>Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was arguably the leading Jewish intellectual institution in the United States. It was home to a cadre of scholars whose research and publications in the areas of Bible, Talmud, history and Jewish philosophy helped shape the thinking of a large cross-section of American Jewry.
December 22, 2005

“Covenantal Judaism”

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was arguably the leading Jewish intellectual institution in the United States. It was home to a cadre of scholars whose research and publications in the areas of Bible, Talmud, history and Jewish philosophy helped shape the thinking of a large cross-section of American Jewry.

JTS shaped the direction of Conservative Judaism in the United States, producing scholars and rabbis whose trademark was the synthesis of Jewish scholarship with modern life in America. That is why I am baffled that Rabbi David Wolpe, a graduate and product of the intellectual milieu that once was JTS, would produce a manifesto for his movement so focused on form and so thin in substance (“A Manifesto for the Future,” Dec. 2).

I am surprised that the spiritual leader who once challenged our thinking on the historicity of the Exodus, a sermon that was “vintage JTS scholarship,” would envision a Jewish movement void of the intellectual engagement with Torah that was once a trademark of Conservative Judaism, focusing instead on cosmetic name changes and superficial definitions.

In his discussion of covenants, Rabbi Wolpe says, “The covenant at Sinai brings us to our relationship to God.” What he fails to mention is that in the classical Jewish tradition, from Mount Sinai all the way to the JTS of Heschel and Lieberman, the covenant with God at Mount Sinai was always expressed through an intellectual and spiritual dialogue with the Torah we all received at Sinai.

Rabbi Wolpe replaces this aspect of the Sinaitic covenant with a “friendship with God,” an idea that sounds like it comes more from the world of New Age pop-spirituality than it does from the people whose daily prayers invoke the covenant at Sinai by asking God to “open our hearts, inspire our intellect and enlighten our eyes through the teachings of Torah.”

For centuries, spiritual seekers from Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the ARI, Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon — and the scholars of JTS — all sought spirituality by penetrating God’s mind through Torah study, not by holding His hand and asking God to take a stroll in the park.

Call it what you will, but a “Covenantal Judaism” void of intellect is nothing more than just another feel-good, self-help movement. The intellectual and spiritual legacy of JTS deserves more than that.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskilla
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Rabbi David Wolpe Responds:

The proposal for “Covenantal Judaism” seeks to reinvigorate the profound and complex tradition of Conservative Judaism. The idea of a “friendship with God” is not mine but rabbinic. The interested reader should check Hagigah 16a, “God is the Friend of the world” creating friendships among people (Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 17), swearing eternal friendship to Abraham (Sefer Yestirah 6:7) and taking off from the description of friendship in Isaiah 5:1, Sifre Deut., Menachot 53b, etc.

No serious Jew should assume that covenant is separate from an engagement in Torah or synonymous with a “stroll in the park” (Rabbi Bouskila’s words, not my own). Should I conclude that because Rabbi Bouskila’s reaction omits mention of mitzvot he advocates a Judaism without mitzvot? Of course not.

Let us take one another seriously; no one is negating the centrality of study. We are a people of Torah. Study alone is not enough, however. Real relationship is as rigorous as real learning. As a wise aphorist once said, professors wish we were joined at the head, but God joins us at the heart.

Name changes are not always cosmetic, they are often symbolic — Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. Redefining Conservative Judaism to “Covenantal Judaism” is an attempt to refocus Jews on our individual and collective mission: “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

Orthodoxy’s Role

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is correct in his view that a “window has opened to the Orthodox community” (Orthodoxy Has Chance to Reshape Role,” Dec. 9).

However, we at the Orthodox Union take strong issue with the suggestion that we move beyond “traditional parameters.” Many of these traditional parameters are nothing less than definitional of Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Kanefsky correctly notes that the participation of Orthodox rabbis on boards with non-Orthodox rabbis has “practically disappeared.” Most Orthodox rabbis adhere to the principles delineated by their teachers or teacher’s teachers of a previous generation.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the two authorities cited by Rabbi Kanefsky did, indeed, strongly discourage their disciples from pursuing matters of “spiritual religious interest” with non-Orthodox rabbis, and for us, the guidelines of these masters remain in full force.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s advocacy of “interdenominational study groups” presents serious and fundamental problems. Our tradition reveres the concept of Havdalah, the recognition and appreciation of boundaries and differences between groups.

Orthodox Judaism espouses Torah Min HaShamayim, the divine origin of Torah, and accepts the halachic process as it has manifested itself in Jewish history over the past 2,000 years. With such fundamental issues dividing us, it is well nigh impossible to teach Torah from the same platform.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s quote of Rav Soloveitchik’s statement, “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the mind and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements,” was relevant in its time and unlike Rabbi Kanefsky’s contention, is more relevant in these times of widespread spiritual chaos and confusion.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s position that the strong statements of rabbis of a previous generation are no longer relevant is one which most halachic Jews find alarming. It opens the gates to the slippery slope of relativism and of undermining the halachic process itself.

Whereas the Orthodox Union is prepared, even eager, to cooperate with all Jews on matters of general community welfare, it is committed to following the decisions and guidelines of masters such as Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik in all of our activities, ranging from the regulations of kashrut and Shabbat to broader communal concerns. To belittle the authority of masters of a previous generation because of changes in society echoes Reform perspectives, which we have historically opposed.

This approach is one which is fraught with dangers and difficulties, and which we cannot accept as fundamental policy for the Orthodox world.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President
Stephen J. Savitsky
Union of Orthodox Jewish
Congregations of America

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky Responds:

I’m grateful for Rabbi Weinreb’s thoughtful response. Rabbi Weinreb has done remarkable work leading the Orthodox Union, expanding the vision of the organized Orthodox community to include the victims of genocide in Darfur, the displaced and hungry of New Orleans and the victims of sexual abuse.

There is a paradox that characterizes much of human relations, that the people we are closest to are the very people when we have the most trouble truly engaging and embracing. It is with regard to linking arms with the people we are closest to — our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters — that Rabbi Weinreb and I disagree.

I also believe that the record shows that over time, the Orthodox community has indeed re-evaluated policy decisions of our eminent teachers, Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik. The commonplace celebrations of bat mitzvah and observances of Yom HaShoah in Orthodox shuls both attest to this.

The slippery slope can indeed be frightening. But any religious community that truly aspires for relevance and impact must have the courage, patience and vision with which successfully navigate it.

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