The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.—Blaise Pascal1
After college, I served as a Community Health Agent in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. I received a close-of-service stipend for each month served, which modest sum I spent on a digital video camera, directional microphone, c-light, tripods, and an airplane ticket to Miami. In Florida, I took video testimonies of my family’s experiences before, during, and after World War II. This was an opportunity for me to learn more about my maternal grandfather, who had died a decade earlier. As I interviewed my grandmother about my grandparents’ lives as American immigrants in the 1950s, she told me about their first home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. After settling, my zayde discovered that the nearest shul was several miles away. “How do people get there?” he asked the elder greeners (immigrants). “We drive,” they told him. “Drive?” he thought. “What kind of Jews are these?!” For weeks he stayed home, resolved not to drive on Shabbos. Finally, after missing what he missed about shul too many times, he got in his car one Saturday morning for shacharis. By the time I was born over two decades later, we always drove to his Conservative synagogue.
This anecdote bears out experientially what others have inferred intellectually. Conservative halakhah contains an element of custom which is often overlooked, and rarely valorized. As Elliot Dorff suggests, there already may be great latitude for accepting the role of variant customs in Jewish practice.2 Dorff’s description of halakhah molded by changing custom feels authentic, and is an appropriate validation of the roles of custom, tradition, and discretion. Just as “people don’t speak language; language is what people [End Page 80] speak,” so too Jews do not “do halakhah”; halakhah is often what Jews do. In fact, this seems an apt hypothesis for the socio-cultural shift underlying my zayde’s drives to shul. He was not a student of halakhah; nonetheless, traditional Yiddishkheit was important to my zayde. Attending shul, reading maftir, and eating Jewish foods were his customs. In the post-war period, several new customs were entertained in his circle of friends; through the absorption of some and the desuetude of others, driving to shul became the de facto Conservative norm.
This is not a new phenomenon. Committed Jews always existed in a matrix that encompassed not only writings in Bible, Talmud, midrash, codes, responsa, and legal precedent, but also family traditions, social networks, discernment, and choices among professional, public, and private commitments. In the contemporary era, however, the rise of late-life observance coupled with the expansion of printed legal material had a dual effect: the public conception of halakhah as mere black-letter law became more pronounced, while halakhah, conceived as law, became a “continually narrowing, constrictive vessel.”3Halakhah is no longer the organic, living-and-breathing experience that my zayde recognized—it has become objectified, with clear referents and incontrovertible conclusions.
Therefore, we may be entering an era in which “halakhah as law” is a metaphor that is either calcified or insufficient. Despite the Conservative movement’s justifiable pride in being “halakhic,” it may be too limited a category for what our observant members do today. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of alternatives. The converse of “halakhic” has not gained crucial traction. Edward Feld’s “Toward an Aggadic Judaism” lays out a brilliant snapshot of the content of a serious Conservative Jewish life, but “subjective religious standards” offer limited guidance to draw people into religious commitments, or to form committed communities.4 To others, the entire notion of a halakhic movement is passé. Critics accuse “halakhic” of being a code-word that some use to evade elaborating their vision, by setting arbitrary bounds without genuinely confronting what it means to be a member. As Neil Gillman notes, “The claim is unfalsifiable and disingenuous, it escapes any clear definition, it has failed to engage our laity who either don’t understand it or don’t view it as relating to their lives, and it is subverted by the culture...