Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants

By Elliott N Dorff

Extracts posted with permission of

United Synagogue of America Youth Commission

Posted by

David Steinberg

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E. How Conservative Judaism Makes Decisions in Jewish Law

In the previous sections of this chapter, we have discussed the historical development of Jewish law and the ways it changed throughout history (Sections B and C). We have also discussed the basis of authority for Jewish law and the ability to change it as seen by four different positions within Conservative Judaism (Section D). Those discussions were crucial for understanding how the Conservative Movement makes decisions in Jewish law, which we will describe in this chapter. Because the Conservative Movement has tried from its beginning to preserve Judaism as it has developed historically, you needed to know the ways in which Jewish law has developed in the past. As you will see, the method which the Conservative Movement uses to make its decisions combines the major methods used in the past, and its entire approach of "tradition and change" continues the view and methods of the rabbis in the last two thousand years. You also needed to know the varying positions within the Conservative Movement on revelation, the authority of the law, and the ability to change it in order to be able to understand why Conservative rabbis and synagogues vary in their practices in specific areas of Jewish law.

How, then, is Jewish law treated in the Conservative Movement? The first important thing to realize about this topic - and perhaps the most important - is this: since acting in accordance with the mitzvot has always been a key factor in what it means to be a Jew, Conservative Judaism requires observance of the laws of classical Judaism, including the dietary laws (kashrut) the Sabbaths and Festivals, daily worship, and the moral norms of the Torah, Prophets, and Sages (hence the name' 'Conservative"). Only through such observance can one identify authentically with what Judaism has stood for over the centuries. Consequently, the Movement invests as much talent and energy as possible in Jewish education of all sorts and on all levels, including schools, youth groups, camps, publications, conventions, educational trips to Israel and other Jewish communities, and adult education programs.

The Conservative Movement realizes, however, that sometimes the law must change - just as it has historically - so it can effectively tie people to the Jewish tradition and influence their lives. Deciding when such additions or modifications are necessary, and how they should be made, requires considerable judgment and risk, and consequently the Conservative Movement has made the decision a communal matter for both rabbis and laymen. Rabbis may refer questions to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. If that Committee rules unanimously on a given issue, the decision becomes a binding practice for the Conservative Movement. One such decision, for example, was that no Conservative rabbi may even be present at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew, let alone officiate at such a marriage, because it represents a betrayal of the Jewish people. If the Committee splits in its vote, then a Conservative rabbi may follow either the majority or the minority opinion, depending upon which best fits the needs and circumstances of his own congregation and which coincides with his own understanding of Jewish law. This structure is a combination of the two traditional ways in which Jewish legal decisions were made - namely, by majority vote of a central body, when a given Jewish community was sufficiently organized to have a body, and/or by the decision of the local rabbi (the' 'mara d 'atra," or "teacher of the community"). This structure also explains why you probably have observed considerable differences in the practices of Conservative synagogues and rabbis. It is important to realize that these differences do not represent a lack of decisiveness or commitment on the part of the Movement; they rather reflect the fact that the Conservative Movement wants to deal with life as it actually is, and that requires that it be open to differences among people and communities. This plurality may make some of us uncomfortable at times, but life does not lend itself to a neat, unchanging structure, and so people must learn to accept changes in law without at the same time discarding it completely. This is the approach of Jewish law historically, and it is the approach of the Conservative Movement.

The decision of when change is necessary is also a communal matter at the congregational level. Jewish law has always been the product of an interaction between the rabbis and the general Jewish community. That is the reason for the power of minhag (custom) in Jewish law. In the Conservative Movement, congregations are increasingly getting involved in the discussion of important issues in Jewish law, and that is precisely as it should be, for no law has authority unless it becomes part of the concern and practice of the community.

The issues that have led the Conservative Movement to institute changes in the law have varied from case to case, as you would expect. Sometimes changes in technology created new living conditions to which the law had to be applied. For example, the widespread availability of the car has meant that Jews do not necessarily live within walking distance of the synagogue any longer, and that raises questions about Shabbat observance. Sometimes new historical realities have been the grounds for changes, as, for example, in the decisions of the Conservative Movement to add special prayers for the State of Israel in services and in Grace after Meals throughout the year and to treat Israeli Independence Day as a formal, religious holiday, both liturgically and programmatically. Sometimes new social or educational realities have been the motivation for changes. The most wide ranging example of that is the multitude of issues being discussed and acted upon within the Conservative Movement in redefining the rights and responsibilities of women in Jewish law in light of their new educational and social status. But one factor that has consistently played a major role in Conservative thinking and action is the area of ethics. In many Conservative decisions moral injustice, or the opportunity to encourage greater moral sensitivity, has been the primary motivation for revising the law.56

In this last respect, the Conservative Movement has acted quite differently from both the Orthodox and Reform (e.g Siegal but cf. review of Roth). The Orthodox would not consider modern ethical sensitivities as sufficient grounds to change the law: for them, the law as it has been formulated over the centuries must be binding. Put another way, for them the halachah (the specific form which the law has taken) controls the aggada (the ethical and theological values of Judaism). In contrast, the Conservative Movement maintains that the purpose of the law in the first place is largely to concretize moral values, and so the specific form of the law can and should be changed if it is not effectively doing that. In other words, the aggada should control the halachah. On the other hand, the Reform Movement does not connect its concern with morals to a corresponding concern for Jewish law. For them the law may suggest some approaches to solving moral problems, but it is to be seen as purely advisory. No specifics of the law are binding-either moral or ritual. In response, the Conservative Movement claims that Jewish law must be considered authoritative if we are to retain our identity and heritage. Moreover, Jewish law contributes in crucial ways to moral practice, theory, and sensitivity, and therefore to abandon it is to sacrifice a major reservoir of moral encouragement, education, and insight. And finally, the Rabbis of the Talmud and Middle Ages themselves changed Jewish law for moral reasons, and consequently not to do so would be to violate the tradition! We therefore must pursue our moral goals through Jewish law, but the form of Jewish law must change from time to time if it is to aid us effectively in fashioning ourselves after God's image.

Three points ought to be emphasized about the Conservative approach to Jewish law:

 (1) The Conservative Movement does not introduce changes in Jewish law just to make life easy: it does so to make Judaism live in the modern world. Sometimes that requires adding new laws, and sometimes that requires dropping or modifying traditional ones, and the Conservative Movement has acted in each of these ways, always with the goal in mind of enabling Judaism to be effective in our lives.

(2) Introducing such changes is not a departure from the tradition. On the contrary, not to do so is to abandon the tradition (see Jacobs)!

(3) In the present day, the overwhelming need is to teach Jewish practices and ideas together with an appreciation for the differences of opinion and practice that have always characterized Judaism. It is to that task that most of the efforts of the Conservative Movement are directed.

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