Conservative Movement: Yes Gay Marriage, No Shabbat Tech

In one week, decisions both liberal and traditional on 21st-century issues.

06/05/12
Special To The Jewish Week
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Conservative rabbis reminded their constituents this week that, at least when it comes to texting on Shabbat, they can still be counted on to be conservative, with a small c.

It was a week that Conservative rabbis were welcomed by the Obama White House, which apparently still sees their votes in play (as opposed to the Reform and Orthodox who are firmly pro-Democratic or pro-Republican). And it was a week in which the rabbis issued guidelines on performing same-sex marriages (two rings and a modified marriage contract).

Little noticed amid all this liberalism came something of a surprise: Conservative Jews, the rabbis said, should refrain from using computers, cell phones and e-readers on Shabbat.

The call for Shabbat restraint came in a scholarly 86-page responsa called “The Use of Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat.” It was approved by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the same body that issued the gay marriage guidelines. The decision on electronic devices, it said, was “countercultural.”

“This is a countercultural finding because the constant use of electronics is extremely seductive to our generation,” the rabbis said. “In the face of this great desire to ‘stay connected,’ we often forget the cost of losing the precious hours of quiet that Shabbat offers to those who cherish her.”

The responsa makes the case against electronics on halachic grounds, saying that the use of computer technology in particular involves activities that fall into the category of melacha or work. But it also notes the positive commandment to rest on the Sabbath and set it apart from the rest of the week.

“Shabbat can and should be different,” they add.

The decision on electronics came on the heels of concerns among other branches of Judaism about the use of computer technology. Last year, The Jewish Week reported that some Modern Orthodox teens were keeping what they called “Half Shabbos” by texting on their cell phones even as they observed other Sabbath restrictions. And last month, the ultra-Orthodox held a huge rally in New York against the “evils” of the Internet, not only on the Sabbath but seven days a week. They said it was leading both young and old astray with pornography, inappropriate social media and relentless gossip.

The Conservative rabbis also invoked family values in its decision to restrict the use of computers on the Sabbath. “Contemporary families spend much of their time together focused on individual electronic devices,” they wrote. “Faces lit by glowing screen large and small, ears attached to headphones, they busily interact with friends and strangers across the world while making minimal contact with people around them. Shabbat can and should be different.”

The paper goes through biblical, Talmudic and contemporary rabbinic sources, both Orthodox and Conservative, to build a case that turning on an electric device, such as a light bulb, does not constitute either mavir, burning, or boneh, building a structure by completing a circuit. This is at odds with the prevailing Orthodox position that the use of electricity constitutes both burning and building (among other forbidden activities) and is therefore prohibited on Shabbat.

The new Conservative paper rules that on the Sabbath certain electrical devices may be turned on, such as electric lights, elevators and fans for cooling. But it draws a distinction between those devices and others, such as ovens, microwaves, computers and digital cameras, which are not permitted. It even draws a distinction between different types of magnetic swipe cards. Those that are used to make purchases or access public transportation are forbidden, it says, while those “key cards” that are used to enter a hotel room are permitted. E-readers, it says, should be avoided because they make the Internet and electronic “writing” readily accessible.

The decision recognizes that these restrictions do not apply to those who need electronic devices for their physical health and wellbeing and notes that even Orthodox authorities have found ways to make hearing aids, electric carts and other electrical devices permitted to those who need them.

The Conservative rabbis add one other caveat. “We must acknowledge that for some people who are physically isolated, it is not possible to ‘make Shabbat’ with others. For them, telecommunications may be the only avenue for connecting with friends and family and even for participating in Torah study or communal prayer.”

The full text of the decision can be found at www.rabbinicalassembly.org.

Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote the paper. Rabbi Nevins was one of the three authors of the decision on gay marriage. He said that the decisions, one apparently toward tradition, and the other seemingly away from it, were not inconsistent. “I see myself as deeply traditional,” he said in an e-mail message. But, he added, “I am mahmir [stringent] on human dignity, a core halachic value which is treated casually some supposedly traditional authorities.” The right of gay Jews to marry in a Jewish ceremony, he said, was a matter of human dignity.

The paper on electronics was passed by a vote of 17 to 2, with two abstentions.

Among the dissenters was Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin, Calif. “I’m always looking forward,” Rabbi Spitz said in an interview. “What is clear to me is that electronic readers are becoming normative. Schools in my area are now moving toward e-readers. That’s only going to increase, for financial, convenience and environmental reasons.” A serious Conservative Jew, he said, can “make the distinctions” between reading on their devices and downloading from the Internet on Shabbat and live “at the intersection between tradition and modernity.” 

Last Update:

06/14/2012 - 09:20

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To Anonymous' message above mine, I have to (as someone on a conservative synagogue's board) sadly and completely agree. This "movement" bears no resemblance to how its adherants actually live their lives Jewishly, or don't live their lives Jewishly. Our family keeps the Sabbath and is strictly Kosher at home (with all of the admitted hypocracies and contradictions implied) and still we feel like freaks in our congregation. I have no idea where this movement is going or what it's doing.

And I'll eat my kippa if my conservative congregation's clergy actually attemtps any sustained effort to inspire people to adhere to the electronic restrictions mentioned above. It would offend too many people's sense of autonomy and probably endanger giving, which is what it often feels the synagogues are all about in the end.

What are the 10-25 percent of "elite," educated, engaged, "observant" conservative Jews to do who find their congregations completely uninspiring, uncommitted, and who just can't stomach the gender rediculousness and minhag of Modern Orthodoxy? Trying to raise my daughters in this narrow band of conservatism, it's a hard question.

The recent decisions of the Law Committee were well-reasoned, carefully thought-out and absolutely irrelevant. Does anyone beyond the those self-selected, self-important leaders in the Conservative movement actually care about the rulings of this quasi-authoritative committee? Certainly not the vast majority of Conservative congregants for whom halacha is not only a foreign word but an alien notion. And truth be told, not even their own rabbis care very much for halacha as demonstrated by a 2007 survey which found that nearly 80% of Conservative rabbis regularly violated the laws of kashrut .

Representatives of the Conservative movement are always talking about the need to be relevant and that seems reasonable. So how about defunding all these irrelevant committees and spending a little money on supporting those proud and committed Conservative kids in Koach who actually care about the future of the movement?

It's easy to mock what one hasn't read. Suffice it to say that this article doesn't attempt to restate the halakhic arguments or substantial conclusions of either paper. Those who are serious about these matters are invited to read the responsa. You may not agree with the reasoning or conclusions, but perhaps we could raise the level of discourse.

Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah
http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/20052010/dorff_nevins_reisner_dignity.pdf

Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat
http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/electrical-electronic-devices-shabbat.pdf

Shabbat shalom, rdn

To paraphrase/conflate Emanuel Levinas z"l & Rabbi Elie Spitz: what makes Torah (aka, the unfolding narrative of the Jewish People) holy is neither its origin nor its form but rather its infinite potential.

Thank you Rabbi Creditor for destroying the right wing of Conservative Judaism. With your views on Egalitarian Services that all non egalitarian Conservative syangouges should leave Conservative Judaism. Because of your views on same sex marriage and many of the changes in Conservative Judaism many of these right wing syangouges have left the United Syanagouge to become independent or Union of Traditional Judaism. Hopefully these Synagouges will become Orthodox and their Rabbis orthodox

Rabbi Creditor when will Conservative Judaism allow patrilineal descent? or Shabbat and Kashrut as options?

Thank you for your stupid descision to allow same sex marriages in the Conservative Movement! You have allinated and decimated the right wing of Conservative Judaism! These people will hopefully return to Orthodox Judaism! You have done Orthodox Judaism a great favor

Conserative Judaism may be a bigger joke than Reformism. At least the Reformists know they are full of it.

A gay rabbi but no texting. LOL!!!

Would be funny if not so tragic. The Torah weeps.

I wonder what the point was of publishing such a responsum -- it's not as if anyone outside of the Orthodox world will stop using their electronic devices now that the Conservative Movement has forbidden their use on Shabbat.

I assume it was only to forestall the publishing of a paper officially permitting these things, which would not have affected the reality of how non-Orthodox Jews lead their lives, but would have been an embarrassment to the traditionalists who are still trying to claim that theirs is a halachic movement.

As for R. Nevins's logic regarding Gay Marriage, it is quite puzzling, given that considerations of "kavod haBriot" do not set aside Torah prohibitions.

Why could he not have been more honest about this, instead of pretending he was basing himslef -- in the Gay Marriage vote -- on halachic considerations and halachic reasoning?

These decisions show the world what a joke "conservative" judaism is. It is completely unmoored from any semblance of halacha. "Rabbi" Nevins may be "mahmir on human dignity", but his position is completely contrary to an express commandment of the Torah. He doesn't have to follow the Torah if he doesn't want to, but dressing this up as a Rabbinic responsa is a sad joke lacking any pretense of intellectual honesty.

You are right- the Conservative movement clergy and their lay advisors have distorted and discarded halacha for decades in a failed attempt to be relevant, politically correct and cater to a Jewishly uneducated laity which really calls the shots. The overwhelming majority of Consevative laity observe nothing of Shabbos except maybe a Friday night meal so their "rabbis" false reponsa have no meaning. Their tiny right wing are becoming modern orthodox and the rest are either Reform or secular.

We also see Solomon Schecter grads being sent to public schools! Where is the outcry to stop this. What a farce. A few afterschool programs will result in only miniscule numbers engaged in Jewish life after a couple of years.

Thier ruling on gay marriage is an insult to Judaism.

They can drive on Shabbos but they can't text? And then you throw homosexual partnerships into the mix--it's clear that the Conservative movement has mapped out a certain direction for itself. Unfortunately, adherence to Jewish law has taken a back seat to the personal ideologies of the Conservative leadership.

They can't drive on Shabbos. Read the teshuva again (or for the first time, even). It's simply a way of being melamed zechut on people who drive to shul (and shul only) because they are not otherwise very observant and have little connection to Judaism other than shul. Whatever people do, the movement never permitted driving for any actually connected observant Jews.

"“I am mahmir [stringent] on human dignity, a core halachic value..........."

Of course. Jews understand that discrination is like a deadly disease. If it isnt stamped out, others become the victim. In Germany Jews shared the Madman catholic hitlers ovens with the gays and others.

On that score one would think the German pope would understand,, but in 2009 He UNexcommunciated bishop Williamson, a holocaust denier
its almost unthinkable and suggests that Jews will be next after the gays in his mind

http://articles.cnn.com/2009-01-26/world/pope.holocaust.denial_1_bishop-richard-williamson-bishop-bernard-fellay-holocaust-denier?_s=PM:WORLD

I guess he either has early altsheimers or remembers what he saw growing up in Germany re his church

http://nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm Some of these pis are from the holocaust museum in DC

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