Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Samuel Freedman on Hechsher Tzedek

In today's Jerusalem Post, Samuel Freedman, the author of Jew Vs. Jew, wrote the best article about the new Hechsher Tzedek that I have yet to see. Freedman does a balanced job of explaining the rationale behind Rabbi Morris Allen's idea for a "new form of kosher certification, which reflect[s] a commitment to justice on behalf of kosher food companies rather than solely their adherence to the laws of kashrut in food preparation."

What I liked most about Freedman's article is how he returned to the civil rights era and Martin Luther King, Jr. to portray the history
of what we now call tikkun olam (social justice) in Judaism. The Jewish men and women who joined the Civil Rights Movement were passionate about their activism but, for the most part, dispassionate about the basis for their activism in their Jewish heritage. Freedman writes,

One of the whopping paradoxes of the civil rights movement was that the Jews who comprised a disproportionate share of white activists and volunteers were largely ignorant of the theological roots of their idealism. With some rare rabbinic exceptions like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jack Rothschild, they had to learn their own Bible from the black Christians in the campaign.

As Freedman understands it, there has long been a disconnect among Jews between the social activism that is practiced and the textual tradition that promotes such activism.

In the parts of the Jewish spectrum with the strongest involvement in tikkun olam, particularly among the secular and unaffiliated, there is the least awareness of the Judaic foundations of that concept. (In fact, there is often an antipathy to religion itself as mere superstition.) In the parts with the deepest knowledge of text and tradition, particularly the Orthodox sector, a formidable apparatus of charities exists almost entirely to serve internal needs.

Freedman points to the American Jewish World Service, led by social justice trailblazer Ruth Messinger, which has become such a phenomenon because it has "overtly connected activism to a disciplined, ongoing study of Jewish texts." I agree. I would also add the work of two Conservative rabbis in two other Jewish organizations that are both successfully connecting their passion for activism with their devotion to Torah. Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, started by Rabbi David Rosenn (left), integrates work for social change, Jewish learning, and community building. Rabbi Jill Jacob's work with Jewish Funds for Justice helps achieve social and economic security and opportunities for the poor in our country, but is deeply grounded in her scholarly and passionate Torah. Jill's ability to mesh her Torah with her Jewish values of tzedek are often expressed on the jspot blog (although I disagree with her take on Thanksgiving).

The Conservative Movement, through the Hechsher Tzedek, is also bridging the divide between justice work and the Torah's mandate to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:10). There is textual bases for the Hechsher Tzedek in our sifrei kodesh (the Jewish textual tradition from the Bible to the Talmud and through the rabbinic codes of law and modern-day commentaries). So rather than call Conservative Judaism a "wishy washy" branch on the American Jewish scene, I choose to look at it as the best of both worlds. We can have the commitment to social justice that is so prioritized in the Reform Movement while also having the commitment to Jewish law and lore (the Halakhic and Midrashic traditions), which is the primary focus of Orthodoxy.

Perhaps Samuel Freedman's article serves as the best response to the comments posted to this blog regarding my thoughts on Rabbi Harold Kushner's article in the recent Conservative Judaism journal.

How does the Conservative Judaism of today differ from an increasingly more traditional Reform Judaism?
Conservative Judaism emphasizes a commitment to the system of mitzvot (Halakhah), while also emphasizing social justice and k'vod habriyot (human dignity). And while we're at it, How does Conservative Judaism differ from Orthodox Judaism? Conservative Judaism wants its adherents to be committed to the 613 mitzvot and to engage in an ongoing ascension up the ladder of Jewish commitments (Shabbat and holy days, Kashrut, prayer, study, tzedakah, etc.) while still being able to brush their teeth on Shabbat without buying one of these.

3 comments:

tikkunger said...

Note edited (poor spelling, lol) repost of my content

Rabbi you wrote:

Perhaps Samuel Freedman's article serves as the best response to the comments posted to this blog regarding my thoughts on Rabbi Harold Kushner's article in the recent Conservative Judaism journal.

How does the Conservative Judaism of today differ from an increasingly more traditional Reform Judaism? Conservative Judaism emphasizes a commitment to the system of mitzvot (Halakhah), while also emphasizing social justice and k'vod habriyot (human dignity). And while we're at it, How does Conservative Judaism differ from Orthodox Judaism? Conservative Judaism wants its adherents to be committed to the 613 mitzvot and to engage in an ongoing ascension up the ladder of Jewish commitments (Shabbat and holy days, Kashrut, prayer, study, tzedakah, etc.) while still being able to brush their teeth on Shabbat without buying one of these.

In all fairness, the above does little to answer anything. At best it comes off as paying lip service. It sounds great but where is the (kosher) beef?

I'm for one am more interested in the second part of your comment and in theory I love it. But word's without opportunity, infrastructure and (most importantly) local support does very little!

I'm not trying to bash or place blame, and I am 100% behind the movements ideology. But I'm expected to pay hefty due's to support institutions that won't put an honest effort into helping me and/or others actually be/become serious about halacha and mitzvot.

I'm willing to be part of the solution but I/we need help and the power seems (at least to me) to be on your side of the lay Jew/leadership fence.

I'am here. I'm pointing out. I'm asking for help! Surely that deserves better a response than I have gotten for you or?

I'm not trying to prove you wrong. In fact I want you to be right but it's going to take more than words. It's going to take action on both side's.

And on that let me conclude by making it clear that, I'm here, I'm ready! And I' m asking, where are you?

Larry Lennhoff said...

How does the Conservative Judaism of today differ from an increasingly more traditional Reform Judaism? Conservative Judaism emphasizes a commitment to the system of mitzvot (Halakhah), while also emphasizing social justice and k'vod habriyot (human dignity).

Once you take away the idea of mitzvot as commandment (as R. Kushner did in his article) then what you say above is indistinguishable from Reform. Take the following quote from the Reform Judaism website:


The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.


I really don't see much difference between the two approaches.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Because of the recent negative press, one would think that the large disconnect between the leadership and laity in Conservative Judaism is unique to the Conservative Movement.

However, the recent study published in the JTA shows that there is a growing Reform leader-member disconnect. Sue Fishkoff writes, "A huge gap exists between what Reform synagogue leaders think their members are looking for and what members say they actually want, according to a new study by the movement to be released at its upcoming biennial."

So too, a recent article ("Leaking Ship: Young Israel on the Rocks") published in the Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper, shows there is much resentment for the Orthodox Young Israel's leadership including anger with recent ideological decisions. Modern Orthodox communities in America seem to be increasingly polarized and divided over the disconnect between Young Israel national leadership and the congregations.

It is not only in the Conservative Movement that these issues are taking place. The Reform and Modern Orthodox are also beset by these institutional problems. The media has spent more ink on the recent challenges of Conservative Judaism because the population study has shown that the movement went from being the largest denomination in North America to number two (behind the Reform Movement).

The goal of Conservative Movement leadership will be to bridge the divide and to better define Conservative Judaism. Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of JTS, is on the right track by defining Conservative Judaism in sociological terms (what Conservative Jews do) rather than what the ideological and halakhic expectations for Conservative Jews are thought to be.

How does Conservative Judaism differ from Reform Judaism today? The best way to answer that is to observe Conservative shuls and Reform temples on Shabbat as a sociologist would.