Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
Parashat Tazria Torah Reading: Leviticus 12:1-13:59
I have just returned from the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention, spending five days with my colleagues, studying, sharing, relaxing and even experiencing Tai Chi! We meet in a different city every year and this year we met in a conference center in Las Vegas! Several hundred rabbis from Canada, the United States, Latin America and Israel came together catching up with old friends and making new connections as well.
The last D'var Torah / sermon we heard at morning minyan yesterday morning was presented by Rabbi Adam Watstein, the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Las Vegas. Rabbi Watstein's D'var Torah was the perfect inspirational message to help us transition from the unique atmosphere of the Rabbinical Assembly Convention back to our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies and the myriad other venues in which Conservative/Masorti rabbis serve: Rabbi Watstein described a moment, sitting in his office, when a kid in the room on the other side of the wall to his office bounced a ball hard against the wall. A number of books fell of a shelf and onto the floor.
The books of course, fell open on the floor and, as Rabbi Watstein picked them up, he stopped and looked at each page that was open. The books were volumes he had had in his library since he was a teenager. The books were highlighted, underlined, and annotated with marginal notes. As Rabbi Watstein perused each volume, he revisited the years of his life during which he fell in love with Judaism. All that passion, enthusiasm and exploration came back to him. All the day-to-day engagements of the rabbinic day -- meetings, deadlines, time management challenges -- all fell away and all the energy and inspiration that led him to the rabbinate were back.
Rabbi Watstein encouraged us all to get in touch with those pre-ordination days, to refresh ourselves by reliving the texts, the experiences, the passions that inspired us to become rabbis in the first place . . . and to bring that energy back with us to our post-Convention "real lives."
This is what happened in Vegas . . . and isn't staying in Vegas.
Parashat B'ha'alotkha Torah Reading: Numbers 8:1-12:16
On the very same week that the Torah reading talks of the role of the 70 elders of Israel as a team of people sharing in the leadership of the Israelites, seven times seventy Conservative and Masorti rabbis from the United States, Israel, Latin America and Europe gathered for our annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention.
We shared an intense five days together during which we mourned our colleagues who passed away during the past year and welcomed our newly ordained colleagues . . . some of whom have held the title for a week!
At our annual Women's Lunch, over one hundred female colleagues learned that we now number about 275 throughout the Rabbinical Assembly, serving in every region all over the world. We stood in turn as our year of ordination was called out in a roll call and shared our professional and personal news. It was a heady and awe-filled experienced, especially for those of us who were part of the struggle to establish the ordination of women in our movement in the United States, Israel and Latin America.
We studied and celebrated together as the American Conservative Movement's new Machzor Lev Hadash was revealed and dedicated. "Lev Hadash" means "A New Heart" and this Machzor has the power to implant a very new heart into our Days of Awe: it is uplifting, sensitive, accessible, wise and visually beautiful. We were told that the RA had planned a first run of 30,000 copies, but that so many congregations had ordered copies at the pre-publication deadline that they had to up the run to 130,000 . . . which sold out immediately. The second printing is in progress.
There were three programs dedicated to three extraordinary people . . . two of whom are close personal friends of mine:
On Monday evening, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was installed as the Rabbinical Assembly's Executive Vice-President. Rabbi Schoenfeld will serve as the public voice of the Rabbinical Assembly, as the Rabbi of all of the RA's rabbis (over 2,000 of us!), as a spiritual and political leader of our movement. She is the first woman to hold this position in the 110 years of the Rabbinical Assembly's existence.
On Wednesday evening, I sat in the JTS auditorium as my dearest friend, Rabbi Gilah Dror of Hampton, Virginia was installed as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Dror is a quietly courageous, spiritual leader who has broken glass ceilings for women in the rabbinate time and time again over the twenty years of her rabbinate. Rabbi Dror brings intelligence and insight into the dialogue between the Jews of the United States and the Jews of the State of Israel . . . having served congregations in both countries . . . . As is the case with Rabbi Schoenfeld, Rabbi Dror is the first woman to hold the position of RA President. So you can see, this convention was quite a celebration for RA women . . . and men!
On the same evening as Rabbi Dror's installation, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, was honored by the RA and The Jewish Theological Seminary on the eve of his retirement as, I believe, our movement's most beloved and inspiring teachers. Generations of rabbis shaped by Rabbi Gillman's intellect and soul gathered to pay tribute to him. It is almost impossible to imagine JTS without him.
And those are just the highlights of my week in New York!
One of the most significant enterprises during convention week is the examination and passage of Rabbinical Assembly resolutions. These are documents of principle and purpose discussed and voted upon by colleagues and disseminated throughout our Movement. I will bring with me a number of our newly-passed RA resolutions for us to examine and discuss together over Shabbat morning kiddush tomorrow morning and in the coming weeks. I hope you will come be part of these engaging and significant conversations.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.