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The Conservative Lie

- Treating Halacha With Honesty -

I am sorry for any unnecessary pain my article in the February issue of Moment may have caused. Some of the pain, to be sure, was inevitable in an essay whose very thesis-that the Conservative movement claims but does not demonstrate fealty to halachah-would surely distress the movement's faithful. But I intended only to provoke thought, not to insult, and if any phrases I used were unnecessarily sharp, I regret them. I likewise regret not having objected even more vociferously than I did when Moment's editors insisted on calling my piece "The Conservative Lie."

- Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Conservative Lie

By Rabbi Avi Shafran
As Published In Moment Magazine, February 2001

Sincere and dedicated Conservative Jews need to face an uncomfortable fact: Their movement is a failure.

To make so sweeping a statement is painful to me. I have met and been impressed with too many non-Orthodox Jews to be able to cavalierly attack the philosophy of the movement with which they affiliate. Nor do I harbor the illusion that all is well and perfect in my own Orthodox camp. Every Jew, moreover, is equally precious to me. But despite that—indeed, because of it—I feel a responsibility to be blunt, despite my pain. I hope I will be forgiven by Conservative readers for my forthrightness, but their movement is effectively defunct.

To be sure, the endowments and dedications continue unabated. Construction projects, rabbinic programs, and Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) chairs are still well funded. But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment—to inspire Jews to Jewish observance—not only remains unrealized, but recedes with each passing year.

That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The Conservative rabbinic leadership has done all it could to set less demanding standards for Jewish religious observance, and has produced reams of paper purporting to justify them. It has established pulpits, produced rabbis, and attracted members.

But even the movement’s radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of Jews who identify as Conservative. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29 percent of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat. A mere 15 percent consider themselves Sabbath observant (even by Conservative standards).

A study of Conservative congregants conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer in 1996 confirmed that the movement was utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled said that it was “all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths.” And nearly three-quarters of Conservative Jews said that they consider a Jew to be anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a gentile—the official Reform position, rejected by Conservative leaders as nonhalachic. Tellingly, only about half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were kosher, by any standard.

There are two explanations for Conservatism’s striking failure: (1) The movement is not honest, and (2) it is superfluous.

Conservative leaders are dishonest because they purport to accept and respect halachah (Jewish religious law). United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism executive vice president Rabbi Jerome Epstein, for example, proclaims, “We regard halachah as binding,” adding, admirably, that “to be committed to halachah means to live by its values and details even when we don’t like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient.”

Admirable but outrageous. The facts tell a very different story.

Take the ordination of women. The decision to ordain women was made not by halachic scholars but by a commission composed largely of laypeople. Realizing that the Talmud faculty of JTS—those most knowledgeable about the pertinent halachic sources—opposed ordaining women, the then head of the seminary, Gerson Cohen, opted to let a commission make the decision. Only one of the commission’s 14 seats was assigned to a Talmud faculty member. In a work published by JTS, Dr. Cohen is quoted as having confided to friends his intent “to ram the commission’s report down the faculty’s throats.”

More recently, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, acting dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, admitted that “the Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda.” That approach may be pragmatic, even democratic, but it is not even arguably halachic.

Only half of JTS rabbinical students polled in the 1980s, moreover, said they consider “living as a halachic Jew” to be an “extremely important” aspect of their lives as Conservative rabbis.

Halachah receives lip service, at best, from the Conservative leadership. In late 1997, for instance, the dean of JTS’s rabbinical school, facing the wrath of outraged students, reassessed a letter he had written proscribing premarital and homosexual sex. It had been, Rabbi William H. Lebeau insisted after the uproar, only a “personal statement, not a matter of policy.”

Conservative leaders’ attitudes toward same-sex relationships are a particularly timely and telling window into the movement’s true feelings about halachah. There is an undeniable halachic prohibition—in the case of men, an explicit verse in the Torah—against homosexual activity. Officially, the movement is still on record as prohibiting it; however, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, has admitted that “there has always been a group within the RA that haq been consistently agitating for a change in halachah” concerning how practicing homosexuals should be regarded.“Changing” a verse in the Torah is about as blatant an abandonment of halachah as can be imagined.

Indeed, the process of changing halachah on this issue has already begun. For starters, the movement’s 1996 decision affirming the Torah’s prohibition of male homosexual activity contained a striking dissent rejecting the Torah’s characterization of such male activity as an abomination. The movement considers such dissenting opinions to be legitimate options for Conservative Jews.

Some Conservative rabbis already are officiating at same-sex ceremonies without jeopardizing their standing in the Rabbinical Assembly, according to Rabbi Meyers. Conservative Rabbi Phil Graubart has even insisted that he is “committed to halachic creativity regarding homosexuality precisely because I’m in the Conservative movement.” The former rector of the movement’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Rabbi Elliot Dorf, has openly endorsed the blessing of “gay unions.” He predicts that as time goes on, “there will be an increasing number of Conservative rabbis who will look forward to affirming same-sex unions.” All evidence considered, this does not seem an unreasonable expectation.

The bottom line is clear: At the same time that Conservative leaders are waving the banner of halachah, they are effectively ignoring it. Whether the issue is sexuality or Shabbat, the Conservative claim of fealty to traditional Jewish religious law seems little more than a figurative fig leaf, strategically positioned to prevent the exposure of the Conservative movement as nothing more than a timid version of Reform.

Halachah evolves, Conservative spokesmen protest; and in a certain sense it does. There is often a plurality of halachic opinions in a given case, they insist; and indeed there is. But for those who accept Judaism’s millennia-old conviction that the Torah and the key to its understanding, the Oral Law, are of divine origin, there are clear rules (part of the Oral Law itself) for applying halachic principles to new situations, and ample precedents delineating when legitimate halachic latitude crosses the line into dissembling. And objectivity is the engine of the halachic process.

The law of probability leads us to expect that there will be times when the halachic result will be more lenient than one might expect, and other times when it will be more demanding. Tellingly, though, and practically without exception, Conservative “reinterpretations” of Jewish law have entailed permitting something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was driving a car on the Sabbath, the introduction of “egalitarian” services, or the Biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the “reevaluations” have virtually all, amazingly, resulted in new permissions. That is a clear sign not of objectivity but of agenda, of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah wants from us and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool to promote personal beliefs. Whatever merit such an approach might have to some, it is diametric to what Jewish tradition considers the true Jewish response: As our ancestors declared at Sinai, “ Na’aseh v’nishma, We will do and (then endeavor to) hear.”

Honest Conservative intellectuals admit the movement’s disconnect from halachah. Conservative rabbi and respected scholar David Feldman put it succinctly: “Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold halachah as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort.” Rabbi J. Simcha Roth, a current member of the Halachah Committee of the Conservative movement’s Israeli affiliate, Masorti, has referred to its American counterpart’s acceptance of Jews driving vehicles on the Sabbath as “untenable sub specie halachah.” At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner put it even more bluntly: “Is the Conservative movement halachic?” he asked. “ It obviously is not.”

As early as 1955, historian Marshall Sklare declared that Conservative “rabbis now recognize that they are not making [halachic] decisions or writing responsa but merely taking a poll of their membership.”

In short, while proclaiming fealty to halachah, the movement’s leaders have brazenly trampled the very concept.

To explain why the movement is not only dishonest but superfluous requires some historical perspective. The Conservative movement was created not, as many assume, as a liberal alternative to Orthodoxy but as a conservative (its name, after all) reaction to Reform. In the 1800s leaders of the Historical School—the forerunner of what became the Conservative movement—minced no words in protesting the radical attitudes of some elements in the Reform movement. When the latter declared the laws of kashrut (which they derided as “kitchen Judaism”) obsolete, and when special services were held on Sunday, leading Historical School rabbis vehemently objected. The adoption in 1885 of the Reform movement’s first official manifesto, the Pittsburgh Platform, was the real impetus behind the birth of the Conservative movement.

Why did the founders of the Conservative movement discount Orthodoxy as an effective means of countering the innovations of Reform? Why did they feel the need to create what they hoped would be, in effect, a new Orthodoxy?

The answer is simple: They expected the “old” Orthodoxy—European-style Orthodox Judaism—to vanish. As a result of its stubborn refusal to tailor Jewish practice to the mores of the surrounding culture, Orthodoxy would simply boil away like so much overheated chicken soup in the American melting pot. Orthodoxy simply lacked the stamina, the assumption went, to confront the scientific, social, and technological challenges looming on the horizon of the 20th century.

The Conservative movement thus envisioned itself as a safety net—designed to break the fall of Jews committed to Jewish tradition when Orthodoxy inevitably vanished—and as a means of conserving Jewish religious practice in the face of the threat posed by the Reform movement.

This is not the place to detail the strengths of contemporary Orthodoxy. Obviously it has not vanished. Despite the many challenges and problems it faces, Orthodoxy is strong and growing, both in numbers and in intensity of observance. While no more than ten percent of the American Jewish population is Orthodox, eighty percent of Jewish day-school students are Orthodox. And considerable numbers of Jews who were not raised Orthodox have become part of the Orthodox community, including scientists, academics, and other highly accomplished intelligentsia. Halachic observance in the Orthodox community is stronger than at any time in American history.

Those Jews in the Conservative movement who, regrettably, have no interest in halachah will increasingly come to see the Reform movement as an attractive and logical option. Those Jews are, in effect, already Reform Jews. The Reform movement provides the license they seek, without any discomfiting talk of religious law. And in light of the Reform movement’s recent reconsideration of its historical rejection of traditional Jewish praxis, a Reform synagogue will become an even more comfortable place for Conservative Jews unconcerned with halachah to hang their kippot.

That is only half the reason Conservative Judaism is superfluous. The other half relates to Conservative Jews who do have regard for Jewish law. For those—and I believe there are many—who are honestly dedicated to halachah and Jewish religious tradition, the challenge will be to face the manifest fact that their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals. They may well decide to become part of the only Jewish community that actually does espouse their ideals: the Orthodox.

To be sure, the challenge will be a formidable one. After years, in many cases lifetimes, of sitting with their spouses and children during services, of hearing women leading prayers and chanting from the Torah, of driving to shul on Shabbat, halachicaly committed Conservative Jews will not find it easy to enter what will surely seem a somewhat alien world. Its unfamiliarity, however, is only a reflection of just how far the Conservative movement has drifted from genuine halachic observance over the decades.

The open-minded and determined, however, will soon come to understand that the truly Jewish time for sitting with one’s family is—as it has been among Jews for millennia—Friday nights at the Shabbat table, and that the Jewish time for driving and other acts prohibited on the Sabbath is from Saturday night until Friday afternoon.

Having the courage to recognize misjudgements is a laudable and inherently Jewish trait; the Talmud sees it in the very root of the name Judah from which the word Jew derives. Thus, many are the once-Conservative Jews who have blazed a trail of return to a halachic lifestyle. Others will surely follow.

I pray that my own world will, in turn, meet its own challenge: to be ready to warmly welcome all Jews into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is a well-blazed trail—and much cause for optimism.

Because Ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is not only a sublime concept and an underpinning of the Jewish people, it is part of the halachah—something Jews committed to their religious tradition know is God’s desire.

1. Jerome Epstein, “To Be Committed to Halacha,” Rochester Jewish Ledger (Sept. 17, 1998).

2. Tradition Renewed—A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1997), vol. 2, p. 502.

3. Review of The Seminary at 100, in Conservative Judaism (summer 1998) p. 82.

4. “Battle Over Sex Sizzling at JTS,” Forward, (Nov. 7, 1997).

5. Eric J. Greenberg, “Activists Renew Fight for Gay Ordination,” New York Jewish Week (Apr. 9, 1999).

6. “Schorsch Faces Down Students in Stormy Session on Gay Rabbis,” Forward (April 2, 1999).

7. Julie Wiener, “Patrilineal Descent More Divisive than Reform’s Vote on Gay Unions,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (April 2, 2000).

8. The back page, Jerusalem Report, (June 7, 1999), p. 56.

9. E.J. Kessler, “California Rabbis Back Gay Vows,” Forward, (June 12, 1998).

10. “Rabbis Sign Declaration on Sexual Morès,” Forward (Feb. 4, 2000).

11. David Feldman, “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” Conservative Judaism (fall 1995), p. 39.

12. Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism—An American Religious Movement, (n.p., 1955). p. 237.


© MOMENT 2001

Rabbi Shafran responds to the critism of his controversial article:

I am sorry for any unnecessary pain my article in the February issue of Moment may have caused. Some of the pain, to be sure, was inevitable in an essay whose very thesis-that the Conservative movement claims but does not demonstrate fealty to halachah-would surely distress the movement's faithful. But I intended only to provoke thought, not to insult, and if any phrases I used were unnecessarily sharp, I regret them. I likewise regret not having objected even more vociferously than I did when Moment's editors insisted on calling my piece "The Conservative Lie."

And I concede Rabbi Samuel Fraint's point ("The Truth about Conservative Judaism," p. 55) that most of my observations have already been made, with more devastating force and painful insight than I could ever muster, by respected critics within the Conservative movement itself. The fact that I merely catalogued and elaborated on existent criticisms, though, hardly undermines my article's thesis.

But I must take strong objection to the claim, by both Rabbi Jerome Epstein ("Authentic Judaism," April 2001) and Rabbi Fraint, that I attacked Conservative Jews. God forbid! My criticisms were directed at the "Conservative movement"-at an ideology, not people. Like those who have critiqued the movement from within, I too offered my analysis "in pain and with a view to correct and improve"-not, as Rabbi Fraint charges, "to tear down and destroy." Because Jews are Jews, all of us are brothers and sisters, children of One Father, bound by the very same historical covenant and responsible for one another's welfare. But true responsibility and ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) do not preclude the articulation of painful truths; they demand it. To the substance of my article. Rabbis Epstein and Fraint make a number of points and claims: that the Conservative movement is not failing, that there are different approaches to many issues of halachah, that we cannot feel privy to God's will, that the modern social sciences deserve a role in the evaluation of contemporary halachah, that Conservative law does not exclusively yield leniencies, that I cited quotations out of context, and that my article will never achieve "the wholesale defection of Conservative Jews" to Orthodoxy. I thank them-and Moment-for the opportunity to clarify and elaborate my original points.

The Conservative "failure" to which I referred was quite explicit in my article-not, as Rabbi Epstein would have it, a failure to amass members, fill camps, or even attend synagogues, but to inspire Jewish observance. While attending Sabbath and holiday services is praiseworthy without question, so is (for one of many examples) observance of the Torah's family purity laws.

Does the Conservative clergy regularly address those laws? Or apprise their congregants about the intricacies of the acts forbidden on the Sabbath? Or about the biblical commandment to read the Shema twice a day? Or about the proper blessings to make on the variety of available foods? Myriad halachic responsibilities (and not only those that Conservative scholars have declared "no longer applicable") are ignored entirely by not only much of the movement's laity, who can hardly be blamed, but by most of their rabbis. That observation is rendered not as an insult but as a straightforward illustration of the Conservative movement's failure to promote halachic observance.

And failure is hardly an inappropriate word for a Jewish movement when a majority of its young adults, despite the efforts of their synagogues, schools, and camps, say it is "all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths." My article explicitly acknowledged that there is often a plurality of halachic opinions in a situation, today as in talmudic times. There are also variant minhagim, or customs, like most of the examples Rabbi Epstein cites (how long to space milk meals from meat meals, whether rice may be consumed on Passover, etc.), as well as a variety of standards, as in the case of kashrut certifications. But, as I also noted, there are clear limitations, too. Consider, hypothetically, a decision permitting leavened bread on Passover or a kashrut agency providing an imprimatur to honeyed ham. Clearly, such decisions would not be alternate "interpretations" of halachah but rather evidence of its abandonment.

Consider now the hardly hypothetical case of driving to shul on Shabbat. Anyone familiar with the Talmud and the copiously codified laws of the Sabbath knows that only danger to human life can permit violation of the Sabbath. To invoke a perceived need to attend services as sufficient reason to commit one of the day's forbidden labors (combustion, which propels a motor vehicle) is an "interpretation" of halachah on the order of the leavened bread or honeyed ham examples above-as are other Conservative innovations like permitting biblically proscribed marriages or jettisoning entire portions of the Jewish prayer service.

In other words, the Conservative movement's leaders, despite their pledge of allegiance to halachah, have ventured far from the world of Hillel and Shammai's disagreements, which were based on objective, if different, readings of the Written and Oral Torah traditions. They are instead in the realm of Reform, which openly admits that it decides which laws it wishes to retain and which it chooses to discard. The Conservative movement wants to have its "halachah" and beat it, too.

This, I reiterate, is dishonest. A telling phrase is buried in a statement deriding my article that was signed by no fewer than 10 Conservative organizations (Forum Extra, April 2001). It characterized the "ancient precepts of Oral and Written [Torah] law" as "divinely inspired human creations." This is not an evolution of Jewish faith but a revolution. For while the Jewish people are charged with producing objective scholars to interpret and apply Jewish religious law, the basics of that law-the essence of the Jewish religious tradition-are from God Himself. That is the conviction that our collective ancestors since Sinai stood ready to defend with their lives. Once that conviction-and even the text of the Torah itself-is downgraded to mere "inspiration," a "human creation," our religious heritage has been audaciously betrayed. Why should we feel any less "inspired" to rewrite the law according to our own creative inclinations?

To be sure, Jewish scholars have always applied the Torah's teachings to contemporary issues. But the sine qua non of that process has been to approach halachah objectively, not to try to make it yield predetermined results. Hillel most certainly did not respect every opinion as legitimate. He accepted Shammai's opinions as legitimate, and Shammai accepted Hillel's, because each knew that the other, even if he disagreed with him, was motivated by the objective quest to discern God's will, not to impose his own. By the evidence and admission of Conservative leaders, that is simply not the case regarding Conservative decisions.

Tellingly, Rabbi Fraint's examples of Conservative "halachic stringencies," like banning smoking, abandoning mechitza, and embracing "political Zionism," coincide with contemporary sensibilities. What one does not find are any Conservative rulings that assert the timeless authority of Jewish law over popular notions of social propriety or personal convenience. Halachah does indeed allow in many cases for the factoring in of scientific information to help determine the law. A doctor, for instance, determines whether a medical condition is life-threatening, in order to permit Sabbath desecration or eating on Yom Kippur, as the Talmud states clearly. And when halachic experts evaluate new technologies, they routinely consult with those most knowledgeable in the field.

But all that is a far cry from contending that whatever a contemporary discipline holds true can affect the legitimacy of any given halachah. Historians may assert that halachic practices (like mechitza) are recent inventions. Psychologists may say that homosexual relations are proper, or contend that pre- or extra-marital relations are normal parts of the human condition. Sociologists may well feel that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is a sociologically healthy practice. Nutritionists may declare the strictures of kashrut inconsistent with healthy dietary practices. And pediatricians may one day decide that circumcision is not healthy. None of those judgments, however, render the Torah's laws in any way amended.

And just as science is not halachah, scientists are not halachists. Rabbi Fraint calls me to task for calling members of a Conservative commission charged with exploring a halachic issue "laymen" when, he insists, they included doctors and lawyers. I used "lay," though, to mean "lacking expertise in halachah." Few of us would employ an otolaryngologist to assist in foot surgery, much less in preparing a legal brief. And the commission's decision-making body included people lacking any expertise in halachic methodology or precedent-literature.1 The charge that I quoted Conservative leaders misleadingly or out of context is simply false. Every quotation I cited reflected precisely what its pronouncer intended. That one of them regards himself as "left wing," as Rabbi Fraint contends, is of no import at all; the rabbi was assessing not himself but his movement. Whether he was applauding or bemoaning is irrelevant; he was clearly describing.

In Conservative Judaism, Conservative Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, eloquently bemoans the fact that "the Conservative movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda" and asserts that Conservative leaders like Rabbi Ismar Schorsch seem "to pay an inordinate amount of attention to their perceived sense of what the laity wants." He wrote that in 1994 as part of a preface for an ambitious program aimed at changing the situation. But seven years later, no one can plausibly claim that the scenario has improved. Rabbi Epstein accuses me of having "written off" 95 percent of contemporary Jews. Were that the case, God forbid, I would not have written my article. Quite the contrary, I have great trust in the Jewish spirit-and much experience with Jews who have come from places far from Orthodoxy to full halachic observance. Defining Judaism down is not only dishonest; it is unnecessary.

Orthodox Jews-including we haredim, whom Rabbi Epstein seems particularly to disdain-do indeed "welcome the individual Jew at whatever level of observance we find him or her." Let any Jew try the "Sabbath meal test"-enter any Orthodox shul on Friday night or Saturday morning and approach anyone present, introduce himself or herself as a Conservative, Reform, or secular Jew (or the head of a non-Orthodox movement), and ask to join the Orthodox Jew's family for the Sabbath meal. The response will say it all.

And ask Orthodox women about the accusation that halachic practice relegates them to "secondary status." The overwhelming response will be that halachah invests women with unparallelled dignity and entrusts them with nothing less than the Jewish future. As to what, as Rabbi Epstein wonders, I "was hoping to achieve" with my article, my hopes were openly declared in the piece itself. Not the "wholesale defection of Conservative Jews" to Orthodoxy, but something more modest: to help Conservative Jews already committed to halachah see that "their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals," and to invite them to explore the broad and variegated but halachah-committed Orthodox world.

And as it happens, I have heard from many such Jews. One, "struggling for years" in the Conservative movement, wrote of his deep appreciation of what he characterized as a "thoughtful article" and confided that he had "shared it with several of my Conservative friends who are intelligent and open-minded." The piece, he wrote, "opened their eyes."

Another Conservative correspondent characterized his leaders' intemperate responses to my article as only "highlight[ing] your message that the movement is failing."

"If we were strong," he continued, "we would not be threatened by your article or anyone who believes Conservative theology is flawed. It is because we know that you are right and that our leaders are lying to themselves."

A cantor in a Conservative congregation wrote to encourage me to write further on the subject. "The [leaders of the] Conservative movement," he averred, "have sold themselves down the road to political correctness and expediency."

A group of ninth-graders in a nondenominational Jewish school in Pennsylvania who had originally (as part of a class project) written me angry letters about my article, eagerly accepted my offer to visit their school to talk with them and their teachers. The school's administration, though, vetoed my visit.

It struck me that they were simply afraid-afraid that their students might be receptive to my critique of Conservatism; that they might actually be influenced toward Orthodoxy. And I wonder whether a similar fear might explain the hysterical hyperbole with which some Conservative leaders greeted my article-fear and frustration over what Rabbi Epstein himself once publicly admitted: that "many of the most committed products of our movement end up joining Orthodox synagogues."

Many Conservative Jews are ripe for a serious examination of their movement's commitment to halachah. I simply hope to provide them with some facts. And to have the open-minded and determined among them realize that-as my chosen title for my original article declared-it's time to come home.

Footnote 1

I was, I admit, unaware that the Conservative rule allowing a dissenting opinion requires the opinion to have garnered a certain minimum of votes. My assumption otherwise, however, was hardly essential to my argument that the ground is clearly being prepared for an acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.

And why Rabbi Fraint sees an Orthodox rabbi claiming to be homosexual as pertinent to the question of whether halachah permits homosexual acts is unclear to me. Any "Orthodox rabbi" claiming that halachah sanctions such acts is, ipso facto, not Orthodox in belief.

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