4/29/2007

Positive-Historical Halakha

I recently had a conversation with a Conservative talmid/chaver of mine, whre I asked him about the Conservative position on two issues with Halakhic consequences that recently came up on this blog, namely, the reintroduction of tekhelet and the appropriate time to begin praying for rain.

I asked him because I felt that these are two areas where, if consistent, the Conservative movement would unequivocally recommend the addition of tekhelet to taliyot (Steg, MarG, & Freddie Mac – please verify that this is the grammatically correct plural of talit) and begin praying for rain either along with the beginning of the rainy season for that particular country or 60 days after the equinox (which I believe was yesterday or Monday). The Conservative movement was originally called the ‘positive-historical school’, and recommended the use of historical tools and understandings to influence the direction of Halakhic ruling. In both of these instances, the objective evidence points very clearly to what happened, and what the ‘original’ Halakha was intended to be. Thus, in both of these cases, the Conservative movement should adopt positions which fit their official approach to halakha. Is there any doubt that Zechariah Frankel would wear a tallit katan with tekhelet?

My friend responded that he didn’t think that the issues were weighty enough to be taken up by the Laws and Standards Committee.

To me, this was a very frank admission of a serious flaw with the movement. I ran a Bar-Ilan search on the question of the appropriate time for saying ‘ve-ten tal u-matar’ in the Southern Hemisphere. It is addressed by most of the major late 19th and early 20th century (need I even say Orthodox?) poskim. Apparently, they thought that the issue was weighty enough to merit their attention, and that it mattered to them whether people said those extra 3 words or not. Tekhelet has occupied the attention of many authors and response writers as well.

Granted, there aren’t so many Conservative Jews who pray thrice daily, or who wear a tallit katan. That’s definitely a part of the problem. But there seems, beyond that, to be a fundamentally cavalier attitude toward halakha in general, that these seemingly minor issues simply aren’t addressed in any sort of serious way.

An (I won’t say ‘The’) upshot of this thesis is that from the Orthodox perspective, the flaw with Conservative Judaism is not the halakhic mechanisms that they would employ, rather the cavalier attitude toward halakha in general. It would be one thing if the laypeople simply didn’t give a whit what the Rabbis say. It’s another for the Rabbinate to simply not address halakhic issues, even in an academic fashion. How difficult would it be to change the dates in the official UCJS calendar to reflect the ‘positive-historical’ reality?

Not too long ago, I suggested that there’s not much substantive difference, from the standpoint of pure, halakhic reasoning, between the hetter of carrying inside an urban eruv and the ‘hetter’ to drive for a mitzvah. Many people got a bit bent out of shape, either because they thought that I implied too strongly that driving might be muttar or that carrying inside some of our contemporary eruvin might be an issur skilah. Though I probably should have chosen a better example (driving on Shabbat is THE classic example of regrettable Conservative response; allowing women to participate in zimmun with men, for example, at least has some basis in the Rishonim), my point was that the difference lies NOT in the halakhic argumentation, but in the attitude toward halakha in general.

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