Commentary Magazine


'Boiling a Kid': Reflections on a New Bible Commentary

“It is a tree of life to those who lay hold of it,” the book of Proverbs says—not of the Torah but of the vaguer concept of “Wisdom.” Most Jews who know this verse are more familiar with it from the synagogue, where it is recited—sung, in many congregations—as part of the prayer that accompanies the return of the Torah scroll to its ark after the weekly reading from the Pentateuch.

Etz Hayim, “Tree of Life,” is therefore an apt name for the new commentary on the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, that was published over a year ago by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and its Rabbinical Assembly1 Prepared by a committee of eminent Conservative rabbis and scholars, it appears in a handsome oversize volume together with the biblical text in Hebrew and English—the latter in the 1985 translation of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS).

Etz Hayim is a more important book than the term “biblical commentary” might indicate. That is not only because, in addition to its gloss on the biblical text, it contains an appendix of 160 double-column pages of essays, by over 40 contributors, on the Torah and contemporary ways of reading it. It is also because biblical commentaries are a time-honored way of presenting a cohesive view of Judaism. Apart from Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century C.E., whose influence on later Jewish thought was nil, systematic philosophies of Judaism are a relatively late development in Jewish life, beginning only in the Middle Ages. But unsystematic ones can be found, starting with the 4th century C.E., in the verse-by-verse exegeses of the Torah that the rabbis compiled in numerous midrashic books, as well as in similar biblical commentaries in such classics of Jewish thought as the great 13th-century kabbalistic work, the Zohar. Etz Hayim takes its place in this tradition. Although nowhere in it is there stated a comprehensive credo for Conservative Jews, its many pages ultimately add up to one.

The publication of Etz Hayim is thus a noteworthy event, especially because the American Conservative movement, the largest of American Jewry’s three major religious denominations, has often been accused of having no clear theological positions of its own and of defining itself more as a tertium quid between what it is not—i.e., Orthodoxy or Reform—than by what it is. (Historically, indeed, this was precisely how the Conservative movement began in America with the founding of its institutional flagship, the Jewish Theological Seminary, in 1886.) The old quip that an Orthodox Jew walks to synagogue on the Sabbath, a Reform Jew drives to it, and a Conservative Jew parks at a safe distance reflects the widely held perception that, whereas Orthodoxy and Reform stand for clear principles, Conservatism stands for fuzzy compromises—a perception that may only have been strengthened by the 1988 “Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism” known as Emet ve-Emunah, “Truth and Faith.” Nor, though the movement has had its major theologians, does their thought represent a coherent stance. One could hardly imagine more different approaches to Judaism than the sociological rationalism of Mordecai M. Kaplan and the subjectivist existentialism of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the movement’s two most notable 20th-century thinkers.

Conservative praxis has been no less confusing. Whereas Orthodoxy and Reform have been consistent in their attitude toward rabbinic law, the former affirming and the latter denying its authority for the modern Jew, Conservatism appears to have waffled. Does, for instance, a sincere commitment to Judaism require one to observe the traditional Sabbath or dietary laws? Yes, says Orthodoxy. No, says Reform. Conservatism—at least in the eyes of its critics—says Maybe.

And Etz Hayim? The biblical dietary laws are one of the subjects of the portion of Leviticus called Shemini, the Torah reading for the week in which this issue of COMMENTARY may be arriving in the mailboxes of many of its subscribers. So let us look at Etz Hayim‘s treatment of these laws in Leviticus 11.

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“These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud,” begins Leviticus 11 in the JPS translation. Then it lists several prohibited mammals, like the camel and pig, that meet only one of these requirements; proceeds to aquatic creatures (“anything in water . . . that has fins and scales, these you may eat”); and ends with birds and “winged swarming things.”

Etz Hayim‘s remarks on the 47 verses of this passage are divided—as is the new commentary in general—into three sections. The first, printed directly beneath the biblical text and called the “P’shat,” the rabbinic term for “literal meaning,” seeks to elucidate that meaning in the light of modern biblical scholarship. The second, appearing below the P’shat and called the “D’rash,” a word used by the rabbis to refer to a text’s implied or logically or imaginatively deducible content, gives a Conservative view of the significance of Leviticus 11 for the modern reader. A third section, named “Halakhah L’Ma’aseh,” or “Practical Halakhah” (Jewish religious law), comes at the bottom of the page and comments on the ways in which the biblical dietary commandments were later amplified in rabbinic law.

For example: looking at the P’shat on the two verses beginning, “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals,” we are told by Etz Hayim that the Hebrew word for “creature” (hayah) is a “general term” while that for “land animal” (behemah) is more specific, and that “To qualify as pure, an animal’s hoofs must be split all the way through, producing two toes, of a sort, so that the animal in question does not walk on paws.” Jumping to the bottom of the page, we read in the Halakhah L’Ma’aseh section, under “any animal”:

For meat to be kasher (“kosher,” fit for consumption under Jewish law), it must not only come from the animals designated in this chapter (e.g., cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, and deer), but must also be slaughtered, soaked, salted, and prepared according to Jewish law.

But the most interesting part of the commentary on these two verses is the D’rash. It begins as follows:

An attentive reading of this chapter clearly shows that the dietary laws are not based on considerations of health. . . . The dietary laws constitute a way of sanctifying the act of eating. The eating of meat requires killing a living creature, constantly seen by the Torah as a compromise. These laws elevate the eating of meat to a level of sanctity by introducing categories of permitted and forbidden. For animals, eating is a matter of instinct; only human beings can choose on moral or religious grounds not to eat something otherwise available.

It then continues:

The dietary laws are given incrementally in the Torah: forbidding boiling a kid in its mother’s milk; then prohibiting the ingestion of blood; then declaring certain species of mammal, fish, and fowl unfit for consumption. Similarly, many Jews who begin from a position of limited observance can commit themselves to sanctifying their mealtimes in an incremental manner. They may begin by avoiding pork and shellfish, continue by separating meat and dairy products, and so on. No one need feel like a hypocrite for not keeping all of the commandments immediately. What is important is to be on the path of observance, to be, in the words of Emet ve-Emunah . . . a “striving” Jew.

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The inner dialectic of this D’rash is subtle. It begins in the unstated context of an ancient rabbinical debate, already lively in talmudic times and sharpened in the Middle Ages, over whether some or all of the ritual commandments of the Bible have a utilitarian explanation (the great 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, for example, thought the dietary laws had in part a hygienic intent), or whether they are best viewed as arbitrary decrees whose sole purpose is obedience to the divine will. Etz Hayim opts for the latter view. The Bible, it says, declares certain animals edible not because they are healthier than others, or indeed because they are healthy at all, but because eating should be a religious act embodying principles of discrimination.

The next move in the D’rash—again without calling attention to the rabbinic background—is to mobilize a tradition, found in medieval commentators like Rashi and Nahmanides, that Adam and Eve were vegetarians in the garden of Eden and that meat-eating was a consequence of the expulsion from paradise. The D’rash does this by stating that the dietary laws, despite sanctioning certain animals as food, actually represent a “compromise” between a biblical ideal of abstention from meat and man’s baser nature. Concisely and elegantly, Etz Hayim thus weaves several strands of rabbinic thought into the suggestion that the biblical attitude toward meat-eating is, apart from its concession to human frailty, not very different from the currently fashionable criticism of the raising of animals for slaughter and consumption.

Even bolder, however, is the remainder of the D’rash—for here, still using rabbinic interpretive method, Etz Hayim breaks with basic rabbinic norms. Taking as its point of departure the “incremental” presentation of the dietary laws in the Torah—the ban on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, from which the rabbis derived the inadmissibility of mixing meat and dairy, is first stated in Exodus 23, while that on eating blood does not appear until Leviticus 32Etz Hayim allegorizes this into a prescription for their incremental observance. A Jew resolving to keep the rules of kashrut, it suggests, might start by dropping the bacon with his eggs, then cut out cheeseburgers, and finally give up non-kosher meat entirely. Meanwhile, he need not “feel like a hypocrite,” since what matters is that he is trying.

It must be said that there is nothing in rabbinic tradition to justify such an approach. To be sure, when it comes to what the rabbis call mitzvot aseh—mandated acts whose omission, though regrettable, is not deeply sinful—incrementalism may be acceptable. If a Jew, who is enjoined to pray three times a day, manages to pray only once, this is indeed better than not praying at all. But mitzvot lo ta’aseh—acts expressly prohibited—are something else. From the point of view of halakhah, a pickpocket who decreases the number of wallets he steals from three to one daily has not become less of a thief, nor does abstaining from some prohibited foods while knowingly eating others make one a greater observer of the dietary laws. On the contrary: whereas the thief may be able to plead extenuating circumstances, such as the need to make a living, the no-bacon-but cheeseburger Jew has no excuses. Judged by traditional Jewish standards, a “hypocrite,” not to say a sinner, is exactly what he is.

Etz Hayim on Leviticus 11 is thus contemporary in its bow to vegetarianism (elsewhere, it is even more outspokenly au courant in its feminism); classically Conservative in its central message (Jewish ritual observance is good for you, but everyone must decide on his own dosage); compassionate in its wording (who would not rather be a “striving” than a sinful Jew?); and profoundly enigmatic in the questions it poses. Is giving up bacon before cheeseburgers called for because the prohibition on pig meat is biblical while that on mixing meat and dairy is merely rabbinic? If so, is swearing off bacon obligatory for the “striving” Jew, or can he be a striver while eating it, too? And why should biblical law matter more than rabbinic law, anyway? Because the Torah is a divinely revealed document while rabbinic law reflects human endeavor? But what does “divinely revealed” mean to Conservative Jews? And if rabbinic law is not also—as it is for Orthodoxy—a manifestation of God’s will, why obey it at all? Why not take the classical Reform position that modern Jews are free to disregard it?

These are not trivial questions. They are the very questions to which critics of the Conservative movement, both on its religious “Left” and on its religious “Right,” have repeatedly accused it of fudging the answers. Let us see how Etz Hayim deals with them.

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“Now Mount Sinai,” say verses 18-19 of Chapter 19 of the JPS version of the book of Exodus, “was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.”

There follow what are known as the Ten Commandments. Immediately after them begin the extensive legal regulations of the Pentateuch. But what does the Torah mean when it says that God spoke on Mount Sinai, and how are we to understand what happened there? A thinking Jew’s opinion about this matter must surely determine how he relates to the entire question of Jewish observance—which is perhaps why there has never been a clear Conservative position on it. Etz Hayim attempts to give us one.

The first thing to observe here is that Etz Hayim does not question that something did happen at Sinai. Since the second half of the 19th century, many Bible scholars have grouped the Sinai story with other supposed “legendary” episodes in Scripture, such as the tales of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis; by contrast, the Etz Hayim commentary sides with more traditionalist scholars in assuming that these narratives have a historical basis. The only actual discussion of the issue occurs in the book’s separate section of essays, in a cautious presentation of “Biblical Archeology.” There, writing about the Bible’s account of Israel’s bondage in and exodus from Egypt, of which the Sinai story is part, Lee Levine observes that while “[t]here is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel’s sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect,” nevertheless “these few indirect pieces of evidence . . . do suggest a contextual background for the Egyptian servitude (of at least some of the people who later became Israelites) and the appearance of a new population in Canaan.” Which is to say that, if one wishes to believe that there indeed was an exodus and a dramatic convocation at Mount Sinai, there is no scholarly hindrance to doing so.

Etz Hayim, at any rate, does wish us to believe it—up to a point. The location of this point is already partly fixed by the JPS translation on which it relies. This, though not an official Conservative document, was largely the work of rabbis and scholars associated with the Conservative movement. One minor peculiarity is its version of Exodus 19:19: “As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” The Hebrew preposition-plus-noun translated as “in thunder,” b’kol, is inherently ambiguous, because elsewhere in the Bible the word kol can mean “voice,” “sound,” or indeed—but only in its plural form—“thunder.” “Thunder” is almost certainly what the plural form of kolot does mean several verses previously, in 19:16, where we read, “On the third day, as morning dawned [on Mount Sinai] there was thunder [kolot] and lightning.” Yet nearly all traditional Jewish translations and commentaries, from the third-century B.C.E. Greek Septuagint to the previous JPS translation of 1917, have taken holm 19:19 to denote—however this is conceived of—God’s voice3

This is a consequential point. Here is what Etz Hayim‘s P’shat on Exodus 19:16-19 has to say about God’s thunder on Mount Sinai, along with the fire and smoke:

Violent atmospheric disturbances are said to precede and accompany the theophany. The Bible frequently portrays upheavals of nature in association with the self-manifestation of God. . . . The vivid, majestic, and terrifying depiction that draws its inspiration from natural phenomena, such as the storm, volcano, and earthquake, is meant to convey the awe-inspiring effect of the event on those who experienced it.

In other words, Etz Hayim is telling us, not only was there, literally speaking, no voice of God at Sinai, there was not necessarily any thunder, either; such “vivid, majestic, and terrifying” depictions can be considered metaphors employed by the author of Exodus “to convey the awe-inspiring effect of the event.” What, then, happened there? All we are left with, it would seem, is an “event” of which no more can be said than that it took place.

Of course, this may be an unavoidable way of looking at that event, even from the point of view of a “traditionalist” scholar. If, on the one hand, something that occurred over 3,000 years ago at a mountain in Western Asia deeply affected the lives not only of those who experienced it but of all the generations of their descendants, it must have been very powerful; on the other hand, given all that we know about the human memory and imagination and their ability to reshape the past within even brief spans of time, what can possibly be affirmed about the substance of this “something” other than that it is unknown and unknowable? Rationally, such agnosticism is unexceptionable—and yet, as an explanation of why this makes the Torah a divinely revealed book to whose laws Jews owe their allegiance, it is, to say the least, problematic.

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The editors of Etz Hayim appear to have been well aware of this. That is why, one presumes, they have included in the essay section three different treatments of “Revelation.” All three are thoughtful and harmonize with one another.

Thus, for example, on the subject of “Revelation: Biblical and Rabbinic Perspectives,” Daniel Gordis observes:

The Torah does not specify precisely what was revealed to Moses. . . . It is striking that the Torah seems more concerned that the people Israel accept the notion that revelation took place than that they reach any certainty about the content of that revelation.

This is seconded by Elliot Dorff in an essay on “Medieval and Modern Theories of Revelation.” “The Torah itself,” Dorff writes,

is ambiguous as to how much of God’s revelation the people heard. Some rabbinic interpretations (e.g., Exodus Rabba 5:9) go so far as to point out that at Sinai each person understood God’s revelation in his or her own way, depending on each individual’s intelligence and sensitivity.

And Dorff continues, after discussing the “God-encounter” theology of the two German-Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig:

The revelation at Sinai is critically important because that is where our ancestors as a people first encountered God and wrote their reaction to that event in the document that became the constitutive covenant between God and the Jewish people. . . . Each time we read the Torah anew, nothing less than God’s revelation is taking place again.

With which Jacob Milgrom, finally, discussing “The Nature of Revelation and Mosaic Origins,” concurs by writing that “revelation was not a onetime Sinaitic event.”

But if revelation is taking place all the time—if it occurs whenever we “encounter God”—this hardly elevates our experience to the level of what the Bible says happened at Sinai but rather reduces our sense of what happened at Sinai to the level of our own experience. At most, then, the difference between Sinai and those moments in our lives when we feel a communion with something sacred or transcendent is a matter of degree. Although the biblical event may have been more intense, or shared by more people, it was subjective, just like our own. Why, then, should a Jew accept its authority?

It can be argued, perhaps, that what is simultaneously experienced subjectively by a large number of people becomes an objective fact, so that Sinai is unique as a revelatory moment because its “God-encounter” was participated in by all Israel. This is the meaning Elliot Dorff seeks to extract from the midrash in Exodus Rabba to which he alludes and which—in commenting on the presence of both the plural and singular forms of kol in the biblical account—is indeed startlingly bold:

Rabbi Yohanan says: A voice [kol] went forth and was divided into 70 voices [kolot] for the 70 languages of the world. . . . Rabbi Tanhuma said: . . . Come see how one voice went forth to each person in Israel and each understood it according to his capacity—the elderly men according to theirs, and the young men according to theirs, and the children according to theirs, and the infants according to theirs, and the women according to theirs. And even Moses [understood it] according to his, for it is written, “As Moses spoke, God answered him in a voice [b’kol]”—in a voice that he was capable of receiving.

And yet, as Rabbi Tanhuma might say, come see the difference. Exodus Rabba tells us that even the thunder heard at Sinai was the 70 or the 600,000 voices of God speaking at once (600,000 being the number of Israelites said to have been at the foot of the mountain). The JPS translation, with the backing of the Etz Hayim commentary, tells us that even God’s one voice was nothing but thunder—if that!

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Let us accept the sincerity, if not the logic, of Elliot Dorff’s contention that it makes no real difference “whether God spoke words at Sinai, or whether God inspired human beings to write down specific words, or whether human beings wrote down the words of the Torah in response to their encounter with God in an attempt to express the nature and implications of that encounter.” In all these cases, he argues, “the authority of the Torah’s revelation is, in part, divine.” Let us not even pause here to ask whether the words “in part” might render the whole proposition meaningless. Let us assume that they do not, and that the “parts” of the Torah whose authority is divine include Leviticus 11. Bacon, then, is out. But why cheeseburgers?

The biblical “proof” offered by the rabbis for the ban on mixing meat and dairy is discussed in the talmudic tractate of Hulin. It is based on the fact that the commandment, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” occurs, identically worded, in three different places in the Pentateuch—twice in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. Since it is an axiom of rabbinic thought that the Torah is a single, seamless document given to Moses in which there is not an unnecessary or redundant word, the question must be asked: why is the prohibition repeated three times?

The answer given in the Talmud is that its first occurrence refers to cooking the kid with milk, the second to eating it with milk, and the third to deriving any benefit from such a dish, such as by selling it to a non-Jew. And how do we know that these three-bans-in-one apply not just to goats but also to other domestic ruminants such as cows and sheep? Because, Rabbi Akiva says of the same triply repeated prohibition, of what it excludes. The first time it appears, we may understand it to be excluding from its jurisdiction non-domestic ruminants like deer; the second time, poultry (which according to some ancient rabbis was edible with milk); and the third time, non-kosher animals like pigs (which cannot be eaten by Jews even without milk, of course, but which can be cooked by Jews with milk and sold—as in a restaurant—to non-Jews). By a process of elimination, then, domestic ruminants fall under the ban.

Such argumentation, needless to say, strikes the modern mind as far-fetched—and indeed the rabbis themselves, cognizant that many of their halakhic interpretations seemed to stray far from the apparent intention of the biblical text, felt called upon to justify their procedures. They did so by declaring that the vast compendium of the “Oral Torah”—their term for rabbinic law—was given at Sinai together with a far more concise “Written Torah” in which it reposes immanently, as it were, and from whose maximally terse because perfect language it must be teased out by logical method. Numerous midrashim exist to illustrate this belief, one of the best-known being a story about Moses and Rabbi Akiva that is cited by Jacob Milgrom in his essay on revelation.

In this story, Moses is magically transported in time to a lesson in Akiva’s classroom, in which he sits without understanding a word of what is being said. (Could the subject, possibly, have been meat and milk?) Crestfallen at both his mental insufficiency and the apparent neglect of his teachings, he brightens when Akiva, asked “Master, where did you learn this?” by a student, replies, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai.” The story, Milgrom observes, “portrays the human role throughout the generations in the revelatory process. . . . It behooves and indeed compels each generation to be active partners of God in determining and implementing the divine will.”

This midrash is both profound and charming, though its ending, omitted by Milgrom, takes a somewhat darker view of the human “partnership” in “implementing the divine will.” (The story concludes with Moses being vouchsafed a vision of Akiva’s martyrdom by the Romans. “Master of the Universe,” he asks, “is this the reward for studying Torah?” To which God answers inscrutably: “Be silent, for so I have decreed!”) But while, as parable, the story makes perfect sense in the traditional rabbinic context, in the context of Etz Hayim it makes none. This is because Etz Hayim, in its acceptance of modern biblical scholarship, explicitly does not view the Torah as a seamless document.

Here is how the volume’s senior editor, David L. Lieber, puts it in his introduction:

Conservative Judaism is based on rabbinic Judaism. It differs, however, in the recognition that all texts were composed in given historical contexts. The Conservative movement, in short, applies historical, critical methods to the study of the biblical text. It views the Torah as the product of generations of inspired prophets, priests, and teachers, beginning with the time of Moses but not reaching its present form until the postexilic age, in the 6th or 5th century B.C.E.

But one conclusion of “historical, critical method” is that the book of Deuteronomy was written by a different hand from the one that wrote the book of Exodus. If that is the case, then the Torah’s triple repetition of “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” cannot be considered to represent a deliberate authorial strategy, much less be used as a basis for a complex process of logical deduction. How, then, can the ban on mixing dairy and meat be thought of as “a law given to Moses at Sinai?”

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So cheeseburgers are all right, after all? No, they are not. We have already seen that Etz Hayim counsels the reader to aim at eliminating them from his diet. It simply never explains coherently why, not even after we have considered the several reasons advanced by Edward Greenstein in his essay on “Dietary Laws.” There, Greenstein writes that the ban on mixing dairy and meat is a way of expressing a “reverence for life,” since it tells us that “milk, which is meant to sustain life, may not be turned into a means of preparing an animal for eating.” In addition, while “the system [of kashrut] may appear artificial and arbitrary . . . the Torah has the community [of Israel] make distinctions, just as God did in creating the world. . . . Following in God’s footsteps, so to speak, conveys holiness.” And finally: “A people maintains its ethnic identity by eating differently. . . . [T]he heroes of Jewish narrative display their loyalty to their religious tradition and to their people by observing the dietary laws.”

None of these defenses of kashrut invokes the authority of either the Torah or the rabbis. All, rather, are based on the supposition that the dietary laws are good for the individual Jew and the Jewish people on spiritual, moral, and national grounds. This sounds very similar to the utilitarian arguments on behalf of Jewish observance put forth by a thinker like Mordecai Kaplan in such works as Judaism as a Civilization (1934) and Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958). Hardly a religious believer in any ordinary sense of the word, Kaplan, who was deeply influenced by the pragmatic perspective of the Hebrew writer and social philosopher Ahad Ha’am, viewed religious practice not as an end in itself but as a means of preserving and inculcating the values of Judaism in a modern, scientific world.

Indeed, if Kaplan and A.J. Heschel, the latter influenced by Buber and Rosenzweig, represent the two poles of “Left” and “Right” between which the thought of the Conservative movement has swung, these poles mark the boundaries of Etz Hayim, too. On the one hand, there is the ineffable (a favorite word of Heschel’s) moment at Sinai, where something of enormous significance took place that cannot be described in itself but only in terms of its consequences. And on the other hand there are the consequences, which cannot be justified in terms of Sinai but only in themselves. In between is a gap that, even if 1,560 intelligent pages attempt to bridge it, refuses to disappear.

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Etz Hayim gives us many reasons why a modern Jew should not eat cheeseburgers, but many reasons are needed only when a single, compelling one does not exist. Nor, in the final analysis, will all the admirable thought and effort that have gone into Etz Hayim convince many Conservative Jews either to walk to synagogue on the Sabbath or to stop feeling vaguely guilty for driving. If the new Bible commentary proves anything, it is that Conservatism is a movement of inconsistency and compromise not just at the practical but at the highest intellectual level. It remains precisely what it has always been and has resented being called: neither Orthodoxy nor Reform.

Yet this also remains the source of its strength. For it is as such a vaguely defined middle ground that the 40 percent or so of all synagogue-affiliated American Jews who belong to Conservative congregations would appear to view themselves. Compromise is often messy and rarely satisfying, but it is the stuff of life. How strenuously can one object to its being the stuff of the Tree of Life?

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Footnotes

1 Edited by David L. Lieber, Jewish Publication Society, 1,560 pp., $72.50.

2 Although a prohibition on eating blood is already issued by God to Noah in Genesis 9:4, it does not appear there as part of Mosaic law.

3 This is also the wording of the King James Bible. To the best of my knowledge, the only previous English Bible translation to assume that kol can mean “thunder” in the singular and to render it as such in this verse is the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the National Council of Churches.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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