Dear Rabbi Broyde

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In last week’s Jewish Week, Rabbi Michael Broyde — rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills (Atlanta) and professor of law at Emory — published an opinion piece called “The End of Conservative Judaism.”

Rabbi Broyde’s thesis is that the Conservative movement’s recent decision on homosexuality was a move that demonstrated its break with Jewish law, and that along with ushering in the demise of the Conservative movement, will usher in an age in which American Jewry will have only two movements: Traditional and Liberal.

Rabbi Broyde clearly has a healthy dose of skepticism about liberal Judaism (for example, he takes it for granted that the legal nature of the homosexuality decision is “bogus”), but the tone of the article is descriptive, not ideological. Thus, Rabbi Broyde writes:

So now that American Jewry has outgrown its adolescence, I predict a rosy future of two denominations, with many subcultures within each of these denominations. There will be one denomination (called “Liberal” in most of the world) that denies that Jewish law is binding…There will also be a second denomination (called “Traditional” in most of the world) that observes halacha religiously…

All of this, I think, is a change for the better. The reorganization of American Jewry along the lines of acceptance or rejection of Jewish law will only help people make important choices in their own religious life.

Though I agree with some of what Rabbi Broyde writes, I do think the article is a bit deceptive. For one, Rabbi Broyde defines Liberal Judaism in terms of Orthodox (or Traditional) values. Defining Liberal Judaism as a denomination that “denies that Jewish law is binding” would be like a Liberal Jew defining Traditional Judaism as a denomination that values the fetishization of law more than the dignity of women and non-Jews.

Additionally, Rabbi Broyde’s supposed neutral/descriptive posture must be called into question in light of an article he published in the Jewish Press last month, where he writes:

Orthodox Judaism stakes its existence (in a theological sense) on the proposition that the intentional curtailment of observance of halacha, even when sincerely motivated, is sinful and improper. Denominations predicated on the idea that Jewish law is not binding, or that it can mean something very different from the classical understanding of halacha, are from an Orthodox point of view improper approaches not only to Jewish law but to Judaism generally.

In this article, Rabbi Broyde reaffirms the opinion of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that Orthodox Jews can participate in programs with non-Orthodox Jews when the programs are social or political in nature.

On the other hand, Orthodoxy would not participate in a religious event such as multi-denominational worship in which Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services are offered in a spirit of ecumenical validation and people choose where and what type of service to attend or even to attend all of them.

This smorgasbord approach to prayer cannot help but convey to its participants that – just as all the food choices are proper and what one consumes is a matter of personal choice – all the prayer options are valid.

I have a lot respect for much of Rabbi Broyde’s writing (some of which he has graciously let us reprint on MyJewishLearning), and I have friends and family members who have only wonderful things to say about him, but here I need to call it as I see it. Rabbi Broyde has the right to his opinion. He has the right to believe that pluralism or liberal Judaism is a perversion of his faith. But we have the right to ask him to do so in good faith.

Say what you mean, Rabbi Broyde. Don’t say that splitting up American Jewry into Liberal and Traditional is a “change for the better,” when you believe that Liberal Judaism is completely invalid.

Worst of all, perhaps, after presenting his rules against participating in an event that might lend religious credibility to non-Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Broyde concludes his Jewish Press article: “May we be blessed to live in a society where our diversity does not lead to divisiveness, and our unity is not contingent on our uniformity.”

If there’s a way to interpret this as anything but chutzpah, please post it in the comments section.

I’ve heard great things about Rabbi Broyde, but I’m disappointed. Good writing needs to be honest, and this attempt to be both a diplomat and an ideologue seems a bit slippery to me.

Posted on February 14, 2007

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10 thoughts on “Dear Rabbi Broyde

  1. joe

    michael broyde chose, in this article, to divide the Jewish world into those who have believe that jewish law is binding and those who believe that it is not. (that is not to say that they, too, don’t also choose to follow many or some jewish laws). i agree with daniel that this may be the way an orthodox jew would choose define the world. but broyde is orthodox and he is a legalist by profession and passion. notwithstanding that, i did not understand the article as his attempt to value traditional vs. liberal. but rather to say that conservative has been struggling / straddleing with the question of whether it is a “halachick” (i.e. bound by jewish law) movement or not. neil gilman has been vocal about calling a spade a spade. i.e. most all the congregational members and many professional including rabbis and cantors do not act “bound” by jewish law.

    in the lead article in the jewish week, where broyde’s article appeared, (about consevative rabbis and kosher food), the statistics of conservative rabbis who go shopping on shabbos was rather high, amongst other statistics that demonstate a more casual approach to jewish law.

    rabbi broyde’s primary point is that either you are committed or you are not. that’s an adult position. acting and believing that you always have your options open to make changes is adolescent. broyde belives we, as a jewish community, we are better off because it’s better to know where you do and don’t stand and act accordingly, than to espouse principles – like committment – yet act differently. joe septimus.

  2. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Rabbi Broyde might be right in his analysis of Conservative Judaism. The movement might, indeed, have a new approach to halakha. That’s not my gripe with his article.

    My gripe is twofold:
    1) His binding/not-binding dichotomy is one which is, fundamentally, Orthodox — and therefore solipsistic.

    2) His conclusion (“All of this, I think, is a change for the better…), as well as the descriptive/diagnostic nature of his rhetoric, seems value-neutral. Yet, we know from his Jewish Press piece, that Rabbi Broyde considers Liberal Judaism’s approach to halakha “sinful and improper.” Thus this article seems a bit disingenuous.

  3. tzlil

    If the person knows how to seat on the fence in a secure way, it is actually a good place to be since you can see both sides very well.

    צליל

  4. lornewel

    I took “change for the better” not as any approval of the Conservative position on gays or being non-halichic per se, but that it is better for everyone if we all declare where we really stand on something instead of sitting on fences.

  5. lornewel

    Daniel, aren’t you making a kind of ad hominem argument? Cannot a person say something which may be actually true, even if he himself holds some other seemingly inconsistent position, or seems to be making the “true” statement from an “impure” motive?

    Weren’t we just having this kind of discussion about the accomplished paleontologist who is also, in another “sealed compartment”, a young-earth creationist? In that thread I was grappling with whether a person may actually be able to hold inconsistent views, and whether there is any “obligation” for every part of my thinking to be integrated with every other part.

    Any experts on philosophy, psychology or “cognitive dissonance” out there?

  6. Daniel Septimus Post author

    lornewel: Why does Rabbi Broyde think that clarifying things will be for the better?

    He tells us.

    “The reorganization of American Jewry along the lines of acceptance or rejection of Jewish law will only help people make important choices in their own religious life.”

    He makes it sound like it’s “for the better” because it will be a more honest environment for religious consumers. It will create a more honest marketplace for people to make religious choices.

    But we know from his Jewish Press article that Rabbi Broyde doesn’t value the religious marketplace. In writing about a place where multiple prayer services, for multiple denominations are available, he wrote:

    “This smorgasbord approach to prayer cannot help but convey to its participants that – just as all the food choices are proper and what one consumes is a matter of personal choice – all the prayer options are valid.”

    If only the Orthodox prayer choice is valid, then when Rabbi Broyde talks about helping “people make important choices in their own religious life,” he’s referring to “right” choices and “wrong” choices.

    But in the Jewish Week, it’s not at all apparent that that’s where he’s coming from. Which is why I think it’s all a bit “slippery.”

  7. jethro1

    I assume that Rabbi Broyde’s real point is that he must feel many Conservative Jews will no longer be able to stay within the C sphere now that the non-halakhic cat is out of the bag. He must assume that those folks will now join Orthodox (read: true) Judaism. In that light, he of course thinks it is a good thing, even if he acknowledges that religious pluralism exists.

    I think that his analysis is correct in that American Judaism will be more and more divided into two broad camps–Orthodox and liberal ( I would not label them traditional and liberal since many liberal Jews practice what prior to the enlightenment was traditional Judaism). I think that his analysis otherwise fails to take into account that the majority of Jews who do not follow Orthodox halakha still feel that they are practicing halakha ‘religiously’, as their denomination frames it. As Rabbi Broyde’s movement retreats further and further into an insular sphere and as Reform becomes more traditional in terms of liturgy, I would suspect that the majority of Conservative Jews will stay in the liberal camp and strengthen it.

  8. boadicca

    I am going to have to take some time to ponder all aspects of the term ’religious consumer’ and the reduction of faith to a series of marketplace choices…….. actually hadn’t thought of that before

  9. Daniel Septimus Post author

    boadicca: I wasn’t necessarily reducing faith to a series of marketplace choices, but certainly there are times in a pluralistic society in which people delicately choose their identities from a menu of possibilities that the market metaphor is appropriate.

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