felt the uplift and the heightened sense of the Presence surely intended by our rituals.

If one believes in a personal God aware of what happens in the world, one surely cannot believe that God willed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from the destructive power of a virus. So, the pandemic must be seen as among those contingencies that God or-dained for the world, in order that human life be morally meaningful. Would God then will it that an “inference from the possible to the impossible” thwart seekers of God’s Presence in Shabbat community prayer for months, without a foreseeable end? Or might God see such a posture as another form of idolatry — in this case, the worship of the literal meaning of laws given in human, and therefore non-omniscient, language?

These are the serious halachic and theological issues that have animated Conservative Judaism’s struggles with this crisis, as they have with the weighty moral issues of women’s rights, LGBTQ persons and our relationships with the gentile world. It is not a paucity of passion that puts one at a midpoint between the authority of the past and the discoveries of the present and future. It is, instead, a special kind of passion, for reaping the benefits both of the insights of the classics and of the ongoing revelations that come from life’s experiences.

I take pride in being a player in that “striving for the sake of Heaven.” It is important that your readership be given more good windows into that sacred stage. 

Gordon Tucker is senior rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and adjunct assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.