A do-it-yourself Torah — Attitude replaces theology

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

American Jewry is up in arms over the proposed conversion law. By codifying the status quo, which denies recognition to Conservative and Reform conversions performed in Israel, the law is said to delegitimize the Judaism practiced by the majority of U.S. Jews.

That argument would carry more weight if those marching under the banner of religious pluralism had a religious position. They do not.

In place of theology, American Jews have an attitude: No one — not even God — can tell me what to do.

As the editors of last summer's Commentary symposium, "What Do American Jews Believe?", candidly acknowledged in their introduction: "Whatever else American Jews may believe in, it is doubtful the majority of them believe in Judaism."

David Novak, a Conservative rabbi, noted in the same symposium: "Too many in the liberal [Reform and Conservative] community seem determined to adjust the Torah to whatever is considered au courant in the class to which most of the members belong. Hence it is becoming harder and harder to see why their approach should any longer be called `Judaism.'"

This is most obviously true for unaffiliated and Reform Jews, who together constitute a significant majority of U.S. Jews. To the extent that they have an articulated viewpoint, it is that by labeling themselves Reform or unaffiliated, they have magically rendered all halachah (Jewish law) no longer binding on them.

At least in the case of Reform, popular practice and official dogma are congruent.

From its inception, the movement substituted Kantian moral autonomy for the binding Divine command. All halachah, even circumcision, was declared a matter of personal choice, and the only relevant law was that which a particular individual happened to find spiritually uplifting at that moment.

In the recent debate over the movement's position on homosexuality, one Reform rabbi responded to a colleague's citation of Leviticus 18: "It's pretty late in the day for Scripture to be invoked in [our] debates."

The Conservative movement, by contrast, has never formally abrogated all halachah. Yet the distinction is lost on most of the movement's adherents. In the words of Howard Singer, a Conservative rabbi who fled the pulpit for the world of advertising, "If we talk of God or Jewish law, [our congregants] act as if we breached a tacit understanding."

While Conservative theologians spin elaborate theories to explain their endless tacks between tradition and flexibility, their congregants do not share their confusion. They know exactly what they want.

In Singer's words, it is "a way of asserting Jewish identity that entails no restrictive personal requirements, does not interfere with their social lives and yet, on demand, can put them in touch with their past."

Less than one-quarter of Conservative Jews, according to the movement's most recent self-study, keep a kosher home. Slightly more than one-third light Shabbat candles and only 29 percent attend synagogue twice a month. Almost none use a mikveh (ritual bath), though the movement has never declared that the laws of family purity no longer apply.

Having reduced Sinai to an "opening conversation" at best, Conservative Jews cannot offer a coherent account of how God transmitted his commands to His people.

They cannot explain why an all-powerful God is assumed incapable of formulating a law appropriate for His people in all ages and circumstances; nor can they reconcile so-called "continuing revelation" with the Torah's repeated insistence on its own immutability.

Continuing revelation becomes nothing more than popular practice wagging the Divine will.

Thus an unlearned laity is polled concerning such issues as patrilineal descent and ordination of women, and popular practice is retroactively ratified in the guise of "rabbinic legislation."

When Conservative and Reform Jews do attend their temples and synagogues, they listen to the Torah reading, with its long lists of do's and don'ts, with a certain cognitive dissonance. On Yom Kippur, they find themselves asking forgiveness for violating commandments they never heard of, and whose transgression they do not acknowledge as sins.

Reform and Conservative Jews cannot defend their particular level of mitzvah observance, or their beliefs in terms of the classic Jewish sources, of which the vast majority lack even the most rudimentary knowledge.

Yet without recourse to our common sources — Bible, Talmud, Codes — Judaism degenerates into pure antinomianism, the belief that moral laws are relative. What any Jew, no matter how unlearned, happens to think is conflated with Jewish thought.

Whether the individual's reason, spiritual intuition or base desires are made the ultimate arbiter of religious truth, the result is the same: a form of self-worship. While such worship is common enough, it is antithetical both to the development of a religious community and to the awe and mystery of religion.

The great tragedy confronting Judaism today is not that some Jews may be hearing for the first time that whatever they do is not necessarily OK. It is that they have never been challenged to think hard about the meaning of their Judaism.

Had they been forced to do so, they would be far more likely to seek the meaning of their lives in their God and His Torah.