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Torah Studies
36--Parshat Chukkat
July 15, 2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...eino samei'ach b'hora'ah, not being happy about making a ruling...

(Numbers 21:30) Vaniram avad cheshbon ad divon...; Yet we have put them down utterly, Cheshbon along with Divon...

I am often asked to explain exactly what Conservative Judaism is. I always fail, because I always wind up explaining what it is not. Conservative Judaism is not Orthodoxy, with its affirmation that the Torah and Jewish law are perfect, divine and immutable. Conservative Judaism is not Reform, with its affirmation that the individual has the autonomy to accept or reject any practice of the tradition, but must toe the line on a particular reading of the prophetic message. Instead, Conservative Judaism occupies the vast middle, differentiated from the rigidity of Orthodoxy and the fluidity of Reform by what must seem to the outside observer as only degrees.

I know what Conservative Judaism is – I live it. But to those who do not see it from the inside (including a lot of folks who think of themselves as Conservative Jews), it seems vague and amorphous.

Professor Everett Fox, in his remarkable translation of the Torah, seems to have faced a similar dilemma in translating the verse of Torah quoted above. It is part of the last verse of a victory chant recited after the Israelites defeated the tribe of Emor. From within the poem, the verse makes certain sense, but viewing it from the outside (as we all must) makes both meaning and context look unclear.

The first word in particular – va-niram – seems to mean, "we shot them." (Think arrows, not bullets.) The same root, yod-resh-heh, means "put down." Professor Fox calls this a difficult verse to translate. It is a telling admission in a work that captures the meaning and rhythm of the text better than any other English translation.

The same root, with a different meaning, gives us the word hora'ah in the value from Avot. Here it means "ruling," that is, something laid down – perhaps its connection to the word in the Torah verse. Rulings and combat have this much in common: they wind up including some and excluding others. Those on the "right" side are included, and those on the "wrong" side are excluded. It is an easy thing for those who are included to presume that those who are excluded simply accept the circumstances that create that boundary. They may take smug satisfaction in their rectitude, but they may also sacrifice the chance to reconcile with former opponents.

When Avot decries being happy about making a ruling, it understands the dilemma. The only reason to be happy about saying "no" is to take satisfaction in another person's exclusion. People may profess other sources of satisfaction – I suspect that having God on their side is top on the list – but they only deceive themselves.

Back in the Book of Genesis is the story of Abraham greeting the emissaries of God who bring him the news of Sarah's pregnancy and of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Midrash depicts Abraham's tent as having an unusual feature: it was open on all four sides. Such a tent doesn't provide much privacy or protection, but it is accessible to those who approach it from any direction. The biggest tent in the world will stand empty if access to it is restricted. From the very beginning of our people, we took no joy in exclusion, even if we brought a message of differentiation.

Ideally, Conservative Judaism makes room for the orthodoxies and reforms of our time. In doing so, however, we also make possible the movement of individuals out of our open tent, as well as into it. Those who exit, exit. But neither individual rabbis nor our community as a whole should glean happiness from pointing out which behaviors and which philosophies are outside the tent of (what we consider to be) authentic Judaism. The satisfaction in that "no" closes off the Torah that is necessary to the "yes" that our movement strives so hard to express.

How do you become one who is eino samei'ach b'hora'ah? Each of us is called upon to give a ruling of some sort – at work, at home, at school, in a relationship. Often, making that ruling is very nature of our responsibility. Write down the decision you must make, but then rewrite it to hold open the possibility of bringing closer those who will disagree with it. Leave room to reclaim the Torah they still have.

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