It is a striking advertisement, beautifully conceived, well executed… and deeply disturbing.
As it periodically does, the Jewish Theological Seminary purchased a page of The New York Times to share a High Holiday message. The headline of this year’s offering, over a photograph of a tossed banana peel, quotes Leviticus: "Do Not Put a Stumbling Block Before the Blind." A bit to the side, a comment and question: "Well, of course. What kind of creep would trip a blind person?"
The ad copy that follows explains how "there’s more than one kind of blindness" and that "we are answerable if we put the young, the impressionable or the vulnerable in harm’s way." Jewish tradition does indeed interpret the word "blind" in the verse as a reference to precisely such people, and "stumbling block" as misleading or harmful advice. The ad is right on the mark.
It then proceeds to catalogue a number of contemporary examples of such "stumbling blocks": "Abet an addiction," "Make lethal weapons available to children" and "Support entertainments that glamorize violence," among others. It even leaves a blank line for the reader to add his or her own example, which it requests to "return to us."
An on-target presentation, an authentically Jewish approach. And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – its accuracy and poignancy, the JTS ad is profoundly unsettling.
For the Conservative movement has repeatedly and staunchly declared its fealty to halacha, traditional Jewish religious law. In the words of the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein: "We maintain that… we regard halakhah as binding… To be committed to halakhah means to live by its values and details – even when we don’t like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient." And, as a result, tens of thousands of Jews have come to uncritically accept the proposition that the movement is indeed halacha-bound.
A critical, unbiased view, however, presents quite another picture. Whether the issue was the special marriage laws in Leviticus pertaining to a cohein, or the prohibition against driving a car on the Sabbath, whether the composition of a minyan for prayer or the wording of the Jewish liturgy, the arbiters of Conservative law have repeatedly and tellingly set aside clear halachic principles and precedents in favor of the contemporary sensibilities.
An ordained Conservative rabbi and scholar, David Feldman, put it succinctly in the Fall, 1995 issue of Conservative Judaism: "Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold halakhah as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort."
Historian Marshal Sklare, in his work "Conservative Judaism", concurs: "Covertly, the [Conservative] rabbis now recognize that they are not making [halachic] decisions or writing responsa but merely taking a poll of their membership."
The Reform movement, of course, has also discarded halacha. But it has done so openly, without dissembling. What sets the Conservative leadership apart is that it claims fealty to a Jewish tradition it seems perennially prepared to ignore.
Even the Jewish Theological Seminary itself has demonstrated a disturbing attitude toward the personally binding nature of Jewish religious law. In late 1997, the dean of the institution’s rabbinical school was forced to backtrack from a letter to his students apprising them that premarital and homosexual sex were proscribed. It was, he later said, only a "personal statement, not a matter of policy."
As it happens, the Conservative leadership’s ambivalence toward halacha is the key to understanding something otherwise perplexing: its alliance with the Reform movement in Israel. Were Conservative leaders truly committed to the definitions and mandates of Jewish religious law, they would never be able to find common cause with a movement that openly rejects those ideals. And yet the cause is not only common but resolute. Because neither group, in the end, considers halacha inviolable.
It would be sufficiently sad were the Conservative movement’s violation of the verse it featured in its ad a mere sin of intellectual dishonesty. But the stumbling-block it placed, intentionally or not, before the Jewish people has had, and continues to have, grievous flesh-and-blood repercussions. There are legions of well-meaning men and women who were told that their conversions to Judaism were performed according to halachic standards but who later discover – often after considerable pain and anguish – that they are not yet Jewish in the eyes of Jews truly committed to halacha. And in cases where Judaism’s intricate and critical marriage laws were at issue, immense personal tragedy has resulted from "placing the vulnerable in harm’s way."
Not every "stumbling block" is necessarily laid down with evil intent. One can all too easily "abet an addiction" without malice. But what the verse invoked by the Jewish Theological Seminary demands of Jews is to avoid deceiving others, whether intentionally or not. Banana peels, after all, are impervious to the intentions of those who drop them.
Which is why, with equal shares of sadness and perplexity, I took up the ad’s invitation and filled in the line left blank. "Mislead caring Jews," I wrote, "by claiming but not demonstrating loyalty to the Jewish religious tradition."
And then I mailed the clipping to the address provided.