How We Decide Jewish Law: Committee on Jewish Law and Standards

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

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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.

Click here for the rest of the article: How We Decide Jewish Law – CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism

Also see: How does the Rabbinical Assembly follow the traditional understanding of halakha in rabbinic literature: Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

Why don’t religious Jews always follow the Shulkhan Arukh (1500s code of Jewish law) The Shulkhan Arukh in perspective

On a related topic, what exactly does it mean when the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee, the CJLS, approves a responsa? Does that mean that this is now the official and only position of Conservative/Masorti Judaism? No. Rather, an approved responsa from the CJLS is treated as any responsa from any major, respected Rabbi.
Traditionally, Jewish rabbis have the authority and obligation to answer questions on observance. Their answers – responsa – become an acceptable but not obligatory legal precedent.
So this functions roughly the same in Conservative Judaism as it does in Modern Orthodoxy, as it has historically in the past: When more than one position is halakhically validated, a congregation’s rabbi functions as its mara de-atra (local halakhic authority), adopting for their congregation the position he or she considers most compelling.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, Conservative rabbis choose among the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee’s validated positions. On rare occasions, an individual rabbi act in accordance with his or her own convictions regarding what is halakhically correct, which indeed is the flexibility one has traditionally seen.

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