The Rabbi Roundtable

Recently I experienced an interesting situation: a rabbi roundtable.

A group of college students part of a summer internship program, sat around tables while rabbis from different denominations rotated from table to table, answering any questions that were posed to them.

Despite their different backgrounds, I noticed two similarities.

Rabbi Renewal: ‘I tell people to ask themselves, how it feels to them, Does it make you feel more alive or does it constrict you?

Rabbi Reconstructionist: ‘We are an evolving civilization; we have to do what is best for us.’ If you need to drive on Shabbat to get to your parents house, then that is what is best for you.

Rabbi Non-Denominational: ‘ I don’t like Rashi (or most of the commentaries), he never really spoke to me, I like to look at the text and see what it says to me.’

Rabbi Conservative: ‘There are so many opinions (speaking about halakha), You really need to see what works for you.’

See if YOU can spot the similarity that I noticed between the rabbis…Well if you didn’t it’s the emphasis on the self. How does it feel to you? What does the text say to you? Do you agree with the law?

Many people would say this is an advancement in Judaism, after all don’t we want people to do what is good for them? But should our opinion be valued over Torah scholars of the past? And if ritual and practice become a bendable, unstable institution, then what exactly will we have left of the Jewish tradition and law?

Many will argue, that we don’t need all rituals of the past to necessarily survive as a nation, we need to be able to integrate rather than maintain tradition in order to survive and thrive.

Take a ketubah as an example of a changing practice.

Daniel Gordis writes about the many reasons why people feel uncomfortable with using the ketubah and how different communities deal with it today.

While the Orthodox community continues to use only the standard text, practices in the other movements vary. Some Reform rabbis have simply dispensed with a ketubah, and many Reform and liberally inclined Conservative rabbis also use nontraditional texts, pointing out that no single ketubah text was ever adopted universally by all Jewish communities. Research into ancient ketubot has shown, for example, that some traditional communities avoided making any reference to the bride’s marital or sexual history, while others used terms such as penita (unmarried), thus avoiding the issue of virginity.(MORE)

Although Gordis points out the opinion that no single text was ever adopted, the texts were very similar. They may have varied on how they referred to the bride, but no one abandoned the ketubah completely, until recently.

So you may be wondering what the second similarity was between the rabbis. Each Rabbi claimed: “[Blank] Judaism knows how to balance modernity and tradition.”

I found it almost contradictory that while stating that Judaism should cater to you, they simultaneously stated that, they were the mavens of balance and preservation of tradition with modernity. How can you preserve tradition and “do what makes you feel good?”

There is a fine line between a balance of two concepts and ideals and a complete loss of an ideal. The rabbi roundtable made me realize that we are all walking that line, a little more closely then we thought.

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