In 1709 there was a great sensation when a young girl who was preparing a chicken for dinner was unable to find its heart. Perhaps the cat ate it. But if not — if it were possible that the chicken never had a heart — then the chicken could not be kosher, for an animal missing an organ or with a defective organ cannot be kosher.
Local scholars ruled that the chicken was treif, inasmuch as it was missing its heart.
The girl, the chicken, and the cat were brought before one of the great sages of that era, the Hakham Tsvi. The Hakham Tsvi observed, based on the commonly-known science of his day,
It is apparent to anyone with an ounce of commonsense and half a brain that no creature can live normally for even a short time without a heart… (She’eilot uTeshuvot Hakham Tsvi 74; see also 77).
Since no chicken could live without a heart, this perfectly normal chicken must have had a heart when shekhted (slaughtered) and therefore was kosher. In his view, this matter of law turned on a simple scientific question of fact, to which every educated person knew the answer. The laws of kashrut were well-defined and well-known; but what we must do to comply with those laws depended on a simple scientific fact. The formula was simple; just one variable had to be entered to produce the result. That one fact, that one variable, came not from Talmudic discussion or ancient law codes, but rather from contemporary science.
However, the Hakham Tsvi apparently felt compelled to provide support from the authority of the great sages on this question, for the benefit of those who needed such authority:
Even though this is basic knowledge and does not need any proof, in order to shut the mouths of the fools eager for it, here is what I have found [among the writings of the sages]….
He then quotes Maimonides and other sources that say essentially the same thing — that an animal such as a chicken cannot live without a heart.
Not everyone agreed with the Hakham Tsvi in his day, nor do all agree with him in now. But his process of making a decision, his approach to halakha as evidenced in this case, represents a prime example of the approach followed by Conservative posqim in reaching halakhic decisions in our day.
Masorti–Conservative Judaism shares with movements of the past and the Orthodox movements of today a fundamental commitment to Jewish law (halakha), and all who are so committed recognize that the issue of whether a chicken is kosher is indeed a question of halakha. But questions of fact — whether medical, sociological, or otherwise — are often essential components of halakhic decisions. In this case the medical question of whether a chicken could live without a heart was a question of fact on which the halakhic decision turned. The approach followed by the Masorti–Conservative rabbinate is to recognize when such questions of fact are by necessity part of a halakhic decision and to act accordingly. We might say, then, that the methodology of the Hakham Tsvi, and that of many of our great sages of the past, lives on among our scholars today. This Masorti–Conservative methodology is a mainstream and traditional approach, but it is not and never was universally accepted. It is part of an age-old controversy.
This same essential distinction in approach has implications for issues of broader impact than the girl’s chicken. For example, the Shulhan Arukh, the definitive law code from the 16th century, states, “All may count as one of the seven olim to the Torah [on shabbat], including a women, including a child old enough to know to whom he is praying, but our sages said a woman does not read in public because of the honor of the congregation” (O.H. 282:3). Masorti–Conservative rabbis ruled that in our day a woman may be called to the Torah because the only reason they had been prohibited from doing so was the concern of “honor of the congregation,” and today women being called to the Torah would not diminish the honor of the congregation — to the contrary! In other words, a change in sociological conditions brought about a change in the outcome of halakha. The formula was clear, but one variable had to be entered into the equation. The essence and process of halakha remained the same; only the outcome changed. The permission to call women to the Torah was fully within rabbinic judicial discretion, fully in keeping with the process of halakha, and fully supported by the sociological facts of the case and precedent; therefore it was a legitimate development.
I believe that this understanding is important to us in defining ourselves as Masorti–Conservative Jews. We are committed to living according to Jewish law and custom, and we are committed to the traditional process by which Jewish law develops. That rules out intransigence on the one hand and a free-for-all on the other. When Jewish law developed in such a way as to affirm the practice of women being called to the Torah, some mistakenly concluded that Conservative Jews abandoned the law, or that Conservative Rabbis can change the law willy-nilly to suit passing fashions. By understanding the traditional process of the development of the law, we see that exactly the opposite is true.
Judaism without a living, changing, growing halakha, would be like a chicken without a heart.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen