This year I’ve been invited (with the family) to spend Shavuot/Shabbat as the visiting scholar/maggid shiur at Yeshivat ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati at Ma’aleh Gilboa. (Rashe Yeshiva Rabbis David Bigman, Shmuel Reiner, Yehuda Gilad and Yosef Slotnick). Tonight’s shiur will focus on the necessary, dialectical tension that obtains between Law and Spirituality, as expressed in the contrast between the overwhelming experience of Matan Torah and Talmud Torah. As Professor Twersky ז"ל used to note (following the Rov זצ"ל’s cue), without experiencing (and submitting to) God’s presence, the study of Torah becomes a mechanical, fossilized effort. Without the study of Torah and the forms provided by mitzvot, spirituality becomes anarchic, self-serving and eventually evaporates.
I thought of this this morning, upon reading the commencement speech of outgoing JTS Chancellor, Prof. Ismar Schorsch. He bemoans the collapse of adherence to Halakha (as he defines it), the spiritually vacuous character of the movement, and the wholesale adoption of contemporary mores and values by the leadership and the laity. The audience, by and large, was incensed by his remarks and, more generally, didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
I noted my feelings about the Conservative movement in an earlier posting. I can’t, therefore, say that I’m surprised either by Schorsch’s remarks or the response thereto. The success of Conservative Judaism in the mid-twentieth century was based upon a profound loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish People that the members and clergy had inherited from their traditional or traditionally oriented parents. That did not last beyond the 1960’s. In its place came the full force of contemporary culture, to which Jewish practice was adapted (or compelled to adapt). The result is the dialogue des sourdes that started with Prof. Weiss-Halivni’s walkout in the 1980’s and reached its crescendo with Prof. Schorsch’s speech.
Study is not enough. It must be accompanied by the experience of Matan Torah, the acknowledgement that with all of the power given us in Talmud Torah (“לא בשמים היא”), we must use that authority with a heightened awareness of our own limitation, with intellectual modesty. That is not a recipe for halakhic sloth, but for measured responsibility, as the distant vistas of Talmud Torah are explored and experienced. [See my remarks, here.]