From The Meaning of Jewish Law in Conservative Judaism: An Overview and Summary by Seymour Siegel in CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM AND JEWISH LAW Edited by SEYMOUR SIEGEL with ELLIOT GERTEL, THE RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY NEW YORK, 1977


…. The Bible is not only the result of revelation. It is also the vehicle of revelation, for by imaginatively confronting the record, we have the chance to come into contact with the Being behind the text. This means that in differing circumstances, new demands will be discerned, and old ones changed. This is the essence of midrash, the attempt to relive the revelation and to realize the implications of this event far the here-and-now. The history of Judaism is a history of the interpretation of revelation. In Heschel's striking sentence: "Judaism is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation." This interpretation is what is included in midrash and what is included in whatever a diligent student in the future will discover. The crucible out of which Jewish law is created is the encounter with the record of revelation, by the people of revelation, who attempt ever anew to hear God's voice through the text and attempt to decide what they must do now. This, of course, means that there will be change and modification. It is true, far example, that God countenanced slavery, as is evident in Scripture, when there was no possibility of abolishing the institution. The aim of Jewish law was to humanize the institution until it could be abolished. Though God may have wanted slavery in antiquity, He certainly does not want it now. It is true that God once wanted the law of an "eye far an eye" to be applied literally. He certainly does not want it now. It is possible that God once wanted women to limit themselves to their roles as princesses whose grandeur consisted of being concealed. He probably does not want that now. Total subjectivity is avoided because of the presence of the community and because of the character of Catholic Israel. The concrete laws are not to be viewed as if they were Platonic Ideas eternally residing in the world of Forms. They are dynamic concepts subject to the dynamic voice of God, which encounters us anew at all times….

The need far change in Jewish law is the result of a profound contact with the needs of the Jews in this particular time and place. This contact, born out of a shared destiny and sensitivity to the best that is within our time and place, frequently results in a need to modify existing norms.





From Seymour Siegel Theologian and Teacher

Conservative Judaism Vol XLI No. 1 Fall 1988


In his introduction to the book he edited entitled Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, Siegel[1]….  Writes (that there are) two aims to Conservative Judaism. The first is preservative and seeks to validate and promote the observance of Jewish law. This first aim goes back to the founders of the movement. Zecharias  Frankel, the founder of the Positive-Historical school, and Schechter, who proposed the idea of Catholic Israel, saw as their main goal the need to defend the halakhah against the attacks of the reformers.

The second aim, according to Siegel, is to make modification and change possible….

Siegel details five principles on which the "preservative" ideology of Conservative Judaism is based. First, it presumes covenantal theology. Every Jew feels a special vocation, being a member of a people of God. This specialness, "translated into theological and traditional terms, means that the Jewish people is a covenanted people-a community bound by an agreement made long ago."[2] This". . . puts upon the Jew the burden and the privilege of being the representative of what is good and precious in human life."[3] The covenant is much like marriage, for the Jew who has been chosen observes the law as an expression of his relation to the other partner in the covenant. The other partner is, of course, a transcendent Being. This consciousness of living in the presence of God is expressed on the level of action by the observance of the Law.

Covenantal theology, which makes sense of Jewish existence, implies the

obligation to observe Jewish law-for there can be no choosing without Law,

as there can be no love without some concrete expression.[4]

The second principle upon which the preservative theology of Conservative Judaism is based is a view of "the nature of man." The halakhah makes possible the "full development and expression of our humanness."

Third, the "process of Jewish history" functions as a preservative principle. All human institutions, including religious institutions, have a history. Siegel notes that the reformers such as Geiger and Holdheim felt that the process of historical change is the only thing that does not change. Here they were wrong, for Frankel demonstrated that the creations of history are the creations inherited by the Jews. Jewish history itself is the bearer of revelation. Though history always functions, it does not devalue its creations. To the contrary, the origins of the law are not as important as the fact that the laws have sunk deep into the consciousness of the Jew.

Fourth, following from such a view of history is the next principle, that "the Jewish People is a bearer of Revelation." Schechter called this the "collective conscience of Catholic Israel." Catholic Israel is the locus of authority, and Catholic Israel has adopted the halakhah as its mode of religious expression. Not its exclusive mode, but its most crucial mode.

Catholic Israel, theologically speaking, is the refractor of the voice of God in matters of Jewish law, because Israel is God's people…. It is the collective conscience which endows the Law with sanctity. It is the collective conscience which gives the ultimate judgment about how the law should be changed and modified.[5]


Fifth, and very important, is Siegel's view of "social change," a view he feels underlies the preservative nature of the halakhah. Change should be gradual and organic, not revolutionary. Here he quotes Edmund Burke the conservative thinker, that tradition is the testing ground for the values and habits of doing things in a society. A society's traditions hold it together and keep in check the anarchic inclinations that are often part of the makeup of individuals and groups within the society. A legal system works best, then, when it changes slowly and deliberately….

Seymour Siegel is an important illustration of the fact that Conservative Judaism grows out of and begins with a restorative and preservative preamble before the notion of "change' can function successfully.

In Siegel's thinking, it is, of course, the legitimation of changes that follows the preservative preamble. These changes are possible, he says, first of all because the doctrine of revelation is non-fundamentalist. By non-fundamentalist, he means non-literal. He cites the Orthodox who accept that God literally commanded everything written in the Torah. With such literalism, Jewish law is immutable. The Reform, on the other hand, take only the moral and ethical demands to be revealed; the ritual laws are seen to be the products of human legislation. In contrast to these two options, Siegel argues that Scripture and its interpretation are not literally revelation. Scripture is both divine and human. “… Scripture and Talmud are infinitely precious-for through them the divine is revealed. Scripture and Talmud contain the human response-and therefore are not infallible. "[6] Siegel quotes Heschel: "Judaism is a minimum of revelation

and a maximum of interpretation."

The concrete laws are not to be viewed as if they were Platonic Ideas eternally residing in the world of Forms. They are dynamic concepts, subject to the dynamic voice of God which encounters us anew at all times.[7]

Other factors also legitimate change, including the needs of the time….

Siegel cites the historical approach, which has a preservative function, as another way of validating change. Though laws are a reflection of the divine will, they are affected by economic, scientific, political and even textual influences.

Change is affected by what he calls the need for perspective, the response to a wide-ranging view of the law and its development. Therefore, instead of being overly dependent on the ShulHan Arukh, Conservative Judaism looks back to the Talmud as a source of legislation and guidance. Going back to the sources, all of the sources, adds vitality to the law in our own day.

There is also an interplay between the aggadah and the halakhah…. The halakhah does not exist in a vacuum. Values are expressed in Judaism in more than one form, and since aggadah is a principle form in which value concepts achieve their expression (in Kadushin's terms), it is unlikely to expect the halakhah to operate on its own, independently. The halakhah operates dependently, within the larger context of values. Therefore, the halakhah is always being modified and judged by what are essentially ethical formulations of a non-halakhic nature.

Finally, change is legitimated by Conservative Judaism's openness to religious pluralism. Once pluralism is accepted as a legitimate possibility, there perforce will be a variety of practices that are acceptable in the community. That variety itself is a force for change, and not a force to be rejected. It is a sign of good health….

But there is really one yardstick against which the law of the past must be measured: the yardstick of ethics. In a concrete situation, the halakhists has to ask himself simply, "Is the law ethical?" If it is not, the halakhah must be modified to bring it into accord with the most enlightened ethical thinking of the day….

This follows… since the mandate of Judaism is to be like God, to imitate Him, not to become God. The laws are the expressions of the ethical demand in concrete terms. Remember that the law itself is an act of God turning to man. Following Rosenzweig, he feels that the specific laws are a response to revelation. They are not the content of revelation. The demands of morality are absolute. The specific laws are relative.

Thus, if because of changing conditions the specific laws no longer express the ethical values which Tradition teaches,… we have the responsibility to revise the laws….[8]

Judaism has a built-in tension between the aggadah and the halakhah. Siegel defines the aggadah as the repository of the ethical and theological values of Judaism. The halakhah is resolved in the following way: “… the aggadah should control the halakhah, not vice versa."[9]

…. In regard to the marriage of a kohen to a divorcee or to a proselyte, for example, Siegel writes that the inherited law was based on two assumptions that today are hard to accept: First, that a kohen cannot marry a divorcee because he "brings to the altar the bread of God" (Leviticus 21: 17), that he is special because of his service in the Temple. Second, because a divorcee or a convert is tainted.

Neither assumption remains valid or is acceptable today. "Therefore we urge all halakhic bodies to follow the action of our movement-to dissolve the norm and to permit the marriage of a kohen to any Jewish woman."[10]

He also cites the case of a woman who was divorced civilly. Her husband then married a gentile. When she wanted to remarry, she needed a get. The former husband agreed to comply only if she would give him custody of their child. The woman asked her rabbi, "How can my ex-husband use Jewish law, which he defies (by marrying out of the faith), to deprive me of my child?"

In this case, the Rabbinical Assembly bet din decided to use the ancient power of a court to annul a marriage ab initio. Siegel is careful to avoid bravado:

This does not mean that we are more compassionate than our forefathers or the judges of the Israeli courts. They, of course, know this principle too. But they do not invoke it because of technical reasons, and because they are bound by their fundamentalist faith to accept the idea that not only did God command us to order marriage and divorce according to religious norms, but that He also specified the technical ways in which this should be done, and that no other forms are possible.[11]

Classic Seymour Siegel: Change not for the sake of change, but for the sake of an ethical outcome. That possibility is enhanced precisely because of the more elastic nature of revelation. Change is therefore both possible and necessary. Therefore the law changes….

There are two results of this philosophic approach to the halakhah. Firstly, it has an internal effect on the functioning of the halakhah, those who govern it and upon the believers who appropriate the halakhah to their own life. But there is a second effect, more rarely recognized but of great significance in Seymour Siegel's thought and his work.

If one can talk about the law, and if one can examine it from the perspective of ethics and reason, then there is a universal forum of discourse for the study of ethical ideas which goes beyond the confines of the Jewish community itself. If the ethical can be recognized, it can be universally recognized. Because Seymour Siegel approached the halakhah with such assumptions, it meant that his conclusions, where valuable, would be important not only to Conservative Jews and members of his Law Committee. It meant that they would be of value to all those seeking clarification of some of the most important ethical issues of our times.

Seymour Siegel was at home on commissions of ethical inquiry, because he was able to appropriate the ethical ideas of the Jewish tradition and speak of them in a field of universal discourse with other scholars. Thus you hear not only an argument from a Jewish view. When Siegel demonstrates an idea, you hear an argument for an ethical view, an ethical view that has its roots in the Jewish tradition.

….  What is beautiful to see here, I think, is not only the classic Jewish point of view but the appropriation of that point of view. A traditional view is discussed in philosophic, not dogmatic, terms. Therefore its potential impact is multiplied. The clear formulation of ideas is the duty of the philosopher and a particular responsibility of the ethicist. This is a role that has not always been easy for Jews to assume, but one which Seymour Siegel assumed with apparent ease.

One sees this throughout Siegel's exposition of the principles of Jewish biomedical ethics, principles discussed in light of certain theological assumptions that emerge from the Jewish tradition.[12]

According to Siegel, Jewish theology begins with the belief in God as the creator of the world. The fact that God created the world gives it meaning, purpose and value. The fact that it is created desanctifies the universe. The heavens declare the glory of God, but they are not God. In paganism, the gods inhabit nature; therefore, man's greatest goal is to conform to nature, not to transform it. The biblical God is above nature, and therefore man is to be a partner with God in the work of creation.

Humans must use reason, imagination, and even Hutzpah to wrest from nature her secrets, toward the end of improving our human estate. If anything is God-like, it is the human being who was created in God's image. His distinction is his ability to reason, to choose between good and evil, and his knowledge about himself. Only man can make himself the object of his own thought. He can imagine his death and plan for the future. He is aware of his destiny and of the possibility of relating to the Transcendent.

Man's freedom is the source of his ability to do good as well as evil. Good is the right use of freedom. Evil is the misuse of freedom. Man is part of nature, irrevocably caught in the necessities of nature, growing, perishing and dying. He is also above nature, free and in touch with the Beyond.

From a theological point of view, we are bidden to thrust into the unknown in order to cure, improve, soothe and correct nature to further the human estate. We are forbidden to do anything, either in manipulating nature or in the way we organize and relate to each other, which will diminish the human-ness of the human being by depriving him of these aspects of life which we value as truly and basically human.

Medical ethics is built upon an understanding of the relation between God and man. Each individual human life is sacred, since it is created by God and given to us as a trust. We are not, however, sovereign over our own lives; we cannot willfully destroy our lives through suicide or neglect. An individual should pursue health not only for his own sake, but also because his life is given to him in trust by the Almighty….

Seymour Siegel was executive-director of the United States Holocaust

Commission for two years….

As a theologian, Seymour Siegel was particularly aware of the issues raised by the Holocaust and he was prepared to resolve these issues to the extent that theology can resolve them. In an article entitled "Theological Reflections on the Destruction of European Jewry," Rabbi Siegel wrote that the Holocaust should put to rest all utopian views of man.[13]  We must learn from it that there are demonic forces which do not result from bad education or poverty but from the perversity of human nature.

How could God allow such a thing to happen? He recalls the thought of David Hume: If He is willing to' prevent evil, but is not able, then He is impotent. If he is able but not willing, then He is malevolent. If He is both able and willing, why then the evil? The problem of evil arises, Siegel writes, because three assertions are held to be true:

1. that evil is real

2. that God is good

3. that God is omnipotent.

Most solutions to the problem of evil deny one of these three. Siegel proposes another solution. Within the framework of Biblical religion, God must be all-powerful. But God, as all-powerful, may decide to limit Himself. He limits Himself by giving man the freedom to choose, and He limits Himself by giving nature the freedom to operate according to natural law.

The price for this freedom, however, is the possibility of suffering, a suffering which God Himself endures.[14] "Without the power to produce its sinners, mankind could not produce its saints. The ability to sin is mankind's greatest distinction."[15]

He further makes use of the Biblical idea of hastarat panim (the hiding of God's face), and interprets it a la Buber. Man first hides from God by disobeying Him. The will of God is to be with us, to be manifest, "But the doors of the world are slammed on Him, His truth is betrayed. He withdraws, leaving man to himself” (Heschel).[16] God is a hiding God, not a hidden God. He makes darkness His hiding place, and history now becomes a mystery.

Under the best of circumstance, history will yield only partial meaning. But "when there is Hastarat Panim, we can pray with the Psalmist: 'How long, 0 Lord, will You forget me forever, how long will You hide Your face from me?'" (Ps. 13:2)[17]

Faith, he continues, is more than the acceptance of intellectual propositions. It involves a relationship, a relationship that continues to be possible even though we cannot fully comprehend God's ways. We can still ask ourselves to love the Lord with all our hearts, even though we live in the age of Auschwitz.

We cannot explain how all that happened was possible. But we can understand what we must do, because it has happened. We can rededicate ourselves to the belief that without Torah we will be overwhelmed by the evil which is part of our natures. We must realize that every hour we fight on a spiritual battlefield where millions have already perished. We must commit ourselves to fight for human betterment with realism, dedication and devotion.

We cannot forget those who perished. Nor can we forget that being a Jew is a high destiny, that the values of Judaism are precious and not to be lightly sacrificed for the sake of embracing Western culture, which-let us repeat it daily-created Auschwitz. Let us not forsake the moral and intellectual values created within Jewish life.[18]



[1] . Seymour Siegel, "The Meaning of Jewish Law in Conservative Judaism: An Overview and Summary," in Seymour Siegel, ed., Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1977), pp. iii-xxvi.

[2] Siegel, "Solomon Schechter,", p. xiv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. xv.

[5] Ibid., p. xviii.

[6] Ibid., p. xx.

[7] Ibid.

[8] "Ethics and the Halakhah,'" in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law: p. 126.

[9] Ibid., p. 127.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See especially his testimony before the "President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavior Research," entitled "Genetic Engineering," as well as the lecture, "Judaic Perspectives in Bio-Medical Ethics," Proceedings of the Ahavas Israel Interreligious Symposium on May 14, 1983. Both these sources are available in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

[13] Seymour Siegel, "Theological Reflections on the Destruction of European Jewry," in Seymour Siegel and Elliot Gertel, eds., God in the Teachings of Conservative Judaism (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1985), pp. 250-258, taken from Conservative Judaism, 18:4 (Summer 1984).

[14] As when God grieves over a condemned man in Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[15] Siegel, God in the Teachings of Conservative Judaism, p. 253.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 254.

[18] Ibid., p. 257.