The JTS Rabbinical and Cantorial Schools seek to be a supportive and nurturing community in which the process of spiritual development is taken seriously. We celebrate the diverse backgrounds of our students and are committed to be דן לכף זכות, generous in our judgment of one another. Our faith and practice will be challenged over the course of time and through our experiences in the world. Self-reflection in an environment of dignity and compassion is an essential component of clergy training.
JTS trains its students in the path made famous by Shimon Ha-Tzaddik in Pirkei Avot 1:2. "Three pillars support the world: Torah Study; Devotional Service of God; Acts of Loyalty and Love to People." Explicating these obligations is the task of a lifetime. The following list of beliefs and practices is not comprehensive, yet it indicates some of our most prominent ideals as Jews, and the norms of our Rabbinical and Cantorial Schools:
על שלשה דברים העולם עומד:
על התורה Torah Study
• Belief that Torah--written and oral--is the inspired & authoritative guide to Jewish life.
• Commitment to life-long study of classical and contemporary works of Torah.
• Commitment to study Halakhah L'ma'aseh-the evolving path of conduct that expresses the values and norms of the covenant between God and Israel.
• Commitment to grant equal opportunity for Jewish men and women of all backgrounds, races and sexual orientations to study Torah, participate in the mitzvot, and assume leadership positions in the Jewish community.
ועל העבודהDevotional Service of God
• אהבת ה' ויראת שמים, Committed, questioning & loving engagement with God.
• Commitment to traditional communal prayer throughout the day, starting with tallit and tefillin at weekday Shaharit.
• Commitment to observing kashrut.
• Commitment to observing Shabbat and festivals.
• Commitment to holiness in relationships, including halakhic and ethical parameters to sexual intimacy.
• Commitment to uphold the Standards of Practice adopted by The Rabbinical Assembly and the Code of Professional Conduct of the Cantors Assembly.
ועל גמילות חסדיםActs of Loyalty and Love to People
• The practice of honest, ethical and compassionate behavior towards other people.
• Responsibility for the welfare of one's fellow Jews.
• Advocacy for a peaceful future for the State of Israel and its inhabitants.
• Stewardship of the environment.
• Vigilant defense of the dignity of all people.
In order to deepen their comprehension of these and other beliefs and practices, students consult their deans, rabbis, cantors and teachers, and engage one another in respectful dialogue. Religious policies are formulated by the Dean of the JTS Division of Religious Leadership, who serves as its מרא דאתרא, the arbiter of Jewish practice. The following essay by our dean, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, explores the theology and application of these principles for our school:
Pluralism and the Parameters of Religious Practice
By Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins
From Mitzvah to Halakhah
Mitzvah consciousness is the lens through which a Jew is challenged to view the world (Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement). The great window pane of daily life can easily obscure our awareness of the ultimate plane. Mitzvot are like apertures in the pane that awaken us to the presence of the Creator Who calls us and all existence into being, and Who commands us to sanctify life. The blessing formula that accompanies many mitzvot directs our attention to YHVH our God, Who sanctifies our lives through the mitzvot. Startled from the routine of daily life, we become conscious of origins, and also of purpose. Israel is called to become a covenanted community whose relationship with God is predicated on the mitzvot. These practices are the tendon that links our people to its revelation and gives purpose to our collective existence. Finally, the practice of mitzvot offers the possibility of historic change-of reshaping material existence to reflect the glory of heaven-to reconcile opposites and pursue justice and peace. Redemption is the great goal of the mitzvot.
Yet for most of its practitioners, mitzvah consciousness is less about the grand themes of creation, covenant and redemption than about giving order to daily life. From the first flutter of our eyelids at dawn until we slip back into sleep at night, the mitzvot shape our speech, our diet, our social interactions and our interior space. There is danger that the mitzvot may become so routine that they blend into the window pane of daily life, further obscuring our view of ultimate existence. For this reason, Psalm 2 reminds us, "Serve YHVH with reverence; rejoice while trembling." This paradoxical counsel asserts that true service requires routine-shattering emotion across the spectrum from fear to joy. Psalm 37 (among many others) exalts the role of intellect in our service, "The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom; his tongue speaks words of justice." The intentional intellectual ferment of Torah study is therefore a mitzvah that is כנגד כולם, equal to all others in that it invests meaning into what might otherwise become a mindless habit. Through the cultivation of intellect and emotion, the mitzvot expand our consciousness so that we may come to live with God.
Given the high stakes and great energies involved in practicing the mitzvot, Judaism has developed a voluminous literature dedicated to them. How are mitzvot to be practiced, when, and by whom? What is the role of family and community in this service? How should the practitioner respond when mitzvot collide? When ritual is pitted against health, or even human dignity, how does the practitioner discern the divine Will? When the historical context of Jewish life shifts dramatically from a Temple-centered national life, to exilic wandering and settlement, from secular society to a putatively Jewish state, how does the practice and valence of mitzvot develop? How does a community covenanted to God through the practice of mitzvot relate to other communities of faith and to fellow Jews for whom the mitzvot have faded into obscurity? This conversation-this tumultuous negotiation across the generations-is known to Jews by the term halakhah.
Halakhah is a term that encompasses the normative, moral and religious practice of walking with God. The phenomenon of "halakhah" may also be understood as a pathway; this image indicates both continuity and development in our journey towards holiness.
Conservative Judaism views both development and differentiation in the halakhah as necessary and positive. Our formulation of Judaism is not identical to that expressed a hundred or more years ago, nor should it be. Yet halakhah also indicates the importance of continuity. The path has an origin, it has edges, and it has a destination. The edges form parameters of practice that allow the Jewish community to achieve coherence and focus in its quest לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, to prepare the world to be governed by God. When the path is made too narrow, it becomes impossible for people to walk together and form communities. Too broad, and the covenanted community disperses, lost in aimless and solipsistic wandering. A proper pathway requires both definition and a positive attitude towards religious pluralism.
Various positions may be justified within a given religious system; this conviction, which we call pluralism, is a positive value for several reasons:
Pluralism reflects theological humility. God is infinite, and even the wisest of sages has but limited comprehension. Religious triumphalism is a form of idolatry-it reduces God to a possession, and denies the possibility that another person or community of faith may have attained insight into the infinite mysteries of God.
Pluralism is a consequence of modern scholarship. The Conservative Movement emerged in part because of the insights that history and other academic disciplines brought to our understanding of Judaism. Our formative texts, including the Bible and early rabbinic literature, have a history of development. The many voices heard within the ancient texts of our people are a model for the many voices heard in contemporary discourse. Judaism has not and should not espouse a catechism of faith. Our tradition is marvelously complex, and pluralism is a reflection of that complexity.
Pluralism is a form of menschlichkeit, or decency. To develop an inclusive community we must be willing to recognize other people's virtues. This in turn allows us to learn from the insights of another person. When we disagree, we should do so with kindness and humility. A truly pluralistic community is a compassionate community, which in turn has the capacity to become a holy community.
Finally, pluralism is a perspective that leads to wisdom. Through the cultivation of multiple perspectives in dialogue, all participants can be challenged and deepened. As Rabbi Ben Zoma taught us, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, Who is wise? One who learns from every person (Avot 4:1).
That said, pluralism is not an unlimited good. It can become an excuse for intellectual and spiritual sloppiness, with any position, no matter how superficial, granted equal respect. Pluralistic communities should be marked by intensity of debate, with positions constantly challenged and refined. Moreover, pluralism is sometimes confused with chaos. Instead of instigating the process of debate and definition, it can undermine any sense of communal norms. Therefore, each religious community-even ones dedicated to pluralistic discourse-must develop parameters of belief and practice that give it coherence. While these parameters themselves are subject to challenge and periodic modification, a modicum of clarity on core values and norms is necessary for a community to function. This is particularly true of a community devoted to training religious leaders.
Halakhic Norms for the JTS Rabbinical and Cantorial Schools
Traditional Jewish values and practices give purpose and coherence to our community. Conservative Judaism provides many venues for debating matters of belief and practice through its publications, its congregations, and through the work of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. These sources are considered by each local rabbinic authority who serves as mara d'atra. In the JTS Division for Religious Leadership, this function is assigned to the Dean. Observing the process of analyzing, debating and determining religious policy is an aspect of the education of clergy who will soon be performing these very functions for their own communities.
The norms of our school may, in some cases, be more intensive than the norms expressed in other Jewish communities. This is intended to create an observant community that is rigorous, creative, curious and passionate. This intensity inspires our students to create and sustain serious and committed Jewish communities wherever they reside in the decades following their ordination.
In the following paragraphs I expand on several of the policies listed in our document, Norms of Religious Identity and Practice (which is appended at the end). I have chosen to focus on topics that are most often subject to confusion. There are of course many other important subjects that are worthy of comment. Practices such as gemilut chasadim, and prohibitions such as l'shon harah are both essential and complicated. There are numerous ritual topics that are likewise important and complex. I hope to turn to such subjects in future essays. However, this essay is focused on topics that are controversial, and where ambiguity can lead to corrosion of community.
It is simple to say that all students must keep kosher, but complicated to define what this means. At the very minimum, no student may eat or benefit from:
The safest and most exemplary path to ensure compliance with the policies above is to purchase prepared foods only when they bear a hekhsher, and to eat only in those restaurants that have kosher supervision. There are respected members of our community who choose to eat vegetarian products in non-kosher facilities. This leniency can easily lead to exposure to non-kosher foods, and therefore requires vigilance in inspecting the ingredients and preparation of such foods. Common sense indicates that some environments, such as vegetarian restaurants, are "safer" from a kashrut perspective than are other restaurants that serve treife meat. Still, one cannot assume that "vegetarian" satisfies all of the concerns of "kosher" since there may be issues of cheese rennet, vinegars and other unhekhsered products of concern to the kosher consumer, not to mention the common mingling of utensils and ingredients in a busy kitchen.
There are times in which a Jewish value such as kibbud horim and other mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro may make the stringent practice of kashrut challenging. For example, may one eat vegetarian food prepared by a parent in a non-kosher kitchen? This is a challenge for many students and other observant Jews. We should recall Leviticus 19:3, "You shall revere your mother and father, and guard my Sabbaths, I am the Lord." This verse has been interpreted to reflect the balance required between ritual and social values in Judaism. I take it to mean that we cannot eat true treife in order to satisfy parents or other people, but we may make accommodations within a halakhic framework in order to preserve a respectful relationship with them. This is supported by the concept of "gadol k'vod habriot" (Brakhot 19b).
In recent years we have begun to explore the connections betweenכשרות (ritual fitness), and ישרות (moral rectitude). The הכשר צדק campaign has challenged us to consider the well being and dignity of workers, the humane treatment of animals, and the general upright conduct of a company when deciding to purchase its products or invest in its business. These considerations should be reflected in the practice of our community of Torah.
Finally, food should be healthful to the body. The Talmud states that חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא, that hazards to the health are more serious transgressions than are other prohibitions (Chulin 11a). A diet lacking moderation is problematic, no matter what heksher appears on the wrapper. On the other hand, the preference that many have for organic foods cannot justify eating treife. It is always possible, though not always convenient, to eat foods that are both kosher and healthful.
Remembering and observing the seventh day has been a defining and sustaining feature of Jewish life for three millennia. Yet interpreting the 39 archetypes of labor and the general command to rest (שבות) for our contemporary lives is extremely complex. At the very minimum, no student may light fire, cook, weave or do any of the primary categories of labor listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 and subsequent interpretations. Students may use an עירוב for carrying purposes, and may use automated devices set up prior to Shabbat (e.g. a coffee maker with timer) for convenience but should not perform any מלאכה. The rules of shvut include a ban on making commercial transactions on Shabbat, whether by use of cash, credit or other methods of purchasing goods and services.
JTS rabbinical and cantorial students may not travel on Shabbat and Yom Tov, whether by car, bus, train or plane. We recognize that there are respected Conservative clergy who have based their decision to drive on Shabbat on the minority opinion of the CJLS in 1950 that permitted isolated Jews to drive to the closest synagogue on Shabbat. That said, driving on Shabbat involves several prohibited labors, including lighting fire, carrying, and traveling; it can easily lead to many others. We should continue to welcome all Jews into our congregations, yet we must also find ways to cultivate the traditional observance of Shabbat. The cultivation of a Shabbat observant community our school provides our students with a model that can inspire a lifetime of leadership in the general Jewish community.
Regarding electricity, there is significant variety of practice within our community. Rabbi Arthur Neulander's 1950 responsum argued that the operation of electrical appliances is not inherently in violation of the forbidden labors. Other authorities have written that the operation of any electrical appliance violates one of the 39 categories of labor (though there is spirited debate about precisely which ones). The subject is very complex, and has grown even more complicated as electronics have become integrated into countless functions of our daily lives. (I am working on a responsum on this subject for the CJLS).
This much is clear: electrical appliances should not be used for a purpose which is inherently forbidden (e.g. using an electric range or microwave oven to cook food (בישול), or an electronic device such as a computer or camera to write text or record images and sounds (כותב), or an electric mill to grind pepper or coffee (תוחן). Moreover, electronic devices used for daily work (e.g. computers, cell phones and PDAs) should be set aside so that Shabbat can emerge as a differentiated day of delight.
Some members of our community may choose to use electricity to operate appliances such as lights, fans and elevators, while others may adopt the more stringent practice of not operating any electrical appliances on Shabbat. There are positive values to support either position. For example, turning lights on and off only when needed avoids בל תשחית, the waste of natural resources. Using an elevator avoids טירחא יתירא, excessive strain on Shabbat. Conversely, avoiding the use of such appliances serves to differentiate one's conduct on Shabbat from other days of the week (עובדא דחול). Moreover, it is difficult and perhaps misleading to differentiate between permitted and forbidden uses of electrical appliances (לא פלוג).
Rabbinical and cantorial students should study and debate these issues in an atmosphere of humility and respect. They should recall the words of Isaiah 58, chanted each year on Yom Kippur morning:
אִם-תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג לִקְדוֹשׁ ה' מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר: אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-ה' וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל-בָּמֳותֵי אָרֶץ וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ כִּי פִּי ה' דִּבֵּר:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the Sabbath "delight," the Lord's holy day "honored"; And if you honor it and go not your ways, nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains-Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob-for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Because clergy are often called upon "to work" on Shabbat by leading communal worship and study, the rules of Shabbat have special importance for us. By being vigilant in our observance, we model Shabbat for others, and also maintain our own integrity and sense of rest. In Isaiah's words, we can then enjoy the heritage of Ya'akov Avinu.
The Shulhan Arukh opens with the famous injunction, יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו, "One should be mighty like a lion to stand up in the morning to serve the creator." It is never easy to fulfill one's obligations of prayer, and it is even more challenging to pray with a focused mind and a pure heart. This is why we ask God each Shabbat וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת, "purify our hearts to serve You in truth."
Rabbinical and cantorial students share the same obligations as other Jews to pray, "Evening, morning and noon." (Psalm 55) As role models of worship, rabbinical students should make special efforts to participate in communal prayer. This setting is an important part of rabbinic education, and it also helps foster community within our school. The minyan is a laboratory for acquiring skills, learning synagogue customs and laws, and incorporating the use of music and meditation in addition to the traditional chanting into tefillah.
When the ordination of women was decided at JTS, there were some who felt that this step was contingent upon women formally accepting upon themselves the obligation for mitzvot from which they had traditionally been exempted (מצוות עשה שהזמן גרמה), especially the statutory prayers of Shacharit and Minchah. Yet Mishnah Brakhot 3:3 specifically obligates women in prayer (תפילה). The nature of this obligation was famously debated in the medieval period between Rambam and Ramban, but already a century ago the Ashkenazi practice assumed a full obligation for women in daily prayer. See for example, the comments of Mishnah Berurah to O.H. 106:1, especially the end of note 3, and note 4, where he sides with Ramban in considering women to be obligated to recite the full Amidah at the appointed time for Shacharit and Minchah, and adds an equal obligation to recite Shema (he comments that at his time men, but not women, had accepted Ma'ariv as an obligation; this is not the case in our community).
The categorical exemption of women from positive, time bound commands (מצוות עשה שהזמן גרמה) is problematic, since there are arguably more exceptions than applications of the rule in the classical literature. As Professor Judith Hauptman has written in Rereading the Rabbis, the exemption of women from such commands may have been a consequence of their state of social subjugation to men in pre-Modern society. Since equal responsibility for men and women is an important value of our community, such exemptions should be considered inoperative within our school. Therefore, women, like men, are expected to fulfill the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin; these sacred objects are symbolic of the broader categories of Torah study and mitzvah observance which rabbis are dedicated to model.
At JTS, we hold that women and men are equally obligated for daily prayer, and are equally entitled to serve as sh'lichei tzibbur. Therefore, the primary minyan of our school (WLSS) follows the traditional format of tefillah with equal participation for men and women. Service leaders are welcome to use either Amidah option published in Siddur Sim Shalom: the original text, or one that includes the names of the matriarchs. An alternative minyan is available in Stein Chapel for community members who prefer a non-egalitarian service; students are also welcome to arrange for other prayer alternatives that make use of non-traditional formats.
Some of our students are single and some partnered; some have children and others do not; many change status during their years in our program. Some changes in status, such as engagements, weddings and the birth of children, are the cause of great celebration in our community. Other changes in students' lives are painful, eliciting a response of compassion and support from the community. Even semakhot can be a source of awkwardness and tension among students. Moreover, students frequently struggle to balance their academic, professional and personal lives. Our goal is for all students to experience sheleimut-integration-as they navigate these changes within themselves, with their partners and with their peers.
Jewish values such as honesty, modesty, respect, and protecting health all inform our sexual ethic and the way that we view one another. The Rabbinical Assembly's pastoral letter composed by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, This is My Beloved, This is My Friend, is a useful description of such values (now available as chapter three in Rabbi Dorff's book, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003). He argues that even in non-marital relationships, Jewish values and norms must guide conduct. Unmarried students are expected to pursue holiness in their social and intimate interactions, even as are married students. Rabbinical and cantorial students may not date or marry a person who is not Jewish (by the halakhic standards of Conservative Judaism).
In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted in subsequent sessions on halakhic norms for opposite-gender sex (September 2006) and same-gender sex (December 2006). In the first session, the CJLS approved three papers that all confirmed the traditional practice of abstaining from sex during and after a woman's menstrual period until she immerses in a mikveh. The papers differed in some significant details, but all are considered to be valid practices within our community.
In the second session, the CJLS again approved three papers, this time on the subject of homosexuality. These papers were in sharp contrast with one another. Two opposed any modification of the traditional ban on same-sex intimacy. One, which I co-authored, argued that the halakhic obligation to preserve human dignity supersedes the rabbinic-level prohibitions of same sex intimacy for gays and lesbians. On this basis, gay and lesbian students have been welcomed into our school, and their relationships are recognized and celebrated. The nomenclature and content of such ceremonies of commitment is still evolving, but the integrity of such committed relationships is evident.
Halakhic debate on subjects such as those listed above reflects deep issues of personal and family identity; as such, it can be particularly challenging to conduct the conversation with integrity and compassion. Different points of view are welcomed within our community. All students are expected to show respect for the sensitivities of their fellow students and to view the discussion as a mahloket l'sheim shamayim, a debate whose goal is to draw God's presence closer to our community.
Standards of Rabbinic Practice and Cantorial Code of Conduct.
Because students often begin to function in professional clergy roles during the course of their studies, commitment to uphold these standards is required from the time of admission. The Rabbinical Assembly has designated several policies as Standards of Rabbinic Practice. Cantorial students are likewise bound by these same standards, which have been adopted by the Cantors Assembly in its Code of Conduct.
These Standards are not necessarily our paramount values. For example, monotheism and the ban on murder are not Standards, yet they are universally understood to be core values of the Torah and of our profession. Moreover, clergy are expected to be exemplars of morality, humility and compassion in their personal and professional lives. The Rabbinical Assembly and Cantor's Assembly each maintains a Va'ad HaKavod that investigates charges of ritual violation and moral turpitude against its members. Rather, the Standards address ritual practices that affect Jewish identity and the structure of the Jewish family. They include (in my paraphrase):
•· Not to grant formal Jewish status to a person who is neither born to a Jewish mother, nor converted with milah and tevilah as approved by a Beit Din.
•· Not to perform a wedding between two people, one of whom is not Jewish according to the criteria listed above.
•· Not to perform a second wedding for a person who has not granted or accepted a גט from his or her first spouse (or had the situation resolved by the Joint Beit Din via הפקעת קדושין).
Although rabbinical students are not yet members of the Rabbinical Assembly, they often begin to function in rabbinic roles during school, and they are granted automatic admission to the RA based upon their ordination by JTS. The same is true for our cantorial students and the Cantor's Assembly. As such, it is incumbent upon all of our students to abide by these important standards throughout their years in our school.
While each student has the right to express her or his ideas and interpretations, each also has responsibilities toward the collective group both in our school and in the larger movement and people of Israel. For example, conversion standards should not be idiosyncratic since colleagues depend upon one another to maintain the integrity of our process for the protection of the converts, their children and the communities that they will join. Indeed, many practices function in this way. It is always helpful for students of Torah to engage in learned, principled and intensive debate. But it is also a measure of wisdom for the individual to view his or her insights within the larger context of the community of Torah and to act as a member of a covenanted people.
This essay reflects the struggle of our movement and school to interpret the values and norms of our sacred tradition for contemporary practice in a way that is internally coherent and that welcomes principled differences of opinion. Students should adopt a curious, well-informed, humble and kind attitude towards one another. Disagreements should be explored in an atmosphere of mutual respect. By engaging in well-reasoned, principled and respectful dialogue we grow stronger as individuals and as leaders of the Jewish community. Humility is the key to understanding wisdom and to constructing community. As we say at the end of each Amidah, פתח לבי בתורתך, ובמצותיך תרדוף נפשי ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה. Make my soul like dust to all. Open my heart through your Torah, and through your Mitzvot quicken my soul.
I have attempted in these few pages to clarify the purpose and parameters of religious practice in our community. More can and should be said on each of its subjects, and there is a long list of other subjects worthy of study. I pray that this essay will give us a greater appreciation of the religious challenges that confront us, and will help us sense the presence of God in our midst as we practice the mitzvot within our precious and sacred community of Torah.
Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins
Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School
and of The Division for Religious Leadership