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A Spectrum of Observance

August 4, 2009 – 11:39 pm9 Comments

prismBy Simon Holloway

While it is my abiding interest that my contributions to this site do not become mere reflections on my own personal philosophy, a discussion that commenced in an earlier thread has tempted me to write a defence of Progressive Judaism. This is not to say that Progressive Judaism even constitutes “my” philosophy (it does not), but I think that “my” philosophy (whenever it sits still long enough for me to pin it to something) probably falls within that realm.

The comment that inspired this post was one in which the Progressive movement in Australia was mistakenly referred to as Reform. I noted on that thread that the Reform movement is an American phenomenon, which represents just one manifestation of the global philosophy of Progressive Judaism. Few people learn about Progressive Judaism in Australia, and it tends to be conceived as the “other”. In recent years, the Board of Progressive Jewish Education was formed, in order to fill the gap that was created by the Board of Jewish Education’s refusal to present Progressive Judaism in a more positive light.

In a nutshell, Progressive Judaism (like Orthodox Judaism) constitutes a spectrum of observance. Just as Orthodox Judaism might have “left-wing” Modern Orthodox at its lower end and “ultra-Orthodoxy” at its upper, so too is Progressive Judaism possessed of a spectrum that spans from Reconstructionist Judaism up to Conservative. It is a fair point to say that every movement is defined by that which exists at its fringes, so it is worth clarifying exactly what those outlying manifestations of Progressive Judaism actually are.

The difference, as with many of the differentiating factors within the Orthodox spectrum, hinges upon conceptions of the halakhic system. To what extent is a Jew today bound by edicts within the Torah? To what extent is he or she governed by the prohibitions of the Rabbis? A case study might enable us to appreciate various different approaches.

A Jew approaches his or her Rabbi with a question. This coming Shabbat, I would like to play the piano for my friends. Is doing so permissible? The Orthodox answer, of course, is no. While the Torah does not forbid the playing of music, the Rabbis understood the Torah to be forbidding 39 different categories of labour – one of which is “repairing”.

Given that singing and dancing may lead somebody to “repair” an instrument (which is to say, to hastily fashion one out of materials at hand), the Rabbis of the Talmud forbade such activity and, in later years, various Rabbis (chiefly of the Ashkenazi tradition) extended the prohibition to include playing instruments as well. As playing an instrument would inevitably lead the musician to tune the instrument (which, as far as these Rabbis was concerned, also constituted “reparation”), the playing of music became forbidden in order to further protect against the possibility of this infringement.

The Progressive answer, on the other hand, would be yes: you may certainly play the piano on Shabbat. Now, for many people, that constitutes enough of a differentiating characteristic between Progressive and Orthodox Judaism, but leaving that “yes” hanging there does not do justice to the various differences between those different non-Orthodox communities.

The Reconstructionist would give assent because, even though the Torah says that one is not supposed to do any labour on Shabbat (and even though the Rabbis defined labour in such a way that they also came to prohibit the playing of instruments), the spirit of the Torah is such that relaxation is the goal. For that reason, given that we are no longer living in ancient Israel and given that ancient Israelite modes of conduct are no longer directly relevant to our own lifestyle, we are not obligated to imitate their particular customs and might fulfil our own personal interpretations of the Torah’s message, to whatever extent we personally deem sufficient. That would not only allow for a playing of the piano on Shabbat but, indeed, even the lighting of a fire – which is expressly forbidden in the Torah itself.

Reconstructionist Jews are so named because their intention is to reconstruct Judaism based upon their own conceptions of the spirit of the original texts. Where those texts reflect a spirit that is anathema to modern-day sensibilities, the text is simply expurgated. Higher forms of Progressive Judaism (if we are to consider this as a vertical spectrum leading up to total halakhic observance) would likewise eschew difficult passages, but would do so by reinterpreting them in such a fashion that they are made more amenable to modern sensitivities.

It’s along this broader spectrum of Progressive Judaism that things get rather complicated. (Un)fortunately, there is no codified system of Progressive halakhic exegesis, so different people hold by fairly different opinions. The Reform movement in America is renowned for being particularly lax, and many American Reform Rabbis would permit the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat (irrespective of the instrument) because this is only a fence around the Torah and not an actual Torah prohibition itself.

Many Progressive Rabbis in Australia also hold such an opinion. While they would feel particularly uncomfortable with the lighting of a fire (which is expressly forbidden by the Torah), and while they may (depending again on the individual) feel uncomfortable by things like writing (which are expressly forbidden by the Rabbis), the prohibition against instrumentation is “only” a means of protecting the law and not actually a law itself. Would they feel uncomfortable with tuning the instrument as well? Again, that depends on the individual, and some may well debate whether or not an untuned instrument is really “broken” in the first place.

Then, at the “top” end, there is Conservative Judaism. Conservative is so named because of its propensity to find ways of preserving the rabbinic halakha. Again, a Conservative Rabbi’s answer would be yes, but for a different reason yet again. Bearing in mind the fact that I am speaking of Conservative Judaism in theory (as in practise it is not always too dissimilar to “lower” forms of Progressive), the prohibition against labour on Shabbat is an everlasting prohibition, and the rabbinic interpretation of this prohibition as comprising 39 distinct categories of labour is likewise everlasting.

What is more, unlike mainstream Progressive Judaism (again, in theory), Conservative Judaism recognises the status of the “fence” that the Rabbis erected around the Torah. For that reason, playing any musical instrument that would require tuning (such as a guitar or a violin) is forbidden on Shabbat. Given that the piano does not require tuning (and that, if it does, it is almost never tuned on the spot or by the person playing it), playing a piano is an exception to the prohibition.

I would like to state again that I am not attempting to advocate Progressive Judaism. My point is simply that, just as many Progressive Jews are guilty of seeing Orthodoxy as a homogeneous entity, so too are many Orthodox Jews guilty of perceiving their non-Orthodox counterparts in a similar light. There is nothing wrong with utterly rejecting a particular philosophy, but a thousand things wrong with doing so from a position of ignorance. I hope that our community may remain just as theologically fragmented as it is today (for beauty lies in complexity, not in homogeneity), but that we might all learn to respect one another’s personal choices that little bit more.

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