“Sacred Religious Duty”

In 1877, Rabbi Leopold Stein, a prominent figure in the Reform movement, published a 36-point catalog of religious ordinances for “present-day Israelites,” entitled “Torath-Chajim” [Living Torah]. This was one of the readings in Temple Micah‘s recent class on “‘Challenges’ in Contemporary Jewish Faith.”

Class reactions to Stein’s specific ordinances were varied. As were responses to his use of “law”: distinguishing between “divine laws of the Bible” and “rabbinical ordinances…which excessively weigh down and impede life,” on the one hand, and, on the other, labeling some “rabbinical institutions” as “sacred obligations to us in the ordering of our religious life and law.”

I was personally struck by two spots in Stein’s text where one form of “obligation” is seen to trump another:

Ordinance #19 of Torath-Chajim insists that “we have both the right and obligation” to set aside rules which make it impossible for a modern business person to observe Shabbat. Ordinance #20 states that it is “a sacred religious duty” to do away with second-day festival celebrations. While the idea of “sacred religious duty” could launch many volumes of discussion, my most powerful response was to wish I heard this phrase more often in contemporary Reform discourse. I particularly miss it when speaking — as Stein is doing — about variant understandings of such duties.

Speaking of Obligation

Nearly 40 years ago, Esther Ticktin argued for use of the language of obligation when speaking about egalitarian principles and customs:

…we all felt that there already exists a new religio-ethical consciousness, waiting and ready to be brought forward in clear words and deeds. There are values by which many of us live or try to live, clearly Jewish values, though unacknowledged by the rabbinic authorities of our day. But we are timid and hesitant about them because we have not as yet committed ourselves to them as halachah [law] –as the logical outcome of our tradition and historical experience.

Customs motivated by “moral and religious insight” have “a claim on us as individuals,” Ticktin wrote in her 1973 “A Modest Beginning,” and can and should be given the force of law. And yet today, the language of “sacred religious duty” does not often appear in discussing egalitarianism or other major points of difference between movements in Judaism. Too often, the language of “obligation” is assumed to belong to the orthodox.

Still today, when a mixed-gender group of different beliefs attempts to pray together, it is all too common to see men and women — apparently committed to egalitarian worship in their own communities — acquiesce to gender differentiated roles in an attempt at something like “shalom bayit” [peace in the house]. It is rare, in my experience, to hear Reform Jews insist that they have a “sacred religious duty” for egalitarian prayer. And without that language an important discussion is missed.

What is the place of Stein’s concept of “sacred religious duty” in 21st Century Reform? in liberal Judaism more generally? Might a change of language change our way of thinking?

Torath-Chajim das jüdische Religionsgesetz [Jewish Religious Law: instructions on present-day Israelite religious ordinances], published in Strassburg, 1877. The German is archived electronically at the Goethe University, Frankfurt-am-Main. An English translation can be found in The Rise of Reform Judaism: a sourcebook of its European origins, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (z”l). New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1963. I couldn’t find a free, on-line source for the English, but used copies are widely available for less than $10.00.

The Jewish Woman: An Anthology. Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review. Number 18. Jewish Student Press Service.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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