Category Archives: Jewish Law / Halakha

Posts related to Jewish Law

Lord, Get Me High

Amusing article from Reuters: Israel to Soothe Trauma with Marijuana – specifically for soldiers under stress. For a more serious take on drugs in Judaism, read this article by David Novak. As I recall, he demonstrates that most of the arguments in the teshuvot which prohibit taking drugs could equally be applied to smoking and drinking – neither one of which are as explicit prohibited.

Posted in Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with .

Lonely Men Of Faith

Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

A few months ago, Avraham pointed me to this Forward review of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s new book Wrestling with God and Men. I wrote some preliminary thoughts based on the review, but the YUCS server crashed as I submitted it for posting. This technical glitch proved to be fortuitous in that Rabbi Greenberg visited UC later that week and I was able to talk to him personally and purchase a copy of the book. Although he still did not convince me of his arguments, he conveyed the emotional turmoil with which people live. In halakhic matters, people often ignore the human dimension involved of an issue and develop their opinions in a social vacuum. However, halakha is ultimately followed by people many of whom face difficult conflicts for a myriad of personal reasons. While personal issues alone are not sufficient to change Jewish law, we cannot ignore the tension and struggles that people face in their quest to be observant Jews.

Below is my review of Rabbi Greenberg’s book, as submitted to a writing seminar.

Continue reading

Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

Hard Core Pesach: Soft Core Matzah

Huge thanks to Jacob Sasson for sending me the link to Strange as it might seem, the Sepharadic matzot are not the wholesome crispy goodness most of us are accustomed to. Instead, their matzot might resemble pizza dough’s malleability.1

Why the difference?

Jewish law defines two types of blessings for grain products: “Hamotzi” for actual bread and “Mezonot” for everything else. Berachot 41b-42a identifies a type of bread called “pat habah b’kisnin” and classifies this as mezonot, not hamotzi – unless one is kove’a seudah establishes a meal, in which case it would be hamotzi as well.

What is this “pat habah b’kisnin“? As always, it depends on whom you ask. Shulhan Aruch 168:7 provides two main definitions. One possibility is that this bread was made with additional flavorings or sweeteners such as honey, sugar, nuts, or fruit juices.2 Then there is the opinion of R. Hai Gaon that kisnin refers to bread that is dry and presumably hard.3 Shulhan Aruch rules that the definition follows both opinions.4
Following this ruling, the typical “matzah” we all know and love should really be mezonot since it’s dry and hard. R. Ovadia Yosef addresses this issue directly in Yehave Da’at 3:12 and as always, quotes just about every relevant source. He concludes that Sepharadim would tread matzah as mezonot during the year, Ashkenazim would say hamotzi, and both have sources on whom to rely.

At any rate, it does seem odd that the same food would have different classifications at different times of the year. Either matzah should be hamotzi or it should be mezonot! The solution of course, would be to have matzah which is in fact soft, and thus wouldn’t come under the category of pat habah b’kisnin.

Another support for the soft matzah is in the haggadah itself. At the Seder we remember Hillel’s korech sandwich; he would eat the korban pesach (passover sacrifice), the marror (bitter herb) together with the matzah. As my father points out each year at the Seder, the word “Korech” means to “fold.” In order for Hillel to have been able to fold his matzah, it couldn’t have been the hard wafers we see today, but most probably was the soft matzah of the Sepharadim.

I have no idea how the soft matzah gets made, but they do have pictures of the baking process. You can also conveniently order your soft matzot and even get pre-checked rice!

1. No, pizza dough is NOT matzah. Calm down – it’s only an analogy.
2. Though not mentioned by the Shulhan Aruch here, eggs would also be included in this category. This is why many Jews are strict on having “water hallah” for Shabbat as opposed to the more common hallot which are made with eggs.
3. Note that the Star-K follows a stricter interpretation of this criteria, stating that the hardness must be “predicated on the intention of the producer when the product is baked or manufactured.”
4. Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 3:9) additionally requires that have the appearance or shape of bread.

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with , .

A Bris Too Late

Rabbi Adam Mintz of the Lincoln Square Synagogue recently made a questionable statement to the New York Times:

    Rabbi Adam Mintz, who describes his congregation of 900 families at the Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side as “modern Orthodox” and is president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he doesn’t think the world will end if a bris is postponed for the sake of the party. “Any mohel will tell you Sunday is the most popular day, and even among the Orthodox, people are choosing the date that’s most popular,” he said. “We have an in-house caterer, so 90 percent have it at the synagogue and 10 percent have it at home.”

This seems to imply that bris may be postponed until Sunday out of convenience. Dr. Manhattan correctly notes that a bris may only be postponed for health reasons. However, Protocols posts an e-mail sent by R. Mintz clarifying his position:

    I proceeded to explain to her [interviewer Alex Witchell] when we allow for the delay of brises and the fact that the custom has developed, at least in certain circles in America, to be more flexible when rescheduling a delayed bris. Therefore, Sunday is often the day in which these brises take place.

This is an interesting statement by Rabbi Mintz. Most Orthodox Jews would not think of postponing a bris purely for the sake of the part. However, sometimes the baby is sick, and the bris cannot be performed on the eighth day. In such cases, many people are under the impression that once you’re postponing the bris for health reasons, you can delay the bris until Sunday or a more convenient day.
The seemingly flippant presentation, “he doesn’t think the world will end if a bris is postponed for the sake of the party,” is accurate to some extent. There is a special commandment to have the bris on the eighth day. Once that day passes, the baby must still be circumcised as soon as possible – either by the father, or by the court. However, since there is no “official” time limit, people will not distinguish between a bris performed on the tenth day or a bris performed on any given Sunday.
However, this understandable assumption contradicts Jewish law. If a bris has to be delayed for health reasons, it must be preformed as soon as soon as possible. (See Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 262 :2) The only exception to this rule is that if the earliest time after the eighth day is a Shabbat, the bris is postponed until Sunday.(Rambam Hilkhot Milah 1:9) Time does matter, and a bris should not be delayed any more than it has to be.
Nibling Eli was born with jaundice, and his bris was delayed. Despite the problems coordinating out of state family members, the bris was held in their apartment on the earliest day. And yes, some family members were not able to be there.
Actually, this let to one of the most amusing conversations I had in R. Tendler’s shiur:

    Me: We don’t know when the bris will be yet. It depends on the Bilirubin numbers
    R. Tendler: What are the Bilirubin numbers?
    Me (innocently): Oh, those are the numbers that tell you how much jaundice the kid has.
    It is at this time that I’d like to point out that R. Tendler has a PhD in biology, teaches bio in the college, and lectures extensively on medical ethics.
    R. Tendler: I know what the Billirubin numbers are, I want to know what the Billirubin numbers are.

At any rate, the bris was performed as soon as we had the doctor’s ok, and everyone seems to be doing fine 6 years later.

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with , .

When Does The Fast End?

I’m trying to work on shticks, but my blogging time has been getting filled up with halakhic questions. And yes, Torah takes priority over Purim shticks.

Today is the Fast of Esther, which is observed a few days earlier than usual because of Shabbat. Around fast days, Rabbis constantly get asked what time the fast ends. When I give my answer, I usually hear the follow-up question, “Why are you 30 minutes (or more) earlier than everyone else?”
In Ta’anit 12a R. Hisda says that any fast which doesn’t last until sunset is not considered a fast. Logically then, a fast that does end at sunset is considered a fast, and sunset is therefore the minimal time for ending fast.

Rosh (Ta’anit 1:12) explains that sunset here doesn’t mean the beginning of sunset, but rather the end of sunset – called tzeit ha-kochavim the halakhic definition of nightfall. However, Rosh doesn’t provide any reason for this stringency.

Tosafot (Avoda Zara 34a s.v. Mit’anin L’shaot, Zevachim 56a s.v. Minayin L’dam, Menachot 20b s.v. Nifsal B’Shekiat) admit that the gemara in Ta’anit does mean the beginning of sunset, since elsewhere “sunset” means the beginning of sunset, but the practice developed to be stricter and to wait until nightfall. Sefer Kolbo (61) cites the Rif1 as saying that many people end their fast immediately at sunset, following the gemara in Ta’anit. Despite this, Sefer Kolbo follows the custom of the Tosafot on the grounds that we are not experts in determining the conclusion of sunset, and is therefore strict to wait until nightfall.2 Finally, Tur (Orach Hayim 562) and Beit Yosef (Orach Hayim 562:6) both define this instance of “sunset” as “nightfall”

The Vilna Gaon (OH 562:1) references Pesahim 54b where there is a debate as to whether fast of the 9th of Av ends at sunset, implying that it is certainly permitted on every other fast day. I have been told from several that the Vilna Gaon does rule the fast ends at sunset, but I have not seen the source inside.3
R. Ovadia Yosef acknowledges the inconsistent definitions of “sunset” as either referring to the beginning or end of sunset (Yehaveh Da’at 5:22) . He concludes that the generally accepted custom is to wait until nightfall, but those who wish to end earlier have on whom to rely (Yabia Omer 6 O.H. 31).

My sense is that the Bavli clearly defines a fast ending at sunset, not at nightfall. This is the most consistent reading of the Talmud; even Tosafot agree with this reading of the gemara in Ta’anit. Sometime between the Rif and Rosh, the custom changed and interpretations changed to match the custom.4 At any rate, the halakhic end for the fast is at sunset. The later stringency is not based on halakha, but on minhag (custom). This isn’t to say that minhagim could or should simply be ignored, but the talmud defines objective rules for how customs work within the halakhic system. Thus, the laws of fasting post-sunset are not inherent to the laws of fasting, but the laws of observing customs. At some point I’ll write more about that in detail, but until then see my shiur on minhagim and of course Rambam’s Introduction.

To find the exact times in your area, see the OU’s or’s zemanim calculators.

1. Kolbo doesn’t cite a source for this Rif, and a Bar Ilan search didn’t find it.
2. Rabbeinu Yerucham (Toldot Adam 18:1:163c), Tashbetz Katan (1), Sefer Yirei’im (274), Maharif (6), and a whole slew of others follow the stringency of Tosafot and Rosh.
3. Neither Bar Ilan nor the UC Library have been helpful.
4. I have no time to do a full History of Halakha report on this, but if you want to, I’d love to see what you find.

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with .

Drinking On Purim

הָקִיצוּ שִׁכּוֹרִים וּבְכוּ וְהֵילִלוּ כָּל שֹׁתֵי יָיִן עַל עָסִיס כִּי נִכְרַת מִפִּיכֶם:

Awake, ye drunkards, and weep, and wail, all ye drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth
” (Joel 1:5)

Before I get to the shticks this year, I want to write about the dangerous practice of drinking on Purim. Each year, some people overdo it and wind up sick, hospitalized, or worse. The problems are exacerbated by Rabbis who encourage and sometimes force students to drink regardless if the students have the alcohol tolerance or are of the legal drinking age.

On the other hand, the Talmud seemingly requires excessive drinking; in which case, even 13 year olds would be obligated. Lets begin with the relevant passage from Megillah 7b:

אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

This is loosely translated as “Rava said: a man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordechai.” This of course, requires an immense degree of intoxication. Some major halakhic works simply cite this dictum without qualification (Rif 3b, Shulhan Aruch Orach Hayim 795:2). Consequently many take this statement at face value, and therefore drink and encourage others to get inebriated, under the assumption that they are fulfilling a rabbinic commandment.

I’ve found several sources on the web which deal with this issue in one way or another, but I’ve found most of them to be lacking in real analysis. What I will show here is that while this statement might be obligatory, it does not require the degree of drinking which is commonly practiced.

(For readability, I will be sacrificing some precision in translations).

Continue reading

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with .

The Stein Line

It’s time now for my response to Rabbi Daniel Stein. Sorry for the delays, but I do have schoolwork to do here. I’ve been working on a response that will adequately address R. Stein’s points, while not succumbing to ranting. As comical and entertaining as a Grach-type review would be, I feel that R. Stein’s article deserves a serious analysis and critique.
(Rants may come at the end)

Continue reading

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

House Of Blues

The Yeshiva part of YU’s student council (SOY) publishes an annual “Torah” journal called “Beis Yitzhack.” Each year, Roshei Yeshiva, rabbinic alumni, Kollel or rabbinical students, and some undergraduates submit Hebrew articles on a variety of topics. This year, Kollel Elyon member R. Daniel Stein published two articles which offended many readers and embarrassed YU’s Kollel.
Normally in order for BY to get such negative reaction, someone has to make a big deal out of it.1 A few years ago, some students published a “mehqar” (academic talmud) -type piece in BY and attributed something to Ha-Gaon R. Shaul (GRAS”H) Lieberman.2 Probably no one would have noticed it unless the authors themselves hadn’t pointed out to everyone that were able to publish this piece in the typically “traditional” BY.3
I’m not around YU this year, so I don’t know exactly what is currently happening between the walls of the Yeshiva. I do know that Protocols posted something about this edition, and consequently sparked a vicious flame war in the comments and a subsequent follow-up post. I’ve been told, The Forward got wind of this and will cover it soon.
Thanks to Avraham I managed to get copies of the offending articles.4 My reaction? Honestly, I didn’t like either article.5 Are they worthy of the extreme reaction they’re getting? That’s a different story, and a more complicated issue.
What gets published or rejected is ultimately up to the editorial staff of the BY. What are their standards? I have no idea. Assuming they accept everything submitted, BY would be ideologically “open,” but it would eventually have to publish articles which diminish its credibility. However, in order to reject submissions, BY would need some objective acceptable criteria, which would invariably alienate some if not all of its intended readership.
What about R. Stein’s responsibilities? He took positions, and defended them based on his (or other’s) interpretation of selected sources. Should he have not quoted controversial opinions?
Once an opinion is published, it’s part of the public record. If this opinion is actually Torah, then why should we be embarrassed? The sages of Israel did not hide anti-secular laws from the Romans.(B. Bava Qamma 38a) Or following the mentality of the yeshiva, if these “gedolim” are at a level in which we may not question them, then who are we to censor them? If you find that they have ridiculous opinions, then perhaps they are not as great as you would like to believe.
In one of his articles, R. Stein belittles a methodology employed by at least one of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva. If he gives himself the right to evaluate and criticize one of the Roshei Yeshiva, then certainly R. Stein should not be held to a higher standard and above criticism himself. R. Stein chose to put his position in print, and consequently opens himself to peer evaluation.
There are certain rules of discourse which are determined by “common sense” or basic civility. If R. Stein is wrong, prove it. Demonstrate how he misreads sources. Prove how his logic and conclusions are incorrect. Many of the commentors in Protocols didn’t even read the article and were relying on one person’s abridged translation. With no actual evidence, people hide behind “anonymous” screen names and feel free to hurl invectives at anyone who disagrees with them. This is less of a problem with Protocols than it is with the entirety of the web. Slashdot and Kuro5hin both depend on the community moderating itself such that the insightful get read over the trolls.
I’m not a fan of censorship, but on the other hand we can’t accept every single possible position as part of every discussion. For now, I’m just advocating accountability. Accountability for Roshei Yeshiva in terms of their own methodologies and how closely they follow Torah. Accountability for the critics to demonstrate why they disagree. And finally accountability for the “netizens” for their comments.
Don’t censor articles from BY, but make sure they’re well argued. Don’t hide issues of the BY, but RTFA and respond coherently. No one is above criticism, but no one deserves an intellectual lynching either.
If you really think you’re right, put your name on the line and defend your position. Don’t suppress others and don’t hide behind anonymity.
If YU wants to maintain any credibility, it has to stop hiding from controversies and civility.
It’s time to put up, or shut up.
Update: I “put up” my own review of R. Stein’s article.

1. The fact that it’s written in Hebrew probably has something to do with its readership around YU.
2. R. Lieberman taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Despite being a world class Talmid Haham, many in YU do not take him seriously simply because of his affiliation with the conservative movement. Other might reference his Tosefta Ki-fshuta, but for the most part he is ignored. In this case, authors sinned by attributing the hallowed honorific reserved for select sages.
3. The best analogy I can think of is a high school yearbook. Every year someone puts in a “hidden” message which normal people won’t see. Nothing happens until someone points it out to the administration at which point, people get banned from graduation, pages get ripped out, etc.
4. As per my arrangement, I will not distribute my copies under any circumstances. Don’t as me, don’t ask Avraham. Just buy the book.
5. I realized in my GNU Testament post, I took a “cheap shot” at Rushkoff in that I disparaged his book without providing the exact flaws. For this, I apologize. Since I will not go into detail about the article’s content, I am intentionally not elaborating here. I may blog about the specifics later.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

The GNU Testament

If you were following Protocols a while ago, you might be familiar with Douglass Rushkoff and his recent book Nothing Sacred. I know I’m a little late with this, but there is one point of Rushkoff’s thought which I would like to address.1 Specifically, Rushkoff suggests a Judaism modeled after a popular software movement which he calls, “Open Source Judaism.” (OSJ)

According to Rushkoff:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. We allow our religion to evolve based on the active participation of its people. We internalize and engineer Jewish laws and ideas as adults, rather than following them by rote, as children. We come to realize that the writings and ideas of Judaism are not set in stone, but invitations to inquire, challenge, and evolve. Together, as a community, we define Judaism as the ongoing resolution of our individual sensibilities.2

Superficially, OSJ is nothing more than a restatement of Reconstructionism. However, through his analogy to open source software, (OSS) Rushkoff actually offers a different model, one which requires its own analysis.

To understand OSJ, we must first understand the culture it’s supposed to emulate. As its name states, OSS programs’ code is “openly” published and is freely available to the public. This allows users to modify programs to suit their specific needs, add functions to the program, and find bugs or security holes.
However, OSS is more than a just a programming model, but it is a culture unto itself. According to the GNU Foundation, OSS is about free software. By “free,” GNU primarily means autonomy. Licenses may not restrict the implementations of a program – a user may run a program in any way s/he sees fit. Users are free to study and modify the code to suit their needs. Although they advocate the ability to redistribute software, GNU insists, “‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.'”

With these freedoms, developers have created stable and secure operating systems, advanced web browsers, powerful graphic manipulators, and absurdly powerful text editors. Developers create projects and publish code on sites like Sourceforge where other programmers may download, test, and debug their programs. Developers therefore share their code with an entire community, the totality of which in turn promotes creativity and innovation.3

Since the strength of OSS is its dependence on the community’s voluntary contributions, its anti-model would be Microsoft. All of MS’s software is proprietary and available only through purchase. Normally, we would simply call this “capitalism.” But companies who choose themselves to MS software also commit to MS’s fickle licencing policies and costly forced upgrades.
Furthermore, MS refuses to release its code to the public and is constantly responding to several various security holes. That MS uses their ubiquity to create their own programming standards and blackmail other companies does not endear them to the public. Unlike the communal nature of OSS, MS’s culture dictates that MS is the supreme software vendor, and clients must only go through them.

As Eric S. Raymond writes, the differences between MS and OSS are comparable to a cathedral and a bazaar. The cathedral is hierarchical and monolithic whereas the bazaar is democratic and diverse. This distinction echos various denominations of Judaism which promote individual autonomy over institutional authority.
“Classic” Reconstructionism tries to preserve Jewish culture through evolution, and it operates on a macro-social level. Rushkoff claims that the only constant throughout Jewish history was evolution. Generation after generation modified Jewish theology and practice to better adapt with their world. In order to know the needs of the community, the religion depends on the members to participate and contribute. Furthermore, we allow the individual the freedom to “debug” someone else’s “code” or “hack” it such that it best suits himself. For example, Rushkoff created an Open Source Haggadah where people may contribute their own liturgy or rituals to the community. Individuals may use the exact submissions or further alter them as they deem necessary.

My critiques of Ruskfoff’s model come two different perspectives. As a (former) programmer, I find Rushkoff’s OSS analogy flawed. Although OSS is an open community, it succeeds through extensive quality control and programs are held to some objective standard. A program either works or it doesn’t. Once a program is functional, it may then be optimized for superior speed or resource management, or enhanced security as the case may be. Before a program can be useful to a community, it first must meet certain requirements of functionality and efficiency, and to some extent serve as an improvement over its predecessors. Even an “average” programmer will find it difficult to have his/her project “accepted” by the community. The programs which are assimilated into mainstream usage are most often written by superior developers.
OSJ has no such quality control, nor can it. Religion is not an objective science. But if there are no standards or rules of submissions, then the community has no mechanism of policing itself. If anyone can submit anything, and all submissions are legitimate, then OSJ runs the risk of intellectual hijackings. There is neither a system nor criteria for weeding out garbage. Furthermore, if in fact everything is acceptable for OSJ, then it becomes tautological and subject to the Pluralism Equation.

As a Rabbi, I partially agree with Rushkoff’s model. Torah is “open source” in that the texts are accessible to everyone; it is neither in heaven nor across the sea (Deut. 30:12-13) and there is no hidden law. Torah is democratic in the sense that kings and water gatherers are all equally bound by the same laws. However, Rushkoff confuses the technical definition of “open source” with “modification.” In the computer world, OSS implies that the users have rights of modification. However, if one were to rewrite Apache web server such that it becomes a word processor, i.e. the primary function changes, s/he could no longer call it “Apache” – or if he did it would not have the same meaning.
Judaism may also change and evolve, but it must stay within certain parameters. Sages may have the authority of interpretation (Deut. 17:11), but even they are subject to its rules.(B. Horayot 2a-b). The Torah is complete (Ps. 19:8) and although we have the free will modify some rituals in Judaism, once any commandment is removed, the system is no longer Torah.(Deut. 13:1)

Orthodox Jews might be able to salvage something from Rushkoff’s model by reaffirming some objective standards. Following the OSS analogy, God should be the “project owner” who opens the project to the community. People may contribute, but must follow certain rules of submission and modifications. Or to put it succinctly, the Torah’s source is open, but God retains the copyrights.

1. In all honesty, I didn’t finish the book, although I really tried. Rarely has any piece of literature evoked such levels of frustration. Not that I thought the ideas were heretical, but it was just riddled with fallacious assumptions, poor textual analysis, and faulty logic. The lack of footnotes didn’t help. Naiomi Chana reviewed the book much better than I can. Also see his interview with the Protocols people. Neither Protocols nor Naiomi Chana dealt with the Open Source Judaism part, so this post will not be redundant.
2. On OSJ’s front page, Rushkoff quotes his book. I don’t have my copy with me, so I cannot cite the page number.
3. Though OSS movement is subject to its own myths.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Religion, Science and Technology, Society.

Rapture and Reconstructionism

Shavua Tov everyone.
A few things on my mind before I get back to the take home midterm. The first is a response to a critique I found on Heimishtown. In my earlier rant on hareidi community I used the phrase “ever so humble self-proclaimed ‘Gedolei Torah.'” Heimishtown rightly points out that in that article the term “Gedolei Yisroel” was used not by the Rabbis themselves, but by the Yated Ne’eman Staff. My understanding is that the term “Gedolei Yisroel” is not just used by the masses to refer to their rabbis. The specific reference was to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. If the rabbis are not part of the same organization, then I apologize for the incorrect attribution.
On a slighly different note, we had an interesting speaker come to the Hillel this week: Rabbi Dan Aronson, the Dean of Admissions at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). I must compliment him on two things. First, he carried himself like a professional. He was always polite and civil despite some rather obnoxious comments by a particular audience member (not me). Second, I always have a degree of respect for someone who admits when he doesn’t have an answer and he has to think about it some more. While this is an ethic commended in Avot 5:7 (or 5:6 in the Rambam’s version), many Rabbis I’ve met would instead fall in the alternative category of the Golem.
At any rate, there were two major critiques I had of Reconstructionism as he described it. The first is really more of a critique of Mordechai Kaplan, the movement’s founder. Admittedly, I have not read much of Kaplan myself, so for now I will rely on what I heard from R. Aronson. As stated on the RRC website, Reconstructionists “define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” R. Aronson then defined what he meant by “evolving,” “religious,” and “civilization.” However, I noticed he did not define what was meant by “Jewish.” It seems to me that this is a circular definition in that the term “Jewish” is used to define “Judaism.” Kaplan would certainly hold that some people are not considered “Jews,” but I do not know what that precise definition would be. Even resorting to ideas like a “symbol set” or relevant ethics, he would probably not say that a Christian who held these ideas would in fact be Jewish.
The other critique is more fundamental to the purpose of Reconstructionism. As presented to us, Kaplan was trying to stem rampant assimilation. Judaism needed to undergo consious changes in order to survive – the “traditional” model would not be sufficient to maintain the Jewish people. Judaism As a Civilization was published in 1934 (if memory serves). Not being alive then, I cannot possibly know what was the reality of Jewish life in America. However, despite the numerous problems througout the “traditional” world, I would think that it’s still in relatively good shape in that it’s not going anywhere. Yes, assimilation still happens, but I would say that I don’t think that the “traditional” models are going to disappear any time in the near or distant future.
Finally, there was one particularly poignant observation from one of the audience members. Kaplan writes about the need for Judaism to evolve in order for it to survive. However, he does not explan why Judaism ought to survive. What would make the “Jewish” set of understandings significant enough to warrent perpetuating? If it is just to preserve the history, then we could easily set up a museum for it and cease any form of observing it at all. Kaplan’s stated goal of combating assimilation only makes sense if there is something in Judaism that’s worth not only keeping, but keeing vibrant and alive. If there is indeed something inherently significant to Judaism – it cannot be divine by its nature since Reconstructionists do not belive in divine revelation of the Torah – then what would it be?
R. Aronson recommended Exploring Judaism as a good text to understand more about Reconstructionist Judaism. If there are any experts in Reconstructionism out there, feel free to post your comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.