How We Decide Jewish Law

In Conservative Judaism the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the body that decides if, when, and how Jewish law should change.

by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Elliot Dorff Rector 2011

Acting in accordance with the mitzvot has always been key to what it means to be a Jew, and Conservative Judaism has always required the observance of the laws of classical Judaism. That is why we are called the “Conservative”movement, or, in Hebrew, Masorti (traditional): we intend to conserve the tradition by studying it and practicing it. Consequently, the movement invests as much talent and energy as possible in Jewish education on all levels: schools, youth groups, camps, conventions, trips to Israel and other Jewish communities, adult programs, and publications such as this. The emphasis is not on how we can or should change Jewish law; it is rather on motivating and helping Jews observe Jewish law.

Historically, there have been times when the law had to change so it could more effectively tie people to the Jewish tradition and guide their lives. Deciding when such additions or modifications are necessary, and how they should be made, requires considerable judgment and risk, and consequently Conservative Judaism has made the decision a communal matter for both rabbis and laypeople. The movement uses the same three mechanisms to decide matters of law as Jews have always used: decisions of the local rabbi, decisions of a communal body, and custom.

THE LOCAL RABBI. In most cases when a question is raised it is answered by the mara d’atra, the teacher of the place. The rabbi gains the right to make such decisions by virtue of his or her education and election as the rabbi of the congregation, school, youth group, or camp. Most such questions and answers were communicated orally, and that remains true to this day.

Communities without a rabbi would have written to one, who would sometimes consult with another rabbi with expertise in that specific area. The second rabbi would then write an answer. That kind of consultation among rabbis goes on to this very day, usually over the telephone or by e-mail. In the end, though, it is the local rabbi who still makes the decision.

THE COMMUNAL BODY. In Jewish history there have been times when there was a central agency that made decisions for a region or community, such as the Sanhedrin (from as early as 450 BCE until 361 CE), the Geonim in Babylonia (650-1050 CE), or the meetings of rabbis at commercial fairs in Europe from the 11th-17th centuries. Even today, the [Orthodox] Chief Rabbinate in England, France and Israel officially determines Jewish law for those communities. How-ever, due to freedom of religion in those countries, the Conservative and Reform movements are attempting to provide non-Orthodox options.

In line with these precedents, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS or the “Law Committee”) determines Jewish law for its members. When a rabbi thinks that a question should be addressed on a movement-wide basis, or when a Conservative organization must make a decision of halakhic policy, an authorized representative may send the question to the CJLS. The committee determines which questions it will address and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly is invited to write a ruling on the question.

The CJLS consists of 25 members of the Rabbinical Assembly, 15 chosen by the president of the RA, five recommended by the chancellor of the Jewish Theo-logical Seminary, and another five by the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. There are also five lay members appointed by the president of USCJ who may even team up with a rabbi to write a teshuvah (responsum, ruling) but who do not vote. Finally, there is a non-voting representative of the Cantors Assembly. An effort is made to ensure that the committee includes women and men and a variety of different age groups, geographical locations (including Israel), ideological positions, and areas of expertise so that it can rep-resent the movement fairly.

If a given teshuvah gets six or more votes, it becomes a valid option for Conservative Jews. This means, of course, that there may be more than one valid option on a given issue, and there are indeed some matters about which two or more options have been approved. The CJLS deliberately allows for this plural-ism so that the spectrum of communal practices can be expressed. When there are two or more approved teshuvot, the local rabbi chooses the one that best fits his or her own understanding of Jewish law and the needs of the community. In most cases, though, there is only one option, and that reflects the other side of the coin, namely, that there is much in common in the practice of Conservative Jews.

In a few cases, a matter is considered so important that a teshuvah is introduced as a Standard of Religious Practice for the movement. Until now these have been situations in which Reform Judaism’s practice has varied from the tradition, and the Conservative movement has wanted to reaffirm its commitment to traditional practice in a very definitive way. To become a standard of the movement, a teshuvah must be approved by four-fifths of the Law Committee and by a majority of those voting at the next Rabbinical Assembly convention. A rabbi or a synagogue that violates a standard is subject to dismissal from the movement.

So far there are three such standards:

  1. A Conservative rabbi or cantor may not officiate or attend the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew, even if the ceremony is a purely civil ceremony, and Conservative synagogues may not be used for such weddings. (1972)
  2. Jews who have been divorced in state law must give (in the case of a man) or receive (in the case of a woman) a Jewish writ of divorce (a get) before being allowed to remarry (unless one of the partners has died or the original marriage is annulled by the movement’s rabbinic court). (1975)
  3. Jewish identity is defined by being born to a Jewish woman or being halakhically converted to Judaism, including both a significant educational process and the required rituals. (1986)

There are obviously many Jewish laws that the Conservative movement shares but that have not been made standards. No Conservative synagogue, for example, will have a non-kosher kitchen, and no Conservative synagogue will sponsor activities that involve writing or the exchange of money on Shabbat. Conservative prayer services will be primarily in Hebrew, every Conservative synagogue will make provision for the ongoing education of Jews of all ages, and every Conservative institution will see the moral imperatives of our tradition as binding and will strive in some way to improve the world (tikkun olam). This broad group of shared commitments – and there are many more – need not be put into standards because they have not been challenged. Individual Jews, of course, live up to these laws to greater or lesser degrees, but they join the Conservative movement knowing that it stands for this broadly shared set of practices, and, in many cases, they join because they want to affiliate with people and institutions who understand and practice Judaism as the Conservative movement does.

Three points ought to be emphasized about our approach to interpreting Jewish law for our day. First, we do not introduce change in Jewish law just to make life easy; we do so to make Judaism live in the modern world. Sometimes that requires adding new laws, and sometimes that requires dropping or modifying traditional ones. Second, introducing changes is not a departure from the tradition. On the contrary, not to do so is to abandon the tradition! And finally, the overwhelming need is to teach Jewish ideas together with an appreciation for the differences of opinion and practice that have always characterized Judaism.

CUSTOM. Local custom always has played a major role in the practice and development of Jewish law. Probably the most pervasive example is the role of women in Jewish life. Conservative schools educated boys and girls and then men and women together, using the same curriculum, and men and women have sat together for prayer from the very beginnings of the movement, both without any confirmation by the CJLS until decades after these customs had taken root.

Thus the Conservative movement uses all three of the traditional ways of deciding Jewish practice – decisions of the local rabbi, a centralized institution, and local custom. Through these mechanisms, we seek to make Jewish law the relevant and enriching source of meaning for us now that it has been for our ancestors.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff is chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rector and Distingished Service Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University, and Visiting Professor at UCLA School of Law. He is the author of Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants; The Unfolding Tradition: Philosophies of Jewish Law; and For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law.