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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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  • Stefan says:

    Were ‘progressive’ theologies practised by Jews worthy of respect then I am sure more people would respect them. The fact is that the childish quest for more and more personal ‘freedom’ from the responsibilities placed upon the Jewish People by G-d has not only resulted in ever greater assimilation and other tragedies it has actively legitimised it. As ‘progressive’ communities struggle increasingly to find a new generation to which they can pass on their anaemic culture, their intellectuals respond by frenziedly reaching out in all directions for solutions. Solutions like recognising paternal lineage which studies have shown to only enhance the assimilation rate; missionising (often couched in pluralistic, let’s-learn-about-each-other language); attempts to stereotype authentic Torah Judaism (note, for example, how Simon Holloway’s essay talks only about Orthodoxy’s restrictions, as if the raison d’etre of Torah Judaism was to tie you to a chair in a darkened room); and the spending of countless thousands of dollars on all sorts of touchy-feely causes, committees and projects.

    “…Board of Progressive Jewish Education was formed, in order to fill the gap that was created…” Astonishing. How can a vacuum fill a hole? For the net result of 200-odd years of the ‘progressive’ breakaway from 3,000-odd years of Jewish tradition is a Jewish People overwhelmingly ignorant of their heritage. No wonder that, according to Holloway, the Reconstructionists see the goal of Shabbat as relaxation. Is it really?

    The Reform movement which, I recall, was founded in Germany (rather than being an “American phenomenon”) likes to see itself as holding true to the prophetic tradition. By being highly selective in which bits of what the prophets said they adhere to, the movement has managed to rip millions of Jews away from their heritage and prevented the birth of many millions more. While the prophets admonished the Jewish People for their lack of Torah observance – both in spirit and in word – Reform twisted their statements to advocate the abandonment and rubbishing of the very principles and behaviour the prophets wanted us to return to! The effect has been the birth of a variety of ‘progressive’ movements each one earnestly considering how to rearrange how best to make the seating on their respective Titanics more egalitarian.

    ‘Progressive’ theologies do, however, represent – as Blackadder’s Baldrik would say – a cunning plan. By getting rid of most of what we have been told we should do ‘progressives’ can pursue what’s left (in, of course, whatever way they see fit) and sincerely consider themselves to be better Jews and human beings because they have not trangressed in such-and-such a way or have not failed to do such-and-such a mitzvah. By raising the fruits of their own intellects above that of G-d’s requirements ‘progressives’ have effectively made a god out of their own image.

    ‘Progressive’? Skipping to oblivion more like. Rabbi Lamm may well be wrong in his prediction that we will soon be saying kaddish for the Conservative movement: alas, time may show that he should have included the whole ‘progressive’ movement.

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – while i do like to be educated and informed and appreciate the content and I am not as vehement as Stefan here, I do have to agree that the results of “progressive” Judaism is really regression and assimilation with 1)a loss of Jewish education (and much education that is done is watered down and “modernized”) and 2) a loss of Jews from Judasim with a blurring of who is really a Jew and the negative consequences to converts and their children.

    In the end – is the goal to serve myself and my needs (and I can move up and down the spectrum to suit myself) or to serve Hashem as he dictated on Mount Sinai when both the written and oral Torah were given… the real question will be the grandchildren – where will they be? My assumption is that your answer is wherever they want.

    I understand your intention is to educate. I appreciate it but you opened Pandora’s box here as the legitimacy of any form of progressive Judaism is questionable.

  • Stefan and Chaim,

    You misrepresent me. I made it very clear that I am not advocating Progressive Judaism and that I consider there to be nothing wrong with utterly rejecting it. My issue was merely with those who reject it from a position of ignorance. I think I also made it quite clear that I was simply writing a defense of its complexity, lest people like yourselves think that it’s simply about adopting a laissez-faire attitude. I cannot help but notice that neither of you actually responded to any of the points in my article. Your critiques are sociological while, if you haven’t noticed, my article was about Progressive conceptions of the halakha.

    So far as your sociological criticism is concerned, this is a serious issue. But don’t pretend that reasonable studies have demonstrated the dangers of adopting patrilineal heritage: the phenomenon of our declining demographic is so utterly complex and cannot possibly be reduced to a single issue. You want to blame the Progressive movement for the fact that Jews leave it and assimilate? Then who are you going to blame for the fact that Jews are leaving Orthodox communities and joining Progressive ones?

    As for where my grandchildren will be, you hit the nail on the head. However much you might wish to own your children or your grandchildren, you do not. It is your task to imbue them with a love for their heritage so that they might wish to stick with it and, while we all might disagree about the best means of doing that, I think it’s worth noting that we all still have the same goal. I am sorry that my final paragraph was not one that you have understood.

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – I was clear what I understood your intention to be – to educate me. you did that and I thanked you.

    As to your diversity – they all reject the fact that Oral Torah is divine and was given by G-d on Mt Sinai and the interpretations by the Rabbis date back to that time.

    If you steal $1 or $1000000 you are still a thief. Once you start to set your own boundaries, it is always movable by others.

    My point as I stated is that the whole progressive idea is questionable from the start.

    I understand you do not want to debate these issues. I accept that.

    I understand that it was not the purpose of your article, however if someone was to write an article whether a circle has two or three corners I would feel obliged to educate that it has none or infinite I guess.

  • First of all, there are plenty of people who reject the notion that the halakha was given to Moses on Sinai but who nonetheless remain Orthodox. The halakha doesn’t tell you what you are supposed to think about the halakha and there are Jews who identify as Orthodox and who debate the import of that particular notion in the first place. The assertion in bShabbat that anything said by an exemplary student is הלכה למשה מסיני (“halakha to Moses from Sinai”) allows for the establishment of differing conceptions as regards what that phrase means.

    Clearly there is an absolute wealth of dissenting opinions within the Orthodox world, but that is not something that I have attempted to touch on here. My point is only to show that the same variation exists elsewhere as well. The only reason that I don’t want to debate these points is that I don’t want to establish myself as somebody who is defending Progressive Judaism against those sorts of indictments. I did say that it is not “my” philosophy, and I did also say that there is nothing wrong with rejecting it.

  • Chaim says:

    I understand that (although not agreeing to the first line)

    – I apologize.

  • Chaim says:

    In the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah,

    …these are the students of the sages who sit in groups occupied in Torah. These declare something impure and these declare it pure. These forbid and these permit. These declare something kosher and these declare it unfit. Perhaps a person will say, “If so, how can I study Torah?” This is what we were taught: All were given by a single shepherd [i.e. Moses]. One G-d gave them, one leader spoke them from the mouth of the Master of All Things, blessed be He. As it is written, “And G-d spoke all these things, saying…” You, too, should make your ear like a grinder and acquire an understanding heart to hear the words of all these opinions.

    Chagiga 3b

  • Chaim says:


    Halacha LeMoshe MiSinai – “A Halachic tradition whose source is not from a verse, or from an interpretation of a verse, but rather was transmitted orally by Moses. Many of these traditions are found in the Talmud, and act as the basis for practical laws.”

  • Perry Dane says:

    Two unrelated points:

    (1) My sense is that many Conservative Rabbis would not allow piano-playing on Shabbat. Their reason might be that, even though the problem of repair is more attenuated than it is for other instruments, the weight of authority remains against allowing the practice, and there is no particularly strong moral imperative (as there is, for example, in extending religious rights and obligations to women) to challenging that line of authority.

    (2) The exact nature of the oral law is, of course, complicated and contested, even from a completely “traditional” view. For my own take on the question, see http://www.columbia.edu/cu/law/svara/svara_2-2_dane.pdf

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