Frequently Asked Questions about Masorti

What is Masorti Judaism?

The most frequently asked question of any Masorti rabbi is: What is Masorti Judaism? This is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, Masorti Judaism is no more than a shade within Judaism itself. Given the many shades and differences to be found within Orthodoxy, within Masorti Judaism and even within Reform Judaism, it is hard to draw clear lines or borders between the movements.

The basic beliefs of a Masorti Jew are no different than those found in traditional Judaism. We believe in a God who created the world. We believe in a covenant between God and the people of Israel. We believe that we are commanded, as a part of that covenant, to live a special lifestyle, spelled out in the Torah and articulated in halacha – Jewish law. We accept that this law is defined by the classical books of the rabbis: the Mishnah, the Talmud, and thereafter refined through the codes and responsa.

The main principle that defines Masorti Judaism is our relationship to modern science and scholarship. What role do the results of modern studies, particularly in the fields of history, archaeology, bible scholarship and literature play in the understanding of our tradition? The Masorti approach to this question is unequivocal: the results of these sciences cannot be ignored. They must be used to inform our religious beliefs, to help us understand our tradition better. They cannot be rejected outright, without careful consideration of their claims.

There are many areas where the results of scholarship and tradition seem to contradict. In these instances it is our position that we must interpret the tradition in a way that it doesn’t contradict our knowledge from other sources. This is not a matter of convenience. The only reason to follow a tradition is because it is true. If we accept our tradition as truth, then it must agree with the facts as we know them. This means that, although we believe in the same things as traditional Judaism, how we understand those things is influenced by the findings of modern science and modern thought.

These are some of the main questions people ask about our position:

Do Masorti Jews believe that the Torah comes from heaven?

Bible scholarship has shown that the Torah has a history. It is difficult to accept the claim that the Torah was handed down from heaven at a certain point in history in the literal sense. We therefore understand this term as a metaphor to mean that the Torah is divine and that it reflects God’s will. Research can help us understand the process of how the Torah came about, but will probably never give us a full picture. From our point of view, the idea that a concept as complex as ‘how God communicates to people’ could be reduced to a literal description is unacceptable.

How can you consider the findings of scholarship to be true? There are always different schools of thought, and the positions of the scholars constantly change as new information becomes available.

True. Science is not infallible and the more we know, the better we understand things. We do not accept modern notions as ‘Torah from Sinai’ – truths to be defended no matter what. Every finding must be accepted for what it is: a guess, a fact, an interpretation or a most probable explanation. We must always be open to learning more. However, the more information we have, the more that evidence from different fields of study agrees, the closer we get to the truth. The fact that one is not absolutely sure doesn’t mean that we should just deny facts or accept things, which are simply impossible. Our beliefs must always be reviewed by our critical understanding. Not because we are perfect, but because our faculty of reason is what God has given us, and we have no better tool to use to search for the truth. Our reason is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

If you do not believe that the Torah was given by God literally, does this not undermine your commitment to observe the tradition?

No. If one believes that the commandments are God’s will, it does not matter how you understand how they were given. You would still feel bound to observe them.

The Role that Halacha Plays

There are many similarities between the ideology of Masorti and that of Orthodox Judaism. This similarity cuts through to halacha.

What is halacha?

The Torah tells us of a special covenant between the Jewish people and God. As part of this covenant Jews have been given many commandments. The commandments of the Torah are of a general nature. We do not observe the commandments as they are in the Torah. There is a whole literature – the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Midrash, the responsa literature and the codes – which explains and develops the commandments and translates them into rules for everyday living.

These rules, the way of life of the observant Jew, are the halacha. The halacha is far from being a closed book, with everything being clear-cut and sealed in stone. There is not a page in the Talmud that is free from debate, not an issue over which there is not some difference of opinion. The halacha is dynamic. It has within it the ability to grow and to respond to changes. However, despite differences of opinion and the freedom that exists within the halacha, there have emerged guidelines which help define the system. Over time, the Babylonian Talmud has become the final authority in Jewish law. Precedents have been set and practice has been established. Even when confronting new realities, the precedents of the past and the underlying principles that have been established are to be taken into consideration when deciding how the halacha applies today.

All that has been said so far is true for both Masorti and Orthodox Judaism. Where does Masorti differ? The differences are not in how halacha is understood, but in how it is applied. Whenever a rabbi is called upon to give a ruling, in addition to determining the halacha, he must also judge the situation he is ruling upon. As Masorti rabbis understand the world differently than Orthodox rabbis, the way they apply the halacha differs.

This difference in the way we look at the world manifests itself in many ways. Masorti Jews respect academic research as a means to understand the world better and therefore the results of this research are brought to bear in our halachic decisions. Masorti Jews accept many of the values of modern society. We are integrated in the modern world and our halachic decisions reflect this integration. Rather than trying to set Jews apart from general society, we seek ways to make it possible to be an observant Jew within it. Our constituency includes many Jews who have not made a full commitment to observance. As a result of this, the importance of enabling ‘somewhat’ observant Jews to play a fuller role in the community is an important consideration in our decisions.

The biggest difference in our approach centres on our attitude to change. Our society is characterised by rapid social change. Is this change good? Should we welcome it? Do we resist it? It is in those areas of our lives where the greatest social changes have occurred where the differences between the movements in Judaism are most apparent.

The most prominent example of the need to take a position regarding change is when we come to define the role of women in the synagogue. In our secular society, the role of women has radically been changed. Women today are fully integrated in society, are educated, hold positions of power and share equal rights. The halacha grew in an age where none of this was true. The main challenge facing all traditional groups today is how to respond to this change. It is the Masorti position that it is the ability to address itself to change that has kept the halacha alive through the centuries. We maintain that failure to apply the tools of change that exist within the halacha to the changes in our world today will leave the halacha irrelevant to most Jews.

Although these attitudes are wide reaching, it should be stressed that in most cases, there is no difference between the interpretations of Masorti and of Orthodox rabbis.

The Parameters of Change

We have seen that the idea of ‘change’ is central to the thinking of the Masorti movement. Many of those who are opposed to Masorti challenge us over our willingness to adopt changes. They claim that any change, no matter how small, undermines the framework of halacha. They view an openness to change as a kind of slippery slope, where changes start small but become ever greater and more radical as time passes. How does Masorti answer this challenge.

This challenge must be considered carefully. One of the main attractions of tradition is the sense it gives that we are part of something greater than ourselves. It is tremendously satisfying to know that we are observing a tradition in much the same way that our parents, grandparents and ancestors have. There is a comfort that comes from the familiarity of tunes and practices, of words and rituals that a great religion such as ours can give. Any tradition that is too open to change risks losing one of the most important things that it has to offer.

However, ignoring change is also a dangerous route to follow. A society that does not adapt to the changes around it becomes irrelevant and is doomed to disappear. The Masorti position is that there is a need to balance these two demands. Change is not a goal in and of itself. Changes are only adopted when necessary. But when it is necessary, the halacha must adapt itself. The halacha does have the ability to adopt change and has changed in the past. It is the ability to address itself to change that has kept the Jewish tradition alive through the centuries.

How can these two needs – the need to maintain a tradition and the need to adapt to change – be balanced? There is no clear answer to this dilemma. Different thinkers within the movement have answered the challenge in different ways. For Masorti Jews the answer lies in the way we determine both when a change is necessary and what the limits of that change can be.

Changing Jewish practice is not a whim, and it does not happen at the spur of the moment. Change can be introduced only as the result of a serious, deep-rooted and compelling change in society. Only when society has changed significantly from what it was in the past is there a reason for Jewish practice to take the change into consideration. The classic example of this is the change in the status and role of women in our society. The role of women has changed so much as to call into question many of the assumptions regarding women that underpin the thinking regarding their roles that defined the halacha. This is a case where change is an imperative.

Even where change is mandated it does not mean that every change is allowed or even desirable. Here there must also be guidelines. We are guided in the direction we choose in our change by the sources of Jewish law. Once we have decided that our practice will be different from what it has been until now, we must go back to the sources, find legal precedents, understand the principles that have been established and be guided by them. This is the way that we guarantee that we remain faithful to our covenant even when we have adapted our practice to changing circumstances.

Finally, in deciding how to reflect the changing society around us, we must be biased in the direction of tradition. If there is no reason to introduce change, one must leave things as they are. Rapid change undermines tradition. Time must be the test. Only those issues that have been on the communal agenda for a long time, reflecting basic changes in society, are worthy of being considered. Halacha does not adapt to every passing fad.

In short, Masorti tries to be open to change when it is necessary, but equally opposed to change when it is not. When we change, we move within the precedents of our tradition. It is our belief that this approach, rather than being a slippery slope, is a ladder to an ever greater commitment to Jewish tradition and observance by ever greater numbers of Jews.

What is the Masorti attitude to conversion?

The subject of conversion occupies a key place on the Jewish communal agenda, and it appears to be set to remain there for the foreseeable future. It is an arena in which the battle between the different sectors of the Jewish community is frequently fought. It is an example of an important challenge facing the Jewish world today and, as such, is a good example of how the different movements in modem Judaism put their beliefs into practice.

Jewish law, as spelled out in the Talmud and the codes, allows for conversion, setting a number of requirements to be met by the potential convert before appearing before a Beth Din (Jewish court) and being accepted. These requirements include ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision (in the case of men) and accepting the yoke of the commandments. The sources also talk of a period of study. We are also warned not to make the process so difficult as to put off those candidates who are sincere.

The attitude to conversion has changed over history. In the ancient world conversion was a common occurrence. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden to practice conversion in most countries, and it was a rarity. In the modern age, in those countries where Jews have been emancipated and have established contact with the surrounding society, the number of people who seek to convert to Judaism has greatly increased.

The Orthodox community in Britain demands that those who wish to convert under its auspices adopt the lifestyle and beliefs of an ideal Orthodox Jew. Candidates go through a rigorous period of instruction and testing before they are accepted. While this position is coherent, in practice it means that the lifestyle expected of the potential convert is much more demanding than that of the majority of Jews, even the majority of Jews who are affiliated with Orthodox synagogues. It means that conversion is impossible for most candidates.

The Masorti policy is to enable those who wish to join the Jewish community to do so on condition that the demands of Jewish law have been met. We provide a serious period of study, and expect our candidates for conversion to adopt the lifestyle of an observant Masorti Jew. The standard is within reach of members of our communities and, although challenging, is also within reach of most candidates for conversion. Those going through the conversion process are provided with encouragement and support in going through a major change in their lives. All the ritual requirements of Jewish law are observed.

The Orthodox refuse to recognise as valid any conversion that has not taken place under its own auspices. Masorti regret this position. We reject the notion that the only way one can be a Jew is to be an Orthodox Jew. We reject the assumption that the Orthodox have the authority to decide who is Jewish and who is not. That authority lies solely in Jewish law. When a candidate has fulfilled the requirements of that law then he or she is Jewish, and one who refuses to recognise that fact is denying a Jew the right of synagogue participation and Jewish education, as well as many other services of the Jewish community.

In recent years the Orthodox community in Israel has put its efforts into trying to introduce legislation that would only recognise Orthodox conversions. Given the huge influx of Russian immigrants into the country, many of whom have problems of status, such legislation would create great difficulties for thousands who have come home and wish to return to their Jewish roots. The position of the Masorti movement worldwide is to push for the adoption of reasonable and reachable standards of conversion to be agreed and practised throughout the Jewish world. We wish to take conversion out of the political arena. We believe that cooperation between all sectors of the community, through a compassionate application of the requirements of Jewish law, would best serve our people as a whole.

The way one thinks about conversion reflects how you understand being a Jew in the modern world. The Masorti attitude encourages a critical understanding of Jewish history and requires a serious period of study, which endorses traditional practice. It sees us as part of our surrounding society and demands that we provide workable solutions to its challenges; it enables those who wish to draw closer to the Jewish tradition rather than setting up barriers in their way. The Masorti approach to conversion provides a good reflection of what Masorti Judaism is all about.

Our Synagogues

At first sight Masorti synagogues seem to have diverse practices, particularly in relation to the role of women. Some have mixed seating and full women’s participation; others are largely indistinguishable from an Orthodox synagogue. However, when we understand how Jewish law developed, it is easy to recognise the consistent thread that runs through all our synagogue practices.

A historical approach to Judaism is bound to recognise that there are practices in Judaism today that are not mentioned in our earliest sources: Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Yahrtzeit and kippot, to mention just a few. Similarly, we no longer do things that our ancestors did; sacrifices, polygamy and capital punishment are all good examples. Whatever the historical reasons for these innovations in Jewish life, the fundamental point is that Judaism evolves in response to changing social, political, technological and economic realities. Indeed it is this ability to adapt and evolve that has helped enable Judaism to survive.

We must also be aware that Jewish law often lends itself to more than one legitimate interpretation. For example, amongst those who see the peace process in Israel as a religious issue, some use valid halachic arguments for supporting it, others use equally valid arguments for opposing it. Throughout our history different groups have emerged which differ over halachic practices: Sefardim/Ashkenazim, Hasidim/Mitnegdim and, in our day, Masorti/Charedi.

Masorti rabbis and scholars hold that the halacha is capable of more than one expression – and can be flexible, i.e. capable of change within certain parameters. Prohibitions such as non-Kosher meat or lighting fires on Shabbat can never be permitted. But there are areas of Jewish practice that owe more to tradition, or minhag, than to law. We can make out a convincing halachic case for permitting women to read from the Torah, although it is too complex for this short article. But until recently it was tradition that was the moderating force. The real reason that women did not read from the Torah seems to be because some illiterate men felt embarrassed in the presence of obviously well-educated women. But in terms of tradition, women did not read from the Torah because that was not what women did.

Today, however, social conditions have changed. Masorti recognises that women are permitted to read from the Torah not just because we can justify it halachically, but because the flexible, dynamic nature of Judaism has in this case gained the upper hand over tradition. This is not to say that all Masorti congregations must adopt this practice. As our revered teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs z”l put it, just because the rabbi says the chicken is kosher, doesn’t mean you have to eat it!

Our Origins

Orthodoxy, Reform and Conservative/Masorti Judaism were three responses to the challenge posed to European Jews nearly 200 years ago by the Emancipation. The Conservative Movement is the youngest of the three and began in mid-nineteenth-century Germany with the work of Zechariah Frankel, head of the Seminary at Breslau and founder of the so-called ‘Positive-Historical’ school. This approach supported a positive commitment to the observance of Jewish law while offering an historical, developmental view of Judaism through the use of the critical tools of modern scholarship. It was a reaction both to the Reform Movement, which did not consider Jewish law binding in modern times, and to the Orthodox approach, which denied the concept of development of Jewish law with the maxim that ‘the Torah forbids any change’.

Frankel’s approach to the Jewish tradition was followed in the next generation by Solomon Schechter, who combined the Talmudic learning of Eastern Europe with outstanding secular scholarship and is famed for his discovery of the Cairo Genizah manuscripts.

After many years in England as a reader at Cambridge University, Schechter was appointed President of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he became the ‘founding father‘ of Conservative Judaism in America. He made the seminary a world centre of Jewish scholarship: the late Chief Rabbi Hertz was one of its many distinguished graduates. Schechter was also a key figure in creating the Conservative Movement’s synagogue organisation, the United Synagogue of America – the name reflecting his admiration of Britain’s United Synagogue.

Since Schechter’s day the Conservative/Masorti Movement has grown to more than 1,500,000 members. It is the largest Jewish religious body in the world.