A Hasidic tzaddik, the Ishbitzer Rebbe (1802-1854), warned us against turning mitzvot (commandments) into idols. Mitzvot are designed to be vehicles to serve God. Some mitzvot, over time, lose that function, but we preserve them for the sake of tradition. But, what about when those miztvot become obstacles to serving God, and yet we preserve them because they were once effective vehicles to serving God? For the Ishbitzer, that’s an example of making an idol from a mitzvah.
My primary teacher for Rabbinic Judaism (the Judaism of the Talmud and the Midrash) was Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), zikhrono livrachah. One of his earliest books was entitled A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (1985). He had little patience for his colleagues in the rabbinic world who would respond to his innovative spirit by citing “what is written” as if that alone precluded any change. His argument was that such an attitude turns the living covenant into a dead letter and our tree of life into petrified wood. Preventing rigor mortis, Hartman taught, was one of the primary functions of the rabbi.
Rabbi Hartman’s final book, The God Who Hates Lies, was published posthumously. It’s a tragic book that reveals, with first-hand knowledge and intellectual rigor, where Modern Orthodoxy went wrong. One of the absurdities Rabbi Hartman exposes is the observance of the second day of holidays in the diaspora. Such observance began because of potential confusion as to the start of the lunar month. Yet, already in the Talmudic period, the calendar was mathematically determined to eliminate any possible confusion. Nevertheless, the tradition of a two-day observance in the diaspora was continued because, in the language of the Talmud, it was a custom of our ancestors. Rabbi Hartman laments, “Reality lacks the ability to alter long-standing tradition…. We have no doubt, yet live as those who did.”
It’s past time to sunset the second day, but not only because of the reason my beloved rabbi laid out. The vast majority of us live in a world where taking off five extra days a year constitutes a burden. (Every legal system legislates for the majority.) Our legal tradition forbids us from unnecessarily burdening the community. One example the Talmud gives us of “burdening the community” is adding several extra verses in the morning prayer! This prohibition on burdening the community was then codified in our standard halakhic texts.
In 1969, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued the following statement:
“Our proposed declaration on the Second Day of Festivals will also help restore some semblance of confidence in the machinery of halakhah, in the operation of our Law Committee, and in the realism of our approach to Judaism. Yom Tov Sheni [the Second Day of Festivals], more than anything we can pinpoint, is a severe case of an enactment which the community cannot live with, which the Rabbis of old had the good grace to remove…. A declaration on the Second Day of Festivals should be offered because the second day is halakhically indefensible. It is not crucial if the declaration utterly fails to increase piety or Jewish observance among those of little devotion. We should act for the sake of those who enjoy and observe one day, but regard the second day as repetitious and burdensome, although they observe it because of their loyalty to halakhah.”
There is a small but growing number of Conservative congregations that have sunset the second day. My sermon this past Simchat Torah proposed doing the same. After study and discussion, the Religious Practices Committee is ready to move forward with a congregational discussion to lay out the implications for AJ. Details explaining the rationale and consequences of the proposed shift are in this Powerpoint presentation. If you would like to comment on the proposal, you can do so below.
Like Rabbi Hartman, I believe Judaism is a living covenant. Like Avraham, we sometimes need to shatter our ancestors’ idols that conflict with that covenant. Other times, just as our ancestors initially instituted a second day of holidays because of communal need, we too will need to take on additional burdens and responsibilities to maintain the relevance and vibrancy of our covenant. May God grace us with the wisdom to keep our covenant alive and thriving.