“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.
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