Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Of Temple Emanuel, Kavod ha-Beriyot and Other Problems

In the past, I have had occasion to mention the fact that I grew up in a Conservative home, and to acknowledge (with thanks) the education that I received, as a result. That is, perhaps, why I feel a tinge of outrage at the abysmal ignorance (ignorant arrogance, and arrogant ignorance) that characterizes Conservative rabbis and (a fortiori) laypersons.

I recently came upon a poignant case in point, on the website of my former haunt, Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre (Ma.). The current rabbi, a very nice fellow who I once met at the Kotel on Shavuoth morning, has posted his position on Gay 'commitment ceremonies.' Truth to tell, I was not surprised that he supports these, and is willing to perform them. Nor was I bowled over to read that the performance of such 'ceremonies' in the synagogue will be put to a congregational vote. (After all, as the late Marshall Sklare once pointed out, Conservative Judaism is the Jewish version of American Congregationalism.)
What upset and angered me, as it always does, was the shallowness of the argument presented. In addition, I never cease to be amazed at the incredible moxy of Conservative apologists, who distort, distend and disembody elements of Jewish tradition in order to achieve their ends. (Here, indeed, I place the onus on the appointed spokesmen and scholars of the movement. The rabbis they train mere repeat their words.)

Enough has already been written about the illegitimate use of the word 'halakhic' (sic!) to describe the violent removal of a verse from the Bible. There's no novelty in that either. The Conservative movement has been doing that for sixty years. (In fact, I must add that while I was well on my way out of the movement when I read it, the so-called 'responsum' on driving to synagogue on Shabbos gave me an added push. Rarely, before or since, have I encountered a more intellectually dishonest presentation. Even if it was written 'from a good place.') Shabbos, Gilui Arayos...What's the difference?

What really got my lather up was the appeal to 'Human Dignity' or Kavod ha-Beriyot. Quoting, Rabbi Elliott Dorff, the rabbi writes:

He then brought in another crucial halakhic concept called k’vod habriot, human dignity, which itself flows from one of the Torah’s most powerful teachings: that all human beings are created in God’s image. And if they are created in God’s image, they deserve dignity.

This is not some fuzzy funkadelic 21st century concept. The Talmud itself makes a big deal about human dignity as being a halakhic imperative which can override rabbinic and even biblical precepts.

So, now: Human Dignity trumps submission to God. Human Dignity allows one to sin (and commit Giluy Arayot, at that). Human Dignity is, in effect, the highest value known to Man, er... Judaism. Truth to tell, that has been the case with the Conservative Movement, ever since it was hijacked by Mordechai Kaplan. It is a narcissistic religion that worships man. God, as a result, must bend His Will to fit Man's ever-changing perception of Life. As Chernihovsky put it, they put Tefillin on the Statue of Apollo. I wish they would simply be intellectually honest and admit (as Reform Judaism did over a century ago) that they reject anything Jewish that does not fit their dynamic weltanschauung.

On the other hand, Kavod ha-Beriyot certainly is a powerful and central feature and value of Judaism. It overrides a number of De-Rabbanans (which are based on De-Oraysas). Many,many people who view themselves as observant Jews could well use a refresher course in the Laws of Human Dignity. (See the Introduction of the Netziv to his commentary on Bereshis.)

Nevertheless, it has its limits, however. Human convenience, even human need, never overrides God's Will. Does that raise moral issues? Certainly. Do we need to grapple and address those issues within the parameters afforded us? No Question. Does it require of us both sensitivity and respect? Absolutely!!! Does it justify doing violence to the Torah, or intellectual and spiritual dishonesty. Under no circumstance!!!

Food for thought, as we go to dispense of our spiritual חמץ


onionsoupmix said...

It is a narcissistic religion that worships man. God, as a result, must bend His Will to fit Man's ever-changing perception of Life

Orthodoxy is not all that free from worshipping man either, btw. Plenty of people go super machmir just to look good, to themselves or others.

And the God bending His Will part is straight out of the oven story in the gemara where a bas kol is ignored and the decision is "shelo bashomayim he".

Jeffrey said...

I agree that the use of Torah for self-aggarandizement is a form of idolatry.

I think you're totally off on the reference to Tanur shel Akhnai. There it was a question of determining a moot point. R. Joshua would have been HORRIFIED by the idea of ripping verses from Humash in the interest of some transient form of subjectivism.

TsA has been abused so much that I think it should be given a rest. BTW, plenty of authorities allow for Divine intervention in the process of Psak (e.g. ShuT min ha-Shamayim).

Anonymous said...

"Human Dignity trumps submission to God"???

The Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah to which you refer is quite clear that kavod ha-briyot cannot trump any mitzvot d'oraita precisely because human dignity does not trump submission to God. The teshuvah in question states repeatedly that human dignity is a serious value, but that divine dignity takes priority; thus the authors of the teshuvah argue quite clearly that "kavod ha-briyot" overrides should not trump d'oraita prohibitions regarding homosexuality. Please read the actual teshuvah!

Jeffrey said...

1) I cannot dignify a document that does violence both to the word and the intent of the law with the designation 'Teshuvah.' It is a very cogent, articulate and principled poplicy statement and I respect that.

2) While the document does, indeed, defer to Divine Will, it so delimits and distorts that Will, as to confirm my original characterization, de facto, if not de theoretico.

3)The policy paper is really irrelevant. As Sklare points out, the source of authority of the Conservative Movement is the people and not submission to Divine mandate. That was the upshot of the Temple Emanuel material. Indeed, it is that reality that drove the UTJ people out of the Conservative Movement (taking most of its learned members with it) along with the few, truly principled Conservative laypersons I've ever encountered.

My point is that intellectual honesty dictates that you start playing pretend and say you're inspired by the Law; you respect it etc. However, there is no way on God's earth that you can say you abide by it. Honesty and Taking Responsibility are also parts of Human Dignity.