Wednesday, June 13, 2007

legal formalism, halacha, and reform judaism

After posting a link yesterday to a paper on the differing emphasis in Christianity and Judaism on legal formalism vs. legal realism, I began to think about whether the same distinction holds true between Orthodox Judiasm and other “branches” of Judaism. I may be speaking in ignorance, but just as an example, a simple ritual like eating matzah on Pesach for an Orthodox Jew will bring to mind questions of how much to eat, in what time span, how must matzah be baked, and a myriad of other rules that define the act of eating and the substance of matzah; I do not think a Reform Jew who holds a traditional seder is as concerned with these details as much as with the simple symbolism of the matzah. Yet surprisingly (to me), doing a quick and random search through some of the response on the CCAR website (the umbrella group of the Reform rabbinate) proved my hypothesis incorrect. In this responsa, the question is raised whether it suffices to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah by eating in a tent, or must one construct a sukkah in accordance with the formal legal rules set down by halacha. The formulation of the question strikes at the heart of the issue of formalism vs. realism (italics mine):

Though not everyone will wish to purchase or erect a sukkah, there are those (families with young children, for example) who would find it enjoyable to eat festive meals in their camping tents… Would it not meet the intent, the essential purpose of the observance, by calling to mind the miracles which God did for us when we came out of Egypt? Indeed, given that the rabbinic tradition is divided over whether God actually caused our ancestors to "dwell in booths" in the desert, do we really need to construct huts in accordance with a long list of concrete halakhic specifications in order to remember the wilderness experience?

The question challenges us to consider the meaning of ritual observance in Reform Judaism. Is ritual, in and of itself, ever a "necessity" for us? Does a traditional practice possess any obligatory force above and beyond the moral or religious meaning it conveys? Put in this way, we believe the answer to the question is "yes". And that means that the answer to the present she'elah is "no": it does not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah to eat outdoors, or in a tent, or in some other non-traditional manner.

The response ends by noting that the moral message of religion does not exist independently from its ritual component. While the Reform movement has taken license to change ritual where needed, since halachically valid sukkot are readily available, there is no compelling reason to do so in this case. Another responsa on the issue of what constitutes a kosher Reform mikveh echoes the same theme – absent pressing need, the legal critieria of the Talmud are binding; one cannot fulfill the spirit of the law but ignore its formal requirements:

The second reason is based upon our attitude toward Jewish tradition as stated above: we do not make changes merely for the sake of making changes. The forms of Jewish ritual practice are often as significant to our religious experience as is the abstract "meaning" which those practices are said to convey. Yes, it is difficult and troublesome to arrange for a proper mikveh. For that matter, it is difficult and troublesome to arrange to have a proper Torah scroll. Yet we do not use a photocopied sefer torah in our worship services. This Committee has spoken out against the substitution of a "non-traditional" sukkah (a tent, a hut, etc.) for the "real thing."

I still have a hunch that the average Orthodox layperson is far more concerned with formalism than the average Reform layperson, but I may be simply ignorant of the facts – it could be that Reform Jews do ask their Rabbis questions like whether their esrog is kosher or how much food a sick person may consume on a fast day. I am a bit baffled by the Reform approach to halacha, but again, it could be because I approach it as an outsider; it would strike any Orthodox Jew as anomolous to sanction eating a non-kosher meal, but insist that a festive holiday meal take place in a sukkah that conforms with precise halachic detail. It would be interesting to investigate this one further, but I need to get back to the day job.


  1. thanks for the link yesterday. the author is actually an old friend from KBY (and later Gush).

    i wrote s/t which, in retrospect, might be related to the realism v. formalism debate in the mitzva of "lemaan tizkor...kol yemei chayecha" vis-a-vis the way that it's variously translated - here:

  2. kishnevi12:09 AM

    I think what drives the Reform idea is not that there is a halachic way of doing things, so much as there is a Jewish way of doing things, and this Jewish way is usually the halachic way. Except when the halachic way gets in the way (the modern version) or the halachic way is too Jewish (the original Reform version).

    And very often the typical Reform Jew doesn't bother with the halachic standards. He or she will hold a seder the way his/her parents held the seder. If we're lucky, the parental way was the halachic way. Or, as an alternate, they go by whatever version of the Haggadah they are using that year. (Maxwell House as a posek!)

    As for what drives the formal halachic process of the Reform movement, I might observe that apparently it is "too difficult and troublesom" to read the full parshah from the Torah on Shabbat morning for Reform congregations--their standard practice, apparently, is to read only selected highlights--maybe three paragraphs out of the whole sedrah.

  3. I don't believe your average Reform or Conservative Jew is that concerned with the details of halacha as much as the feel of ritual. Nor do I believe your average Rabbi running the shul is (one Reform Sunday school I taught in constructed the Sukkah in the santuary).

    However, there are more traditional people, non-Orthodox people, that attend Reform and/or Conservative shuls (such as my father) who do ask questions like these. They may not fulfill mitzvot with all the details, but they certainly do a nice imitation.

  4. Anonymous3:01 AM

    YHVH has not changed. HIS requirements remain. It is not about religion but relationship with the Creator. So if you want to please YHVH, dwell in sukkas/booths/tabernacles (pick your translation). It remains that we must observe Succoth for 8 days by dwelling in sukkas as YHVH stated to Moshe to tell our ancestors so that we don't forget what YHVH has done, is doing and will do in the future.