Judaism and modernity

Reform officially considers Jewish law non-binding, while Conservative/ Masorti considers it binding.

Haredi man near a bus 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Haredi man near a bus 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
In a recent article, Yoni Goldstein of Toronto wrote that modern Orthodoxy is the only brand of Judaism that encourages people to (a) keep Shabbat according to the letter of the law and (b) check e-mail or turn on the TV once three stars appear. Haredi Orthodoxy is only concerned with “a” – the law – while “Reform and Conservative don’t see a particular need to do ‘a.’”
The writer thus lumps Conservative and Reform together, as do many people who see no difference between movements that are considered “non-Orthodox.” Without intending to deprecate my Reform colleagues, I must insist that there are differences and that the main difference still consists of the attitude toward Jewish law: Reform officially considers it non-binding, while Conservative/ Masorti considers it binding.
Masorti Judaism certainly does encourage its adherents to observe the laws of Shabbat while respecting modernity, although in some instances it may differ from the modern Orthodox regarding exactly what those laws require. It is true that sometimes – but not always – we may arrive at different conclusions than our Orthodox colleagues do, but it is not true that we are not committed to Shabbat observance and other aspects of Jewish law just because we are part of the modern world. Are there not differences within modern Orthodoxy itself? There certainly are between modern Orthodoxy and haredi Orthodoxy regarding “the letter of the law.”
I recently attended a two-day meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, and we spent the entire time discussing matters of Halacha. Two of the major items concerned kashrut and Shabbat observance in great detail.
Actually Conservative/Masorti Judaism began not as a reaction to Orthodoxy, but as a reaction to Reform. The movement was the outcome of the work of Zecharia Frankel, a renowned 19th-century German rabbi and scholar. Frankel – who famously walked out of a liberal rabbinical conference in Frankfurt in 1845 when it refused to adopt firm guidelines for changes in tradition and decided that Hebrew need not be used in prayer – founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau and headed a group that came to be known as the Positive- Historical School.
He contended that there were three groups within religious Judaism: Orthodoxy, which insisted on observance of every item, no matter how small, and on adherence to traditional ideas and beliefs even when they contradicted modern knowledge; Reform, which did away with traditional forms and insisted on a return to Prophetic Judaism; and a third way, which he defined as “rational belief, observance of mitzvot with understanding of their meaning, accompanied by the possibility of forgoing details that are not basic and not in keeping with modern understanding – thus keeping both the Divine essence of Judaism and its historical basis.” This third way was his way; it eventually became the Conservative Movement when it was transplanted to the United States, and the Masorti Movement in Israel.
These definitions may no longer be exact, as major changes have taken place in both Orthodoxy and Reform since Frankel’s time, but Conservative Judaism is still based upon the attempt to preserve the essence of Jewish belief and practice – that is why it is called “Conservative” – while attempting to make Judaism meaningful and relevant for the times in which we live.
It is obvious that as long as Israel continues to have an official Chief Rabbinate (which is anything but modern Orthodox) and grants it exclusive religious power, the Masorti Movement will be forced to work under legal and fiscal impediments. This is a great pity, because this third way, to use Frankel’s term, could prove meaningful to many Israelis who are looking for a pathway into Judaism and are not finding it in the “official” religion of Israel. What a shame that Israel remains the only country in the free world where one brand of Judaism, and only one, can function freely and legally.